By Jane Boxall
At the turn of the 20th century, Nashville was home to a mere 80,000 people — the city was much smaller than the vibrant and growing 21st-century metropolis. But a lot of beautiful Art Deco architecture from the early 20th century remains downtown, you just have to look up above street level to notice these buildings. This walking tour is about 1.5 miles one-way, and starts at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts at 919 Broadway.
The Frist is a Nashville landmark and the heart of the city’s visual-arts scene. It’s also a gem of Art Deco architecture — the building was originally the main city Post Office for Nashville, and was built between 1933 and 1934. The exterior of the building is minimalist and sleek in architectural style, while the interior displays the more decorative style associated with Art Deco.
Even the bathrooms at the Frist are gorgeous. Peruse the galleries and changing exhibits inside this amazing building before leaving through the main doors and turning right on Broadway (downhill, East, towards the Cumberland River).
Turn left on 7th Avenue, and in one short block the James Robertson building is on your right (at 118 7th Avenue N). Built in 1929, the building’s facade bears Art Deco-style ornamentation. The building was originally a hotel, then in 1987 it was converted into apartments — until 2015 these were occupied by predominantly low-income and senior tenants. The building was sold to new ownership in Spring 2015 and the next chapter of its story is currently being written.
Continue northbound on 7th Avenue until you reach Church Street. Turn right on Church Street and you will see the historic Castner-Knott Building at numbers 616 and 618. The Church Street entrance to this building leads you into a Morton’s steakhouse, in case you’ve already walked up an appetite. The more impressive side of the building, at least in architectural terms, is around the corner from the Church Street entrance. The Castner-Knott building was built in two adjacent sections, and the work to connect the floors between these buildings was ongoing for some time after construction was completed.
The Castner-Knott building was built in 1906, as a home for the Castner-Knott Dry Goods Company. This store had been operating at a location on 5th Avenue, its move to the new building in 1906 was part of a general expansion of Nashville’s downtown commercial district along Church Street and away from the Cumberland River. Castner-Knott operated at this location until the business was closed in 1996.
Cotinue eastbound along Church Street as far as 4th Avenue. At the corner of 4th and Church is the Courtyard Nashville Downtown. This hotel is housed within the Art Deco-styled First National Bank Building, built in 1904. When this 12-storey building went up, it was the tallest building in Nashville and was called the city’s “first skyscraper”.
The skyscraper was later occupied by an insurance company, then the Third National Bank. Lettering for this bank can still be seen on the building’s side.
Turn left up 4th Avenue and then take the first left through the Nashville Arcade. This covered shopping center — Nashville’s first — was built in 1902, and styled after an Italian shopping arcade.
The upper and lower levels of the Arcade are home to diverse art galleries, shops and eateries. The best bubble tea I’ve had in the United States came from the lower level of the Arcade.
You exit the Arcade on 5th Avenue; cross the road and turn right. You’ll walk past the Tennessee State Museum, a great free museum that hosts exhibitions about Nashville’s history from prehistoric to contemporary times. They have exhibits covering the Art Deco era, too, if you want to stick with the theme of this walk.
Continue along 5th Avenue then turn right on Charlotte Avenue. Up ahead is the Davidson County Courthouse, built in 1936 in the Art Deco style. At this time, Nashville’s residents moved around the city on electric streetcars — these were phased out and replaced by buses in 1941. Behind you on Charlotte Avenue is the MTA Music City Central bus station, which is a connecting hub for the city’s modern bus network. This is the end of your walk — on foot you can head south down 3rd Avenue to the riverfront and Broadway, or reverse your route and return to the Frist.