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.

1 comment:

  1. Without a specific address I can't recall the building. So many fine structures in that area have been razed. Pity.