The block of Second Avenue torn apart by a bomb on Christmas Day was the foundation of the Nashville preservation movement, and the city’s first district added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Since the 1970s, preservationists have focused on saving the handsome brick Victorian buildings that date to the mid-19th century. After Congress passed a law in 1966 allowing for the creation of the National Register of Historic Places, Nashville

stakeholders began researching which buildings were worthy of preservation. Ann Roberts, who worked at the Metro Historic Commission for 32 years, most of that time as the agency’s executive director, said the addition of Second Avenue to the national register “began an understanding that it was a district worthy of saving.”

Ann Roberts (Photo: Facebook)
Ann Roberts (Photo: Facebook)

The preservation of Second Avenue was a decades-long dog fight. At various points, developers sought to demolish the row of buildings, including pitching a plan to raze the structures and replace them with a modern indoor shopping mall.

Roberts said the creation of the Market Street Festival helped raise public awareness about Second Avenue, which had primarily functioned as a warehouse district because of the buildings’ close proximity to the Cumberland River.

“So for the next many years there was this effort to find new uses and new ways for those buildings to be used. We always knew unless they could be used, they couldn’t survive,” Roberts said.

The historic commission scored a key legal victory when it successfully challenged a ruling by the Board of Zoning Appeals, which had approved a developer to build a tower at the corner of Church and Second Avenue where a fire had leveled a historic building. That win in court put a flag in the ground that Second Avenue deserved preservation, but the key challenge would be coming up with popular uses for the buildings.

The Christmas connection

Friday’s bomb on Christmas Day wasn’t the first event to destroy property in the  area at the holidays:

  • A historic building on Second Avenue, located between the Curren site of Hooters and the Washington Square Office Building, burned down one Christmas Eve in the mid-1980s. The cause was determined to be arson and the site has served as a surface parking lot since.
  • The original Maxwell House Hotel, which was located at 201 4th Ave., N. just two blocks away from Friday’s bomb site, was destroyed by fire on Christmas Night 1961.

A key starting point for the reimagining of Second Avenue as an entertainment and retail district came when the Spaghetti Factory opened shop in one of the buildings on the east side of the street in 1980.

“I credit the property owners and the business owners – they took risks and opened up businesses at a time when people weren’t accustomed to coming downtown,” Roberts said.

Many preservationists credit Roberts’ leadership in the salvation of Second Avenue. The Historic Commission believed so fervently in saving the district that its own offices were headquartered in the building now home to the Silver Dollar Saloon. The nonprofit preservation organization Historic Nashville was housed on the first floor, with the historic commission offices upstairs. And the city also committed seed funding to create the District, the nonprofit agency specifically focused on preserving Second Avenue, Printer’s Alley and lower Broadway.

But, saving Second Avenue was first on the to-do list, and its preservation was in doubt even through the 1990s.

“It’s a really important street to our city,” Metro Historic Commission executive director Tim Walker said.

The preservation of Second Avenue scored a critical win in the 1990s when a citizen challenge was issued to the status of the district on the National Register of Historic Places. Importantly, then-Mayor Phil Bredesen appeared at the state review board hearing and told the panel he planned to support a historic zoning overlay for the district.

The overlay was approved, effectively preserving Second Avenue. An overlay to preserve lower Broadway wasn’t approved until more than a decade later by the leadership of former Councilman Mike Jameson. Roberts said the preservation of Second Avenue was the first domino in saving the historical character of downtown, while still allowing for the development of skyscrapers like the AT&T tower.

“It has been our flagship historic district, and Broadway too for different reasons,” Roberts said. “They’re different architecturally. But we wouldn’t be Nashville if we didn’t have these very important remnants of our past.”

Another critical development for converting Second Avenue into an entertainment district was the decision by the company now called Ryman Hospitality to purchase the building home to the honky tonk and music venue the Wildhorse Saloon. The company already owned the Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. The addition of the Wildhorse to its properties, and the importance of purchasing a property on Second Avenue, expanded downtown’s entertainment offerings.

Lower Broadway is now one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions. But before the preservation movement focused on Second Avenue, lower Broadway was an afterthought home to seedy peep shows and vacant buildings and only a couple of bars like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. The salvation of Second Avenue’s former warehouse buildings changed the course of Music City’s downtown.

“Second avenue spearheaded the renaissance of the entertainment district,” said Metro Councilman Freddie O’Connell, who represents the area.

Preservationists are now turning their attention to what is salvageable on Second Avenue. At least one building, apparently the one home to the Melting Pot located directly across from where an RV bomb exploded after dawn on Friday, has collapsed. Law enforcement officials said at an update press conference on Saturday that at least 40 buildings were impacted.

Just outside the Washington Square office building, facing Second Avenue. (Photo: Alex Kent)

Nashville historian David Ewing pointed out that while the buildings on the east side of Second Avenue have maintained their historical character, those on the west side, such as the building that houses the AT&T data center, have not. Ewing said that is because the city approved a street widening in the 1940s that expanded the road about 10 feet to the west, taking down the facades of the original structures on that side of the street.

Walker said the historic commission was waiting to get approval from the FBI and Metro Police that it is safe to enter the buildings and begin assessments. He said the department would collaborate with insurance companies and structural engineers in addition to property owners.

Because of the district’s historical significance, and the community trauma suffered on Christmas morning because of the bomb, Ewing said he hopes the city will rally around refurbishing and rebuilding the buildings affected by the bombing.

“We don’t know exactly the extent of damage to these buildings but it does look significant. The historic community, the District and all the shareholders will have to work hard to preserve and recreate what they did so long ago,” Ewing said.