by Kathy B. Lauder.
Nashville began to attract streams of visitors almost from the moment it became a frontier trading post. As time passed, tourists and settlers came for the music and theatre and food, for history and politics and education, for the casual atmosphere and friendly people. It was educator Philip Lindsley (1785-1855) who first referred to Nashville as the “Athens of the South” (Philip actually said “Southwest”), for the city has long been a center of educational and cultural activities. And high on the list of attractions is the intriguing variety of architectural styles to be discovered here.
One’s first impression of Nashville, the downtown skyline, features the “Batman” and “R2-D2” building silhouettes, several tall hotels and banks, and the dear old L&C Tower, whose 31 floors made it, at the time of its 1957 opening, the “tallest commercial structure of its day in the Southeastern United States.”1 Church Street and Broadway feature some of our most interesting church buildings: the First Baptist Church; Christ Church Episcopal; McKendree Methodist, its earlier façades buried beneath layers of renovations; Downtown (First) Presbyterian with its rich and compelling history; and, a little farther out, the graceful Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Sixth Avenue.
Many tourists come to Nashville specifically to visit historic homes, and the city has a lovely collection of these as well: The Hermitage, fourth most-visited Presidential home in America (after the White House, Mount Vernon, and Monticello); Belmont, former home of one of the country’s richest women, and now the centerpiece of the Belmont University campus; Belle Meade and Travellers Rest, renowned for the breeding of magnificent horses; Cheekwood, with its exquisite gardens and galleries; and the wedding-cake charm of Clover Bottom and Two Rivers. Equally unforgettable are the stand-alone architectural delights of the Tennessee State Capitol, the Customs House, Union Station, Ryman Auditorium, and the splendid Parthenon, the crowning glory of Centennial Park and the only full-scale replica of the ancient Athenian temple in the world.
Yet if we could visit the Nashville of earlier days, we would be astonished, not only at the number of public buildings that have been transformed into more modern spaces, but also at the number that have disappeared forever.
Not all the stories have tragic endings, of course. Union Station was saved from impending destruction a few years ago, as was the Ryman. Moreover, the Metropolitan Historical Commission encourages preservation activities by presenting a number of awards each year to individuals and groups who have rescued and restored public or private structures throughout the city. But the very word “progress” conjures up an image of bulldozers, and Nashville, like many American cities, has seen far too many beautiful buildings destroyed to make room for, among other things, motels and parking lots!
One of the city’s loveliest lost buildings was the Second Presbyterian Church, once part of our riverfront skyline, but now only a fading image in a handful of old photos. The church stood on Third and Gay Streets, not far from the spot where the James Robertson Parkway crosses Third Avenue before swooping across Victory Memorial Bridge. Dr. John Todd Edgar and Dr. Philip Lindsley spoke at the church’s 1844 dedication.2
There are significant differences of opinion about the history of “2nd Pres,” as John Berrien Lindsley called it in his 1859 diary.3 Many Nashvillians believe that William Strickland, architect of the Capitol, designed the church. However, according to James Patrick, author of Architecture in Tennessee, 1768-1897, the architect was James M. Hughes, a man the Nashville City Directory lists as a carpenter.4 Patrick refers to a silver plate deposited in the cornerstone of the church naming Hughes as the architect. In 1844 the Nashville Whig listed the full text of the inscription:
The Second Presbyterian Church
erected in the year of our lord 1844.
Rev. Robert A. Lapsley, Pastor.
Samuel Seay, William B. Shapard, William H Marquess,
James M. Hamilton, and Adam G. Adams, Elders.
Samuel Hill, Foster Williams, Abram Stevens,
and John McCrea – Deacons.
Organized February, 1844, with 32 Members.
JOHN TYLER, President of the United States.
James C. Jones, Governor of Tenn.
P.W. Maxey, Mayor of Nashville.
Population of Nashville, 8,000.
James M. Hughes, Architect.
Engraved by D. Adams.5
Adding further weight to Patrick’s assertion, Nell Savage Mahoney, a lifelong student of Strickland’s work, omits Second Presbyterian from her list of his creations.
Support for Strickland’s involvement, however, may be found in “William Strickland, Architect,” a 1986 article from the Tennessee Historical Quarterly. Author James A. Hoobler, Curator of the Capitol, compares the altar area of the Second Presbyterian Church with a Strickland drawing labeled “Second Presbyterian.” 6 The structural similarities of shape and dimension cannot be denied. (Hoobler has also discovered compelling evidence that St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, long attributed to William Strickland, was, in fact, built by Adolphus Heiman, but that’s a story for another day.)
