TSLA – Tennessee’s Treasurehouse

by Kathy Lauder.

In early January 2004 Herbert Harper of the Tennessee Historical Commission announced that the Tennessee State Library and Archives building at 403 7th Avenue North “has, upon the nomination of this office, been placed in the National and Tennessee Registers of Historic Places by the National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior on November 17, 2003.”

The 7th Avenue building was declared eligible for the National Register on two counts. The first was architecture. Designed by H. Clinton Parrent, Jr., and completed in 1953, the structure is an outstanding example of late neoclassical architecture. Introduced at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the neoclassical style is marked by “a symmetrical façade featuring a central entrance shielded by a full-height porch with a roof supported by classical columns.” The Nashville building features the slender columns and side-gabled roofs of the later phase, along with some Art Deco touches. It was designed to complement, although not to duplicate, the neighboring Capitol and Supreme Court buildings.

The former home of the Tennessee State Library and Archives on 7th Avenue North across from the State Capitol.

The September 1953 edition of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, reporting on the grand opening of the building, included this enthusiastic description: “With its exterior walls of white Tennessee marble, its Roman Ionic columns suggestive of the Greek Ionic columns of the Capitol and the inscriptions along the upper walls which serve as reminders of the cultural traditions out of which the building grew, it adds immeasurably to the beauty of Capitol Hill. The building is as functional as it is beautiful, with eight stack levels to accommodate [over two million volumes of] books and records . . ., a restoration laboratory for the repair and preservation of old books and records, a photographic laboratory . . ., and an auditorium.”

One of the most surprising features of the 7th Avenue facility is that it consists of two very different buildings under one roof. The handsome front section, which contained the public reading rooms and staff offices, consists of three stories and an attic storage area. A highlight is the elegant marble vestibule, featuring a terrazzo floor embellished with a geographical map of Tennessee, and military symbols reminding visitors that the building was dedicated to the Tennessee veterans of World War II. The rear of the building, functional and much less ornate, consists of eight stories of stacks and work areas.

The original Tennessee State Library was housed in the Capitol itself. Architect William Strickland personally designed the lofty and elegant room across from the Supreme Court chambers. In 1854 the legislature appropriated funds to purchase books, appointing Return Jonathan Meigs III to build the collection. Meigs, a respected scholar, was named Tennessee’s first State Librarian in 1856. By the middle of the 20th century, his successors had overseen many changes in the library collection, including the acquisition of the Tennessee Historical Society papers in 1927. As the number of resources grew, particularly under the leadership of John Trotwood Moore, who developed the collection of military and other historical records, the allotted space became cramped. It became clear that the Capitol-based Library was no longer an effective facility for research and study.

The original State Library was in this beautiful room in the Capitol, frequently used now for meetings and receptions.

For that reason, the educational value of the 7th Avenue facility – its second criterion of eligibility for the National Register – may be even more significant. The building was constructed not only to store the State Library’s growing collection, but also to preserve the state’s archival records after many decades during which they were stuffed into attics, cellars, and odd corners of the Capitol and other buildings. In the early 1890s a janitor had actually burned several cartloads of documents, saying they were “wet and nasty and smelled bad.” An 1893 request to ship 85 trunks of Civil War vouchers to Washington, D.C., led Governor Peter Turney to assign Capitol superintendent Robert Thomas Quarles to find them. Quarles became the hero of Tennessee historians forever when he focused attention on the appalling condition of stored records and began a ten-year effort to sort and preserve them. After Quarles’ death in 1914, the state legislature passed a resolution authorizing the governor to appoint a state official to continue the work of sorting and preserving. John Trotwood Moore was named the first State Librarian and Archivist in 1919, and the Library and Archives officially merged in 1921.

