The Original Memphis Rooftop Party Spot: The Falls Building (Guest Post)
Ed. Note: I'm happy to share this guest post from writer Tamara Williamson about a slice of Memphis history, the Falls Building, which was the location of the original rooftop party downtown.
You’ve probably passed the Falls Building, which sits at the corner of Front and Monroe, if you’ve ever been downtown. It’s been around for over 100 years, and like many buildings on Front Street, the Falls Building has a history in the cotton industry. It was first built in 1911 as an office building for cotton brokers. The building was the brainchild of James Napoleon Falls, a “mustachioed Civil War veteran prominent in cotton and real estate”*.
The building was designed by English architect John Gaisford, who also designed The Lenox School in Midtown (which has been converted into condos) and several buildings in the Tri-State area, including the First United Methodist Church in Forrest City, Arkansas.
In 1914, things got interesting at the corner of Front and Monroe. That year, the Alaskan Roof Garden opened on what is now the 11th Floor. The Roof Garden, it seems, was the original rooftop party place in Memphis. There is scant information about what went on there, but this much is certain: W.C. Handy premiered his famous “St. Louis Blues” there in 1915. The lack of information makes me wonder…just what the heck happened up on that rooftop?
The late teens and early twenties were the heyday of the Falls Building. A man named Victor Laughter produced early radio broadcasts there. “Once dominant over most everything along Cotton Row, the building eventually lost prominence as a cotton office building when the Memphis Cotton Exchange opened in 1924”*. Then, in the late 1920s, the Alaskan Roof Garden closed. Unlike many buildings in Memphis, the building somehow managed to avoid demolition.
Hasn't changed too much, actually. Via historic-memphis.com.
The Falls Building was placed the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The following year, the Center City Revenue Finance Corp. “approved 18.5 million in tax-free bond issues…including a $10 million revenue bond for the complete renovation” of the Falls Building”**. Over the years, the Falls Building has housed a number of tenants, such as Oden Marketing and Design. Now, the Falls Building houses Red Rover and the Greater Memphis Chamber, among other businesses. It’s too bad the 11th Floor, which originally housed the Alaskan Roof Garden, is now comprised of office space. Memphis can never have too many rooftop party locations.
**Brown, Charles “Falls Building Fix-up Granted $10 Million Bond,” Memphis Daily News, August 10, 1983
*Smith, Whitney “Falls recollections can help you collect,” The Commercial Appeal, December 30, 1983
Tamara Williamson was born and raised in Memphis. She currently works at ArtsMemphis as Community Engagement Associate, where she works to increase access to the arts in communities whose residents have little or no exposure to them. She loves Memphis, old buildings, reading, and, of course, the Grizzlies.