photo: the Great American Pyramid in Memphis
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair: Once guarded by a fiberglass pharaoh, the Great American Pyramid in Memphis is now a Bass Pro Shop. Martha Park/CityLab

The Great American Pyramid was supposed to give the Tennessee city an architectural landmark for the ages. Instead, it got a very large sporting goods store.

In some buildings in downtown Memphis, offices facing the Great American Pyramid are equipped with automatic shades that lower themselves by mid-afternoon, when the sunlight glinting off the 300-foot-tall structure shifts from glowing to blinding. Drivers heading west in rush hour traffic squint, pulling down their cars’ sun visors and shielding their eyes with their hands.

The glass-and-stainless-steel-skinned building has been the city’s most unique landmark (and an irritant for office workers) since it opened as a sports arena and events venue in 1991. But it’s not the city’s first pyramid. Memphians have long sought to make symbolic connections to their city’s namesake, that ancient Egyptian capital on the Nile. In 1897, nearly a century before the opening of the Great American Pyramid, a 100-foot-tall wooden “Pyramid of Cheops” (another name for the Great Pyramid of Giza) served as Memphis and Shelby County’s contribution to the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville.

Other pyramid schemes emerged after World War II. In the 1950s, a  local artist envisioned a trio of them—smaller reproductions of the Giza complex—on the city’s Mississippi riverfront. In the 1970s, a group of local business leaders conjured a plan for a golden pyramid on the bluffs outside of town. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the idea found local backers willing to bet that a one-of-a-kind attraction could bring new life to the city’s riverfront.

In a pamphlet distributed at the Centennial Expo, a photograph of the replica pyramid was accompanied by a quote attributed to Lady Morgan, a 19th-century Irish novelist: “Architecture is the printing press of all ages, and gives a history of the state of society in which it was erected.”

So what was the state of society in Memphis as it produced its many iterations of the Pyramid? A series of disasters and upheavals, mostly: numerous yellow fever epidemics, the end of the Civil War, lynchings, Jim Crow, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., white flight to far-flung suburbs, and the steady demolition of large swaths of black neighborhoods in urban renewal projects that swept the city following World War II.

The proximity of nearby elevated highways makes access to the Memphis Pyramid a challenge for pedestrians. (Martha Park/CityLab)

The history of the Memphis Pyramid, which is now emblazoned with a massive Bass Pro Shops logo on its side, is as bewildering as its appearance, and as reflective of the people who conceived of it.

***

Many Memphians believe the Pyramid is cursed—a belief bolstered not only by the cascade of financial failures it generated, but by the mishaps and oddities that seem to surround it. (See, for example, the strange story of the crystal skull discovered in the rafters.)

Sidney Shlenker, a businessman and onetime owner of the Denver Nuggets, died in 2003, but he lives on in local infamy for his role managing the facility’s development and construction. Schlenker ran the Houston Astrodome’s parent company and was credited with turning that pioneering domed stadium into a venue for crowd-pleasing spectacles of various kinds—most famously, he arranged to have Billy Jean King take on Bobby Riggs there in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes.” He had a knack for big ideas: In addition to helping to bring the Pyramid to Memphis, he proposed turning the nearby Mud Island River Park into a $110 million theme park called “Rakapolis.”

“Shlenker was the salesman, Memphis a captive, eager buyer,” the Commercial Appeal’s Lewis Graham wrote in his epic 1992 postmortem of the Pyramid’s doomed genesis. “For decades the city lusted for a tourism boom, for a professional sports franchise, for a recognized symbol of major league status, anything to catapult it to national prominence. Shlenker promised to deliver on that dream. To do it, though, he needed other people’s money.”

As this promotional video attests, the planners of the Great American Pyramid did not lack for vision. The building, the video promised, would be a “calling card for the best in American civilization,” equipped with an Egyptian-themed “3-D and laser production,” a computerized “ultimate jukebox,” and a short-wave radio station tucked into the apex.  

The night of the Pyramid’s 1989 groundbreaking—the “Big Dig”—exemplified Shlenker’s over-the-top style. An enormous illuminated shovel dropped down from a helicopter, and the pyramid’s future silhouette appeared, in laser light, against the night sky. “Even without financial problems, others might have simply recruited the politicians to don hardhats and turn a few spades of dirt,” Graham wrote. “Not The Pyramid Companies. It spent an estimated $440,000.”

That was only the start of the financial missteps that accompanied the Pyramid’s troubled birth. Desperate for funding, in May 1991 Shlenker was tricked by a Las Vegas con man into thinking he’d secured an $80 million loan. The loan never arrived, and by the time the building opened six months later, Shlenker had failed to finance it. When he declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, he owed more than $16 million to 20 creditors.

Opening night, in November 1991, hinted at the calamities to come. While the Judds performed, the bathrooms backed up and began flooding the arena, and workers had to sandbag the perimeter to protect electrical work under the stage.

During the Pyramid’s brief run as an arena, there were some highlights: a 1997 Mary J. Blige concert, the 1999 WWF St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a Phish concert, four years of the annual Church of God in Christ international holy convocations. But there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of pyramid-shaped concert venues: The acoustics were notoriously lousy. The joke was that you got two concerts (the concert itself, and its echo reverberating off the pointed ceiling) for the price of one. Just two years after its completion, the Great American Pyramid lost its title as the nation’s largest when the Luxor Pyramid—exactly 18 feet taller—opened in Las Vegas.

