We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.Winston Churchill
In its 10 years of existence, the Nashville Scene’s offices have moved four times, to four progressively larger architectural shapers. Our expansions reflect the shift from a tenuous enterprise to a growing concern. Less obviously, our various habitats have shaped the evolving personality of the newspaperand reflected the changing character of the cityas surely as the words that rolled off the presses.
In the beginning, we were in Maryland Farms, in Brentwood. Albie Del Favero and Bruce Dobie inherited the lease when they took over the paper. The view from the dumb box was of Bradford pears, a Pargo’s, and lots of surface parking. Dobie sprawled in an exec-model blue leatherette chair; he propped up his running shoes on a pseudo-mahogany desk of a style best described as “McQuiddy Anglo.” It was as if he had suddenly found himself at a career dayone of those work-ethic learning programs that exposes the junior set to the rigors and fascinations of grown-up professions.
The editorial content of the Scene in those days often made the same impression: A bunch of high-spirited kids were putting out a paper like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney put on a show.
In 1990, the babes went to 301 Broadway, traveling in the path of the city itself. Nashvillians had begun to think downtown again after decades of suburban forgetfulness. We looked out our windows and saw a long-somnolent central city beginning to stir. The newspaper added to its coverage of civic life the physical manifestations of the urban front: buildings old and new, roads and bridges, master plans and development schemes. We wrote critical stories about an early plan for the East Bank, the expansion of the thermal plant, and the gutting of a proposal that would have restricted signage in the city. When we reviewed the different architectural designs for the arena, we guessed which one would win. And we were right.
The architectural envelope at 301 Broadway was certainly classier than our bland digs in Brentwood. The one-and-a-half-story Ionic temple was built c. 1915 to house the American Bank. Its solid-citizen presence among the more raffish architectural denizens of Lower Broad was paralleled in the pages of the Scene: Solid reports on the civitas kept company with the odd-but-trues of Nashville life.
During its Scene years, the neoclassical building at Third and Broad experienced some hate mail of its own. On Oct. 12, 1992, Scene staffers arrived at work to discover their front door splattered with black paint. This vandalism came after a series of nighttime attacks in which ball bearings, apparently fired by slingshot, blew out many of the office windows.
By 1993, the always cramped Broadway space had compressed the Scene’s energy level to the combustion point. It was time to move on. The push of redevelopment was south and north of the traditional city center; the Scene picked south and went to Cummins Station.
Built in 1906 as the largest wholesale warehouse in Middle Tennessee, and the first structure in Nashville to rely on reinforced concrete, the building was originally used to store goods shipped along the rail lines in the adjacent Gulch. The governor and the mayor had attended opening-day celebrations; what they celebrated was the growth of Nashville as an industrial and manufacturing center. Early tenants included the Cheek-Neal Coffee Company and the H.G. Hill Wholesale Grocery Companya case of emerald lawns to the west fed by the staples of life.
By the ’90s, the service economy had long replaced the grittier trades as the engine driving the city, but industrial architecture was cool again. Henry Sender bought Cummins Station and began a gradual rehab, attracting the smaller and hipper businesses by providing an urban ambience at less than urban rates. The building was originally heated by coal-fired steam furnaces. On summer days in some sections of the Scene office, it felt like the radiators were steaming still.
The Scene was an anchor tenant in what became a town in miniature. The long concrete halls were the streets of casual encounters. You bought morning coffee from a pushcart, sandwiches or sushi for lunch, after-work beers from Jody. You could take a yoga class or buy a book, get a massage or a shoeshine or a haircutall under one 500-foot-long roof.
From the Station’s front porch, the Scene looked east to the flying saucer of the Arena, a few old churches, lots of corrugated metal, and acres of asphaltand envisioned an urban neighborhood. We named it SoBro and staged a public charrette to draw the blueprints. We watched the landport rise to block our windows to the west, and we watched the plan for the Franklin Corridor grind inexorably along to block our dreams. We wrote about it all.
We celebrated the reopening of the Ryman, lamented the desecrations of Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood, and lobbied for historic zoning on Second Avenue. We walked the history walk at the Bicentennial Mall and shopped at the new Farmers’ Market. We tracked the new downtown library and the trails of Shelby Bottoms. We asked why Bobby Mathews gets so many subsidies from MDHA. We won a partial victory over the Corridor, and we lost The Jacksonian. We attacked TDOT in general, and 840 in particular, to no effect. We again outgrew our space.
On May 1, 1999, the Scene departed downtown for a traditional neighborhood commercial strip. With this move, the newspaper again reflects the impulses of Nashville itself. After eight years of Bredesen master-building inside the interstate loop, the candidates for his job are calling for some investment in neighborhoods. MDHA is working on 12 South and Jefferson Street and adding a redevelopment district on Woodland Street and Main Street. To its suburban-style ordinance, the Planning Commission has begun adding some urban-style zoning rules for inner-city neighborhoods. Hillsboro Village has an urban-design zoning overlay to protect its character, and Green Hills has some sidewalks.
The Scene now stands alone at 2120 Eighth Ave. S., in a nondescript red brick building that was once the home of the Judson Baptist Sunday School. Few of us embrace a fundamentalist faith, but our new environment is replete with other fundamentals of the good life, American-style. The rear windows look out on backyards with vegetable gardens and laundry on the line. Our publisher parks his black Lexus on his very own surface parking. We buy coffee at McDonald’s and lunch at Dennison’s or the Sonic. We worry about becoming roll-butts.
It’s too soon to say what effect our new home will have on the subjects we cover and the words we write. But the biggest challenges facing Nashville’s architects, planners, and developers today are the ones they faced at the Scene’s inception:
♦ To treat our city as a work of art rather than a machine;
♦ To design and build good architecture that works;
♦ To realize that our older architectural citizens still have a role to play in the life of the city;
♦ To get more natives living and playing downtown;
♦ To revitalize our traditional neighborhoods;
♦ To block TDOT from paving our way to becoming the next Atlanta and that means stopping 840;
♦ To devise an efficient mass-transit system for the neighborhoods with the density to support it;
♦ And to preserve open space and pre vent more sprawland that also means stopping 840.
Nashville and the Scene have both come far in 10 years, but we still have a long row to hoe to realize these goals. As the first Scene writer to carry an AARP card, I just hope I can hoe alongside every step of the way.
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