Bye-Bye TGI, Hello MRI 

A tired but true Nashville tradition falls, and docs in a box plan to move in

A tired but true Nashville tradition falls, and docs in a box plan to move in

There’s something poignantly sleazy about an abandoned restaurant. I concluded this during a recent tour of the former premises of TGI Friday’s at the corner of Elliston Place and Louise Avenue. The eatery closed in February, and the building is slated for demolition to make way for a two-story medical building. I decided to pay a visit to the place before the walls fell, to see what if anything we’d be losing.

When I moved to Nashville in 1985, TGI Friday’s was already passé among the cool at heart, a place for collegiate types who liked cheese with everything—including the atmosphere. But in the 1970s, dark, vaguely Victorian woodwork, a stamped tin ceiling and stained glass were as de rigeur as bell bottoms—and Friday’s was happenin’.

“I met my first wife here, right at that bar,” says Gene Sizemore, a professional art handler in charge of removing the stained glass from the building. “Actually, we never married, but we lived together for a while. I can’t believe how filthy this place is now. I knelt down on the carpet yesterday, and had black circles around my knees when I got up. Of course, it might have been dirty back then, but we didn’t notice.”

Today the bar is minus its brass railing, and fragments of tin ceiling litter the booths. In the raking light from the front windows, the textured walls and acoustic ceiling tiles are discolored and greasy. A broken terra-cotta pot on the terrace—next to a Ye Olde Village lamp post—reveals the roots of a dead plant. The servers’ station is stacked with grimy ashtrays and a lone Heinz bottle. My rubber soles stick to the tile of the kitchen floor.

The stained glass in Friday’s was probably the only authentic element of the decor—really old, not merely “olde.” Even though the glass is encrusted with dirt and minus any backlighting to reveal its hues, I can make out the swirling vegetative patterns and subtle shifts in texture typical of 19th century art glass. Some of Friday’s glass panels were originally part of the Vine Street Temple, according to Jenny Lewis, a board member of the Temple-Congregation Ohabai Sholom on Harding Road. An 1876 house of worship that stood downtown on Seventh Avenue near Commerce Street, the temple’s eight exotic onion domes made the Vine Street Christian Church next door look, by comparison, decidedly fundamentalist.

When the congregation migrated to Belle Meade in 1955, the old temple came down—and outlandish architecture disappeared from the center city. But the windows survived. “I had one in my house for a while,” art collector Alice Zimmerman recalls, “until I gave it back to The Temple” on Harding Road. That’s where the stained glass from Friday’s is headed, thanks to a gift from some anonymous patrons. “We’re really thrilled to be getting back a piece of our history,” Lewis says.

Those concerned about the future of Elliston Place aren’t so thrilled. The demise of the restaurant is a loss for the shopping and entertainment district, but not because the architecture—a typical pre-WWII, one-story commercial structure—is especially significant. What the district will lose is retail, a piece in the commercial symbiosis—shopping and eating, drinking and music—that enlivens the streetscape because it pulls people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks.

What Elliston Place will get is the kind of creeping medical blight—islands of mediocre architecture in lakes of surface parking—that occupies more and more of the territory between the Baptist and Centennial medical complexes. A doctors’ group called Neurological Surgeons has purchased the restaurant building, as well as the 1950s commercial strip behind it on Louise Avenue. According to Mark Mason, the group’s administrator, the plan is to build a new two-story, 15,000-square-foot structure where Friday’s stood and replace the strip behind with surface parking. What’s called an “imaging center”—providing pictures of human innards—will occupy the first floor, with offices and physical therapy space above. Mason says he expects the building to be constructed by the end of the year.

Because Elliston Place is part of Metro’s urban zoning overlay, the MDs’ new building will have to hold the line on Elliston Place rather than be set back suburban style. But the nature of what’s inside means that the new structure will be visually dead at street level—MRI machines don’t want windows to the world—and will contribute nothing to the commercial and social life of the district.

There were reasons to meet a friend for lunch at Friday’s—and they weren’t necessarily a mound of potato skins slathered with sour cream. After lunch you could walk—actually, you needed to walk—down the sidewalk to buy a magazine at Rosko’s, or take a left on Louise Avenue to browse the vintage clothing at Silvery Moon and the new and used CDs at Spun.

Medical services don’t relate to the commercial context of Elliston Place. Medical consumers typically drive to the office, park their cars, submit to the vagaries of medical scheduling, and then climb back into their automotive armor.

A patron of the imaging center is unlikely to behave differently. As a veteran of the imaging process, I’ve learned that you never know how long you’ll have to cool your heels—and your temper—in the waiting room before you’re placed on the tray and slid into the CAT-scan. Making a date for sweets at the Elliston Place Soda Shop after the technicians have had their way with you seems recklessly optimistic. Conversely, patrons of Elder’s Book Store are unlikely to cross the street to check out what’s happening at the imaging center. Getting an X-ray is not exactly an impulse buy.

A medical arts building on one of the crucial corners of Elliston Place will erode the funky commercial mix of the district, and deliver nothing in its stead but more surface parking—just what the district doesn’t need. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

“The Friday’s site is a first-class location for a mixed-use building,” says Ann Hammond, the assistant executive director of Metro’s Planning Department. “This would allow retail or a restaurant to complement the street level on Elliston Place, and meet medical needs with space behind the retail and on the second floor.” Hammond also points out that there’s lots of surface parking across Louise Avenue, behind the Exit-In and what used to be Tony Roma’s. “It’s a textbook case for shared parking between primarily evening venues, and exclusively daytime venues.”

Unfortunately, Metro’s planners have little leverage to advance a mixed-use scenario. And, Mason says, “First-floor retail is not at this time part of our plans.” Unless the MDs change their plans, pretty soon the only white coats on Elliston Place will be doctors, not waiters.

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