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Nashville's Music Row: Should ugly buildings be preserved?

An outcry over demolitions of famed music studios has prompted a debate about what constitutes a historic landmark

As a teenager in the early 1970s, singer-songwriter Carlene Carter would trail behind her mother, the country music icon June Carter Cash, to RCA Studio A in Nashville. Within those walls, the elder Carter participated in recording sessions, attended meetings with the pioneering guitarist and studio co-owner Chet Atkins and made songs that are now considered classics. Many of the biggest musical figures from the late 20th century recorded there — Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan — and, most recently, the studio has been used by contemporary stars like Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert.

For those reasons, Carlene Carter considers the building “a holy site you don’t tear down.”

But the wrecking ball may be near. The building and many others located in Music Row, the nucleus of the city’s country music industry, is threatened by an economic boom that has sent property values skyrocketing and increased the metro area’s population by 25 percent between 2000 and 2012. In July, the site that houses Studio A was sold to a developer that has said it may be too decrepit to save; many fear the space will be razed and replaced with condominiums.

These are pretty ordinary, cheap, architecturally indistinct and disposable structures that nonetheless are consecrated because they produced standards that are part of the American popular canon.

Richard Lloyd

Sociologist, Vanderbilt University

For any city, boom-time conditions are followed by inevitable growing pains. But veterans of Nashville’s commercial recording industry complain that a city that has branded itself over the last 50-plus years as “Music City” is in danger of turning into a landscape of luxury apartments, mixed-use retail and other amenities.

“We’re up against a lot of money being dangled in front of folks, and the American way is to say ‘It’s yours, you won it, and you should get the most you can,’” says Sharon Corbitt-House, co-manager of singer-songwriter Ben Folds. “But there has to be a balance. We’re Music City, and not Condo City.”

However, the outcry over 30 Music Square West, where RCA Studio A is located, has led to a broader discussion about property rights versus cultural heritage. Over time, one central question has emerged: How can cities preserve sites of cultural importance when the buildings where history was made are mid-century industrial spaces or converted frame homes and bungalows, and in some cases are not very old?

“These are pretty ordinary, cheap, architecturally indistinct and disposable structures that nonetheless are consecrated because they produced standards that are part of the American popular canon,” says Richard Lloyd, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “That is one of the challenges of preservation in Nashville. A lot of the musical distinction happened in indistinct architecture.”

What will the Nashville of tomorrow look like if we continue to tear out the heart of the Music Row that made us who we are as a city?

Ben Folds

singer

A view of the offices and studios of RCA Records in the area known as Music Row in October 1965 in Nashville Tennessee.
A view of the offices and studios of RCA Records in the area known as Music Row, in October 1965.
Don Paulsen / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Leading the preservation charge is Folds, who discovered in late June that the 5,000-square-foot historic studio he rented for 12 years in 30 Music Square West was being sold for $4 million to Bravo Development, which specializes in residential real estate in the Nashville area. The sale went through the following month, but Folds led a rally on the building’s steps, attracting local media and a few hundred supporters. In an open letter, Folds said he was not against development but wanted the stakeholders to consider a more creative reuse of the building, such as turning it into a museum along with residential lofts.

“What will the Nashville of tomorrow look like if we continue to tear out the heart of the Music Row that made us who we are as a city? Ultimately, who will want to build new condos in an area that has no central community of ideas or creatives?” he asked in a public letter.

After the sale went through, Folds said his rent was immediately hiked 124 percent and that he will move out by the end of November.

In an emailed statement, new owner Tim Reynolds says the building is “in a visibly obvious, compromised state of repair” which makes it “no longer economically viable ‘as it is.’” He is currently conducting an assessment to determine its fate. “There is no question many legendary studio recordings came to life within the walls of Studio A and that those performances are worthy of commemoration; as such, our architects, advisers, and designers feel that there are many creative ways to memorialize these events.”

Harold Bradley, the former owner, said in a public letter in July that the property had been on the market for 24 years but that he struggled to find a buyer due to the estimated $4 million to $6 million it would take to bring it into compliance with local codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act. “We have a building that is not worth saving,” he said.

Many buildings in Nashville with ties to the city’s musical heritage have been flattened, including 1525 McGavock Street, where Presley recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956, and the New Era Club, where Etta James recorded a live album, and where Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix and others performed.

