Tomb of Doom: The Mysterious Past of the 'Cursed' Memphis Pyramid

    If it's abandoned for long enough, any building can get a spooky reputation — but the Memphis Pyramid's mystique is unlike any other. 

    It is one of the largest pyramids in the northern hemisphere and may be among the top 10 biggest pyramids in the world, depending upon how you measure. It has been called the “Tomb of Doom” and is rumored to have been cursed by the removal of a crystal skull. It’s also a Bass Pro Shop, and it’s located in Memphis, Tennessee.

    All of these are true facts about the so-called “Memphis Pyramid,” one of the most peculiar modern landmarks in America, and a building with a history that is stranger than fiction. 

    Memphis Pyramid
    Photo Credit: Trevor Birchett / Wikimedia Commons

    Originally conceived of by Mark C. Hartz in 1954, the “Great American Pyramid” was once going to be a complex involving three pyramids on the banks of the Mississippi River. As a nod to the city’s namesake, the Memphis pyramids were to be built as two-thirds scale replicas of the famous Pyramids of Giza, located near the ancient city of Memphis in Egypt.

    Getting the project off the ground took decades, however, and it was actually Hartz’s son, Jon Brent Hartz, who designed what would ultimately become the Memphis Pyramid. The project broke ground in 1989, and the building first opened to the public in 1991.

    “[The] cosmic balance of the earth may have been disrupted...” 

    While the builders of the Memphis Pyramid hoped that it would be that city’s answer to such famous landmarks as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the pyramid was plagued with problems from before it even opened its doors. A torrential rain storm delayed construction and plans for shops and amenities in the structure fell through, including a music museum, a nearby theme park, and a Hard Rock café. (Keep that last one in mind, as it will be important later.)

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    When the Memphis Pyramid did finally open its doors in 1991, its grand opening was a concert by country duo the Judds. Unfortunately, when a packed house all poured into the restrooms at the same time, the combined stresses of all those flushing toilets proved too much for the city’s sewer transfer station. The toilets backed up, flooding the arena with sewage. It seemed that the Memphis Pyramid was off to a less-than-auspicious start.

    "All of that was part of the glamour and mystery and mysticism of Egypt."

    memphis pyramid
    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    There are stories of an actual death in the pyramid—a stagehand who fell from the rigging—as well as a gunman who barricaded himself from police on the ground floor. The Memphis Pyramid was intended to house sports teams such as the Memphis Grizzlies and, appropriately enough, the Memphis Pharaohs, but, unfortunately, the costs of upgrading the pyramid to meet the standards necessary to host an NBA team like the Grizzlies proved cost prohibitive. 

    For the most part, the pyramid closed its doors in 2004, and remained empty for a decade, though it found occasional use in the intervening years, such as when it was used as a sound stage for the movie Black Snake Moan.

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    Any building that sits empty long enough is bound to attract some urban legends, especially a building as prominent and uniquely-shaped as the Memphis Pyramid. But the pyramid’s reputation as the “Tomb of Doom” was only helped along by a strange discovery which occurred shortly after the pyramid first opened. 

    According to Tom Jones, a consultant with Smart City Consulting in Memphis, workers discovered a black metal box at the apex of the pyramid, riveted to the building’s steel infrastructure. Inside, they found a crystal skull, which had been placed there by Isaac Tigrett, founder of the Hard Rock Café restaurant chain.

    Memphis Pyramid

    A crystal skull as depicted in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

    Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

    According to Tigrett, the skull was only one of several “crystal and mystical objects” placed throughout the building, though the others have never been found. In a blog post, Jones describes Tigrett’s reaction to the removal of the crystal skull. “You don’t have any idea what you have done,” he quotes Tigrett as saying, while going on to claim that the “cosmic balance of the earth may have been disrupted” by the removal of the skull, which “city and county officials” were told “had materialized in the hands of Mr. Tigrett’s guru.”

    In a phone call with the New York Times, Tigrett later dismissed most of these claims as “utter nonsense,” though he didn’t deny placing the skull, or the other mystical items which remain unfound to this day. “All of that was part of the glamour and mystery and mysticism of Egypt,” the Times quotes Tigrett as saying

    While the Memphis Pyramid sat empty for most of a decade, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Several attractions eyed the unusual building as possible new homes, but all of them fell through, until, in 2008, a tentative deal was reached with a perhaps unlikely partner, Bass Pro Shops.

    Still, it seemed that the pyramid maybe hadn’t quite shaken off all its curses, as the development of the Bass Pro Shops deal took years to solidify. An agreement was signed in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the new Bass Pro Shops megastore opened the doors of the Memphis Pyramid once more.

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    The new store is home to a hotel, a shooting range, an undersea-themed bowling alley, a man-made swamp, and the tallest freestanding elevator in America, as well as more than 600,000 gallons of water and the largest collection of waterfowl-related gear in the world. 

    Of course, it’s also still home to all those other “crystal and mystical objects” that haven’t yet been found …

    Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons

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