Actually, a fairly strong case can be made for the possibility of a collaboration between the two men, with Strickland as teacher/adviser and Hughes as apprentice/contractor. Mahoney herself provides evidence of an earlier such alliance between Strickland and one of his students. Strickland is believed to have drawn the original elevation used by his former pupil Thomas U. Walter when the younger man was appointed to design a building for the Girard College campus in Philadelphia.7
Further evidence of a Strickland-Hughes partnership comes from Circuit Court records, January term 1857. Strickland had been engaged by H.R.W. Hill “to serve as an architect for and superintend the erection of a Methodist church [in New Orleans] . . .. William [Strickland] was put to great expense in going to and from said city during the progress of said work . . .. The church was built at the same time that the St. Charles Hotel was erected – both the St. Charles and the Methodist Church on Pozdras street were burned in February, 1850 . . .. Strickland and Hughes were here at the time, as this witness learned from Hughes, to get a contract for [re]building the St. Charles.”8
So even finding James Hughes’ name inside the cornerstone does not rule out the possibility that the original drawings for Second Presbyterian came from Strickland.
Newcomers may wonder why William Strickland’s buildings are so valuable. In fact, many people consider them national treasures – Strickland is widely considered to be one of the most influential architects of the nineteenth century. Prior to his move to Nashville, he built so many notable buildings in Philadelphia, he was sometimes called “the city architect.”9 Among his important designs there are the Second Bank of the United States (His best-known portrait places him in front of the Bank, which strongly resembles the Parthenon.); the Merchants Exchange; St. Stephen’s Church; Masonic Hall; and dozens more. In Nashville Strickland contributed to the design and re-design of many private homes, burial monuments, and a wide variety of public buildings. Best known, however, are the Downtown (First) Presbyterian Church – now widely considered America’s finest surviving example of church architecture in the Egyptian Revival style – and his masterpiece, the Tennessee State Capitol. Many of Strickland’s buildings have been designated National Historic Landmarks.
In 1902, convinced that the neighborhood was becoming too commercial, the Second Presbyterian congregation sold the building and relocated to North Nashville, moving again in 1929 to better oversee the Monroe-Harding Children’s Home in Green Hills.10 They left behind not only the classical simplicity of the building’s exterior, but also the beautiful interior, which included a painted fresco behind the altar suggesting a classical porch with a view of distant hills, and a network of intricate trompe l’oeil panels and columns adorning the ceiling and walls. For many years thereafter, the original building – described at the time of its dedication as a “new and beautiful edifice . . . an ornament to that part of the city”11 – was used by the Standard Candy Company as a warehouse.12
By the late 1970s the church building had become the property of Metro Nashville. The city’s plans to build a new Criminal Justice Center involved razing the old church and other nearby structures. Although preservation advocates from the Metropolitan Historical Commission and the Tennessee State Museum pleaded with city officials to be permitted at least to salvage significant architectural elements from the building, their requests were denied.13 In 1979 Nashville’s historic Second Presbyterian Church was bulldozed into rubble in order to provide a handful of parking spaces for the Criminal Justice Center.
1 Zepp, George. “Nashville L&C Tower once offered bird’s-eye view of Nashville,environs,” Nashville Tennessean, 16 Feb 2005.
2 Nashville Whig, April 27, 1844.
3 Lindsley Family Papers, ca. 1600-ca. 1940. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
4 Patrick, James. Architecture in Tennessee, 1768-1897. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.
5 Nashville Whig, April 27, 1844.
6 Hoobler, James A. “William Strickland, Architect,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Spring 1986.7 Mahoney, Nell Savage (1889-1986) Papers, 1825-1972. THS Acc. No. 457 & 681. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
11 Nashville Whig, September 2, 1846.
12 Hoobler, James A. A Guide to Historic Nashville, Tennessee. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008.
13 Hoobler, James A. A Guide to Historic Nashville, Tennessee.
This article was first published in The Nashville Retrospect. We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here. Much gratitude also to Jim Hoobler, Cathi Carmack, Lori Lockhart, and Mike Slate for helping me untangle the knotted threads of this story. KBL