Written by Virgil McDill
On the day the new issue of Preservation magazine—featuring a cover story about Nashville’s thriving arts, architecture and preservation successes—was arriving in mailboxes across the country, I traveled to the Music City with Editor-in-Chief James Schwartz. In conversations with local Nashville journalists, James described the editorial meeting at which the story was first discussed: “I wish you could have been in the room when the images and stories came in,” he remembered. “People were reviewing the photos and the text and saying, ‘we have to put this on the cover…People who only know of Nashville as a music center are going to be blown away by the architecture there, and the richness of its preservation stories.”
In a series of media interviews, James explained what the magazine staff was so excited about, and his list of preservation highlights started with the place he’d spent the previous night: the Union Station hotel. The city’s former central train depot, the building—an imposing, late-Victorian Romanesque Revival building just down Broadway Avenue from the city’s legendary honky-tonks— is now a swanky historic hotel, and one of the official conference hotels for this fall’s National Preservation Conference.
Gail Kerr, long-time columnist for the Nashville Tennessean, interviewed James along with two local conference chieftains—Ann Roberts, former head of the city’s Historical Commission, and Debby Dale Mason of the Chamber of Commerce. Kerr not only wrote a glowing column about the magazine and the upcoming conference, she also treated us to a tour of her nearby church—Downtown Presbyterian, one of central Nashville’s historic landmarks, as well as a stop on some field sessions during the conference and the location of the Friday night Special Lecture. A highlight of the tour? The church rents out several rooms in its tip-top floor to local artists who use them as studios for next to nothing ($25 a year!). An 1848 Egyptian Revival church that houses workspace for the creation of avant-garde art—that’s the kind of unexpected preservation story that seems to lurk just beneath a lot of surfaces in Nashville!
Spend even a little time in Nashville, and you are bound to hear locals tout the appellation “Athens of the South.” It’s a moniker they wear proudly, and it’s one that seems to have seeped into the architectural fabric of the city. From the Greek Revival state capitol building to the classical Frist Center for the Visual Arts—the former Broadway Post Office converted into a stunning arts center in 2001—to the city’s absolute must-see: a full-scale replica of the Parthenon located in a city park a couple miles from downtown.
Everyone knows this is a city with a great soundtrack; what you may not realize is how much more there is to Nashville than Waylon, Willie and Emmylou. After spending two days there, it’s clear that this is a city that needs to be seen, not just heard.
Virgil McDill is a communications manager at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Early-bird registration for the National Preservation Conference ends on July 31, 2009. Visit the conference website to register.
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