February 19, 2004
The interim dean of the University of Memphis law school thinks the old Customs House building downtown would be a perfect home for the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
"It has that sort of serious elegance to it," said Rodney Smith. "That's what the law aspires to have. It also has its roots in tradition and yet it is alive in the world."
Members of the City Council agree it's a wonderful building but are skeptical that the United States Postal Service -- which currently inhabits the building at Front and Madison -- would be willing to give it up.
Representatives from the law school came before a City Council committee this week to ask for their support in moving to the Customs House. Ultimately, the federal government would have to give it back to the city, which would then give it to the university.
After the law school's accrediting bodies indicated the current facility is too small, among other things, the administration began seriously thinking about moving downtown. About a year and a half ago, they hired Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects to evaluate the school's needs.
Then they turned their attention to the Customs House. "We did a walk through and an analysis," said Smith. "It was nothing short of wonderful how well it fit."
Whether they get the downtown building or not, Smith says the school will need a new facility within the next five years. Estimates put the cost of renovating and refitting the Customs House at about $35 million.
"We could build a new facility near the school with that, but we're more likely to find funding for a project downtown," said Smith. The school doesn't foresee receiving classroom building funds from the state any time soon, but Smith thinks they could raise private and federal funds with a new facility downtown. "We've talked to students, alumni, and friends, and everyone is excited about a move downtown."
In similar-sized cities, there's been a recent trend to move law schools downtown, which would put law students closer to court houses, law firms, and governmental bodies. School representatives also see an opportunity in the downtown move to expand a program which helps low-income Memphians with their legal needs.
"Many lawyers are involved in financial transactions. It will put us closer to a lot of businesses downtown," said Smith. "It's very much a win-win situation."
The City Council did not take any action on the proposal.