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.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Creating Places: Bye-Bye Murphy Building

Some time has passed since demolition began on Midtown Nashville gem the Murphy Building. Prior to now, I simply couldn't stomach the sight of the demolition and, as such, had to wait before I posted regarding this. I first spotted the demotion effort on Sunday, July 18, and almost vomited. To this day, I remain disheartened.

Saint Thomas Health Services, which owned the structure, apparently will operate a surface parking lot on the site (at least for the time being). Wonderful.

In 2009, Historic Nashville Inc. designated the Murphy Building as one of nine buildings worth saving. I guess Saint Thomas (which claims it tried to find a use for the structure) didn't get the message. Or didn't care. Saint Thomas does fine health care work. But bluntly, I doubt the company has any interest in Nashville's historic architecture and its importance to the city. Shameful.

Originally, the now-toppled vintage mini-masterpiece served for years as the Samuel E. Murphy School. Back then (the school opened in 1910), educational buildings looked like actual places in which learning was valued. Nowadays, we design schools that look like minimum security prisons. They may function effectively inside, but their exteriors are typically hideous, cartoonish and/or poorly defined. In the old days, many schools were vertical (often three stories), giving their form a certain dignity and masculinity. Today, school buildings are almost always one-story, exaggerated horizontally and typically lacking interesting embellishments.

With its brick and stone detailing, clean proportionality and symmetry, and handsome clay roof, the Murphy Building stood as a proud reminder of the days when Midtown glistened with grand architectural creations. By the 1960s, various old-school jewels were being lost, a trend that increased in intensity in the 1970s. Then some boneheads thought it would be OK to demolish the former Governor's Mansion (located on West End Avenue where the Caterpillar Financial Center now stands) — later to be replaced by a cheap piece of crap home to a fast food fry pit. Since that fateful day in June 1979, when a stately mansion occupied by history makers of Tennessee was allowed to be razed, the destruction of Midtown has continued at a furious pace.

The Murphy Building is the latest casualty.

Losing attractive civic buildings would not be as painful if they were replaced with equally handsome contemporary structures. The reality — particularly in Nashville — is that rarely happens. We substitute quality for junk. The distinctive for the bland. The treasured for the trashy. At this rate, Music City may as well be renamed Generic Place.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Creating Places: Bicycle Rack Mania

The new bike racks are installed courtesy of the Metro Arts Commission, and I've seen all but those at the Nashville Farmers Market.

My fave is likely the vintage mic at the Music Row Roundabout. Not a fan of the "banjo" racks at the Fulton Complex. The "combination lock" racks at Church Street Park (across from the library) are quite quirky.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Creating Places: Beaman Automotive Building

Some thoughts regarding the new Beaman Automotive Group building on Broadway...

...I like the massing and materials. The landscaping seems sufficient, while the color scheme plays nicely off surrounding structures. I don't care for the setback (I can already envision the sea of new cars fronting Broad), but this seemingly is an otherwise very fine building. In fact, I think Beaman is shooting for silver LEED certification.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Creating Places: Citizen Assessment

After about five or six viewings — each undertaken during my daily exercise walks — I've come to rate Citizen a 7.5. The two public art pieces, flanking the Metro Courthouse Public Square Park grounds on the southeast and southwest corners, are very acceptable additions to Nashville's painfully limited collection of civic art. And though my knowledge of art is no more significant than my understanding of the public education system in Iceland, I'll nonetheless provide a quick overview.

Here's what I like...

Nice verticality, with both the base and "human forms" creating a fairly suitable overall height
Metal base (very industrial feel with an almost mesh-like appearance)
Color scheme contrast between the base and human form
Interactive (people can turn the crank and see the human form move)
Appropriate number (one piece might have been awkward; three or more, excessive)
Placement related to the other elements of the Public Square
Interesting lighting elements for night-time viewing/visability

And what I don't like...

Material for the "human forms" (seems flimsy and impermanent)
Shape of the "human forms" (somewhat cartoonish)

No doubt, I would have preferred a more cutting-edge addition to this important civic space. Perhaps something a bit more futuristic and/or boldly lit. Still, Citizen will make a fine contribution to a public space that does, indeed, beckon all of Nashville citizens to enjoy.