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.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Assessing The Acropolis

During a tour of the soon-to-open condo building Artesia in West End Park, I strolled a few properties west to view The Acropolis, located at the southwest corner of the Parthenon and Avoca avenues T-intersection and also nearing construction completion.

Frankly, I have some concerns.

But before  I offer criticism, let me note the following. The three members of Acropolis developer JBS Enterprises (Jay Ellis, Brian Glasser and Stephen Nestor, along with co-developer U. Grant Browning) are class gentlemen who are passionate about urban Nashville's manmade form. For this development, they deserve credit for using Nashville-based architect Quirk Designs (Preston Quirk) and for retaining project consultant J. Mark West, who is working to maximize the chances of the residential building's achieving LEED platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. And, as noted in the previous post, the project will feature a beautiful water fountain on the site's northeast corner.

No doubt, The Acropolis will be strong on many counts.

However, and I write this with great respect for the team, The Acropolis exterior disappoints on two fronts:

1. The building features numerous design elements commonly found in pre-World War II-built structures. Though perhaps not a "replica building" in every respect, the overall presentation screams traditional. For example, one of the six residences (more on this in Point No. 2) offers windows with shudders. I shudder (bad play on words intended).

2. The building's six residences have been designed to appear distinctive of one another, giving the overall structure an "architecturally hodge-podge-like vibe" that can be compared to that of The Row at 31st (located nearby). No doubt, it should be clear to even the lay person that The Acropolis is one building attempting to present itself as six. It is not often that this type design works effectively, particularly if the colors, shapes and forms, as is the case with The Acropolis, contrast significantly (for an exception to this rule, check the Hill Center in Green Hills).

Contrast The Acropolis exterior design to that of the aforementioned Artesia. The latter, a three-story structure dominated by handsome dark brick and featuring contemporary metal and stone touches, leaves no doubt of its 21st century design vernacular. Of note, Preston Quirk designed both Artesia and The Acropolis.

The Acropolis has been constructed with quality materials and craftsmanship. Its sustainable building qualities are to be praised. Most folks (particularly if they know little, if anything, about architecture) likely will find the building's exterior to be attractive.  

Still, I am struggling to embrace this building, despite its many plusses.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fountain of Acropolis

During a recent drive through West End Park, I noticed a classy fountain on the site of the soon-to-open The Acropolis (located at the southwest T-intersection of Parthenon and Avoca avenues). Although I favor the use of fountains, outdoor art and distinctive signage to enliven the public realm and while pleased that The Acropolis could earn platinum LEED certification via the U.S. Green Building Council, I have some concerns about the exterior design of this building. We'll take a look at those concerns in the next post.

 

Monday, April 20, 2009

CapStar, Hastings Nail New Center

The exterior designs of most free-standing Nashville-area bank buildings are bland and unadventurous. Not surprising when you consider bankers tend to be a cautious lot, and not the type to opt for edginess, whether with their personal grooming/wardrobe, hobbies/interests or preferred designs for financial centers.

And although the CapStar Bank brass is not likely to start sporting radical facial hair, collecting the music of Radiohead and embracing the architecture of I.M. Pei, it deserves credit for enlisting Hastings Architecture Associates to “push the design envelop” with the financial institution’s recently completed Green Hills building.

In fact, based on architectural significance, the CapStar Bank Building already ranks in the top 5 percent of Green Hills structures — although one could argue that distinction is not particularly impressive given the commercial district’s suburban-themed buildings, collectively, are emasculated by cream-colored synthetic stucco elements, impermanent-looking parapets, faux stone touches and odd attempts to appear traditional. Many of these generic structures are no more substantial architecturally than Jonas Brothers songs are lyrically.

Not so with the CapStar Bank Building.

To get a feel for the ideas HAA incorporated in this 21st century jewel, I chatted today with the firm’s Derek Schmidt, who spearheaded the project. Schmidt said Hastings opted for a Rockville (Minn.) beige granite base as an anchor to an Indiana limestone mid-section. The bulk of the building, which tops out at an effective 32 feet, has a limestone cap, as the facade “box” feature counters with an aluminum-composite cap. Similarly, the canopies are aluminum composite, while the curtain wall and storefront offer clear-anodized aluminum. The effect flirts with being dramatic.

“Most of the upper management of the bank are Nashville banking veterans,” Schmidt said. “They wanted this new branch to have a sense of permanence, but also a sense of place.”

