In a town that bills itself as Music City USA, there’s no more important neighborhood than Music Row. One of the centers of music for both Nashville and the nation, this important cultural district, clustered just southwest of downtown, grew up organically over the decades to encompass scores of key recording studios, management offices, and publishing companies, and has had an outsize impact on the city’s economy. More than 56,000 jobs and $3.2 billion of labor income annually come from the music industry, in large part based on the activity in Music Row.
"During our study, we looked, and couldn’t really find anything as unique as this neighborhood," says Tim Walker, Executive Director of the Metro Historical Commission. "It’s very walkable, and very one of a kind."
Preservationists and planners want to keep it that way. As past of a collaboration with New South Associates, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has prepared a nomination to earn Music Row recognition on the National Register of Historic Places, a move that would honor arguably one of the country’s most productive community centers for the arts. The more than 200 page National Register nomination, known as a Multiple Property Documentation Form (MPDF), will be reviewed Wednesday by the Tennessee Historical Commission’s State Review Board, and with their approval, will then be passed along to the National Park Service.
While it formed in the areas around 16th and 17th avenues south without any top-down direction or city intervention—at a time before terms like "arts incubators" were part of city planning—Music Row stands as a successful and unique example of a cultural district. The move to help protect and preserve it signals a recognition that action is needed in face of development pressures from Nashville’s booming real estate market.
"We don’t want to price people out, because there are still so many music-related businesses that are homegrown," says Walker. "It’s a very complicated issue. It’s about what incentives we need to create, because it really is an economic issue. Music Row is so close to the center of the city and has so many development pressures on it."
According to Walker, Music Row grew organically, with local musicians and entrepreneurs taking advantage of a low-rent residential district near downtown to set up shop. Cheap rent, a proximity to the city’s already established music scene fueled by institutions such as the Grand Ole Opry, and commercial zoning allowed pioneers like brothers Owen and Harold Bradley, who set up the Quonset Hut studio in 1954 on what would soon become Music Row, to put in place the infrastructure for songwriting, publishing, and recording that would turn the area into a powerhouse of the creative economy.
This isn’t the first recent effort to protect the history and legacy of the area. RCA’s Studio A, which was founded by Chet Atkins, was added to the National Register last summer, averting a developer’s plans to convert it into condos and a music-themed restaurant, joining recent efforts to protect other famed sites such as Studio B, Columbia Studio A, and the Quonset Hut. According to Carolyn Brackett of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, nearly three dozen properties on or near Music Row have been demolished over the last few years.
The new MPDF, which surveys Music Row history from 1895 to the present, explains in great detail why this neighborhood offers such a valuable case study in the creative economy. Examining the history of the 209-acre neighborhood and more than 300 properties located within, including the three structures that already have National Register status (RCA Victor Studio A and RCA Studio B, as well as the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged, the one-time headquarters for BMG/Sony Records) and 64 other structures it believes to be historically significant enough to be potentially eligible for individual listing on the National Register. The MPDF provides the groundwork for property owners to pursue listing their building on the National Register, a voluntary, honorary distinction that will make them eligible for historic tax credits for their rehabilitation. The variety of properties being considered, from recording studios to artist's housing to music union halls and publishing companies, showcase the breadth of the artistic ecosystem that has helped the neighborhood thrive.
The city’s involvement and efforts won't end with the submission. Nashville's Metro Planning Department is currently working on an economic impact study, which will be finished early this month, part of a process of figuring out what steps it should be taking to preserve and protect the district from development and financial pressures. The National Trust is also working with partners to develop recommendations for preservation, tourism and economic support of the music industry.
According to Jamie Bennet, Executive Director of ArtPlace America, cities promoting or protecting arts and cultural districts need to battle the same market forces at play in gentrification battles, including equitable development and housing costs, and consider the entire ecosystem that goes into maintaining and building this type of community, including amateur and professional artists and the myriad businesses that support them.
"When I’ve seen districts created, cities tend to enter that conversation with a focus on honoring the past or reinventing for the future," he says. "In reality, you need to do both. You need to honor what made the area like it is, and build in adaptability for the future."
Based on the proposal, and future plans, the city appears to agree with that assessment, recognizing Music Row is facing a key turning point.
"We’re trying to figure out what incentives we should create," says Walker. "Some of the areas near Music Row have been bulldozed for housing, and if we continue on that trend, we’re going to lose a special place."
