The glass is definitely half-full at Visible Music College midway through a push to save an iconic Downtown building once threatened with demolition.
Classes are under way for 128 praise-and-worship music students in the former C&I Bank Building at 200 Madison, long considered one of the city's most significant examples of midcentury modern architecture.
Chain-link entrance gates and bare-dirt planters in the distinctive glass-fronted atrium advertise the fact that it's a $6 million work in progress.
Since February, workers have transformed three of six floors into a functioning college of music in the $2.7 million initial phases.
Now school officials, led by president Ken Steorts, are preparing to raise another $3.3 million to complete a build-out that includes
recording studios and an outdoor performance space in the atrium.
Downtown officials welcome the creative energy brought by about 160 students, faculty and staff, said Paul Morris, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission.
"It's not just the number of folks. It's different types of folks, it's having students to add to the mix," Morris said.
The opening comes at a time when Downtown has met success in attracting a law school, graduate art college and charter schools.
In architectural circles, the college is regarded as a savior of a piece of Memphis history. Built in the early 1970s, it was designed by architect Francis Gassner and his firm, including Thomas Nathan and Robert Lee Browne.
"It's a period of architecture that hasn't had the kind of romantic appreciation that some of the earlier and later periods have had, but it's nonetheless important," said architect Keith Kays. "It's too important to let it get lost."
It's a far cry from the old Lakeland Cafe, where Steorts, member of the Christian rock band Skillet, founded the school in 2000. The school trains musicians to work in church settings or to go out on their own in the music business.
The building was proposed to be sold and demolished back in 2007 after the Greater Memphis Chamber backed off its own renovation project.
"There was a moment when it was being talked about for a parking lot, and there was a big uproar," said Steorts.
The chamber opted to sell to the music school, and chamber president John Moore and Memphis Music Foundation president Dean Deyo became ardent supporters.
The first phases focused on the bare essentials needed to operate the college, Steorts said. Archimania designed the renovations, carried out by Grinder Taber & Grinder.
Steorts doesn't see changing strategy as the school finishes its opus.
"What brought us here was going into people's homes with a group of students and playing concerts around their piano. It was the 'Into the City' concert tour in people's living rooms over the last three years."
"Really, our students are the best promotion. I think as far as people knowing us, they'll know us by our musicians being out in the community."
-- Wayne Risher: (901) 529-2874
Photo by Mike Maple
Visible Music College founder and president Ken Steorts shows off a state-of-the-art classroom in the school that has moved into the former C&I Bank building Downtown. The school is still raising money to complete its plans for the landmark structure.