Schmidt said CapStar officials favored some of the older Third National Bank branch design elements (in fact, the bank’s main office is in the iconic former Third National Bank Building downtown). These branches (Green Hills sports a handsome version on Hillsboro Road next to Macy's) feature limestone and marble and have aged in a dignified manner, both functionally and stylistically, since their unveiling.

“So we kind of looked at that for inspiration,” Schmidt said.

Inside the building, the floors are crafted of travertine, while wood elements derive from clear walnut. The centerpiece might just be a two-story, open-riser staircase with glass panels.

Of note, the building’s back exterior stairs are nicer than the fa├žade elements of many Green Hills buildings.

To an extent, the CapStar Bank Building (located at 2321 Crestmoor Road and constructed by general contractor Solomon Builders Inc.) reveals, as Schmidt said, a “high-tech meets high-touch,” feel, its interior giving a “slight nod to mid-century modern.”

That nod, though subtle, is effective nonetheless, rendering the CapStar Bank Building one of the better free-standing buildings (regardless of usage) unveiled in Nashville during the past few years.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bedford Commons Gets Uncommonly Attractive

I took a quick jaunt yesterday through Bedford Commons, the Rochford Realty and Construction Co. Inc. mixed-use "linear village" on the western fringe of the Green Hills commercial district. Of note, three buildings are opening (seemingly) simultaneously, and their respective exterior designs play nicely off one another.

The dominant member of the Bedford Avenue trio is the green-friendly Freeman Webb Building, a strikingly 21st century offering highlighted by rectangular metal pieces that act as facade-positioned picture frames.

Hastings Architecture Associates earns between an A-minus and a A for this quality project, while the Freeman Webb Co. deserves credit for opting for a building that is set to earn U.S. Green Building Council gold LEED certification. Given Green Hills is as known for bland architecture as Brooks & Dunn are for bad facial hair, the standout Freeman Webb Building is an instant classic.

Read more at the following:


Not as adventurous — but effectiveness nonetheless — are the 3817 Building and 3811 Bedford Plaza. I need to determine the architect(s) for the duo, but both are constructed of quality materials and showcase strong massing and proportionality (and even a few subtle touches not commonly seen in understated buildings of this type). The face of 3811 features large, charcoal metal panels and an arched cap nicely defining the center entrance segment. 3817, the most reserved of the three structures, is topped by a very masculine stone parapet.

Collectively, the threesome provide a strong anchor to what is currently the northern end of Bedford Commons. Good work.

Coming soon: a review of the contemporary new Capstar Bank Building at 2321 Crestmoor Drive in Green Hills.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Gresham Smith Makes Kendall's Shine

A recent “tour” of East Nashville revealed some interesting manmade environment updates. One in particular is the former Kendall’s Appliances Building, a recently updated version of which — courtesy of the Nashville architectural office of Gresham Smith & Partners — now serves as home to two retail shops.

Walking the perimeter of the building, I noticed a number of nice exterior touches, particularly a clay-tiled cornice-like element near the roof line. To create a more inviting feel, GS&P added windows near the corner of the west side of the building, along which was also added new siding painted a masculine olive. Metal door frames and three metal lights (affixed to curving stems) give the building’s facade a contemporary flare. On that theme, the building’s east side offers two smallish tubular light fixtures (to provide decorative night-time illumination) that are very attractive. Colorful and playful roof-line signage for Hue (the tanning salon/clothing retail business operating from the building’s east space) is very eye-catching, with understated landscaping along the building’s east flank and a brick-surfaced parking pad and wood deck giving the back side a needed facelift.

Developer Mark Sanders is to be credited for sparing this diminutive vintage jewel. And kudos to GS&P for quality work.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bongo Lot is Bongo Bad

I visited Five Points today and will post a few blog entries soon regarding various elements of its manmade fabric. However, there is one point worth noting now: The surface parking lot in front of Bongo Java needs to go, as it is both unsightly and dangerous. Bongo owner Bob Bernstein would lose only one spot if he eliminated the three-vehicle parking and, instead, had Metro Public Works create two parallel parking spots on 11th. This would also allow Bongo to create a larger outdoor seating area. Bob is a progressive gentleman who appreciates an attractive and functional built environment and, as such, would be open (I would hope) to considering this. Perhaps he has already pondered the possibility but was limited due to Codes restrictions involving businesses and the number of parking spots they must maintain based on their square footage. I don't know. But I do know the lot is troublesome. If you agree with my point, email Bob (bob@bongojava.com) and politely suggest he considers this. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Interesting Big-City View

