Nashville’s Musical Buildings
24 December, 2013
Over the summer, I’m working on a project for the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) and the Society of Architectural Historians and my task is to conduct research into the development of the music industry in Nashville, Tennessee as illustrated by a small selection of the city’s buildings. The resulting write-ups will be going into the HABS collection at the Library of Congress. The local partner organizations in the project are the Nashville Metro Historical Commission and Historic Nashville Inc.
Between the late nineteenth century and the second half of the twentieth century, Nashville evolved from being a regional center with a population happy to spend its leisure time enjoying music and the arts to becoming an international music business locus associated particularly, but not exclusively, with the genre of country music. Naturally, this had an impact on the city’s built landscape. New buildings were specially designed and constructed and previously existing ones were renovated and adapted to house music-related businesses.
I’m looking into seven buildings in all, three of which are located on the 400 block of Lower Broadway.
Nashville’s Lower Broadway has been a commercial district since the midnineteenth century. As far as its connection with the music industry is concerned, this neighborhood really developed in tandem with the Ryman Auditorium, which was built in 1892 only half a block north of this section of the street. Between 1943 and 1974, the Ryman was the venue from which the Grand Ole Opry radio show was broadcast each Saturday night. Its success drew musicians and fans to the area and that in turn led to various music-related businesses setting up shop nearby. These businesses included:
THE ERNEST TUBB RECORD SHOP which has been at 417 Broadway since 1951. The building itself dates from ca. 1855 and there is an amazing old photograph the place that was taken during the Civil War and can be found reproduced on page 68 of Katrina McDaniel’s “Nashville Then and Now” (San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 2005).
TOOTSIE’S ORCHID LOUNGE, the live performance venue and bar which moved into the late nineteenth century building at 422 Broadway in 1960 and in which many country music stars, such as Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, got early breaks.
THE SHO-BUD STEEL GUITAR COMPANY, which was set up by steel guitarists Shot Jackson and Buddy Emmons. It occupied the ca. 1915 building at 416 Broadway between the mid-sixties and early eighties. That building is now home to the traditional country music honkytonk, Robert’s Western World.
The other four buildings I’m looking into are scattered around different parts of Nashville and they are:-
JESSE FRENCH PIANO & ORGAN COMPANY BUILDING (ca. 1889), 240-242 5th Ave. North. This is a four-story brick commercial building in the city’s downtown area that still features its original decorative sheet metal façade and early interior finishes on the upper floors. The original occupant was the Jesse French Piano & Organ Company which was one of the largest piano retailers in the South at the time that it moved into the building in the late 1880s.
QUONSET HUT (c. 1955), 34 Music Square East (formerly 16th Ave South). In 1955, musicians Harold and Owen Bradley purchased a house on 16th Avenue South and converted it into a recording studio – a move that is today with credited as being the “birth” of the enclave now known as Music Row. Work came thick and fast, so to add space to the facility, they got hold of a prefabricated metal Quonset hut kit and had it put together at the rear of the property and refurbished it for use as a recording studio. Hit records recorded in it included Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry.” Columbia Records purchased the property from the Bradleys in 1962. They built on and over the hut so that it became almost subsumed into a modern complex that stands on the site today, though you can still see a fragment of the roof from the back of the building. A few years ago, the complex was purchased by the Mike Curb Family Foundation and the Quonset Hut was refurbished once again, this time as a modern studio.
RCA STUDIO B (1957), 1611 Roy Acuff Place. RCA Studio B is just a block or so away from the where the Quonset Hut stands and it’s a one- and two- story concrete building built by the Nashville entrepreneur Dan Maddox and occupied by RCA Records for over two decades. The establishment of the RCA Records’ operation at this location so soon after the Bradley Brothers move to 16th Avenue South (see above) helped to consolidate this formerly residential neighborhood southwest of downtown as a fledgling music industry center that later became known as Music Row. RCA Studio B is now owned by the Mike Curb Family Foundation but loans it to the Country Music Hall of Fame who conduct regular tours there. Incidentally, RCA Studio B was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places and the nomination document – put together by Julie Robison, Tara Mitchell Mielnik, and John Rumble – makes for fascinating reading.
THE UNITED RECORD PRESSING PLANT (1962), 453 Chestnut Street. This concrete block vinyl record production plant was purpose built for Southern Plastics (the earlier incarnation of United Record Pressing) in 1962. Among the records pressed here were the Beatles’ early American releases (on Vee Jay Records) and Motown Records releases from the same period. In fact, the premises include a “Motown Suite”, that is, a set of rooms – more or less in their original condition with lots of period furnishings – which were specially built to provide accommodation for the company’s African-American clients. (At the time, the South was still segregated so other options were limited.) Vinyl record production continues at the plant today, using many of the same techniques and machines as were in place 50 years ago. The company also offers tours of the plant.