Nashvillians take their architecture for granted. A new building appears on the horizon, and we react with love or loathing. After the tumult and the shouting die, however, the no-longer-new becomes the predictable, woven into the everyday fabric of our lives. We look, but we no longer see. Nashville’s young architects don’t suffer from the blind-stare syndrome. They can’t afford to. On the threshold of their careers as design professionals, they are constantly testing their ideas against the reality in front of their eyes. “The lessons are there if we look for them,” says intern architect Byron Smith. “We just have to learn how to read them.”
To get a fresh read on Nashville’s architecture, By Design asked five of our city’s best and brightest junior architects to pick 10 local buildings that they lovefive built before World War II and five from the postwar era. The young designers had an easy time selecting the best of the old, but they struggled when it came to buildings of more recent vitage. Nevertheless, they found 10 buildings that always reward a close examination, and many more that honestly deserve a second glance.
The buildings are presented in the order of votes they received. We’ve also included some honorable mentionsbuildings that didn’t make the top 10 but still are worthy of note.
The jury included:
Kara Babin, intern architect
Tuck Hinton Architects
Jennifer Bagwell, intern architect
Gresham Smith and Partners
Keith Covington, intern architect
Edwards + Hotchkiss Architects, Inc.
Brad Norris, architect
Cochran, Ferguson Smith Architects
Byron Smith, intern architect
Lyman Davidson Dooley, Inc.
The Best of the Old
When it came to picking their favorites from among Nashville’s older buildings, our panel of judges had only one problem: They didn’t want to limit the list to just five. Our architect judges may be young, but the buildings they most readily admire are old. They were assured that they didn’t need to pay homage to the obvious. Nevertheless, Strickland’s Capitol made almost everybody’s list. Meanwhile, they also uncovered some architectural treasures in some unlikely locations.
Richard Montfort, chief engineer, L&N Railroad, 1900
Montfort, an engineer, seemed bound and determined to shelter high-speed travelers in a building with heavy masonry arches that thrust to the ground in a veritable negation of movement. Perhaps he figured turn-of-the-century passengers wanted assurances of permanence and stability as they rushed from place to place. Inspired by H.H. Richardson’s Allegheny County Building in Pittsburgh, Union Station’s baronial hall of a waiting room and its basilican train shed make a pass through a contemporary airport seem like slumming.
Norris: The station is a weighty expression of the nature of stone. What was potentially a flat building is given three dimensions by its deep-set windows and jumping roofscape.
Smith: The combination of the massive stone of the station and the relative delicacy of the wood and steel of the shed must have exerted a potent force on the people who used the station.
Bagwell: The level of detailed craftsmanship in the lobby of the stationthe stained glass in particularshows what grandeur people used to make of civic spaces.
Tennessee State Capitol
William Strickland, architect, 1845-59
Strickland’s Greek Revival temple to democratic government instantly transformed the highest hill in town into an acropolis. The architect carefully combined the power of unadorned limestone block walls with the delicate ornament of the Ionic column capitals and a Corinthian tower to yield a building that is at once strong and subtle.
Inside, Strickland adapted Classical precedent to symbolic purpose. The halls of the entrance floor, which houses the administrative offices, are darkly portentous; this is the machine shop that makes the state work. Upstairs, soaring windows cast the clear light of every day on the votes of the people’s representatives.
Covington: It’s not often a building is equal to a magnificent siting. On Capitol Hill the com-bination makes for a great civic monument.
Bagwell: The Capitol is our history in stone. Every time I look at it, I think of the legislator who ratified women’s suffrage crawling out the window and around the outside to escape his opponents.
Omohundro Water Works Systems
George Reyer Pumping Station: C.K. Colley, engineer, 1889
R. L. Lawrence, Jr. Filtration Plant: Chester Engineers, Pittsburgh, 1929-30.
Viewed from across the Cumberland River at Shelby Park, the Omohundro Water Works seems to be caught in a time warp. The red-brick complex seems for a moment to be a hand-tinted sepia print of a 19th-century New England mill town. What could be a factory stands on the river’s bank; the simple hall beyond presents the gabled clerestory of a village church. The rusting steel trusses of the railroad bridge link Omohundro to the East Bank, the Industrial Revolution connecting with the present.
Omohundro is, in fact, a plant for processing water. It is also a relic of a time when, if government built, it built well.
