As everyone in Nashville who has not been stranded on a deserted island for the summer knows, our symphony will make its debut in its new home, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Saturday. It would be safe to predict that the new building will be overwhelmingly popular with the community at large, but members of the local design community are giving the Schermerhorn a cooler reception because…it’s just so Classical.
Designed by David M. Schwarz Architectural Services of Washington, D.C., with local Earl Swensson Associates as architect-of-record and Hastings Architecture Associates as consulting architect, Schermerhorn stands on the block in SoBro between Third and Fourth avenues and Demonbreun and McGavock streets. This section of McGavock, where the Shelby Bridge lands, forms the arrival plaza, with the center’s entrance portico standing atop a flight of steps and oriented north to a 50-foot-wide alley between the buildings on the south side of Broadway. A columned forecourt and garden provide a comfortable transition zone between Fourth Avenue and the lobbies surrounding the Laura Turner Concert Hall. The exterior is clad in limestone with granite accents, and lobbies are accented with Spanish and Italian marbles and flooded with natural light—as is the hall itself via clerestory windows.
The processional paths into and through the structure are dignified and easy to read.The “shoebox” concert hall has a capacity of 1,860, with raked seating on the main floor surrounded by tiers of boxes on the sidewalls and two ramps of seating at the rear. The raked floor can be converted to a flat format—making it usable for special events and thus increasing the building’s income potential.
The organ occupies the “altar” position behind the stage and the choral loft, which the public can use during non-choral performances. Materials are imported woods and real plaster, and the custom chandeliers—inspired by early 20th century Viennese design—hang like clusters of pearls from the coffered ceiling. The craftsmanship in the detailing of both exterior and interior is as fine as you’re likely to see these days.
The hall’s sound quality has been roundly hailed, and at a recent student preview concert, where jeans and T-shirts occupied the luxury boxes, the music sounded much better than the mush yielded in TPAC up the hill.
It’s not, however, merely by how well Schermerhorn fulfills its musical mission that the building should be judged. Design in an urban setting also has a duty to the citizens who will never go inside. This duty is largely fulfilled in the spaces surrounding the center, with their fountains and benches and landscaping. On the day of a recent tour, people were already lunching and smoking on the benches amid workers frantically mortaring in the last pavers. Less fortunate is the sculptural program. In particular, the Orpheus and Eurydice myth enacted in the pediment over the entrance looks too squishy-soft Romantic and lacks the invigorating sternness of Greece’s golden age.
What’s caused the most buzz—and groans—among local architects is Schermerhorn’s relentlessly Neoclassical styling, which recalls the early 19th century works of Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel—in particular his Greek Revival Schauspielhaus in Berlin—as filtered through the more robust Roman proportions of designs by the New York firm of McKim, Mead & White a century later. Many designers question whether the $120 million building is an exercise in architecture or archaeology, though none will speak on the record for fear of offending the patrons who have given so generously to the Schermerhorn cause. The Schermerhorn Center essentially produces a time warp effect. Crossing the Gateway Bridge from the east, the building appears to be a survivor from a previous era, not the latest addition to our own. That’s because it’s such literal Classicism in a context that is anything but, where the most immediate neighbors are the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, the Gaylord Entertainment Center and the Hilton Hotel. The more generic Classicism of the downtown library can be justified because it addresses the State Capitol just up the hill.
“If you were working with a blank slate in SoBro, maybe Classical would be OK,” says one critic. “But in this context, [the Schermerhorn Center] reminds me of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where a Viking ship ended up in the middle of the desert.”
Some also have found peculiar the orientation of Schermerhorn’s main entrance to the north rather than to Fourth Avenue. Architect Schwarz explains this placement as necessitated by the building’s form. “The pedimented side is quite narrow and, if placed opposite the park, the building wouldn’t have been able to hold its own with the Country Music Hall of Fame. It would look like a Monopoly house. And the center line would have addressed the ramp into the garage, which seemed inappropriate.” Schwarz describes Schermerhorn as “the most classically inspired building we’ve ever done’’ and says that the style choice was a joint response to the building committee’s (read Martha Ingram’s) preferences and “to Nashville’s architectural history.”
Schwarz has brought Classicism forward and into Nashville with local and functional allusions in the iconography. The lyre, for example, is a repeating motif. And Tennessee’s state flower appears in iris bud capitals in the lobbies’ columns and as full blooms in the railings. These details might make nice talking points for docent tours, but they add a fussiness and detract from the rigor that Neoclassicism at its finest achieves.
In describing his philosophy of design, Schwarz refers to a client “who says that our architecture is what would have happened if modernism hadn’t happened.But modernism did happen. And ignoring thatfact takes the Schermerhorn Center perilously close to kitsch.
Designed by David M. Schwarz Architectural Services of Washington, D.C., with local Earl Swensson Associates as architect-of-record and Hastings Architecture Associates as consulting architect, Schermerhorn stands on the block in SoBro between Third and Fourth avenues and Demonbreun and McGavock streets. This section of McGavock, where the Shelby Bridge lands, forms the arrival plaza, with the center’s entrance portico standing atop a flight of steps and