In architecture, as plans to tear down the Cordell Hull building show, the recent past gets no respect 

Hull and Void

Hull and Void

The signs posted throughout the ground floor of the Cordell Hull state office building on Fifth Avenue North say "5 laps = 1 mile." Intended to encourage workers to get off their butts during breaks, the signage also reminds us that Cordell Hull is a sizable building: 348,606 square feet.

The building itself, however, seems to be on its last lap. In his budget for the next fiscal year, Gov. Bill Haslam proposes demolition of Cordell Hull and the adjacent Central Services, which lies under the terrace linking Hull to the John Sevier building. The estimated cost to bulldoze, relocate the 1,062 employees, and pay off the outstanding debt is $24.9 million. State officials say it would cost $45 million to rehab the 1952 structure.

During budget hearings in November, General Services Commissioner Steve Cates stated, "The useful life of six of our buildings has come to an end." Cordell Hull is the largest of the six and, with Central Services, part of the only pair targeted for demolition. The other buildings — two in Chattanooga, one in Memphis and the Tennessee Regulatory Authority building in Nashville — are to be sold.

The reason for the teardown: location, location, location. Hull "is on Capitol Hill and it's important to keep the integrity of that plot of land," explains Kelly Smith, General Services' assistant commissioner for communications. The immediate future of the 2.3-acre site is parkland. "Long term, it could be redeveloped, but we have no plans for that now," Smith says.

Short term: General Services, which manages the state's real estate, intends to shrink the state's footprint through "Project T3: Transforming Tennessee for Tomorrow." The goal is to reduce state-leased space by 1 million square feet, for a projected savings of $100 million over 10 years.

"We're not efficiently utilizing state-owned space," Smith says. "We have employees in leased space, and vacant space in buildings we own." According to a 2012 report on T3, the project will "condense existing agency workplaces housed in state-owned buildings in order to make room for agencies moving from leased facilities." Sample layouts show lots of open space with cubicles and few walls, as well as conference rooms shared by agencies rather than department-dedicated meeting rooms. The report says the focus is on "capturing 'me' space and allocating it to 'we' spaces that can greatly benefit everyone." The hard walls found in older buildings such as Hull are a constraint to this approach.

If the goal is to move workers from leased to state space, however, it seems counterintuitive to spend almost $25 million eliminating 350,000 square feet that's state-owned. Especially when building that amount of space today would cost in the neighborhood of $70 million. Smith explains "the cost benefit of abandonment and demolition" is due to three factors: obsolescence of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems; the inefficiency of the building's floor plate for "changing office needs and layouts"; and "foundation waterproofing issues due to original construction methods and the nature of groundwater flow in the rock of Capitol Hill." Any one factor "might be repairable," but "taken together the three are beyond reasonably being done."

Predictably, Nashville's commercial real estate brokers are "less than thrilled" with T3, as the Nashville Business Journal reported in June. In Davidson County the state leases more than 1 million square feet. Consolidation into state-owned buildings would open up vacancies and devalue lease rates in a downtown market that's been fragile since the recession.

Also not thrilled by the proposed demolition of Cordell Hull is Germantown resident David Koellein. "I view the demo in the larger context of how the state has treated North Nashville in general, which is poorly," Koellein says. "Between the Capitol and Jefferson Street, there's a lot of asphalt wasteland."

Koellein acknowledges the state's investment in the Bicentennial Mall but says "it's of service to few at this point because there's so little development around it. Taking down Hull will just produce another empty parcel. If the state doesn't want to continue to use the building, they should sell it for rehab as residential or hotel, something that will infuse people.

"Parking lots and land banking don't do anything for the city," he adds. "They harm the city."

The problem posed by the Hull building is partly functional, partly perceptual. It's too old to perform to contemporary standards, but too young to be appreciated as the period piece it is.

The John Sevier state office building at 500 Charlotte Ave. was also originally identified as obsolete. But Sevier is slated for renovation, not demolition. "We'll continue on with Sevier because it's historic," Smith explains. Construction on Sevier began in 1939. And New Deal-era buildings are increasingly the focus of preservation efforts. As the people of the "greatest generation" die off, it seems ever more important to conserve the architecture that expresses their values. Sevier also boasts ornament, particularly its Greek-style cornice. And most Americans equate ornament with value.

Cordell Hull, on the other hand, is Truman-era. This no-nonsense, plainspoken president is gradually getting his due, but the buildings of Truman's time, which speak an architectural language equally spare, get less respect. Nevertheless, the stripped style of mid-century modernism expresses the "us" of that time. It says: "We're lean and mean — ready for any war you throw at us, hot or cold."

Many perceivers of architecture have difficulty appreciating plain, solid citizen structures. The 1960s urban renewal plan for downtown envisioned bulldozing all of Second Avenue, because high-rise towers were more functional than old warehouses. In the 1970s, Opryland Inc. wanted to tear down the Ryman because it was outdated as performance space and would cost more to rehab than build new in Pennington Bend. In the 1990s, the Shelby Bridge was threatened because it needed structural repairs and was too narrow for all the cars the traffic engineers wanted to bring to the arena.

None of these structures is outstanding architecture. But today they still stand as pillars of our place.

Cordell Hull is also not "starchitecture." It was designed to be the machine shop of government, not a place of ceremony and spin. But Hull has its virtues. The long spine with its three "transepts," settled carefully into the east side of Capitol Hill, minimizes the impact of all the square footage. A rectangular block — think Metro Courthouse or Frist Center — would have been much more brutal.

Hull is also a good neighbor. With Sevier, the Supreme Court building and the State Library and Archives, it's part of an ensemble that plays in background harmony behind the more operatic chords of the Capitol.

What's most worrisome about the loss of Hull is what will come after. And a new building will eventually come. "There's always a great desire among commissioners to be close to the Capitol," says former state architect Mike Fitts. "It's where the action is."

The state's track record on new office construction in Nashville is certainly not stellar, as witness the Davy Crockett and Andrew Johnson towers on James Robertson Parkway. In this company, the Cordell Hull building, with its limestone façade and marble-lined halls, looks pretty good.


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