There are also preservation success stories: The 1892 Ryman Auditorium, home for 30 years of the Grand Ole Opry, was saved several decades ago, as was Printer’s Alley, a nearby district that once housed a string of honky-tonks. Even the legendary RCA Studio B, located in an adjacent building, is preserved and open for tours by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Melissa Wyllie, president of Historic Nashville, a nonprofit organization that was instrumental in helping advocate for the restoration of the Ryman in the 1980s and early 1990s, says her organization was relatively dormant until the past decade, when more cranes and bulldozers appeared and history looked as if it was repeating itself. (The Ryman eventually received a $8.3 million restoration and reopened in 1994.) The difference between then and now is that instead of “demolition by neglect” — blighted or abandoned buildings that were torn down because they became public nuisances — she is seeing buildings toppling due to rising property values. Worsening the problem is that much of Music Row was never designated a historic district by the city.

“Music Row is getting squished and there is a lot of pressure put on it to accommodate the growth,” she says. “A building can be torn down overnight and no one needs to tell the city because nothing is considered historic.”

From our perspective, where something happened is just as important as what the building looks like.

Carolyn Brackett

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Singer Elvis Presley, in stocking feet and looking tired and somewhat dejected, sitting in chair during break from recording new record at the RCA studio in Nashville while head of Country and Western Artist and Repertoire, Steve Sholes, is talking to producer Chet Atkins in the background.
Singer Elvis Presley, in stockinged feet and looking tired and somewhat dejected, is sitting in a chair during a break from recording new record at the RCA studio in Nashville while head of Country and Western Artist and Repertoire, Steve Sholes, is talking to producer Chet Atkins in the background.
Don Cravens / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images

That may be changing. While Music Row never achieved historic zoning status, Tim Walker, executive director of the Nashville Historical Commission for the city, says the RCA Studio A outcry is forcing the city to reassess the eligibility of Studio A and other buildings for local and federal protections. The city planning commission is holding public meetings this month to get feedback from the community.

“It’s making us re-examine how we grow and how we look at those early structures related to our music heritage,” Walker says.

But there are challenges: While the city can designate historic zoning protections of a district that would slow or prevent the altering or demolition of historic structures, federal protections require that buildings generally should be at least 50 years old, have a relatively high degree of physical integrity and must be of historical significance. On Music Row, many of the buildings were built more recently — the RCA building went up in 1965 — and are in poor condition.

“Some of this is such recent history, a lot of things that we may want to save may not fit that criteria, so another tool may have to be developed” to protect Music Row, says Walker. “We can certainly develop something, but I think that’s hard to do. The clock is ticking.”

Historic significance is often tricky to define because it “can depend on who you are talking to,” says Carolyn Brackett, who heads the Nashville office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Traditional preservation efforts focus on exterior or interior building details, the significance of the architect or the time period in which they worked. But cultural significance is more elusive, since pioneering songs or creative collaborations often originated in humble, unremarkable surroundings — barrooms, storefronts, street corners, alleys or, in the case of Music Row, nondescript industrial office buildings.

Advocates for Music Row are trying to change the perception of what constitutes historic character.

“From our perspective, where something happened is just as important as what the building looks like,” Brackett says.

Protections not only require the approval of the city, they also require the involvement, and backing, of the property owner. To make that happen requires not only street rallies, but actual outreach with parties that otherwise might be perceived as adversaries. Brackett says the upsurge in activity this summer is starting “a whole new conversation” that she has never before seen in her city.

“It’s anybody’s guess where this is going to go but it’s really caught the attention of a lot of people who may not have thought of it before, but who now realize we have some serious decisions to make,” she says.

Among those people is Pat McMakin, operator of Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios, which boasts a long client list including Beck, Hank Williams Jr. and Kenny Chesney. Over the years, McMakin started noticing changes during his commute. “We’d see this publishing house knocked down and that recording studio knocked down and now it’s coming up the hill. So we all started talking and realized how much had already gone under the bulldozer,” he says.

The discussions among his music veteran peers resulted in the Music Industry Coalition, a nonprofit incorporated this month that aims to serve as a conduit for conversations between the city, developers, community and artists. Besides already meeting with the city’s planning commission and serving as a unified voice in the local media, the group has grappled with questions that many standing up for preservation in Music City have faced: “Are we preserving buildings, are we preserving building districts, a lifestyle, or a culture? Those are big questions,” McMakin says.

So far, the group can already claim one victory: Construction crews located near the recording studios have agreed to blast only at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. so that the music makers can know when to take a break.

Says McMakin: “That’s collaboration.”

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