Nashville: Sites and Sounds

Quick—name the U.S. city that has a sparkling new concert hall, a grand ole opry, and a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Still stumped? Try this two-word clue: Country Music. Now you’ve got it! We’re talking about Nashville, site of the 2009 National Preservation Conference, and a city where the past and the present blend beautifully. We asked a few residents, and a trio of preservation experts, to tell us about their favorite places.

Schermerhorn
Architect David Schwarz calls his Schermerhorn Symphony Center “Neoclassicism for 21st-­century Nashville.”

Credit: Steve Jones

The Old Post Office: A First-Class Makeover

Ask freelance architecture and urban planning critic Christine Kreyling to name one Nashville makeover that took the city by storm, and she cites the Frist Center.

With the debut of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in 2001, Nashville realized three ambitious goals: the preservation of the historic Broadway Post Office, the creation of a state-of-the-art venue for traveling exhibitions, and the addition of a dynamic new destination downtown.

 The white marble post office opened in 1934 as a gift from Uncle Sam, its stripped classicism conveying the message that government was a stabilizing force in an unstable society, yet streamlined enough to move forward. (Even the decor was streamlined. Ornamental bas-reliefs, including the one of a tri-motor shown above, enlivened the interior.)

The prominent site next to Union Station was a no-brainer when railroads moved mail between cities. By 1986, however, airplanes were the preferred mode of mail transport. Central postal distribution shifted to an industrial park near the airport, and the downtown post office became a mere local station. In 1988, the postal service invited proposals to redevelop the building as office space.

Then the bottom fell out of the office market, and the future of the building was in doubt. In 1994, an ambitious project called Nashville's Agenda identified a downtown visual arts facility as a key goal. Kenneth Roberts, president of the Frist Foundation, chaired the team charged with making the goal a reality.

He began scouting buildings for adaptive use and asked architect Seab Tuck about vacant space in a former department store. Tuck countered with his own suggestion: "Why don't you go into the post office?"

"You couldn't make even the shell of this building today for less than $60 million," Tuck explained to Roberts. "And it's perfect for art: a big box with tall ceilings, broad column spacings, a large freight elevator, big loading and unloading capacity." Roberts was convinced the moment he saw the dingy but still luxe Art Deco lobby. "He immediately called [founding patron] Tommy Frist and said, 'Come look at this!'" Tuck remembers. "Tommy loved the building and started talking about how to make it work."

Ultimately, the city of Nashville purchased the building from the postal service for $4.4 million and agreed to kick in another $15 million for renovation. The Frist Foundation and Frist family guaranteed $25 million to supplement renovation and establish a Frist Center endowment. The city gave the center a 99-year lease at $1 per year. Tuck's firm, Tuck-Hinton Architects, was hired to perform the conversion.

Designed as a civic monument, the old post office has adapted seamlessly to its new civic role. It links present-day life with the larger ­context of history as only a fine old building can.

A Neighborhood Success

Christine and Michael Kreyling have lived in East Nashville for more than 20 years. He calls their part of town the "People's Republic of East Nashville," and after reading her description of this dynamic neighborhood, you'll understand why.

We arrived in East Nashville from New Orleans in 1985. Ten years in the Crescent City had made us addicts of urban living and old architecture. East Nashville offered both. A diverse population lived within walking and pedaling distance of corner stores and the Five Points commercial center, with architecture ranging from Antebellum through Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne, Classical Revival, bungalow, and contemporary.

The neighborhood, however, had its problems. We moved into a house dating to 1885—a marginally renovated, not-so-white elephant in a block dominated by winos and biker thugs. Our electrician had barely finished rewiring before the codes inspector came calling, seeking a bribe.

East Nashville's decline started with a 1916 fire that destroyed 648 houses, and it accelerated with manmade calamities. In the 1950s, the neighborhood became home to the city's largest public housing project. A decade later, the interstate barreled through. Houses were demolished or subdivided into apartments, and absentee landlords took hold. Banks redlined the district with lending policies that restricted renovation.

In 1976, when Carol and Charlie Williams bought a Queen Anne in the Edgefield section for $9,000, they were told they'd overpaid. As Charlie recalled a decade ago, "Old people lived in fear, locked in their houses. It was hard to get street lights fixed and garbage picked up."

The Williamses and other pioneers began the long, slow pull to bring East Nashville back. They renovated houses, formed activist neighborhood associations, and recruited Metro Council candidates to represent the interests of residents rather than slumlords. They lobbied for, and won, zoning and preservation regulations that protected the architectural integrity of the neighborhood. Metro government kicked in with low-interest loans for facade renovations and a new Five Points Redevelopment District to encourage commercial reinvestment.

