Click on a topic to go directly to that section:

Introduction
Nashville Architecture
Nashville during the Depression
Stripped Classicism
Icons of the Era
The New Post Office
Recycling the Nashville Post Office
Art Changes Lives: Celebrating Twenty Years of the Frist Art Museum


Introduction

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.

—Winston Churchill


A society projects its views of itself in its public works. Design choices embody many forces—political and economic as well as cultural. Our government buildings, therefore, must be understood in the context of the American experience.

When the United States of America was founded, its leaders chose the classical architectural style to symbolize the nation’s legitimacy and its government’s authority. Weighted with allusions to Greek democracy and the Roman republic, classical architecture’s formal properties—symmetry and hierarchy, clarity and predictability—were thought of as instruments that could impose rational order onto a wilderness.

During the 1930s, federal architects relied on a form of classicism to tame the economic wilderness of the Great Depression. But while the massive block built to house Nashville’s post office is formal and symmetrical, it is “stripped” or “starved” of obvious classical details. In retrospect, its design reflected economically lean times.

The team of federal and local architects who designed the Nashville post office crafted an imposing monument to government stability. A team of public-spirited citizens poured dynamic new meaning into this vessel with the opening of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts (now the Frist Art Museum) on April 8, 2001. They created an institution dedicated to serving all of Nashville’s diverse communities, as well as the people who visit our city.

The result of the collective civic will to turn dreams into reality is a landmark repurposed as a place of communal gathering and learning. Today the Frist Art Museum stands firmly on its 1934 foundations, committed to its vision to change how people see and experience their world through art.



Nashville Architecture

The cornerstone for what was originally called Nashville’s Custom House, Courthouse, and Post Office was laid on Broadway by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877, two blocks from where the Frist Art Museum stands today. Hayes had triumphed in the 1876 election by promising to withdraw federal troops from the South and start a federal building program in the financially depressed region. What became the US Customs House was a realization of his campaign promise.

The Gothic Revival structure, designed by William Appleton Potter (1842–1908), was Nashville’s first federal office building. Potter’s use of a style not traditionally employed for federal buildings was perhaps intended to make more palatable the U.S. government’s presence in a city that had so recently been occupied by Union troops. The elaborate handcarved limestone ornament, the interior cherrywood trim, and the solid brass hardware contributed to the $404,684.44 cost of the project, making it the most expensive undertaken during Potter’s tenure as supervising architect for the Treasury Department.

Two buildings near the Frist Art Museum introduce earlier styles that recall the great cathedrals of Europe. The Victorian Gothic Christ Episcopal Church (now Christ Church Cathedral), built by New York architect Francis H. Kimball, opened in 1894. The Richardsonian Romanesque Union Station, designed by Louisville architect Richard Montfort, opened in 1900 as Nashville’s main train depot. The importance of Union Station was a critical factor in the decision to build a new post office next door in 1934. In counterpoint to these older buildings, the symmetrical and streamlined post office would exhibit an updated classical style in which ornamentation is suppressed and linear incisions on the facade lead the eye skyward.

Marr & Holman, Architects

Thomas Marr (1866–1936), a partially deaf bachelor trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was content to remain at the drafting table, live quietly, and travel little. Joseph Holman (1890–1952) brought to the firm not only an interest in architecture and engineering but the enterprising instinct to pursue projects and the ability to charm clients into contracts. It was the perfect partnership.

Architectural practice during the 1920s and 1930s, when the firm was in its heyday, placed limited emphasis on uniqueness of design—at least outside the major urban centers. For Marr & Holman, design was largely a question of surveying the latest building types and styles and incorporating current developments into the firm’s projects. Architecture was more of a business than a fine art.

This practicality and business savvy may have contributed to Marr & Holman’s survival during the 1930s, when so many other architectural firms closed their doors. The fact that Marr & Holman was able to continue, albeit with a reduced staff, was due in large part to the new Nashville post office. Its $800,000 construction cost was greater than the sum of all other building permits in the city for the entire year of 1933.

Such a prize was the subject of intense competition among Nashville architects. In March 1931, even before the call for architects was officially announced, letters and portfolios began pouring into the Treasury Department. Local firms still operating in the depressed construction industry made every effort to impress those with influence in Washington. Holman flew to the capital to pay a personal call on the Treasury’s acting supervising architect, James Wetmore, and to share his insights as the son of a postman.

On November 5, 1931, Treasury Secretary William Woodin named Marr & Holman the architects for the Nashville post office.

