MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The man in charge of building the new, $100 million Brooks Museum along the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis said it was love at first sight when he arrived in the Bluff City.
"You can feel it everywhere," said Ascan Mergenthaller, "there is something happening."
He said the city's rich history, its beautiful waterfront and all the change happening in midtown and downtown give the city real momentum now. The new museum, he predicts, will be the jewel in the city's crown. Wednesday night, the public got its first chance at asking Mergenthaller about his plans for Brooks on the Bluff.
For Barbara Rea and her friend Anne McEntegart, it's hard to imagine Overton Park without the Brooks Museum.
“It’s a personal thing,” said Rea. “It just fits here.”
"I'm saddened about it," said McEntegart, "because I think it's ideal in this place, in the park."
Sharon Barnes struggled with the proposal to move the Brooks Museum out of the park, too, until recently. She realizes downtown is booming right now and building the new museum on Front Street, where the Memphis fire station currently sits, is ideal.
“We’ve lived in cities like Jacksonville, Florida where their waterfront is really nice, even Omaha, Nebraska is in the middle of renovating their waterfront," said Barnes. I’m like what’s taking Memphis so long?"
Mergenthaller is the senior partner with Herzog de Meuron and the partner in charge of Brooks on the Bluff.
“Memphis is a very beautiful city with a lot of potential," said Mergenthaller. “You can feel that in downtown. This is the right time for this project and for us to be here.”
Herzog de Meuron, based in Switzerland, built 37 museums across the world, including the Tate Modern in London, the Perez Art Museum in Miami and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Mergenthaller told a standing room only crowd inside the Brooks' auditorium his firm has done 18 projects in the U.S. with 10 more underway. He's excited about the chance to create something extraordinary in Memphis.
"I think the opportunity now with the downtown location," he said, "is that really this becomes a very public place, a very civic place, a very active place. It will become the heart, I guess, of downtown, if not of Memphis."
He said the Brooks on the Bluff will be the place to be downtown. He envisions terraces, cafes, places to enjoy music and lectures.
"It's not only a place to look at beautiful exhibitions of art," he said, it's also to meet and just hang out and have a coffee."
The modern museum will have more space for more art. Currently only 3 percent of the Brooks collection is on display because there's simply no more wall space. The new museum will also have a desperately needed climate control system, protecting the precious pieces from wear and tear and the ravages of time.
The new location will be a major change for Brooks patrons like Rea, McEntegart and Barnes.
“I wonder about parking, is it going to be difficult to drive down there?" said Mcentegart. "It’s so easy here in Overton Park. You can park anywhere and walk to the museum.”
"I'll drive down there," said Barnes, "I'm in the suburbs now and I make the drive to Overton Park because it's worth it. And the Brooks is worth driving to downtown."
“It’ll be beautiful when it goes downtown, I’m sure.” said Rea. “It’s just like when the University of Memphis took over the building downtown for the law center. It’s gorgeous. But I just hate to see what will happen to this building. It’s just part of Overton Park.”
Ideas to repurpose the Brooks building in Midtown include turning it into a vistor's center for Overton Park, making it a museum of African and Latino art, or transforming it into an events center called The Rotunda.
Mergenthaller says the first renderings of what the new Brooks on the Bluff museum will look like should be ready by February.
“A lot of activity will come from it,” he said of the new museum, “and it will infect the rest of the city.”