The Central Station Hotel puts fresh spin on Memphis music

By Published: June 10, 2019 4:42 PM CT

After 20 months of work converting the 105-year-old building from apartments, the doors to the The Central Station Hotel lobby will fling open as soon as September.

Whether guests arrive to the lobby by train or car, they may look to the left to see the registration desk and outside patio, or to the right to see cushy furniture and a 27-foot-wide art wall. The lobby’s design, finishes and feel should reflect that of a high-end, boutique hotel.

But what guests will see and experience straight ahead — through the wide staircase opening that descends 20 steps to the hotel bar – may expand the limits for the hospitality industry, at least in Memphis.

 Building’s new mission

Prominent Memphis developer Henry Turley and his partner Archie Willis are the master developers for the $55 million Central Station project.

They already have finished building 182 new apartment units on the station grounds they lease from Memphis Area Transit Authority. And Malco Theatres this spring opened the seven-screen Powerhouse movie theater after converting the site's old power plant.

But the use for the eight-story Central Station had to change, Turley felt. The structure opened in 1914 as offices over the train station, and later was converted to apartments.

“What does this property want to be?” he said before answering his own question. “A hotel.”

Travelers should arrive at a hotel, not someone else’s residences, Turley said.

The person who should develop the new hotel was just as obvious to Turley. In fall 2014, he called McLean Wilson.

Concourse brain trust

“It was a call you can’t say ‘no’ to,” Wilson said of the chance to redevelop such an important, historic building in his hometown and to partner with Turley. “He’s one of those guys who provides energy. He gives life when you are around him all the time.”

Until a few years ago, Wilson was best known as the grandson of the late Kemmons Wilson, who founded Holiday Inn. But then the 41-year-old achieved something titanic himself.

Wilson was co-leader with Todd Richardson in renovating the 1.2 million-square-foot Crosstown Concourse. The $200 million project not only succeeded in filling the long-vacant Sears Tower with tenants and life, it has received top, national awards for architectural design, urban design, historic preservation and land planning.

So in 2015 Wilson recruited the same Crosstown brain trust to help him make The Central Station Hotel a special place:  Richardson; Michael Carpenter of the Loaded for Bear marketing strategy firm; and Chris Miner of Crosstown Arts.

Wilson added to that creative team Jim Thompson, owner and president of EgglestonWorks. That’s the maker of high-end loudspeakers which are sold across the world but manufactured in a nondescript industrial building in the Broad Avenue Arts District.

Three questions

Wilson charged his friends with answering three questions:   

How should The Central Station Hotel be developed so that its guests have no doubt they are in: Memphis; the South Main Arts District; and in the building that is distinctly The Central Station?

“That drove our thinking,” Wilson said. “… What is Memphis known for? How to add Memphis elements to the hotel?” Same for South Main and the hotel building itself.

Most people say Memphis is known for music and barbecue. Despite that, Wilson said, “we are not going to be a barbecue hotel. So we were thinking about music. What about music will be special?”

The group eventually found what it was searching for by going far beyond the obvious answers of Elvis, W.C. Handy, B.B. King, Al Green, Graceland and Sun Studio.

“The depth and breadth of Memphis music for the last 150 years is unbelievable,” Wilson said. “It’s really stupendous. … And so we percolated on that piece of it.”

 The album cabinet

The hotel lobby will feature natural light, a mix of fabrics, a striking art-wall installation and mid-century modern furniture.

“And then you see the bar,” Wilson said of a guest looking through the staircase opening to the hotel bar below.

“What you see in that bar is really important,” said Wilson. He and his creative group identified as a "moment" that first glimpse into the bowels of the hotel.

The first rendering created by the project’s interior designers showed a beautiful, massive, wood bar. “The picture was really pretty, but it left us with the feeling like it was expected 

“If it’s expected then that means we are not pushing the envelope quite enough. We said we’ve got to do better, get creative, and we did a lot of collaboration among me, Chris, Todd, Jim and Michael.”

Here’s what they came up with instead:

A bar will still be along the side wall of the room, and the room’s center will offer lounge seating. But against the main wall facing the lobby will be “this beautiful, massive album cabinet” for vinyl records, each of which is connected to Memphis in some special way, Wilson said.

For several years now, Thompson has been building the record collection that has reached 40,000 songs.

The deejay

Not only will guests see a big cabinet holding thousands of vinyl records, but they will watch a deejay playing the records on a turntable that Thompson has fashioned from an old organ.