Norris: A basilican shrine to the water god. The design of the interiorthe precise detailing of tile, wood, and bricklooks simple. The truth is that it’s anything but. It makes hard work look easy.
Smith: Not a habitat for humanity, but an occurrence of nature. The hard surfaces inside magnify soundexpressing so much energy the building almost breathes.
Bagwell: A space that beautiful to house water? It wouldn’t happen now.
116 Fifth Ave. N.
Hugh Cathcart Thompson, architect, 1892
The Ryman is not great architecture, but it is a great icon. Nothing but red brick, white limestone, and wood fashioned into a clear gable shape pierced with simple Gothic windows, the building stands in stark contrast to its glitzier surroundings. No one builds vernacular architecture in a city center anymore. The Ryman’s plain-speaking style has always announced that this is a place for the common man and woman.
Bagwell: The Ryman is not like anything else downtown. It is plainer than other civic monumentsand it has the strength of history.
Smith: This is a building with a very altruistic spirit.
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Lafayette at Sixth Avenue South
Wills and Dudley, architects, New York, 1852
The English-born architects of this building were profoundly steeped in the medievalism of the Anglican Church. They knew 13th-century Gothic, and they presented Nashville with an example worthy of the sceptered isle. Once the center of a fashionable parish, the church’s less-than-upscale commercial surroundings now make it easy to overlook.
Covington: Very well designed for its triangular site. The square tower and turret serve as a focal point and terminus to Sixth Avenue. The lower nave and sanctuary widen out to form the triangle’s base.
Smith: Symbolic of rock itselfand of the weathered hands that stacked every stone.
Downtown Presbyterian Church
154 Fifth Ave. N.
William Strickland, architect, 1849-51
Nashville’s Karnak on the Cumberland is an exotic variation on the revival of pre-Christian styles that characterized the first half of the 19th century. The Egyptian style was rarely utilized for churches. It was felt that a culture known for its emphasis on deathstyles, rather than lifestyles, was more appropriately revived for the architecture of cemeteries.
Strickland’s building, with its clear windows and white interior, served as a Federal hospital during the Civil War. The palm-encrusted stained glass and the painted walls and ceiling were added in the 1880s. The Chicago architectural firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox paid contemporary homage to the church with the vaguely Egyptian references of their office tower across the street.
Babin: An architectural surprise like this has to be the result of a few people getting together and saying, “Let’s just do it.” No popular consensus here.
Covington: Nashville’s purest example of Egyptian Revival architecture. A welcome alternative to the Greek style that is so dominant in the city.
Silver Dollar Saloon
Second Avenue North at Broadway
Jules Zwicker, architect, early 1890s
Smith: A distinctly urban building that gives a landmark edge to the corner of Second and Broadway. The vegetative patterns of the terra-cotta ornaments are wonderfully tactile.
Tulip Street United Methodist Church
522 Russell St.
T. L. Dismukes, architect; completed by J. E. Woodward, 1891
Babin: Good in an old-fashioned urban sensea building that stands prominently in and for its neighborhood. The terra-cotta and brick detailing of this essentially stoic structure are very well handled.
Broadway Post Office
Broadway between Ninth and 10th Avenues South
Marr and Holman, architects, 1934
Bagwell: The post officestripped Classicism on a monumental scaleis a fine example of what government was paying for in the 1930s. The kind of obviously public building we don’t do anymore.
Belle Meade Theater
4301 Harding Rd.
Marr & Holman, architects, 1935
Covington: A commercial strip building that actually addresses the street. And every façade is designednot just the front. That’s certainly not done with strip malls today.
The Best of the New
Young architects are more likely to focus on the here and now, rather than the good old days. Yet all our jurors commented that it was “really hard” to find five post-World War II buildings worth a “Best in Nashville” tribute.
Several jurors were so enamored of the bygone-era mystique that they mistakenly assigned Keeble’s 1956 L&C Tower to the 1930s. Perhaps they were subconsciously guided by the theory that nothing this good could have been created in an era so riddled with mediocrity. Or maybe they are too close to the Age of Eisenhower to see what’s good in it. Either way, the architects of the future make a strong case for the architecture of our past.
