Photos Eric England
During this fall's heavy rains, Cave Spring in Shelby Park bubbled up from its drought-stricken oblivion. The spring waters created a shallow stream that ran out of a dark and menacing grotto behind the tennis courts on 20th Street, down a cracked and muddy walk. It eventually disappeared into the overgrown grass and weeds on a hillside sloping down toward the lake.
On the East Nashville listserv, a poster who goes by "Landotter" sent out an alert. Several residents rinsed out their milk cartons and hurried down to fill them in the spring, joking about the water's rejuvenating magic.
Others went, what? There's a spring near the dog park?
It's there all right. Hidden under weeds and the leaf mold of many autumns, a concrete channel choked with mud, a stone basin outside the stacked stone cave, and some cracked columns and slippery stairs are all that is left of the handsome stonework that once surrounded Cave Spring.
Postcards dating back to 1920 show curving walks with balustrades and columns that wound down and enfolded the cave. It's the kind of picturesque attraction that anchors a city's scenic riverfront or a public promenade. In New England, where history matters, hordes of ladies with trowels would have maintained the grotto, while Boy Scouts and strapping men would have attended to the heavy jobs—clearing away blow-downs and repairing concrete, relaying stone.
In Nashville, where parking lots matter, Cave Spring received only decades of neglect.
The Shelby Park spring is hardly the only neglected historic structure in Nashville, a city whose track record for preserving the treasures of its past is close to a civic disaster. For every success story—the Parthenon, the Belcourt, the Hermitage Hotel, the Ryman Auditorium—there are a dozen irreplaceable losses.
"What a grand city this was," says Pat McIntyre, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission. "It should just shock people to realize how much has been lost."
The Tennessee Theater on Church Street, one of the country's last remaining Art Deco movie palaces? Demolished in the late 1980's, replaced by the architecturally nondescript Cumberland. The Jacksonian on West End? Razed in 1999, replaced by a Walgreen's. The Melrose Lanes on Franklin Road, one of the city's oldest public bowling alleys? Reduced to rubble in 2007 for a development that fell through, leaving a fetid, gaping hole to gather water and trash. The Union Station train shed, a national historic monument? Torn down in 2000—but the parking lot underneath remains intact.
David Price, president of Historic Nashville Inc., which recently released its 2009 "Nashville Nine" list of the city's most endangered historic properties, calls the city's seeming contempt for preservation "a historic problem."
"Nashville is a business-oriented New South town," Price explains. "Respect for historic preservation has never been on the agenda. The culture favors new over old."
One might suppose that the iconic status of structures such as the Parthenon and the Ryman—city symbols that attract throngs of outsiders every year—would demonstrate that historic preservation has tangible financial rewards. But Dan Brown, executive director of the Tennessee Preservation Trust, says that Tennessee has a "hyper-developmental" bias firmly built on "the arrogance and sway [developers] hold in politics."
"If someone wants to build a factory, you'd bulldoze the cathedral," Brown says. "What's been lost in Nashville in the last 30 years is just shocking."
Without prompt intervention, many other historic properties in Nashville could go the way of the Tennessee, the Jacksonian and the Union Station Shed. While the city considers whether to stake its future to a billion-dollar downtown development project, these pieces of our past are in looming or immediate danger. The 10 historic sites listed below raise a question that must be answered before it is too late: Can we afford to lose more signposts of Nashville history—or is erasing who we are and where we came from our concept of civic progress?
There are many more endangered historic sites through Nashville and Davidson County. For example, Tara Mitchell Mielnik of the Metro Nashville Historic Commission would add the abandoned Tennessee Department of Transportation facility on Charlotte Avenue near the Red Cross as a fine example of mid-century modern architecture.
Dan Brown would add the Second Avenue/Lower Broadway historic district, still threatened by possible development of a hotel on Second Avenue just south of Broadway. After all the destruction of historic downtown buildings, "we have two little bitty stinking blocks," Brown says, "and they want those too."
The list goes on and on. So does the unanswered question: Given how much of Nashville's past we've lost already, do we want to lose what we have left? Or do we want to let that part of our heritage quietly crumble, sweep away the roots and the rubble, and build a newer, sleeker pre-fab Nashville to take its place?
If the answer to the latter is yes, preservationists can take cold comfort in the same fact that troubles them now: Nothing lasts.
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