It looks as if the developers won’t rest easy until they’ve transformed West End Avenue into one big strip mall. John Rochford of Rochford Realty & Construction has plans to sell The Jacksonian, the 1917-vintage brick apartment building at 3010 West End. If Rochford gets his way, the historic structure, with its stone trim and Georgian details, will be replaced by a Walgreen drugstore, complete with a drive-through window.
Rochford was unavailable for comment, but insiders familiar with The Jacksonian’s recent history say he took control of the property after the death of his father-in-law, John Cobb, four months ago. Rochford subsequently dismissed an offer from neighborhood resident Paul Polycarpou, who wanted to buy the building. Instead, he accepted a more lucrative deal with Eakin & Smith Real Estate, whose plan is to buy the property and lease it to Walgreen. Polycarpou says he intended “to renovate and restore the building to its former glory.” Eakin & Smith wants to demolish it.
The construction of a Walgreen drugstore is contingent on the developer receiving three variances from the Board of Zoning Appeals. The current zoning of the property calls for certain setbacks from the center lines of the surrounding streets, a landscape buffer to protect the adjacent neighborhood, and 70 off-street parking spaces. Eakin & Smith has requested variances that would allow the drugstore to be built closer to the street, eliminate the rear landscape buffer, and require only 39 parking spaces. The zoning hearing on the case is scheduled for April 23.
According to documents filed by Eakin & Smith with the Board of Zoning Appeals, the “unique, irregular-shaped lot” necessitates the zoning variances, which would “allow the property to be developed.” Never mind that the property is already developed. It is a 29-unit apartment building, an architecturally significant structure that fits in well with the increasing urban density of West End east of 440.
Residents of The Jacksonian and the adjacent Acklen Park neighborhood are circulating a petition asking the zoning appeals board to deny the variances. Even if they are successful, however, there is little likelihood The Jacksonian will be preserved. Eakin & Smith could build a smaller structure on the property, or they might buy adjacent land that would allow them to satisfy the zoning requirements. There is also the possibility that Rochford would find another buyer, a developer with a different project. In any of these scenarios, the historic apartment building will be reduced to rubble.
Charles Cohn built The Jacksonian in 1917. It was designed by Donald Southgate (1887-1953), a Nashville native who studied architecture at MIT. Southgate had worked with several firms in the Northeast before he returned to Nashville and established his own firm in the 1910s. Much of his subsequent work was concentrated in the West End-Belle Meade area, where he designed upscale residences as well as St. George’s Episcopal Church, the West End Church of Christ, West End High School (now West End Middle School), and West End United Methodist Church. The Jacksonian is an early example of the classically inspired Georgian revival style that Southgate and his clients favored.
The Cohn family owned The Jacksonian until 1968, when it was sold to Mr. and Mrs. John B. Cobb Jr. The Metro Historical Commission gave the building a preservation award in 1977, but in the years since it has suffered from a lack of maintenance. The original boiler has been replaced, but the exterior is marred by torn screens and peeling paint. The house-sized apartments boast oak floors and mahogany doors, cove ceilings and butler’s pantries. Spacious sunrooms sport intricately tiled floors. However, the kitchens, designed for servants, are not luxurious by contemporary standards. The bathrooms could also use some TLC.
“The apartments are beautiful, but it’s an old building,” says Charles Hawkins, whose real-estate firm is the current listing agent for the property. “There’s hardly any way to financially justify preserving it because the building requires extensive upkeep.”
Ann Reynolds, executive director of the Metro Historical Commission, points out that The Jacksonian is “clearly eligible for the National Register and therefore could qualify for a federal tax credit of 20 percent of the cost of rehab.” Hawkins counters with a response that’s often heard from Nashville developers: “I believe in preservation, but sometimes it’s not practical.
“Besides,” he adds, “Walgreen will build a store that’s compatible with what’s already there.” And there’s the rub. Construction compatible with what’s already on West End east of 440 is incompatible with the tony past of the avenue—and with sensible planning for its future.
Pride of place
The Jacksonian is a relic of the days when grand apartment buildings and mansions lined West End Avenue. Herbert Fox, a resident of the neighboring Blackstone apartments, remembers when buildings with names like “The Sulgrove, The Gainsborough, and The Courtland,” along with the still-existing Jacksonian, Blackstone, Fairmont, and Westboro buildings, “made West End the place” for sophisticated living. He recalls a visit to The Jacksonian in the early 1930s, when “there were two concierges on duty and a topiary hedge” outlining the forecourt. Fox notes that the Blackstone and Fairmont buildings, which are also for sale, are threatened by the same fate that looms over The Jacksonian.