Church Street at Fourth Avenue North
Edwin A. Keeble, architect, 1956
The one building on every juror’s list and, by common agreement, Nashville’s best skyscraper. Keeble was trained in the days when designers were expected to be proficient in a multitude of styles. Unlike true-blue International stylists, he thought of modernism as just one more card in the architectural deck. Keeble’s less than single-minded commitment to the modernist cause paradoxically allowed him to realize modernism’s full expressive potential. The result: a tall building with a real sense of upward aspiration.
Smith: Very elegantly sitedit seems to slide into placeon its corner.
Covington: The limestone plane at the corner, juxtaposed with the linear stainless steel sunscreens, adds a level of articulation, of detail, that is minimal but highly sophisticated. Takes modernism one step beyond “form follows function.”
Norris: The tower stands as proof that tall buildings do not have to be overpowering to the pedestrian.
Broadway at 5th Avenue South
Hellmuth, Obata and Kassebaum of Kansas City in association with Hart-Freeland-Roberts, architects, 1998
Not even finished; already a landmark.
The combination of angled tower and horseshoe crab profile, metallic cladding and glass curtain wall gives Mayor Phil Bredesen the icon he wanted. The Arena at first glance says, “The aliens have landed.” A second look, and Nashville says, “The future is ours.”
Covington: Very well placed in its context. The way it is sited opens up the corner; the tower addresses the grid.
Babin: Every city needs a good, futuristic dome to hold the skyline. The best view of the arena’s dome is from the Shelby Street Bridge.
Bagwell: The glass of the tower and lobby allow the motion within to be visible, adding energy at the street level. On a less happy note, the Arena’s Broadway façade mimics the visual dead space of the Convention Center across the street.
Eskind Biomedical Library
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Davis Brody and Associates, architects, New York; in association with Thomas, Miller and Partners, 1994
Vanderbilt tends to play it safe with its architecture. Lots of heavy masonry gives the institution the feel of a solid blue-chip investment. Amidst the sea of stone and brick, the Eskind Library is a transparent jewel.
The library suggests a permeable membrane between the seeker of knowledge and the information stored inside. The steel and glass are high-tech; the wood detailing on the interiornote the reading and board roomsadds warmth. The result: a building of tranquil energy.
Bagwell: Doesn’t look like anything else in Nashville, enhancing the library’s status as the break between the academic campus and the medical campus.
Norris: The glass curtain wall is a sheer plane of glass with no floors to support ita real technical achievement that transforms architecture into sculpture.
703 Murfressboro Rd.
Spencer J. Warwick Associates, architects, Cincinnati, 1948-1949
Norris: A suburban building that addresses the street realistically, by embracing the car. It springs from the same streamlined aesthetic as the L&C Tower, but this time it’s stretched horizontally, so the driver has a chance to appreciate it.
Appropriately enough, the main entrance is strongly marked to let drivers know where to turn before they get there. The parking is through the building rather than in front, giving visitors a feeling of safety and control that is absent from the average suburban office park.
Stevenson Center, Vanderbilt University
Payette Associates, Inc./William Wilson Associated Architects, Inc., architects, Boston, 1996
Norris: Huge smokestacks are always a problem; here they have been turned into a sculptural element remarkably well integrated into the building.
Two Worthy Moderns No Juror Mentioned
(formerly American General; originally National Life & Accident Building)
Union Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues North
Skidmore Owings & Merrill, architects, Chicago, 1970
Nashville’s finest dumb box by a firm that specialized in the genre. The Italian travertine cladding and bronze windows add a rich finish to this strong statement of corporate chutzpah. The technology of the concentric tube constructioninner core and outer frame stand independent of each otherwas cutting-edge in its time. Best viewed from a distance, especially from Deaderick Street with the War Memorial as foreground. Up close, it’s anything but personal.
Avon William Jr. Campus
Tennessee State University
Charlotte Avenue and 10th Avenue North
Earl Swensson Associates, architects, 1971
Designed by Alan Cooper, a young M.I.T. graduate who was strongly influenced by Boston’s City Hall. A supreme exploitation of the plasticity of aggregate concrete, the top-heavy massing and overhanging sunscreens recall Le Corbusier. One of the most sculptural buildings in Nashville’s downtown.
His [Phil Robertson's] opinions matter not. As a friend posted recently, "I look at it…
Perhaps Chris, but I still think there's a compelling argument to be made, based on…
Come on Nashville. You've got all the talent you need, and the Robertsons are a…
Jesus Christ you people are up tight. Did anyone really think this guy's views were…