The deejay, working daily from afternoon into the night, will have a docent’s knowledge of Memphis music and interact with guests who choose to sit near his or her turntables at the base of the record cabinet. The deejay will grab albums by climbing up a large set of stairs that angle up to the top of the cabinet.

The sound quality should be superior considering that the speakers will be supplied and installed by Thompson’s EgglestonWorks.

“We want this room to be a beautiful acoustic blanket that just gets put onto the space,” Wilson said. 

The developers intend the hotel music lounge to become South Main's living room.

“We think it’s going to be a really neat spot. We are projecting into this acoustically designed room Memphis music from all genres and all years and all walks of Memphis life.”

Wooden dials

Guests register in the lobby, walk down the stairs, hear and experience the music lounge if only for the moment it takes to reach the elevators, and enter their guestroom.

“What they will see on a table is going to be a beautiful wood dial. Hopefully, it will be a point of attraction,” Wilson said.

“… You turn the dial, and out of the speaker that EgglestonWorks has made specifically for the hotel rooms comes this music.

“And at some point, the guest will have a moment of discovery when they realize that the song they just heard, walking past the bar to the elevator, they are now hearing in their room. It’s the same song.”

Piping the same curated music from the hotel bar to each hotel room gives a second meaning to "The Central Station Hotel." 

The music lounge becomes a kind of radio station for Memphis music.

Typical hotels might place a USA Today outside the guestroom doors each morning. The Central Station Hotel will put the deejay’s playlist for that day, complete with a list of live-music venues in Memphis.

“The whole point is to educate the guest who’s not a Memphian about what Memphis music is about,” Wilson said.

The art

Central Station is in the heart of the South Main Arts District, which the hotel’s interior will reflect.

The hotel’s public or common spaces will feature all original art, curated by artist and art consultant Anna Wunderlich. The collection totals about 30 pieces that Wilson described as “very fun and very creative. It will give a whimsical and witty take to the experience.”

The collection extends beyond South Main.

“The fact we are on a train line that connects us to Chicago and New Orleans shouldn’t be lost,” Wilson said.

Since the rail helps connect Memphis music to New Orleans and Chicago, “we decided to let it bleed into the art world, too. So Anna has been curating art from Chicago and New Orleans and, of course, Memphis,” he said.

500 photos

Developers of The Central Station Hotel dispatched Memphis photographer Jamie Harmon to take several train trips covering the 925 miles between Chicago and New Orleans.

He took photographs along the line, both in and from the train and in many of the towns and cities where the City of New Orleans stops.

Three or four photos – from big ones over the bed to smaller ones in the bathroom – will be hung in each of the guestrooms.

“There’s going to be 500 photos in the tower,” Wilson said. “… It was a way of tying us to the train and to Chicago and New Orleans and everywhere in between.”

Harmon is a professional photographer who also owns Amurica, the whimsical photo booth made from a teardrop camper. 

“I love his perspective, his eye, his angles and the attitude in which he photographs,” Wilson said.

Rooms with a view

Large windows and tall ceilings define the guestrooms.

Some rooms offer a view of the Mississippi River, one or both highway bridges across it, South Main, the Downtown towers, FedExForum and more.  

“Tell me this isn’t awesome; I mean, look at this,” Wilson said while looking out of what he calls the “money room.” The space commands the northwest corner of the eighth floor, with views of both bridges and across Downtown.

“We thought it important to have the windows to be the heroes of the rooms,” he said. “We wanted the windows to be the focal point because you get such great views of Memphis.”

Restaurant, retail and banquet hall

The 3,500-square-foot hotel restaurant and bar will anchor the ground-floor corner at South Main and G.E. Patterson, across from The Arcade. The name and details about the restaurant will come later.

Two, 3,500-square-foot retail spaces will flank each side of the restaurant. Letters of intent have been signed for retail tenants, but since the leases are not signed Wilson declined to name the businesses.

The banquet room, dubbed “Grand Hall,” comprises 6,000 square feet. There is another 1,700 square feet of pre-function space, and the hotel will offer two boardrooms.

Unlike the hotel bar, the developers created no big theme for Grand Hall. People renting it for weddings, dances and other events need a blank canvas to impose their own themes.


Central Station Hotel Henry Turley McLean Wilson Memphis music Hotels
Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey covers business news for The Daily Memphian. A Tupelo, Mississippi, native, he graduated from Mississippi State University. He's worked in journalism for 40 years and has lived in Midtown for 36 years.

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