On the banks of the Mississippi River, just north of downtown Memphis, stands one of the largest pyramids in the world, 321 feet from base to apex. Put it next to the most famous of all pyramids, in Giza, and it would be the third-tallest in the group, and though it might not have quite the same level of historic intrigue as its Egyptian counterparts, there’s still layer upon layer of stories to tell.
The Memphis Pyramid was always going to be a big deal. That was the point. Music may have helped put the Tennessee city on the map — Graceland is here; so is Sun Studio, the self-proclaimed “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll”— but city boosters wanted an eye-catching landmark, a skyline signature like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. A pyramid was a logical fit, given the city’s namesake in Egypt, and the local precedent for Egyptian-inspired architecture, like the historic Universal Life Insurance building.
The origin of the Memphis Pyramid
The original idea, which came from an artist named Mark Hartz in the 1950s, involved three pyramids built high atop bluffs, a truly eye-catching sight. That one didn’t pan out, but in the mid-1980s, at the encouragement of his son, Jon, Hartz created an elegant rendering for a new plan featuring a single pyramid, gold and gleaming. The two Hartz men “had no [concrete] plans or money for it,” recalls Michael Finger, a historian and executive editor of Memphis magazine. “They just thought it was a cool idea. And so [Jon] went around to try to get to drum up interest. And everybody thought, ‘Well, it's either crazy or crazy good. We can't decide that.’ And also it wasn't clear what it would be used for.”
This second effort caught the attention of a pair of men who did think it was crazy-good, and who had money, clout, and a fondness for offbeat ventures: John Tigrett, a Memphis local who built a fortune on Glub-Glub (the drinking duck toy), and Sidney Schlenker, who was best known for running the Astrodome and its assorted headline-grabbing events, like the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match.
The revived, businessman-hyped vision for the Pyramid was fittingly eccentric, far beyond anything Mark Hartz ever conceptualized. In this plan, the monumental building would rise on the banks of the Mississippi near downtown, just across from Mud Island, which would also be incorporated into the site.
The whole thing would be a theme park known as Rakapolis, with Egyptian architecture and reed boats ferrying people from Mud Island to the Pyramid, and an emphasis on American music. The Pyramid would have a rock ‘n’ roll museum, or maybe a Grammy museum, and, Finger says, you’d enter the structure “by going through a replica of the world's largest trumpet,” in honor of local hero W.C. Handy.
For better or for worse, most of that didn’t come to pass – no reed boats, no walk-through trumpet, no music museum. But the Pyramid itself was built, with groundbreaking in September 1989. Finger was there and recalls the event included an “easily 50ft, maybe longer, shovel outlined in neon, flown from a helicopter. And it hovered over the site. I guess we played some sort of patriotic music. And then at the proper moment, they dropped the shovel and sure enough, it fell a couple hundred feet and stuck in the ground.”
An unlucky start
The Pyramid finally opened as an arena in November 1991. It had stainless steel paneling on the outside and 20,000 seats inside. Less prominently, but fueling much local discussion, was a metal box welded to a beam near the top, inside of which was a crystal skull, secretly placed at the behest of John Tigrett’s son, Isaac. (Every factual sentence about the Pyramid sounds like a Mad Lib). The first event was a concert by country music duo the Judds, who were immediately upstaged when the building began flooding from backed-up restrooms, and workers had to break out the sandbags.
It was an inauspicious beginning, to be sure, but there were plenty of better moments to come. In addition to concerts, the Pyramid was the home of the University of Memphis Tigers basketball team and hosted various professional wrestling matches, arena football games (for the short-lived Memphis Pharaohs), and other events.
It was also part of the package that drew the NBA team the Grizzlies from Vancouver to Memphis in 2001. The new Memphis Grizzlies initially played at The Pyramid, but the acoustics were terrible and the building lacked certain amenities that modern-day NBA teams desire, like luxury suites, and,, given the fixed size and form of the building, major alterations were impossible or expensive. The Grizzlies quickly decided they needed a new, custom-built home, and in 2004, the team moved to the new FedExForum, taking the University of Memphis Tigers with it. The Pyramid stood vacant.
Two years later, Bass Pro Shops proposed taking over the building and making it into a giant store with other attractions. “That brought out all these jokes,” Michael Finger says. “Like, ‘Oh my God, we're moving a bait shop into the Pyramid.’ But I told people, you don't have to be a hunter or a fisherman to appreciate what Bass Pro has up there.”
It took until 2015 for the new store to open – the building is now called the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid – and it is, indeed, quite a bit more than a place to shop. There’s a gun range and an aquarium. A couple of restaurants, including one at the top, accessible by a free-standing elevator. And … a few even more unusual things, like an entirely indoor, 103-room Big Cypress Lodge, built into the upper floors, with porches overlooking an alligator-filled cypress swamp far below.
And it’s popular. Three million people went there the first year, and it continues to draw crowds. There’s no question it’s a bit absurd – it always has been. But it’s a point of local pride, Michael Finger says. The Memphis Pyramid, for all its quirks, is finally and definitively a big deal.
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