In April 1998, when a tornado roared through East Nashville, a battle-hardened crew of neighborhood residents was ready to turn the disaster into a great leap forward. Soon, hundreds of citizens (assisted by experts from the American Institute of Architects) were pursuing a master plan for future development. Residents used insurance money to rehab their houses. And the post-storm influx of visitors from other parts of the city broke the psychological barrier that the Cumberland River had always presented. West Siders who came to help out—or just to look around—discovered an urban neighborhood with a small-town feel. After 20 years of slow reclamation and minimal outside investment, East Nashville was cool.

In the decade since, dozens of new businesses have opened, many in "recycled" buildings. An old gas station is now Margot Café. Bongo Java sells coffee in what was once an electronics repair shop. Family Wash serves pub food and features live music in a one-time laundromat. And Turnip Truck—a natural-foods grocery inside a former auto-body shop—offers fresh mozzarella and homemade soup as well as delicious baked goods seven days a week.

But there's still an old East Nashville at the heart of the new one. Our neighborhood retains a feeling of community unmatched by any other part of town.

Classical Showplace

Before delving into the history of Nashville's Parthenon, Senior Editor Sudip Bose visited the British Museum in London, where the original Parthenon marbles are housed.

If you ever doubted Nashville's status as the Athens of the South (a nickname clung to in these parts as fiercely as Music City USA), head a few miles west of downtown to Centennial Park. There, across West End Avenue from Vanderbilt University, you will find a full-scale replica of the Parthenon.

How did a replica of a fifth-century B.C. Athenian temple come to stand in the heart of this mid-South capital? The story began in 1897, when Tennessee mounted a lavish exposition to commemorate 100 years of statehood. The grounds of a former racetrack were transformed into an architectural showcase—20 Neoclassical exhibition halls rising on some 200 acres, connected by a network of curved paths along elegantly landscaped grounds.

The exposition's centerpiece was a faithful homage to one of the most triumphant symbols of Western civilization: the Parthenon. Built of wood and stucco, the replica was meant to be temporary, like all the other exposition structures. But once the six-month-long festivities ended (having drawn 1.8 million visitors, including President McKinley and his wife), organizers had little desire to tear down their Parthenon—or turn its sylvan setting back into anything resembling a racetrack. So in 1902, the city opened Centennial Park, and Nashville's residents had a welcome place of escape from the noisy bustle of the city.

Of course, the wood-and-stucco replica was never going to endure the decades, let alone the centuries, like its Greek counterpart. In 1931, city officials unveiled the reinforced concrete building you see today. Not everyone was pleased. In a famous lyric about the structure, the poet Donald Davidson tartly asked: "Why do they come? What do they seek? / Who build but never read their Greek?"

Today, the Parthenon houses a 42-foot-tall statue of Athena (installed in 1990), as well as a notable collection of American art. Centennial Park offers its own pleasures, with numerous species of trees, an artificial lake, a rose arbor, and a sunken garden. Both the Parthenon and Centennial Park are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and both could soon benefit from some much-needed attention; last year, Mayor Karl Dean assembled a committee to study how best to restore the park's monuments and grounds. What better way to ensure that the Parthenon continues to cast its noble shadow upon this urban oasis for years to come?

Artful Restoration

Eric Wills, Preservation's associate editor, grew up near Aaron Douglas' famed murals at the New York Public Library.

Why should you see the murals by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas at Fisk University's Cravath Hall? You should see them because their vibrant colors and angular forms, influenced by African art and Art Deco style, are stunning. You should see them because they arguably define the career of the man heralded as the father of African American art. You should see them because they're fine examples of the type of work commissioned during the era of the Works Progress Administration. And you should see them because they portray the African American experience in its entirety, from life in Egypt and Africa, to slavery, to the struggle for identity in America in the aftermath of emancipation.

Don't worry about finding them. Everyone at this predominantly African American campus knows the murals, in part because Douglas went on to become a Fisk professor, teaching art for nearly three decades and making the subject a fundamental part of the university's curriculum.

And when you have spent enough time quietly contemplating their magnificence, make sure to find one more work by Douglas, a painting that hangs in the galleries at Fisk—a canvas dating to 1966, right after he helped oversee the first restoration of his murals. (The most recent restoration won an Honor Award in 2004 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.) Here he depicts the figures from his murals emerging from Cravath Hall, clad in cap and gown—a coda to his sweeping and evocative portrait of the history of his people.

A Pitch Perfect Addition To The Skyline

Former newspaper editor and freelance arts journalist Jonathan Marx is currently publications manager for the Nashville Symphony.

Nashville has long been known as Music City USA, but the city's cultural life extends well beyond the hayseed shenanigans once seen on Hee-Haw. For proof, head downtown to one of the city's newest shrines: the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, home to the Nashville Symphony and an anchoring presence in the rapidly transforming district just south of Broadway.