West End was part of a tradition of stately boulevards that flourished in this country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In The Grand American Avenue: 1850-1920, Jan Cigliano recalls the era: “In scores of cities and towns across America, local luminaries of business and culture built linear promenades of elegant residences. For both nouveau riche and established gentry, the cost of entry to America’s grand avenues was wealth, first and foremost, followed by cultural and civic leadership, and, quite importantly, a bent for architectural display. The grand avenues of America arose as advertisements of achievement.”
Some of these avenues—Commonwealth in Boston, St. Charles in New Orleans, Monument in Richmond—still advertise achievement, since the homes of the original achievers have been preserved and restored. What West End has advertised since the 1970s is a drive-by culture of building-as-billboard. The Jacksonian’s garlands and swags cannot compete with the bold blue of the Blockbuster awning.
Preservationists and residents of the neighborhood are appalled by the threat to The Jacksonian. “Why is it such a struggle in Nashville to preserve anything of quality? Pretty soon we’ll have Styrofoam architecture all over,” complains Keith Lightsey, an interior designer and a 20-year resident of the building.
The threatened destruction of The Jacksonian is not an issue just for preservationists; it is a concern for urban planners as well. “So often we are fighting to save buildings that are vacant or can no longer be used for their original purpose,” says Reynolds. “That’s not the case with The Jacksonian. It was built 80 years ago as a place for people to live; it still works as that. While West End has lost most of its residential character, The Jacksonian is one of a cluster of handsome apartment buildings still providing in-town housing, still helping to create the density which is desirable in urban areas.”
What’s more, as a four-story, multi-tenant residential structure, the building’s land use is compatible with the West End of the future. Local city planners, including Metro Planning Commission executive director Jeff Browning, agree that Nashville must encourage denser residential development, in pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use patterns, along major public transit corridors. Otherwise, they warn, we’re in for even more severe traffic and air-quality problems.
No city can support mass transit if its citizens live on acre lots and have no sidewalks leading to the bus or light-rail lines. No city can afford to widen its streets indefinitely.
The Hines Corporation’s plan to build an office-hotel-retail complex on Vanderbilt University property at the corner of West End and Natchez Trace underscores the dense, mixed-use direction the avenue is taking. The Jacksonian would fit right in with that wave of the future, since its 29 apartments offer dense residential living along a major transit route. It stands within walking distance of a wide variety of retail offerings, including restaurants, a grocery, and clothing, appliance, and hardware stores. Centennial Park and the cultural and sports programs of Vanderbilt are also nearby.
A restored Jacksonian would offer all the amenities of urban living. A Walgreen offers nothing more than a one-story chain drugstore with asphalt parking, quick profits for the few, and another excuse for the many to drive their cars.
If buildings like The Jacksonian are replaced with strip stores like a Walgreen, it’s painfully easy to predict what the West End Avenue of the 21st century will look like:
The Blackstone, Fairmont, and Westboro apartments will have been demolished for office towers. Houses in the adjacent neighborhoods will gradually be replaced by one-story strip shops. Commercial zoning will spread. People living in the remaining homes will head for the more distant suburbs.
An increase in car-dependent commercial development and a decrease in nearby residents will mean more commuters. West End Avenue, already seven lanes wide, will max out. Traffic flow will slow into gridlock.
Parking for the retail and offices along West End will be at a premium. Central Parking will buy up buildings along the avenue and level them for surface parking. Rival developers will buy up farmland along the recently completed 840 corridor and construct new office parks. West End office managers will be unable to compete with the cheap rents and the convenient parking offered by these upstarts, and their vacancy rates will rise.
Nashvillians horrified by driving through the West End from hell will demand that city administrators do something. The Metro Development and Housing Agency will establish a redevelopment district along the avenue and offer tax-increment financing to developers willing to build mid- and high-rise residential structures. The Mathews Company will buy the Walgreen drug store at 31st and West End and demolish it to make room for a condo tower.
“We will be much poorer as a city,” says Reynolds, “if historic buildings with character and usefulness are replaced with suburban cookie-cutter structures designed without any respect for a particular place.”
Maybe this vision of West End Avenue in the next millennium seems apocalyptic. But then, business-as-usual in Nashville always carries with it a faint, if persistent, odor of scorched earth.