MEMPHIS, Tenn. (NEXSTAR) — It may be a familiar sight to Memphis residents, but visitors continue to be confounded by one particular downtown building — it’s the oddball Bass Pro Shops Pyramid.
In addition to a massive Bass Pro Shops store, the 32-story steel Pyramid houses the Big Cypress Lodge hotel, restaurants, multiple aquariums, waterfalls, a cave, a bowling alley, live alligators, and a cypress swamp containing “nearly 600,000 gallons of water,” according to Bass Pro Shops. That’s not to mention it boasts the tallest free-standing elevator in the U.S.
But despite all that it offers, you may be wondering how this pyramid came to exist at all. After all, even though Memphis, Tennessee, is named after the ancient Egyptian city, most pyramids usually don’t house businesses (unless you’re counting Luxor Las Vegas).
Here’s the bizarre backstory behind this modern marvel.
Where did the Pyramid come from?
The building was originally envisioned as a major cultural attraction called The Great American Pyramid in the 1950s by a Memphis local. Plans were resurrected in the 1980s by the man’s son, and the Great American Pyramid and/or the Pyramid Arena opened in 1991. The venue hosted University of Memphis basketball games and later became the temporary home of the city’s new NBA Team when the Vancouver Grizzlies relocated to Memphis in 2001.
Though original plans for the location included a Hard Rock Cafe, a college football hall of fame and a radio station, the first iteration of the Pyramid mostly functioned as basketball and concert event space only. Unfortunately, the site wasn’t very popular in either regard.
Players reportedly called it “The Tomb of Doom,” in reference to its insular setting with what Forbes called “near-vertical stands and imposing structure.”
“As a basketball arena, the Pyramid was out of this world. It wasn’t natural. It wasn’t normal,” Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway told Forbes. “It was loud, because of how the sound went to a point in the top of the arena. We had a humungous home court advantage.”
Meanwhile, when it came to concerts, the venue wasn’t beloved either. The New York Times echoes Hardaway’s comments on sound in the arena, explaining that the site had “poor acoustics” in addition to narrow seats.
Ultimately, the Pyramid was not considered ideal for the Grizzlies’ permanent home and the FedExForum opened in town for the 2004-05 season. Due to certain contract stipulations, however, the arena was not allowed to merely begin operating purely as a concert venue.
The Pyramid Arena hosted its final concert on Feb. 3, 2007, with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. As Forbes explains, the venue’s closure in 2007 began a stretch of time when nobody really knew what to do with the vacant space. Though several ideas were floated — a megachurch, a Grammy Hall of Fame, and a casino — nothing really stuck.
But as explained by Big Cypress Lodge, the Pyramid’s fate changed with a 2005 fishing trip taken by Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris. The hotel’s site explains that Morris and friends were fishing on the Mississippi near the Pyramid when Morris said that if they caught a 30-pound catfish, he would build a store inside the abandoned venue.
While Morris’ challenge may have seemed like a long shot, it actually happened — Morris’ friend Jack caught a 34-pound catfish “almost in the shadow of the Pyramid,” according to Morris. The businessman made good on the promise and plans were put into action.
Renovations cost around $215 million and began in 2012, Forbes reports. The Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid (the site’s official name) finally opened in 2015.
The pivot to becoming a retail destination has appeared to be lucrative for both Bass Pro Shops and its surrounding businesses, with the company saying it received two million visitors in just its first nine months after opening. Traffic was so heavy, in fact, that local officials at the time raised concerns over inadequate parking space and potential costs to the City of Memphis. Average yearly sales at the Pyramid as of 2020 were between $45 and $55 million, according to Forbes.
The location’s popularity extends online, too.
You can currently find several Bass Pro Shops Pyramid reaction videos on YouTube, including “Spending the Night Inside the World’s Largest Bass Pro Shops” and “European Reacts to Bass Pro Shop.” TikTok offers much of the same on the subject, with the #bassproshoppyramid hashtag housing dozens of videos with upwards of 42 million views — including one video captioned “i made it to the holy lands” and soundtracked to John Williams’ “Jurassic Park” theme.
Several threads in Reddit’s /Memphis Subreddit are dedicated to finding out locals’ opinions on the Pyramid, including a 2021 thread by a University of Memphis student researching the public’s affinity — or dislike — of the structure and its benefits to the city.
Answering the question “Do you believe that the Bass Pro affects the image of the city in any way?” one user responded, “Yeah, now we’re ‘the city with the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid.” Other users were more positive, with one saying: “I think the last 10 years or so, it feels like Memphis has come to accept itself for what it is, and I think the image of the city and the Bass Pro Pyramid can both be filed under ‘Fun in a bizarre and unpretentious way.'”
Like it or not, the Pyramid is one part of the Memphis skyline that demands attention from local residents. In fact, its presence in the city may best be exemplified by a detail in a 2020 Bloomberg report, which quipped that some nearby businesses employ automatic shades for mid-afternoons, “when the sunlight glinting off the 300-foot-tall structure shifts from glowing to blinding.”
Bass Pro Shops tells Nexstar the location averages 2 million annual visitors — will you be next?