The Schermerhorn is an impressive work of Neoclassical design by architect David Schwarz, inspired by such grand ­European concert halls as Vienna's Musikverein and Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. With its stately columns and solid presence, it also reflects the influence of one of Nashville's most recognizable buildings: the Parthenon, which stands a couple of miles away.

Few buildings here incorporate state-of-the-art design quite like the Schermerhorn. In the building's main venue, a two-inch "acoustical isolation joint" keeps exterior noise (and quite often, cell phone signals) from interrupting a performance. Similarly, 30 specially designed windows ringing the upper reaches of the hall allow light to stream in while keeping the sounds of traffic and pedestrians out. An innovative mechanical system allows for a quick transformation from conventional theater-style seating to a flat-floor configuration for special events and pops concerts. These and numerous other features are all the more impressive because they have been seamlessly integrated into the building's overall design. Even the sculptural reliefs that adorn the box seats serve an acoustical purpose, helping to distribute high-frequency sounds evenly throughout the room.

The Schermerhorn, then, is a blend of Old World aesthetics and cutting-edge technology, and in this way, it perfectly reflects its surroundings, continuing the dialogue between old and new that reverberates in the streets of downtown Nashville. Surrounding the center, for example, is a mix of new construction and aging brick structures. Just across the street is a pedestrian bridge spanning the Cumberland River. Walk halfway across and you can look down at the city's first public art project: sculptor Alice Aycock's Ghost Ballet for the East Bank Machineworks, a massive swirl of red steel trusses constructed on the remains of an old gantry crane—an ode to the city's industrial past.

Musically, too, the Schermerhorn casts one eye on the past, another on the present. Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms figure prominently in the repertoire chosen by the Nashville Symphony's music director designate, Giancarlo Guerrero. But during the symphony's first two seasons in its new home, every classical subscription concert featured a work by a contemporary American composer. With a focus on pops, jazz, and world music—and appearances by such high-profile Nashville music figures as Vince Gill, Amy Grant, and John Hiatt—the Schermerhorn has rapidly become a fixture in the city's public life. It may be only three years old, but it already feels like a place that was meant to last.

SIGN UP FOR the National Preservation Conference in Nashville, Oct. 13-17.

Sessions and lectures will focus on how this part of Tennessee is embracing the future while protecting a rich history. The conference isn’t limited to professionals—it’s open to everyone. Come learn about Civil War battles, Civil Rights struggles, historic neighborhoods, music venues, and the ways you can preserve the fabric of your own hometown. See PreservationNation.org/conference for details.

Food For The Soul

Dwight Young, who writes the Back Page column, grew up in West Texas. He knows his biscuits.

You can get a good feel for what Nashville is all about by hanging out for an hour or so in two places. Neither one has anything to do with architecture, but each is a bona fide landmark. Shrine, even.

One of them is Tootsies Orchid Lounge, a splendidly scruffy dive on Broadway. The back door of Tootsies is right across the alley from the stage door of the Ryman Auditorium, so country music performers have long been in the habit of ducking in to wet their whistles between sets. Today the place still welcomes an occasional Big Name, but mostly it's a ­hallowed venue for star wannabes, populated by an engaging mix of the truly talented and the deeply delusional. Check it out, and wait for a twangy guitar chord to break your heart.

Unlike Tootsies, which is best experienced late in the evening, the second stop on your pilgrimage is a broad-daylight destination. It's out on Highway 100, a few miles southwest of the city. My mouth waters as I write its name: the Loveless Cafe.

I have just one word to say to you: biscuits. No, on second thought, make that three words: biscuits and gravy.

Everything that comes out of the Loveless kitchen is probably delicious—the fried chicken is widely celebrated, and Dolly Parton swears by the macaroni and cheese (would Dolly lie? I think not)—but I always wind up ordering the same thing: eggs and country ham and biscuits with red-eye gravy. If you don't know what red-eye gravy is, I'm so sorry. All I can tell you is that it's made from country ham drippings and black coffee, and it tastes like a mouthful of the South-with-a-capital-S, y'all, especially when it's spooned over a biscuit.

The Loveless has been in business since the 1950s, but it really hit the big time a few years ago, winning accolades from Martha Stewart and Vanity Fair magazine and just about everybody else. These days, the parking lot is always crowded, and drooling diners sometimes face a lengthy wait for a table. But don't worry: Despite all this success, the modest building that contains the main dining room still looks like a house and—more important—still feels like home.

Folks in Nashville generally have a great fondness for Tootsies, but lots of them wouldn't dream of actually going there. By the same token, I wouldn't be surprised to find that some Nashvilleans think the Loveless really isn't all that remarkable. Here's what I have to say about that: We should all aspire to live in a place where this kind of food is nothing special.

Go—and take me with you: It's mealtime somewhere, and those biscuits are calling. 

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