Here's the list of all the structures that were surveyed as part of the Music Row MPDF and which are believed to be potentially eligible for individual listing on the National Register:
Repurposed Music Studios
• Omni Sound Studios, 1806 Division Street
• Quadrafonic Sound Studios, 1802-1804 Grand Avenue
• House of David Recording Studio, 1205 16th Avenue South
• Sixteenth Avenue Sound Studios, 1217 16th Avenue South
• Jack’s Tracks Recording Studio/Allentown Studio, 1308 16th Avenue South
• LSI Recording Studio/Filmworkers Movie & TV Studio, 1006 17th Avenue South
• Alamo Studio/Fun House Studios, 802 18th Avenue South
• Studio 20, 823 19th Avenue South
• Glaser Brothers Sound Studio/Compass Records, 916 19th Avenue South
• Sound Stage Studios/Mercury, 10 Music Circle South
Radio Broadcast Studios
• WNAH 1360 AM, 44 Music Square East
Music Union Halls and Professional Associations
• SESAC Headquarters, 55 Music Square East
• CMA/SAE Institute of Technology, 7 Music Circle North
Music Performance Venues and Gathering Places
• Figilio’s on the Row, 26 Music Square East
• Koinonia Christian Bookstore & Coffeehouse, 1000-1002 16th Avenue South
Music Industry Housing
• Spence Manor & Webb Pierce Swimming Pool, 11 Music Square East
• Nealton Apartments, 23 Music Square East
• Marie Dalton Boarding House/Roy Orbison Building, 65 Music Square East
• Edgehill Apartments, 1208 16th Avenue South
• Dismas House, 1511 16th Avenue South
• Little Sixteen Condos, 1520 16th Avenue South
• Cumberland Courts Apartments, 1600 16th Avenue South
• Lincoln-Harding House, 1605 16th Avenue South
• Mansfield Apartments, 1017 17th Avenue South
• Lincoln Court Apartments, 1018 17th Avenue South
• Mansfield Apartments, 1019 17th Avenue South
Music Professional and Media Services
• Country Music Showdown/Dick James Music, 63 Music Square East
• Cheatham Palermo & Garrett Law, 43 Music Square West
• Whitehardt Attorney/Skylite Talent Agency, 45 Music Square West
• Music City Tattoo/Bruce Agency Building, 1022 16th Avenue South
• Classic Ax Instrument Repair Shop, 1024 16th Avenue South
• Terry & Gore Attorneys, 1200 16th Avenue South
Music Publishing Houses
• Little Shop of Morgansongs/Tammy Wynette Building, 1800 Grand Avenue
• CBS Songs Building/Landmark Community Bank, 1013 16th Avenue South
• Screen Gems Music/House of David, 1207 16th Avenue South
• Lorimar Publishing/Oak Ridge Boys Building, 1209 16th Avenue South
• Sheet Publishing House, 1501 16th Avenue South
• Don Light Talent/Chet Atkins Office, 1013 17th Avenue South
• House of David Publishing Offices, 1203 16th Avenue South
• Picalic Publishing, 1204 16th Avenue South
• Elizabeth Travis Management/Randy Travis Building, 1610 16th Avenue South
• House of Gold, 1614 16th Avenue South
• Major Bob Music, 1109 17th Avenue South
• Waylon Jennings Music, 1117 17th Avenue South
• Wrensong Publishing, 1229 17th Avenue South
• Maypop/Peer Publishing, 702 18th Avenue South
• Banner Music & Bison Creek Records, 800 18th Avenue South
• Decca Records, 27 Music Square East
• MCA Records, 54-60 Music Square East
Music Multi-Purpose Facilities
• Yellow House/Murray Nash Associates, 1707B Division Street
• Warner Brothers Records/Florence Crittenton Home, 1815 Division Street
• Little Shop of Morgansongs Writers House, 1710 Grand Avenue
• Music City Optical/Charley Pride Building, 25 Music Square East
• Gayle Entertainment/Tree Publishing/Dial Records, 51 Music Square East
• Evergreen Records, 1021 16th Avenue South
• Ingram Lebron Music, 1201 16th Avenue South
• Grey House Studio/Barnaby Records, 1009 17th Avenue South
• Major Bob Music/American Recording Studio, 1111 17th Avenue South
• Goodloe-Forrester House, 14 Music Circle South
• Fire Hall Engine No. 7 (Tree/Sony Songwriter’s Studio), 16 Music Square West
• Don Q. Pullen House, 1215 Villa Place
• Church of the Advent Episcopal (Ocean Way Recording Studios), 1200 17th Avenue South
• Simmons Memorial Hall (Ocean Way Recording Studios), 1202 17th Avenue South
• Christian Asmus House, 1222 17th Avenue South
• Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged, 1400 18th Avenue South