Getting the Gulch
For this year’s annual corporate meeting we decided to visit another Southern city that we learned is enjoying a renaissance: Nashville. Home of country music, Vanderbilt University, and one of America’s favorite convention centers. I had no idea what to expect.
As in Savannah, tourism is big business in Nashville with over 13 million visitors last year, compared to Savannah’s 14 million plus. The similarities seem to stop there—the cab we took into town was topped with a dome light that proclaimed “NASHVEGAS.” The famous Broadway strip of country western bars looked like Bourbon Street, minus the jazz and good food, but with more honky-tonks than you can count. And although Nashville is a river city, it boasts no river walk and no great pedestrian-only place downtown to view the mighty Cumberland River.
Of course, in Nashville you can find music everywhere. Apparently the music city is to aspiring musicians what Los Angeles is to starlets and screen writers. There are players in every place where more than ten people are gathered, including retail stores and hotel lobbies—every one with a country musician’s sad song to share.
Savannah has art everywhere. It is harder to find in Nashville, but worth a visit to the Frist Center for Visual Arts. A sparkling example of FDR federal Art Deco architecture, this old post office was converted a generation ago by Nashville and the generous help of the Frist Family. The design of the building is worth the trip alone, and the traveling-exhibits-only galleries (no permanent collection) offered a wonderful variety of Buddhist art, sculptural installations, and mixed media presentations when we visited.
Aspirational design abounds in this city. We stayed in the Thompson Hotel in the heart of “The Gulch”—a refurbished warehouse district close to Broadway, filled with modern condos and hotels, hip restaurants, and smart shops. In a “small world” moment we bumped into Andrew Cohen from Parts and Labor Design studio from Manhattan in the lobby—only to discover that the hotel was their design! We are working with PLD on our new hotel for Rockbridge in Savannah. Andrew and his team managed to capture some of the deco spirit of the Frist, and meld it with the industrial romantic aspects of this old warehouse district. The juxtaposition of raw materials like wood, leather, and concrete with polished metal, tile, and glass makes a sublime combination. Our client, Jay Patel, arranged the manager’s tour for us, and especially wanted us to see the rooftop lounges here and at the nearby Westin. We look forward to taking these lessons back to our designs for his property in Savannah!
I must admit to a certain amount of jealousy at the freedom these architects and designers have in The Gulch. Nashville encourages developers, and allows good contemporary design to flourish. Although there are some mistakes, the aspirational thing really works here. It was a reminder that Savannah’s fear of change keeps away the worst design, but sometimes also stifles the best.
The final thing we take away from our Nashville visit is that the city has managed to integrate urban apartment living in massive quantities, while remaining a haven for the service and financial industries. This allows a better balance of tourism and convention visitors. With Savannah’s new growth, we must get—at least—the apartment piece right and make it affordable to return young people to downtown living again.
All that said, though there are lessons to be learned from Nashville. I am especially proud of two decisions I helped make as a County Commissioner 20 years ago: the banishment of stripper bars, and the location of our convention center across the river. These two things Nashville didn’t accomplish. Also, our decision to keep the hotels in Savannah’s city center relatively small-scale in size has proven wise for the past twenty years.
Let’s hope that the west and east ends of River Street turn out to be as exciting and sustainable areas for hotels, events, and urban living as Nashville’s Gulch. We’re ready to do our part!