Construction of the 7th Avenue building was proposed at the first meeting of the Tennessee Historical Commission on December 3, 1941, by Moore’s widow and successor, Mary Daniel Moore. Unfortunately, the entry of the United States into World War II four days later forced the plans to be delayed for several years. Finally, in 1947 and 1949, under the administrations of Governors Jim Nance McCord and Gordon W. Browning, the state legislature appropriated the necessary funds to begin construction. Ground was broken in 1951; the formal opening took place on June 17, 1953.  

The current home of the Tennessee State Library and Archives is this striking facility on Bicentennial Mall near the Tennessee State Museum .

Update: Early in the 21st century, having outgrown available storage space in the 7th Avenue building, the State of Tennessee approved the development of a new facility. Construction began on December 11, 2017. Designed by Tuck-Hinton Architects, the new TSLA building stands adjacent to the Bicentennial Mall at Rep. John Lewis Way and Jefferson Street. The 165,000-square-foot facility, built at a cost of more than $120,000, includes a climate-controlled chamber for storing historic books and manuscripts within a space-saving robotic retrieval system, a blast freezer to help save water- and insect-damaged materials, and improved work spaces and meeting rooms. The ribbon-cutting and grand opening ceremony took place on April 12, 2021.

The author is grateful to Dr. Edwin Gleaves, Jeanne Sugg, Fran Schell, Greg Poole, and Ralph Sowell, who graciously shared the documents and information used in the preparation of this essay. Originally written in 2004, it was updated in 2021 to include more recent events.

“With All Deliberate Speed”: The Desegregation of Cameron High School

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Nashville’s first public high school for African American students was the Meigs School, which opened as a grammar school in 1883 and accepted secondary students for the first time the fall of 1886.  Eleven years later, in 1897, responding to rising student enrollment, the Board of Education moved all the city’s black high school students to the former Pearl Grammar School building, built in 1883 at 217 5th Ave. S (across from today’s Country Music Hall of Fame), creating Pearl High School, which remained at that location until its move to 16th Ave. N. in 1917.

The 5th Avenue building remained vacant until the fall of 1924, when it reopened as Pearl Junior High, serving grades 1-9. Four years later, on November 26, 1928, the School Board voted to change the school’s name to Cameron Junior High School, in honor of Professor H. A. Cameron.

Henry Alvin Cameron was one of eleven African American soldiers from Davidson County to die in World War I. Before enlisting at age 45, Cameron had worked as a science teacher and coach at Pearl High School, taking a leave of absence from teaching in 1917 to volunteer for service in the war. One of only twelve black soldiers from Tennessee accepted into the officer training program at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, Cameron was among the 1.2 million American soldiers who participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the autumn of 1918. He died twelve days before the end of the war at Châtel-Chéhéry, not far from where Sgt. Alvin York had earned the Medal of Honor for courage under fire three weeks earlier.

Cameron was the fourth public school in Nashville to be named for an African American. The others were Carter School (1897), named for Nashville teacher Howard Carter (and becoming the Carter-Lawrence School after a 1940 merger); Napier School (1898), named for Henry Alonzo Napier, a Nashville school principal who had studied at West Point; and Nelson Merry School (date unknown), honoring Nashville’s first African-American ordained minister.

The original Cameron school building was a two-story brick structure. It lacked indoor plumbing, heated its classrooms by means of a scattering of stoves and grates throughout the building, and was seriously overcrowded — designed for 800 students, it typically housed 1,000 and had a lengthy waiting list. Elementary classrooms were located on the first floor; grades 7-9 met on the second.

Cameron School building on First Ave. S. and Lafayette St. (photo by Andrew Jameson)

In 1940 Cameron School moved to First Ave. S., occupying a building designed by Henry Clossen Hibbs, a celebrated architect who also designed Nashville’s NES building, along with structures at Fisk, Vanderbilt, Peabody, Scarritt, Belmont, and Meharry. This four-story facility, set on a 7-acre campus, featured 23 classrooms, two office suites, a large library, three home economics rooms, two science laboratories, a clinic, a cafeteria, and a teachers’ lounge.

