Architectural Kudo 

Cheekwood stables become stage for contemporary art

Cheekwood stables become stage for contemporary art

To the average Nashvillian, Cheekwood is a stern, stone mansion that sits on a high hill like a flinty dowager, surrounded by grounds as green as freshly printed money.

But nestled on the northern slope is a red brick complex whose current renovation and expansion into the $3 million Frist Learning Center may soften that image.

Those who have never signed up for a studio art class may be unaware that there is a red brick side to Cheekwood. Designed in 1929 as quarters for the Cheek family’s fleet of cars and horses, chauffeurs and grooms, the utilitarian stables were deliberately hidden from the meandering drive that carried the chosen few to the big house. Architect Bryant Fleming knew well that the nouveau riches Cheeks wanted to create the impression that they had risen effortlessly, without the aid of horsepower, to their position of prominence. Fleming’s blueprint for the stables relaxed the formal, neo-Georgian language of the mansion into a neo-colonial vocabulary of simple arches and stepped parapets. Architectural ornament was restricted to the occasional gargoyle and the cupola on the roof. The scale is cozy rather than imposing, a little touch of Williamsburg in the Harpeth Hills.

With the conversion of the estate into the Cheekwood Fine Arts Center in 1960, the stable complex became an institutional catch-all. The education department set up its studios in the garages. The horse barn evolved into storage space: props for the Swan Ball, Trees of Christmas, and the Antiques & Garden show mingled with mowing machines and tractors.

By 1995, when Cheekwood administrators began contemplating a new master plan for the site, the stables were in danger of crumbling down the hill. “It was not just a question of renovating them, but of saving them,” says president Jane Jerry.

Graham Gund Architects of Cambridge designed a salvation plan that joins the two masonry buildings into a “U” by means of a glass atrium. This area serves as an interactive orientation center—touch screen computers will tell you all you ever wanted to know about art and gardens—while providing a transparent membrane between a new brick courtyard and the gardens and sculpture trail beyond. A new parking lot at the base of the hill provides direct access to pottery, painting, and drawing studios lit by optimum northern light.

What is most significant about the renovation is the new public purpose for the old stables as Cheekwood’s contemporary art space. The former garages will display selections from the permanent collection, while the former carriage room will house the Temporary Contemporary series that features regional artists. What were once the box stalls for Huldah Cheek’s equine companions will contain site-specific installations with an emphasis on sound and light.

“Cheekwood has always satisfied 19th-century expectations about art—that it’s paintings and sculpture,” says museum director John Wetenhall. That traditional emphasis won’t change in the renovated mansion, which is currently getting a makeover for a July 1999 reopening. “The stables expand our capabilities in contemporary art, conceptually as well as physically,” Wetenhall explains.

The Frist Center’s one sour note is the lighting in the exhibit galleries. “Kitchens R Us” could have designed a better system. The track lighting does not rise above the standards found in subdivision spec housing. And the fluorescent toadstools scattered about the ceiling provide the kind of ambient illumination you’d expect in the generic meeting room of a church or school basement.

But the lighting can be replaced, and probably will be, according to Wetenhall. What is admirable about Cheekwood’s Frist Center is the creative respect shown for the original architecture. Gund’s firm preserved the existing pattern of stall, carriage, and garage doors. The wood-paneled tack room, where you can imagine the gentry downing a toddy in front of the fireplace after a long gallop, is still intact as an informal reception space. The architects concentrated new rest rooms and elevators in the addition, where they could do no damage to the old structure.

The museum staff has shrewdly manipulated what is an eccentric architectural envelope into a unique staging place for contemporary art. “The idea in designing the installations in the stables is that you can sample art rather than getting hit over the head with it,” says assistant curator Terri Smith. “You step into a stall, experience the piece, and then back out into the courtyard. You don’t have to wander through a large gallery.”

Bryant Fleming originally designed the Cheek mansion and the stables as an echo of the architectural relationship between Mother England and its American colonies—formal and informal takes on a venerable tradition. The current Cheekwood team is to be congratulated for extending that relationship into the display of art.

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