Singing City

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Outside hums the city that draws more than 10 million visitors a year, each surrounding block expressing its own character. Stretching between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, the Arcade, an iron and glass-roofed marvel built in 1903 and inspired by structures common in nineteenthcentury Italy, could use some sprucing up. It still has its charms—pigeons fly through and people grab sandwiches from a few lunch spots and then sit at tables in the main corridor—but with a little attention this wonderful relic from the era when everyone came downtown to shop could really shine again.

I was swept by the same nostalgia when I spotted an empty Kress Building across Fifth from the Arcade, its 1930s terra cotta facade intact. Then I noticed a sign, kress lofts for sale, the first tip-off that these commercial streets that today more or less close down after office workers go home at five might have a future. Other condominiums and rentals, some new, some renovated, are starting to rise on the Nashville skyline.

The Kress Building was an anchor on the street in the 1940s and 1950s, which is why, in February 1960, it became one of the staging areas for the sit-in movement that soon led to widespread desegregation of the city’s public facilities. The story of how Jim Crow lunch counters fell to a massive nonviolent campaign started by Nashville’s large population of black college students is magnificently told in the Civil Rights Room of Nashville’s newly opened library on Church Street.

A round table in the center of the room symbolizes the embattled lunch counters. Engraved on its surface are 10 rules of conduct, powerful enough to fuel a revolution, set out by two of the leaders, Bernard Lafayette and John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman. “do not: Strike back nor curse if abused; laugh out; hold conversations with floor walker; leave your seat until your leader has given you permission; block entrances to stores outside nor the aisles inside. do: Show yourself friendly and courteous at all times; sit straight, always face the counter; report all serious incidents to your leader; refer information seekers to your leader in a polite manner; remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.”

When King came to Nashville two months later, he said it was “not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”

The nationally known Fisk University provided many of the students who fueled this great movement. One of the highlights of my time in Nashville was a visit to Fisk’s art galleries. The modest brick structure, built as a church in 1888 and then used as a gym, gives little hint of the treasures within. The Carl Van Vechten Gallery is named for the great photographer of the Harlem Renaissance who, as a friend of Dr. Charles Sturgeon Johnson, Fisk’s president, steered the collection there. It includes works by Picasso, Cézanne, and Renoir as well as many important American painters, and it belonged to the famous photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, whose wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, deeded the works to Fisk.

South of the city, in a very elegant neighborhood called Belle Mead (and home to Tipper and Al Gore), is the 55-acre Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art. I was there in November, and the trees and plantings were showing their last flare. The varied gardens and plantings wove color and texture together like an ancient tapestry. The 1930s Georgian mansion had been built with Maxwell House coffee riches, and most of the furnishings, art glass, china, and a good range of American paintings had come together after the Cheek family departed, having first donated the property to the city. Roaming through the house and its gardens, then stopping at the Pineapple Room Restaurant, could pleasantly consume the better part of a day.

An agreeable anomaly among Cheekwood’s carefully groomed attractions is a group of powerful stone figures by the self-taught African-American sculptor William Edmondson. He was taken up by some of Nashville’s creative folk in the 1930s, given a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and through it all maintained an endearing simplicity, in both chisel and speech. “I am just doing the Lord’s work,” Edmondson said. “I ain’t got much style; God don’t want much style, but he gives wisdom and speeds you along.”

A 15-minute drive east of Nashville brings you to another great estate, the Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson. He bought the land in 1804, at first living with his wife, Rachel, in a log cabin and eventually building a house that grew grander as his fortune did, and most of the furnishings we see today actually belonged to him. This man of the people—the only President who has an era named for him—lived very well indeed. The handsomely proportioned large rooms and hand-painted wallpaper imported from France speak to that.

When I visited, the house was decorated for Christmas, but sparingly, because, we’re told, the President-elect was always reminded at that season of his wife’s death in 1828, just before the holiday. After that, Jackson needed more than ever to be surrounded by people, especially his friend the great portrait painter Ralph Earl. While Jackson lived there, Earl performed various homely tasks, like opening Jackson’s mail. He also painted Jackson, his family, and associates through the years in many fine works that hang at the Hermitage and in abundance at the Tennessee State Museum downtown.