Under the leadership of Principal John C. Hull, Cameron became a senior high school in the fall of 1955, when its elementary grades (1-6) moved into the newly constructed Johnson Elementary School (named for a former principal) on 2nd Avenue South. Hull oversaw the construction of a boys’ gym, an auditorium, band and chorus rooms, and a stadium. Cameron High School’s first senior class graduated in June 1957.

In 1958 Oscar Jackson, a TSU alumnus with a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina, became principal of Cameron High School. Jackson was still principal at Cameron in 1968, the year the school’s athletic program was suspended, setting off a legal battle that would continue for more than three years and would ultimately cost Oscar Jackson his health. Jackson and his staff fought the suspension in both the courtroom and the media as the battle merged with efforts to end segregation in the Nashville schools. By late summer 1970 the beloved principal, exhausted and in poor health, retired after twelve years at the helm of the school. James M. Robinson replaced Jackson, but only for a year. The battle for full school integration was nearly over.

Despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring public school segregation unconstitutional, and the Court’s subsequent decree (1955) that integration proceed “with all deliberate speed,” Cameron High School’s student body was still entirely black in 1968 when the Metro school board and the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association suspended the school’s athletic program for a full year after a basketball tournament fracas. Cameron parents and their supporters, represented by attorney Avon N. Williams Jr., claimed that the suspension was racially motivated and also insisted that city schools should be made to conform to constitutional integration requirements. In 1971, after a federal judge ordered busing to resolve racial segregation, many white parents withdrew their children from the public schools, and private schools sprang up all over town1. Nevertheless, desegregation was finally winding down. In June 1971 the last all-black senior class graduated from Cameron High. Beginning that fall, Cameron students were bused to McGavock Comprehensive High School2 in Donelson. McGavock, which opened in 1971, initially served students in grades ten through twelve who had previously attended Cameron, Donelson and Two Rivers high schools; the school added ninth grade in 1978. Cameron became an integrated junior high school, and in 1978 pioneered Nashville’s first middle school program.

The Cameron School has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2006, and has also been designated by the Metro Nashville Historical Commission as part of a Historic Landmark District. (2021)

McGavock High School football players, fall 2021 (photo by Caryn Scherm Hill)

Adapted from the Greenwood Project.

1 Nashville schools that opened in the early 1970s:

  • McGavock Comprehensive High School (public), Donelson, initially served students in grades 10-12 who had previously attended Cameron, Donelson and Two Rivers high schools; the school opened its doors in 1971;
  • Brentwood Academy (private), Granny White Pike, Brentwood, was chartered 20 Nov 1969 and opened September 1970;
  • Donelson Christian Academy (private), Donelson, founded in 1971;
  • Ezell-Harding Christian School (private), Bell Road, Antioch – parents began meeting about establishing the school in 1971-72; school’s first year of operation was 1973-74;
  • Franklin Road Academy (private), 4700 Franklin Pike, founded in 1971;
  • Goodpasture Christian School (private), Madison, opened to grades 7-11 in Sep 1971, adding grade 12 by fall 1972; the former East Nashville Christian School, it had opened to grades 1-6 in 1966;
  • Nashville Christian School (private), 7555 Sawyer Brown Rd., opened 20 Sep 1971;
  • St. Paul Christian Academy (private), 5033 Hillsboro Pike, opened Sep 1971 for students in grades K-6. The school added grades, 7, 8, and 9 by 1975 but phased them out by 1981 to focus on elementary education.

McGavock High School facts:

  • Largest high school in Tennessee in physical size – just under 500,000 square feet; its main building covers 14 acres;
  • First high school in Nashville to combine an academic program with extensive vocational training;
  • Its impressive marching band has won the state championship 25 times and has performed at the Tournament of Roses Parade, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Orange Bowl Parade, and other nationally televised events; the National Band Association has recognized it as one of the Ten Finest Bands in the U.S.

