New building for Memphis Brooks Museum imperilled amid lawsuit over ownership of its riverfront plot

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The fate of the a new, $180m, Herzog & de Meuron-designed building for the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in downtown Memphis is up in the air following several hours of testimony last week in a lawsuit, which pits the museum against Memphians who claim the land in question belongs to the people.

Chancellor Melanie Taylor Jefferson of the Shelby County Chancery Court is currently reviewing evidence presented in the case, although it remains unclear when she will make her decision on whether to permanently halt construction, Lucas Finton and Micaela Watts reported in the Commercial Appeal.

The museum broke ground on its new building in June; the legal impasse arose in August, when a group of locals who trace their roots to the founders of the city (“Heirs” in the legal documents) and an organisation called Friends of Our Waterfront sued, claiming that this particular strip of the waterfront is legally owned by the people of Memphis. Although the city manages the land, they contend that the museum’s construction project violates residents’ property rights. The museum holds that its new building will allow for free public access to green space—including a rooftop garden.

The disputed land previously hosted an old fire station and a parking garage, both of which have been demolished. The plaintiffs say that these structures had also violated the agreement between the city and its inhabitants. As the lawsuit states, their removal “created the first opportunity in over 70 years for the Heirs to legally enforce the easement without causing the removal of structures from the Bluff Site”. Lawyers for the museum have called into question the timing of the lawsuit, since knowledge of the new museum project has been public since at least 2021.

Earlier this month, less than a mile to the south of the contentious museum project, Tom Lee Park reopened after six years. The new park features public access to the waterfront and includes two new permanent pieces by the artists Theaster Gates and James Little.

The new riverfront building is intended to replace the Memphis Brooks Museum’s longtime home, a Beaux Arts-style building situated several miles to the east in Overton Park. That structure was designed by James Gamble Rogers to resemble the Morgan Library in New York City and has been repeatedly renovated and enlarged in the 107 years since it opened.

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