At the intersection of South Street and 12th Avenue South, gaze north and behold Terrazzo and Icon in the foreground, with Encore and Pinnacle to the right and in the distance. These four major towers have risen only in the past few years, radically transforming the vista as presented from this South Nashville intersection.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Avenue Bank Building Elicits Mixed Emotions

I continue to wrestle with my thoughts regarding the recently opened Green Hills building home to Avenue Bank. Located at 3823 Cleghorn Avenue and across the street from La Paz, the building is perhaps best recognized for its barn-like shape. That jarring form, along with the structure's "turning of its side" to the street (with this "anti-urban design model" resulting in the facade facing the building on the adjacent lot), limits my full enjoyment in viewing 3823. Of note, I am hesitant to criticize Nashville-based architect Tuck-Hinton for its design work, as the company may have been limited by a tight budget and the desires of Avenue Bank officials to site the building as is (in part, of course, to accommodate motorists). On a positive note, the building's brick color, sleek roofing material, metal window frames, window proportionality and overall height are all of solid or strong attractiveness.

Compared to First Tennessee's Looney Ricks Kiss-designed cookie-cutter "faux-traditional" free-standers on 21st Avenue, Gallatin Road and Thompson Lane, 3823 Cleghorn is a masterpiece. In contrast, First Tennessee's two contemporary branches (on West End Avenue and White Bridge Road and expertly designed by LRK) are much more eye-catching than the 3823 Cleghorn building. For that matter, I like Tuck-Hinton's quality retrofit of the West End Avenue building home to Avenue Bank more so than the design firm's built-from-scratch 3823 effort.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Eyesore of the Day: CVS

The Green Hills building home to CVS Pharmacy (located at Crestmoor and Hillsboro roads) has never been remotely considered an architectural masterpiece. But for years, it offered a certain odd quirkiness and even -- at least by the bland design standards of GHills -- a bit of grit.

No more.

A recent "update" has simply brutalized the structure, which is now topped by a "creamy pink" stucco cap on which is monstrous signage completely out of scale with the building's other parts. From some angles, the building presents itself as, essentially, a hideous roof -- and nothing else.

My 9- and 6-year-old Lego-obsessed nephews could have designed better.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Last of the West End Lodge

Demolition work is now fully underway on the buildings formerly housing West End Lodge and Civic Bank & Trust. Located on the northwest corner of 18th and West End avenues and next to the recently opened Hutton Hotel, the site is expected to be used for a mixed-used project that will include hotel, office and restaurant space, and parts of which will rise eight stories.

For more information, see the following:
http://www.nashvillecitypaper.com/news.php?viewStory=63855

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Final Slice Through the Ham

With a full week having passed since my trip to Birmingham, I wanted to share one more thought regarding the city's manmade environment. Specifically, I was impressed with the number and quality of Birmingham's tall older buildings. Of note, and according to Emporis.com, the Ham boasts approximately 22 structures built prior to 1950 and rising at least 100 feet. These old-school gems lend a dignified flavor to both Birmingham at street level and the city when viewed from afar.

Southeastern cities that can rival this number (Emporis figures can be difficult to dissect so the accuracy of these numbers is questionable) are Atlanta (approximately 32), New Orleans (30), Richmond (28) and Memphis (28). Nashville offers 17 buildings of this type. On a side note, the Emporis list for Miami is very difficult to decipher, as the Florida city has so many tall buildings, many of which Emporis lists with no date or no height (or either). From what I can determine, Miami offers about 15 buildings constructed prior to 1950 and standing 100 feet or taller. But this seems low, even considering the fact the bulk of Miami has been built since 1950. One more point: For this exercise, I did not include Louisville, which although located in a Southeastern state is as much a Midwest city as it is a Southern city.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

H-Inn Brings Broad Bad Interstate Vibe

With each time I walk or drive past the downtown Nashville building home to Holiday Inn Express (located at 920 Broadway), I become more agitated at whomever devised the gameplan used to re-do the structure's exterior. The color scheme (almost a "muddy cream pink"), blue metal roofing, signage...all hideous. Since its update about 2.5 years ago (as I recall), the exterior of this once quirky brick building has been rendered a downtown version of the type generic motels found off interstate exits. Pathetic.