The story of the battle for integration at Cameron High School is told in The Past Is Prologue: Cameron Class of 1969, a documentary film by Mark Schlicher, and in this Nashville Scene article.

Airdrie – Let There Be Paradise

Musings by Mike Slate.

Life is fundamentally different on Airdrie’s three acres. Hours and minutes dissolve into the background; decades and centuries move to the forefront. The cavalcade of history is palpable there; yet a timeless tide flows among the magnolia and poplar trees, across the columned portico, and around back through the sanctuary where birds and humans study one another through the porch screens.

Scene in the Airdrie gardens (photo from NHN collection)

In Paul Clements’ monumental work, A Past Remembered: A Collection of Antebellum Houses in Davidson County, the home is called the Petway House, after owner Hinchey Petway, a Middle Tennessee businessman whose memorable name could easily have come from a Dickens novel. Clements’ research reveals that prior to Petway the plantation and dwelling – which was originally a log house – had belonged to not one but two members of the early 19th-century U.S. House of Representatives, William Dickson and Thomas Claiborne. Still further back we encounter William Coldwell, who owned the property at about the time Tennessee became a state. Perhaps it was he who built the frontier home now largely enveloped by the present structure. (A few of the interior rooms clearly show their log-house origins.) Finally, we meet John Foreman, the recipient of the original 1784 North Carolina grant for the land on which the mansion would be built.

In the Metro Historical Commission’s Nashville: A Short History and Selected Buildings, Airdrie is called the Buell-King residence, highlighting not only the present owners but also the post-Civil War Buell family, who owned the house for about 80 years. An interesting sidelight mentioned in the Commission’s book is that a relative of the Buells, Don Carlos Buell, was the Union general who accepted the surrender of Nashville in 1862. Around 1910 another relative of the family, architect George Norton, extensively renovated the structure and engineered the Classical Revival style presented today.

Entrance to Airdrie (photo from NHN collection)

Tennessean columnist George Zepp has alluded (21 June 2006) to the origin of the current appellation, “Airdrie.” That name is derived from the Airdrie Land Company, set up by the Buell family in the early 20th century to stimulate the sale of surrounding acreage. The Kings preferred “Airdrie,” and the mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places under that designation.

An article by Rebecca Rice in The City Paper (12 August 2005), titled “Own a Home as Old as Tennessee,” also documented Airdrie’s provenance, including the ownerships of Judge John Brien and Vanderbilt professor Ward Allen. Brien owned the estate after Petway and before the Buells, while Dr. Allen’s possession covered the decade prior to the King’s 1963 acquisition of the property.

Harold and Dorothy King, contemporary heroes of historic preservation, have simultaneously nurtured two marriages: one to each other and a second to Airdrie. Together the Kings have opposed boredom, embraced adventure, conquered illnesses, and championed enthusiasm. Through prodigious labor and uncommon spunk, they transformed the estate from ramshackle relic to refined retreat, from anachronistic anomaly to alluring arbor. After 43 years of devotion to this landmark, they finally chose to move to a neighboring state in order to be closer to their family.

Since Airdrie has such a mystique and so many historical facets – some known only to the Kings – we might aptly call it the Hope diamond of Nashville private residences. Complete with two historic outbuildings (a log cabin and a barn) as well as the notable Buell spring, the compound features one of the finest historic homes in Nashville.

The Rebirth of Germantown

by John Lawrence Connelly, Davidson County Historian.

For a large part of the twentieth century Nashville residents either ignored or did not know that an area north of Jefferson Street was once a prominent neighborhood where many of Nashville’s leading citizens lived. To a large extent, it was a German community that began flourishing heartily in the 1840s by blending its German heritage with Irish, Italian, Swiss, and Jewish neighbors, in public schools and sometimes in churches. The Catholic Church of the Assumption, founded in 1859, held many of its services in German, as did the German Methodist Church (Barth Memorial), founded in 1854 on North College Street (today’s Second Avenue North). Many prosperous merchants of the city lived in Germantown, and their names hung prominently on retail store signs downtown: Rust, Zugermann, Zickler, Ratterman, Buddeke, Thuss, Grossholz, Jensen, Jeck, and Wheling, to name a few. What’s more, the German names in the community reflected a strong Lutheran heritage.