Joseph Holman’s friendship with theater entrepreneur and businessman Tony Sudekum led to a great deal of work for Marr & Holman, including the Sudekum Building on the corner of Church Street and Sixth Avenue North. The principal designer of the Sudekum Building (originally the Warner Building) was Henry Horneman, a recent German immigrant borrowed from a Chicago firm by Holman. The twelve-story steel-and-concrete structure was completed in 1932. With streamlined aluminum strips curved over the parapet to catch the sun’s rays, it was the firm’s best demonstration of art deco style in Nashville. It was demolished in 1992, and the Cumberland on Church apartments were constructed in 1998 on the same site.

The rising popularity of the automobile in the 1920s and 1930s reversed the trend of increased density in the urban core in favor of suburban development. Tony Sudekum approached Marr & Holman with plans for a cinema and shopping strip on Harding Road, near the recently developed subdivision of Belle Meade. The concept was a large movie house with a prominent neon marquee and pylon to attract drive-by traffic, along with a series of attached setback shops.

The Belle Meade theater gained Marr & Holman national attention. Architectural Record’s fiftieth-anniversary issue in 1941 presented the Streamlined Moderne complex as one of the nation’s best new shopping centers.

Designed by Marr & Holman in the same stripped classical style as the Nashville post office, the extremely formal and dignified Tennessee Supreme Court Building is classical in its proportions and symmetry but simplified in its ornament, except for the richly detailed cornice. The New Deal’s Public Works Administration contributed $192,857 to the construction budget, with the remaining $450,000 financed by state bonds. Like the post office, the building has an art deco interior.

Marr & Holman, Architects
North and South Elevations of the Nashville Post Office, October 1, 1932
Reproduction
Ink on linen
Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, original on deposit with the Frist Art Museum

Marr & Holman, Architects
Exterior Wall Section and Main Details, Nashville Post Office, October 1, 1932
Reproduction
Ink on linen
Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, original on deposit with the Frist Art Museum




Nashville during the Depression

The immediate reaction of Nashville’s construction industry to the crash of October 1929 was, “It can’t happen here.” The Nashville Banner reported two months later that “the flicker of fear that followed the stock market break . . . is being replaced by a sturdy optimism among building authorities that the 1930 volume will be substantially larger.” As late as October 1930, visiting officials from the Publix theater chain proclaimed that “Nashville is one of the few cities we have seen where there is no apparent evidence of business depression.”

That evidence turned up on November 14, 1930, when the “Wall Street of the South” went the way of the rest of the country with the bankruptcy of Caldwell and Company, a local banking and brokerage firm. In its wake, 120 banks across the South went under.

In response to the news that Caldwell and Company had declared insolvency, the Tennessee Hermitage National Bank suffered an all-day run. The crowd was orderly, for word had been sent down the line that all depositors would be paid in full if they so demanded. But the bank closed at 2:00 p.m. with a long line of people still unserved. One mishap was reported: after waiting for two hours, a woman finally withdrew $150 but found when she reached the street that she had lost her money in pushing through the crowd.

Hunger and poverty appeared on the streets of Nashville in 1931. Armies of transients camped on the banks of the Cumberland River and wandered through downtown looking for work. The middle class pawned heirlooms to pay for food and clothing, colleges bartered for tuition, and retailers cut prices to the breaking point. Applications for help to the city’s charities and public agencies rose from 2,600 in 1929 to nearly 10,000 in 1936, straining resources beyond capacity. “Relief would have to come from the government,” writes historian Don Doyle. “Only the federal government was up to the job.”

In 1935, Ben Shahn (1898–1969) was on a field assignment for the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration. The artist’s job was to record the socioeconomic geography of the nation’s most poverty-stricken regions. Among his hundreds of photographs are a dozen of a Nashville religious meeting. Such meetings were frequently held on Sunday afternoons, on the corner of Lower Broad across from what was then the city wharf on the Cumberland River. Shahn’s black-and-white images transcend mere reporting to explore the features of a community facing hard times.

Building a Way Out

Rather than adding a new loading dock to the Customs House, as originally planned, the Treasury Department decided to provide economic relief for Nashville by erecting a new building whose sole tenant would be the post office. Nashville’s postal operations had no compelling need for more space, but people in the construction industry needed work. By February 1931, Congress had added $330 million to the federal building till. Thanks to the efforts of Tennessee representative Joseph Byrns, an influential member of the House Committee on Appropriations, the allocation for the Nashville post office was $1.565 million.