Birmingham Offers Key Sign of Urban Form

Within Birmingham's central core — a roughly 360-block mass comprising the city's Central Business District and Southside (and the fringes of those two districts) — there is a defining characteristic of a traditional built fabric. Very simply, this massive sea of B-Ham urbanity contains few, if any, buildings that are sited with their sides "facing" streets. It's almost stunning to see this, as the central cores of most Southern cities have various buildings positioned in this manner, often when such a physical arrangement was not even necessary. For a Nashville reference and a comparison, mentally visualize the siting of the Wachovia Bank Building, located on West End Avenue between 17th and 18th avenues. The developer could have opted to position the building facing and straddling the sidewalk. Instead, the building seemingly "turns its side" to West End, its facade facing east and overlooking asphalt. And there are other examples of this in Midtown, which is the equivalent (and only very modestly so) of Birmingham's Southside. In fairness, sometimes tight geographic constraints render such a site arrangement necessary for a building. Often, however, the developer wishes to maximize ease of motorist access, thus harming the attractiveness and urban functionality of the structure. Somehow, Birmingham's core has managed to avoid this example of non-urban design.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Birmingham's Version of Louisville's Cherokee Park

There is a geographically tight district southeast of downtown Birmingham that, compared to similar areas in other U.S. cities, offers one of the best examples of combining built and natural environments. The area is a few blocks west of Forest Park and bordered by Eighth Avenue/Clairmont Avenue on the north, Highland Avenue/31st Street to the east, Highland Avenue to the south, and the Red Mountain Expressway to the west. Commonly referred to, not surprisingly, as the Highland Park District, this heavily wooded urban node features some handsome vintage residential buildings, a handful of splendid church buildings and five parks (Caldwell, Highland, Rhodes, Rushton and Underwood). During my drives though the district, I noticed vibrant pedestrian activity. Among other Southern cities, the eastern fringe of Louisville's Cherokee Park perhaps compares most favorably. Sadly, there is no place within urban Nashville that remotely resembles the Highland Park District. For that matter, as some upcoming posts will note, there are many interesting elements of Birmingham's manmade environment for which Nashville offers modest, if any, competition.

Liggett Building Opts for Edgy

Downtown Nashville's diminutive and historic Liggett Building (located on the southeast corner of Second Avenue and Demonbreun Street) is now sporting a strikingly cool silver metal sign. Vertically spanning the building's northeast corner and about 10 feet tall, the sign reads simply: Liggett

A very nice touch.

B-Ham Street Grid Grabs Attention

Is downtown Birmingham the South's most "street gridded" city? This writer just returned from a fine two-day trip to the Ham and walked a good bit of both the city's Central Business District and Southside (dominated by UAB and Five Points). After doing so, and thoroughly studying various maps of the city (as only a "map geek" can) during the stay, I concluded the central street grid of Alabama's largest city ranks among the best in the nation.

For the sake of discussion, let's define downtown and Southside as being bordered by 11th Avenue North on the north, Interstate 65 on the west, the Elton Stephens Expressway on the east and 11th Avenue South on the south. With the exception of the four corners of this "box," the streets within it form an almost perfect grid of roughly 360 square blocks. With very few breaks in the grid (a train gulch severing Downtown from Southside being the main example) the opportunities to navigate — by car, foot, bike, DART Circulator, city bus, etc. — and view the city are fabulous. Most vistas are uninterrupted, as the streets (many wide and one way to create proper traffic flow and safety) stretch for many blocks. In fact, there are few "interrupters" within this "built fabric mass." Two key examples are Linn Park and the massive UAB campus, one of the most impresses urban campuses in the country. The diminutive Kelly Ingram Park (the only green space of note downtown and a very nice one at that) somehow manages to avoid distorting the grid. Four viaducts span the railroad tracks and connect the Central Business District to Southside. On this theme, driving north via the Dr. Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard, over the Rainbow Viaduct and marveling at the sea of vintage buildings is a must-do.

More on the built environment highlights of this trip to follow...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Bound for Birmingham

There are only a handful of Southern cities whose built forms are similar to those of gritty, blue-collar Northern cities such as Buffalo, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. Of these, Birmingham might be the best example. In addition, Alabama's largest city offers one of the best "big city pedestrian epicenters" in the South: Five Points. This writer will be in the Ham the next two days, during which a self-guided tour of industrial architecture masterpiece Sloss Furnaces is on tap. A report of this trip will soon follow.