Creating Places: A Citizen Observer's Look at Nashville's Built Environment

Writer's Note: William Williams' interest in the manmade environment dates to 1970, at which point the then-young Williams started a collection of postcards of city skylines. The collection now numbers 1,000-plus cards. Among the writer's specific interests are exterior building design, city district planning, demographics, signage, mixed-use development, mass transit and green/sustainable construction and living. Williams began his Creating Places column with The City Paper in February 2005. The column in its original form was discontinued in September 2008 and reinvented via this blog in November 2008. Creating Places can be found on the home page of the website of The City Paper, at which Williams has worked in various capacities since October 2000.

Friday, December 19, 2008

East Side Design Work

Spurred by manageable weather, this afternoon I exited my vehicle (its exterior paint job continuing to deteriorate) and walked the grounds of the soon-to-open Fifth & Main development in East Nashville. A highlight is the courtyard, as it is surrounded by an interesting mix of building heights, massings, materials and shapes. Developer Steve Neighbors and Everton Oglesby Architects are to be commended for a daring design and, in particular, incorporating substantial metal exterior elements.

A few negatives: I do not particularly care for the color scheme, whose dominant reds and browns fail to play well with the concrete and silver metal elements. In addition, the ground level retail spaces do not seem to have the potential to activate Main Street as fully as would have been anticipated or hoped. Perhaps I'll be proved wrong on that count once every commercial space is occupied. Otters is open and boasts nice signage and a very inviting interior. In addition, the unveiling of cosmopolitan restaurant Allium seems eminent, with both the dining and bar spaces clean and stripped down. Nice.

On the East Nashville theme, the rehabbing of the Kendall's Building has progressed nicely, and a dramatically reworked facade plays well off the across-the-street 37206 Building. Kudos to developer Mark Sanders for saving this charming little vintage building.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Intersections of Note

Think about this: Outside the central business district, how many Nashville intersections feature buildings essentially straddling all four corners with no surface parking and no, or minimal, setbacks devoted to plazas and greenery? Not many, right?

One example of this most urban of manmade fabric characteristics can be found at 18th and West End avenues in Midtown. The intersection is framed by -- moving clockwise from the northeast corner -- a small brick building home to The Golden Coast (where one can lustily dine on some mighty tasty Americanized Chinese fare, I might say), Hotel Indigo, Palmer Plaza and West End Lodge. By New York City standards, the intersection is about as impressive as this writer's ability to grasp basic technology skills. In contrast, by the painfully modest standard's of Nashville's urban physical form, the intersection offers some noticeable pedestrian activity and some solid building height and massing providing street definition.

Regarding this topic, another "fully built" Midtown Nashville intersection can be found at 17th Avenue and Church Street, with the charming vintage building home to Bank of America and the gritty semi-industrial structure (occupied by Chris-More Inc.) across 17th as the intersection anchors.

Downtown, the most densely built — and "wasted space-free" — intersection is that of Church Street and Fourth Avenue. The quartet of the L&C Tower, Noel Place building, Courtyard by Marriott hotel and SunTrust Bank Building tower over two-laned streets Church and Fourth, the narrowness of which allow the towers to create a more dramatic effect than they would otherwise.

The "second-best" downtown intersection is likely that of Broadway and Seventh Avenue. Anchoring the four corners are a collection of architectural masterpieces: the stone fortress home to Hume-Fogg High School, the stately Masonic Lodge, the heavens-reaching First Baptist Church steeple and the gothic-like Custom's House. Superb.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Nasty CVS; Hello, Mr. Alexander

The updated CVS Pharmacy building in Green Hills clearly ranks as one of Nashville's ugliest recent renovations. Bright red signage, both excessive in size and usage, is tacked upon cream-pink stucco. Of note, the upper portion of the building disproportionately caps the base and mid-section, creating the appearance of structure masquerading as a roof. The only exterior element remaining of quality is the old-school stone base. At the minimum, CVS should ditch the hideous free-standing signage near the intersection of Crestmoor and Hillsboro. Thought that would somewhat minimize the property's unsightliness, the site would still remain no more attractive than an overflowing toilet.

Also in Green Hills, construction of The Alexander — a five-story residential building on the southwest corner of Overhill and Hillsboro — is almost concluded. Man, this is one heinous structure. Note the color-scheme, flimsy faux columns and wedding cake-like shape. A stacked-stone fence (the type ubiquitous to uninspired and generic suburban design) surrounds the monstrosity. In fairness, the developer has delivered some needed building height and people-density to Green Hills, both good things. Also, this intersection is well suited for a building of this size. I even like the name. But Nashvillians should hope for better in a district that has seen some very classy recent additions, including the Hill Center, Bedford Commons and, to a lesser extent, the new Avenue Bank Building.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Civic Edifice Splendor

Below is a list of 24 architecturally noteworthy large civic buildings located within the central business district or on the CBD fringe. Not every building on the list is a statement piece. However, all have design significance to an extent, even if only for quirkiness (the Municipal Auditorium, for example) or for being a respectably solid example of a mediocre or bad period or style of architecture (for instance, Tennessee State University's Avon Williams Campus Building, which is designed in the brutalist style) .

Among second-tier mid-sized American cities, would Nashville rank in the Top 5 based on sheer number of quality civic structures in a central business district/downtown? I've explored (often thoroughly) about 25 American cities in the 1 million to 2.5 million metro population range, and think this might be the case. Sadly, what is missing in Nashville's urban core is the fine-grained manmade fabric — the smaller buildings that render a more human scale and encourage pedestrian activity. Perhaps infill of this type will unfold in time, as downtown Nashville has numerous surface parking lots on which buildings of three to five stories would work well. Until then, our city can boast of offering the following important large civic structures:


State Capitol
State Supreme Court
State Library and Archives
John Sevier Building
Cordell Hull Building
Metro Courthouse
A.A. Birch Building
Ben West Building
Metro Administrative Building (former main library)
Main Library
Hume-Fogg High School
TSU-Avon Williams Campus Building
United States Courthouse (finished in 1950 and fronting Broadway)


Music City Central (transit hub)


Sommet Center
Municipal Auditorium
LP Field


War Memorial Building
Schermerhorn Symphony Center
The Ryman Auditorium


Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Country Music Hall of Fame


Downtown YMCA (expanded version)
NES Building
The Arcade

Not Included on the List for Various Reasons (including bad design and/or a lack of "civic-ness"):

Churches (there are six)
Nashville Convention Center (hideous)
General office buildings used primarily by government (Snodgrass, Andrew Jackson, Citizens Plaza, Rachel Jackson, etc.)
Customs House (a private building)
Hotels (various)
Farmers Market (uninspired)
Masonic Lodge (privately used)
Estes Kefauver Federal Courthouse Annex (finished in 1970; very boxy and bland)
Nashville Star's Riverfront Park structure (goofball Rocky Mountain lodge theme)