37 Storied Stories

©Walter Arnold

What does a dream project look like? For Walter Arnold it began when a Memphis real estate developer contacted him to photograph an abandoned skyscraper ahead of its renovation. Arnold has been photographing abandoned historic places for his series “The Art of Abandonment” for a decade.

“The prospect of exploring a massive 37-story abandoned skyscraper was way too enticing to turn down,” Arnold says. “I love to tell stories of the places that I photograph, and 100 North Main was chock-full of interesting pieces of history just waiting to be told.”

Challenges: According to Arnold it was the scale of the building that created the greatest difficulties. Included in the skyscraper were restaurants, law offices, a health club, dental offices, a salon, a bank, and more. The condemned building had no electricity, so gear had to be lugged up 37 flights of stairs. He started at the top and worked his way down, stopping on most levels over the two days of shooting. “Even so, I am sure I did not see everything,” he says.

Surprises: One floor had been used by the Memphis Police Department for SWAT training exercises. Posters depicting criminals and kidnappers hung in dark rooms and around corners, Arnold says: “Even after seeing these a few times, it was still jarring to walk around a corner and come face to face with an eye-level life-size cutout of a person holding a gun out at you.”

The grandest floor was the 37th, which in its heyday had been a rotating restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows that provided diners a 360-degree view of the city. “Standing up there by myself looking out through the broken windows and listening to the sounds of downtown Memphis echoing off neighboring buildings was a surreal feeling.”

Equipment: He used a Nikon D850 camera and a Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 lens as well as a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

Impact: Responses on social media from people who used to work in the building or had connections there were powerful. “Helping people remember the importance and significance of historic places like this is extremely rewarding to me.” 

Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.