Contemporary photographs by Eric England
All that remains are the photographs, like daguerreotypes of dead soldiers at Shiloh and Antietam, Gettysburg and Chickamauga.
But these were buildings. They were not casualties of minnie balls and cannon fire. They were felled by warfare of another means, victims of bulldozers and wrecking balls. They are the faces of the lost architecture of Nashville.
When I moved from New Orleans to Nashville in 1985, one of the first things I did after unpacking was head out in search of architecture. I had discovered, in the unsettling experience of many U-Haul “adventures,” that reading a city’s history in three dimensions made me feel less of a stranger in a strange land. I knew that the fabric of a city not only documents the passage of time, but reveals the fundamental character of the people who live there.
My introductory course in the city’s structures told me many things. At First Avenue North, the no-nonsense warehouses remind us that Nashville was once a river port. Up Broadway, the Customs House and Union Station tell us that to the 19th century, the “cathedral of commerce” was not just hype, but a visible symbol of a belief system. The Metro Courthouse and the Broadway Post Office explain that when the Depression made citizens call into question the republican form of government, that government answered in the classical architectural languages of Greece and Rome to reassure them. And our post-World War II skyscrapers lay plain the fact that large corporations have a penile sense of form.
This much the architecture of Nashville could tell me. But what I could not find was the connective tissue that bound the city together. On the streets and roads of Nashville I was surprised to find only fragments of the pasta Ryman here, a Hermitage there. I asked a neighbor what had happened to all the old buildings. She smiled vaguely, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “I’ve only lived here since 1976 myself. I guess there just wasn’t that much to start with.”
My neighbor was wrong. Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, Nashville had an architecture that told the rest of the story. The photographs of Charles W. Warterfield Jr. prove it.
These images are merely a representative sampling of Charley Warterfield’s passion for architecture and its preservation. In the process of photographing Nashville buildings, he has amassed a collection of over 3,000 slides that present an amazing panorama of the city’s architecture. Unfortunately, approximately 25 percent of his images document structures that are no longer standing.
Warterfield took his first architectural photograph in 1939 when his parents took him to the New York World’s Fair. He began taking pictures of Nashville’s buildings in 1949, while a student in business administration at Vanderbilt University.
“One of my class projects was to photograph the historic churches in the city,” Warterfield explains. “It’s good that I started early, because many of them were torn down shortly after.”
Warterfield proceeded to study architecture at Yale, where he was trained as a straight-line modernist. The curriculum was geared to a philosophy that saw little value in history. Ironically, one of Warterfield’s first assignments when he returned to Nashville as an associate at the architecture firm of Woolwine, Harwood & Clark was the restoration of one of Nashville’s most distinguished historical structures: the Tennessee State Capitol. “Working on the Capitol made me really see historic buildings,” Warterfield says.
He has been seeing, and photographing, our architectural past and present ever since.
Unfortunately, much of the story that Warterfield’s photographs tell is of loss. A variety of forces combined to destroy Nashville’s graceful buildings, but perhaps the most insidious was urban renewal.
Condemned as urban blight, Nashville’s old churches and office buildings, its homes and stores, were routinely bulldozed in the name of urban renewal in the 1960s. Across the nation, other cities were undergoing the same sad experience, leading urban critic Jane Jacobs to demolish the demolishers in scathing tones. “This is not the rebuilding of cities,” she wrote. “This is the sacking of cities.”
Thirty-seven years later, the sacking of Nashville continues. Despite the lessons learned, and the passage of time, the citizenry has few tools beyond Warterfield’s Nikon to protest the destruction.
“Nashville has almost totally changed its architectural character in the years since I began photographing it,” Warterfield says. “Yes, I want to document our history, but it’s more than that. I use my camera as an emotional reaction to all we’ve lost.”
In 1784, Tennessee wasn’t even a stateit was part of North Carolina. But that year, the North Carolina Legislature passed an act that called for a four-acre public square to be laid out at the bluff overlooking the Cumberland River, near Fort Nashborough.
The square ultimately became the civic living room of Nashville. Standing at its center were the City Hall and Market House, a rambling structure that combined certain city government offices with a farmer’s market. The square also included the Davidson County Courthouse. Those buildings, and the landscape that surrounded them, made the public square a prime destination for Nashville’s citizenry. It was the place to buy a tomato, lobby a politician, or both.
From the 1850s through the 1880s, the square became surrounded by numerous Italianate and Victorian buildings that served as the mercantile heart of the city. Samuel D. Morgan, the chair of the building committee that oversaw the construction of the Tennessee State Capitol, built one of those first buildings. Located on the north side of the square, and built in 1856, it was the first cast-iron-fronted structure to be built in the city.
Besides providing a space in which to gossip, barter, and banter, the public square was the scene of the odd civic event guaranteed to draw a crowd. From the public square in 1877, for instance, a hot-air balloon was launched. Piloting the vehicle was a Professor Samuel KingNashville’s version of the Wizard of Oz.
In 1937, the City Hall and Market House, and the Davidson County Courthouse, were replaced by the present courthouse. But it took a while for the hustle and bustle of the early days to disappear. In the early 1970s, Morgan’s store was still offering dry goods under the name of J. S. Reeves & Company.
By the mid-1970s, however, the public squarenot just its buildings, but its identity as a gathering placewas gone. The Gay Street Connector, an utterly worthless roadway that functions as little more than a linear parking lot, ruined the square’s east side. The north side of the square, meanwhile, was torn down for the bland behemoth known as the Criminal Justice Center. What little land that was left was paved over for the Courthouse parking lot.
This bow-fronted building in the Romanesque Revival style appears on insurance maps of 1889 and 1908 as the Vanderbilt University Law Department. The university’s School of Dentistry subsequently occupied the structure before it was remodeled as the Commercial Club in 1916.