 Photograph of Treibers Hall used with permission of Lois Thompson.

Within the German community many immigrants worked as butchers, a practice brought over by immigrants from Europe. These tradesmen often killed livestock and cut up the meat in their back yards or in nearby lots. Once they were able to sell their products to the Nashville Market House and other businesses, the number of people who peddled meat from door to door declined rapidly. Many residents opened their own shops or stalls. Names such as Jacobs, Dieterle, Stier, Warner, Oliver, Neuhoff, Power, Petre, Laitenberger, and White were among the best-known butchers from North Nashville. Meat suppliers from Butchertown developed the Christmas spice round, a Nashville holiday meat that would become a celebrated local tradition.

By 1915 the changes that would eventually destroy the neighborhood were beginning to take place. Just as the people who live in a community do not stay the same, old neighborhoods also undergo change. Shortly after the turn of the century, as streetcar lines expanded and motor transportation began to make advancements, Nashville saw a definite trend among the residents to move away from the “walk-to-town” areas. Moreover, the development of refrigeration led to the phasing out of many small butchering businesses. Large packing houses began to infringe upon the pleasant residential atmosphere of the neighborhood, which had often been advertised in local newspapers as a growing and fashionable community. It was World War I, however, that dealt the final blow to Germantown.

Wilbur F. Creighton’s book, Building of Nashville, provides an explanation: “In 1917 the reservoir was closed to visitors. The paper had been filled with stories of German atrocities, such as the use of poisonous gases and deliberate infection of water supplies.” Other cases of exaggerated emotional response to the war included suggestions by some that citizens should “kill their dachshunds.” Fearing for their safety, many German families instructed their older members to stop speaking German, even at home.

Changes within the Barth Memorial Church provide a good example of what was happening in Germantown. For many years sermons were delivered in German, but after World War I began, it was resolved that the church should offer only English services. Catholics and Lutherans with German backgrounds did likewise. The uniqueness of a small community with ties to the “Fatherland” was over. The neighborhood as it once was would never come back, and its steady decline continued until a handful of urban pioneers decided to attempt to create a new Germantown in the 1970s.

Germantown experienced a great deal of decay over the years as many houses were torn down and others extensively altered. Nonetheless, studies made by the Metropolitan Historical Commission in the 1970s stated: “A large percentage of structures are still intact, and it can become a viable neighborhood. The quality of architecture is exceptional, and the condition of the structures is, for the most part, quite sound.”

Today Nashville’s Germantown Historic District is one of the most architecturally heterogeneous neighborhoods in the city. The eight-block area contains a wide variety of styles and types of residences built between the 1840s and 1920s. Because of its historical and architectural significance Germantown was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in August, 1979.

For the past several years new residents have worked individually and collectively to restore Germantown. The Germantown Association has become a dynamic neighborhood group where old and new residents come together to plan for the future. A ride through the area today reveals a lively community with new and restored houses, beautiful flowers and trees, a new supermarket, a new pharmacy, and attractive brick sidewalks. Once again Nashville can take pride in this lovely neighborhood located within a few steps of the Bicentennial Mall, featuring a magnificent view of the State Capitol. Germantown has come back, with almost unlimited potential for tomorrow.

In 1980 members of the Catholic Church of the Assumption and the Monroe Street United Church (two historic churches that survived the lean years) came together to give Nashville its first Oktoberfest. This event, held on the second Saturday in October, has become one of Middle Tennessee’s most popular celebrations. The Germantown Association has sponsored a Maifest celebration for the past decade and often sells out all of its tickets. Yes, Germantown is on the map again!  (2001)

Note: Although the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of Oktoberfest for a couple of years, residents plan to bring it back soon.