The Great American Pyramid in 1998, when it served as a sports and events venue. (Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

When the Vancouver Grizzlies arrived in Memphis in 2001, the team made it clear that the Pyramid would not be a suitable venue for NBA games. After the FedEx Forum was built in 2004 to host both the Grizzlies and the University of Memphis Tigers, the Pyramid was shuttered, a little over a decade after its grand opening. The fiberglass statue of Ramesses II that had once guarded the building’s entrance was removed and relocated. The Pyramid itself was unused—with the exception of a single full-time employee and the occasional firefighter training—for 11 years.

Bass Pro Shops announced a plan to transform the Pyramid into its largest store location in 2006, but many Memphians doubted it would ever happen. It sounded too absurd—or maybe just absurd enough—for the Pyramid. In 2010, an editorial in the Memphis Flyer wondered whether the Bass Pro proposal would turn the Pyramid into “The World’s Biggest Man Cave.”

The company even hoped to resurrect Shlenker’s vision of an “inclinator” ride that would carry visitors up the outside edge of the Pyramid to the top, but high costs necessitated a different solution: a glass-walled elevator—the world’s tallest freestanding one—that ascends (inside the store) to an observation deck 32 stories above the sales floor. In 2015, the Pyramid reopened, now a massive “immersive retail experience” with an underwater-themed bowling alley and a 10,000-gallon catfish aquarium. More than 3 million people visited the megastore in its first year.

Visitors to the Pyramid today can ride the world’s tallest freestanding glass elevator to an observation deck at the top of the building. (Photo: Bass Pro Shops)

In the end, the bar for redeveloping the Pyramid was low. As then-mayor AC Wharton proclaimed, “We didn’t turn it into a parking lot.”

***

It may never be the attraction that its creators imagined, but the Pyramid may yet have a key role to play in the city’s future.

It’s located in the Pinch District, Memphis’ oldest neighborhood, which is now part of a $1.1 billion urban redevelopment plan. The Pinch was long a home for immigrants and newcomers, including Irish fleeing the Potato Famine in the 1840s, Eastern European Jews, and Italian immigrants. The neighborhood’s name is said to have come from the derogatory term “pinchgut,” used to describe the malnourished appearance of many of the new arrivals.

The Pyramid abuts the city’s oldest neighborhood, the Pinch. (Martha Park/CityLab)

By the time the Pinch was targeted for federal funding for “slum clearance” in the mid-1950s, many of those original residents had left for neighborhoods beyond the city center. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Pinch was bisected by Interstate 40 in the construction of what locals still call the “New Bridge,” crossing the Mississippi River. The construction of I-40 and the Cook Convention Center cut off the neighborhood on its southern edge.

Articles spanning the last 50 years of Pinch history often described it as on the cusp of something: The neighborhood was “making a modest comeback,” “slowly coming back to life,” “poised for a Renaissance,” “nearly dormant,” “once-thriving,” “coming back,” and “not dead yet.” But wherever the Pinch was headed, it never seemed to arrive. The Pyramid joined a long list of would-be game changers for the area. “When the arena opened in 1991, it was seen as having potential to invigorate the surrounding area,” a 2004 article in The Daily News noted. “But that never happened.”

Today, fewer than half of the neighborhood’s older buildings remain, jeopardizing its historic designation. The few remaining older structures sit separated by vacant lots and parking lots, and the street grid is interrupted by the civic center, the interstate, and a power plant. During the development of the Bass Pro Shop, the Pinch was further isolated from the Pyramid when a pedestrian bridge connecting them was razed.

One of the many surface parking lots that surround the Pyramid today.  (Martha Park/CityLab)

Should the Pinch lose its historic status, that could free up developers to consider what might otherwise be prohibitively costly old buildings. The structures that remain are already viewed as a blank slate—perfect for mixed-use commercial and residential developments that promise, as always, to attract more people to the city’s downtown. To the east, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is undergoing a $7 billion campus expansion, which includes a proposed patient-family housing facility that would take up a full city block within the Pinch District. The Pinch also plays a large role in the city’s multi-part Bicentennial Gateway Plan, an ambitious slate of improvements aimed at the riverfront, convention center, and Mud Island.

In March 2019, a New York-based developer purchased at least three Pinch District properties on Front Street and Main Street, with a plan to build new luxury apartments, retail, hotels, and office space in a dense new downtown district steps from the Pyramid. Whether that project can assist the Great American Pyramid in finally fulfilling its long-thwarted promise remains to be seen.

But the building was always a statement intended more for outsiders than Memphians themselves. And in one sense, at least, it succeeded in forging a connection to its Egyptian predecessors: Whatever message its planners hoped to impart, the Pyramid was modeled, first and foremost, after a structure built by enslaved people, on the banks of another turbulent river, in another culture marked by massive social and economic inequality. Today, Memphis’s most noticeable landmark is mostly inaccessible to foot traffic, surrounded by a sea of parking lots and chain-link fences, and obscured by interstate ramps leading out of the city. Conceived as a way to put Memphis on the map, the Pyramid now stands, in effect, as a landmark to no place in particular.

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