The Commercial Club ultimately became the city’s Chamber of Commerce. For almost 60 years the stone office building was a bastion of financial solidity, conferring commercial respectability on all who entered its doors. Unfortunately, it and the neighboring Commerce Union Bank were demolished for what is now the Doubletree Hotel.
At the turn of the century, this ornate brick home stood at the center of a fashionable residential street overlooked by the state Capitol. Vintage photographs show tree-lined sidewalks and hitching posts at the curb. By the 1970s, the Elk brethren had occupied the residence as their headquarters. The Queen Anne “cottage” had also been surrounded by office buildings and parking lots.
The bulldozers arrived in 1976. In its place rose the street-hostile colossus known as the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
When industrialist Andrew Carnegie began to spread his largesse around the country in the form of public libraries, he did so in the classical style. He wanted an architecture that spoke the language of rationality and order, tradition and permanence. This, after all, is what civilization was all about.
In 1904, Carnegie gave Nashville a check and plans for this solid citizen of a building. But by 1966, the downtown library needed more space. In its infinite wisdom, the city replaced classical aspiration with a modern structure whose vague allusions to the temple form are almost insulting in their banality.
Today the fragments of the Carnegie structure lie in an unused plaza on the side of the Ben West library like the pottery shards of a vanished culture.
Advertised in the 1890s as the “garden spot of this Queen City of the South,” Acklen, also called “West End Park,” was Nashville’s original gated community. A porter’s lodge at the entrance ensured that only quality folk were admitted inside the limestone walls surrounding the 140-acre development. The development promised residents a “delightful climate” in the summer, and “freedom from dust and smoke, which in all large cities is becoming a serious objection” to city living.
The first resident of the park was Joseph Hays Acklen, the son of Adelicia Acklen. Mother Acklen built Belmont with the profits of 8,700 acres of Louisiana cotton land. She had gained control over the massive farm by breaking the will of her first husband, Isaac Franklin. Son Joseph built this only slightly more modest villa with his inheritance.
His turreted castle occupied the crest of the hill overlooking West End Avenue, which was rapidly becoming the grandest of the boulevards promenading into Nashville’s suburbs. All that remains of Acklen Park’s architecture is the Blackstone apartment building. The vestiges of the stone walls and the ornamental lawnoriginally designed to keep the development park-like and the public at bayare now threatened by yet another West End road-widening project.
Many Nashvillians remember this stately home. It is frequently confused with “Burlington,” the circa 1850 residence next door that was the home of Nashville’s fourth mayor, Joseph Elliston.
Elliston’s daughter married a Mr. Buford, about whom little is known. After their marriage, a house was built for the new couple, called, naturally enough, “Buford.” Constructed in the 1870s or ’80s, it stood much longer than the Burlington house, which was torn down to make way for Father Ryan High School.
Damaged by fire, the Buford house, as well as the high school, were both subsequently demolished in the early ’90s. They were replaced by the glorious architecture of a Hampton Inn.
It’s hard to imagine that anything as exotic as the Vine Street Temple ever stood in downtown Nashville. Its nine Byzantine domes and elaborate Near Eastern detailing must have made the adjacent Vine Street Christian Church seem decidedly staid by comparison.
At the laying of the cornerstone of Nashville’s first synagogue in 1874, the ceremonies included a parade, an address by former President Andrew Johnson, and a banquet at the Maxwell House. The Christian Church became the Temple’s neighbor in approximately 1890. The area was originally bordered by residences, and later by the Sam Davis Hotel.
In the mid-1950s both congregations relocated to Harding Road, following the western migrations of their members. The Vine Street buildings, “yielding to time and the city” in the words of a Tennessean reporter, were razed for parking lots.
It all started over free pews. In 1857, the Reverend Charles Tomes, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, was disturbed by the practice of renting pews to no-show parishioners while many of the more faithful had to stand during the service. Tomes advocated to the vestry that the pews be free and up for grabs. A few pew-holders held fast to their privileges, however. And Tomes resigned from Christ Church.
Tomes had earlier played a role in commissioning the construction of another Episcopal Church in the city, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, which still stands on Lafayette Street. While details are unknown, many believe he turned to the same architects of Holy Trinitythe New York firm of Wills and Dudleyto build his spinoff from Christ Church.
Called Church of the Advent, the new church was built at the intersection of Seventh Avenue North and Commerce Street. In 1910, the congregation moved to a church on 17th Avenue South and Edgehill, which later gained notoriety as the religious roost of Tony Alamo. Still later, in the 1970s, the congregation moved to a new structure on Franklin Road. Each time the church moved, four original stained-glass windows moved with them.
The site of the original Church of the Advent is now occupied by the Renaissance Hotel.
The determined Baptists of Nashville had to seek out a new home when Alexander Campbell took over the First Baptist Church of Nashville and turned it into a Church of Christ. This stucco-and-stone building in the Gothic Revival style, on Fifth Avenue North, was the result of that search.
Designed by Adolphus Heiman and dedicated in 1841, the church was subsequently occupied by the German (later First Evangelical) Lutheran Church before it was demolished in the 1950s for the Commerce Union Bank.
Among the Nashville architects of his day, Heiman ranked second in importance only to William Strickland, who designed the Tennessee State Capitol. Heiman arrived in Nashville in 1837 as a stone cutter from Prussia with a knowledge of the architecture of New York, New Orleans, and Europe. He accomplished a great deal before his death in the Civil War.
Among his few still-standing works are: St. Mary’s Catholic Church, located on Fifth Avenue North; the Medical Department of the University of Nashville, which is now home to the Metro Planning Commission, in Rutledge Hill; and the Belmont mansion, which is now a part of Belmont University.
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