Remembering Omohundro

by Doris Boyce.

Few people realize that Nashville is home to one of America’s oldest water pumping stations, continuously in operation since 1889. Originally named the George Reyer Pumping Station, in honor of a long-time superintendent of the Nashville Water Works, the station and the adjoining R.L. Lawrence filtration plant (in service since 1928) eventually came to be called the Omohundro Water Plant. Originally operating under steam power, the plant was converted to electricity in 1953. The Omohundro plant, which has a pumping capacity of 139,000,000 gallons of water a day, is one of the two treatment plants that provide all the water for Nashville and neighboring communities. In 1987 the Omohundro Complex was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Even fewer people know that the names of the water plant and Pumping Station Road were changed in 1961 to honor “Squire” John Moten Omohundro Sr. The meandering Omohundro Drive, which adjoins Omohundro Place and Omohundro Court, intersects twice with Lebanon Road not far from downtown Nashville.

John Moten Sr. was often referred to in print as the “Squire,” not to be confused with John Moten Jr. or John Moten III. The senior Moten was born in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1883 and came to Tennessee’s Wilson County as a boy. He had an active political career for over fifty-six years, serving as a justice of the peace, chief of detectives, constable, inspector, magistrate, and city judge of Criminal Court. Known as the Honorable John M. Omohundro, Esquire, he was a member of the court from 1924 until his retirement in 1960. In addition, he served on the Highway Commission when construction of Old Hickory Boulevard began and when the Old Hickory bridge over the Cumberland River was built in 1927-28. His name and those of others on the Commission are carved on both stone approaches to the twin metal bridges.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is old_hickory_bridge_tennessee.jpg
North entrance to the Old Hickory bridge, Old Hickory, Tennessee (Photo by Brent Moore, https://www.flickr.com/photos/brent_nashville/195132799/)

The Squire was an imposing man, over six feet tall, who always wore a white Stetson hat and sported a handkerchief in his pocket. He spoke with a husky voice through a hole in his throat after an operation in the early 1930s. He rode comfortably astride a horse, his father having been a partner in a Nashville livery stable, Jones and Omohundro. On horseback, Squire patrolled the powder plant at DuPont during World War I. He was a force within his community, known to be a man who got things done. Governor Buford Ellington and Mayor Beverly Briley were honorary pallbearers at his 1967 funeral.

In 1906 he married Sadie Poynor, who also enjoyed an admirable public career. She became Postmaster of Donelson in 1943, remaining in that position until the Donelson post office became a Nashville branch in 1954. Sadie was then named a postal superintendent, serving in that capacity until her retirement in 1957. She also had the distinction of being the first president of the Parent-Teachers Association of the old Rosemont School, which later became the Margaret Allen school.

The Squire and Sadie had two children, Alybel and John M. Jr. Alybel and her husband Bill Johnson had no children. John married Frances Nelson, and their union resulted in five children, ten grandchildren, and thirteen great-grandchildren.

Although the surname Omohundro is shrouded in folklore, we do know that the first recorded Omohundro in North America was Richard, who bought property in Virginia’s Westmoreland County in 1670. He married the daughter of the Englishman William Moxley, and all other American Omohundros have descended from them.

Before ending this tribute to the Squire, we should mention his famous uncle, “Texas Jack” Omohundro, who was a protégé of Buffalo Bill Cody. Texas Jack was a magnificent specimen of physical manhood, six feet tall and of the finest proportions. A native of Virginia, he was born in 1846, created a legendary persona, and died before our Squire Omohundro was born. Books written about the life and times of Texas Jack have influenced generations. The Texas Jack website describes him as a “cowboy, prairie scout, western hunting guide, Wild West showman, and partner of W. F. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody and James B. ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok.” Perhaps Squire Omohundro infused a bit of his larger-than-life uncle into our local heritage.