By 1930, more than ten thousand trains were used to move the mail. The Treasury Department logically decided to purchase land for a new post office next to the railroad station. The site was occupied by Anthony de Matteo Fruits, auto and tire stores, a pie wagon owned by J. M. Coombs, and two small hotels patronized by salesmen who rode the rails.

With the laying of the cornerstone of the Nashville post office on November 4, 1933, the federal government conveyed to the people that it was up to the task of crisis management. Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt both recognized that the Post Office Department was the most visible form of the federal government in every community because the postal service touched the lives of every citizen.

The Nashville post office opened for business on November 26, 1934, eighteen months after the start of actual construction.

The union-scale wages these workers were seeking ranged from 22 1/2 cents per hour for “laborers” to $1 per hour for skilled tradespeople—stonemasons, bricklayers, steelworkers, and tile setters.




Stripped Classicism

From before the Civil War through the 1930s, buildings constructed by the federal government had an official style, courtesy of the Treasury Department’s Office of the Supervising Architect. The supervising architect allowed local architects employed on federal projects little leeway in design. Though the Nashville and Knoxville post offices were produced by different architectural firms, they are strikingly similar presentations of the federal classicism of the 1930s. The full-blown classicism of the past—as found in the Nashville Parthenon’s pediments, columns, and capitals in the Greek orders—was compromised by the government’s need for speed of construction and by the influence of the style known generically as modernism.

For the modernist architect, the form of buildings should follow their function, the way the forms of machines do. At their best, such buildings, with their steel frames and transparent glass curtain walls, symbolize a decidedly twentieth-century kind of clarity—the clarity of Henry Ford’s assembly-line-produced automobile.

But there was never any real question that federal architecture would go wholeheartedly modern. Government needed to appear as a stable force in an unstable society. Federal architects were called on to express the values of permanence, rationality, and order—values that classicism served so well—but in forms streamlined to suggest forward progress rather than looking backward. The synthesis of modern and traditional produced the style known as “stripped” or even “starved” classicism.

Art Deco

The lobby was the consumer affairs section of the Nashville post office. This was the public space where citizens could meet and greet one another while conducting postal commerce. Its deluxe treatment in the manner of contemporary hotels and corporate offices—much more luxurious and less historicist in style than the severe classicism of the post office’s exterior—was a visual reminder that the business of government was a going concern even during the years when the American economy was staggering.

The style of the lobby is what we now call art deco. The term comes from the title of an influential exhibition of decorative and industrial arts held in Paris in 1925: L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Art deco designers rejected historicism as inappropriate to twentieth-century structures. In place of the Ionic scrolls and acanthus leaves of classicism (as seen in the Tennessee State Capitol) and the Gothic quatrefoil and crocket (as seen in the US Customs House), up-to-the-minute geometric and floral abstractions were introduced, such as chevrons, arcs, and sunbursts. Art deco buildings broke no new ground in planning or structure; their modernity was strictly a matter of surface treatment.




Icons of an Era

The frieze of icons represents the speed and power of transportation harnessed to deliver the mail. These icons symbolize a proud history as well as current technology, as celebrated in a 1993 U.S. Postal Service publication:

The Postal Service has helped develop and subsidize every new mode of transportation in the United States. The postal role was a natural one: apart from postal employees themselves, transportation was the single most important element in mail delivery, literally, the legs of communication. Even when the general public was skeptical or fearful of a new means of transportation, postal officials experimented with inventions that offered potential for moving the mail faster. . . .

As mail delivery evolved from foot to horseback, stagecoach, steamboat, railroad, automobile, and airplane, with intermediate and overlapping use of balloons, helicopters, and pneumatic tubes, mail contracts ensured the income necessary to build the great highways, rail lines, and airways that eventually spanned the continent.

The visual imagery embedded in the walls of the Grand Lobby confirms the self-confidence of the building’s architecture. During the dark days of the Depression, federal builders spared no rhetoric to reinforce Americans’ belief in their public institutions and in themselves.

The icons represent the tools used to craft the economic and cultural prosperity of the nation. The mass-produced motifs symbolize the upward spiral of humankind courtesy of machine production. Taken collectively, these democratically comprehensible images form an allegory of forward motion, industrial progress, and hope for economic revival.



The New Post Office

Ain’t this swell!

—young boy at the post office open house, 1934

On Sunday, November 18, 1934, before the postal employees or equipment had moved from the Customs House to 919 Broadway, postmaster William Gupton introduced the new post office to the public during an open house instead of a formal dedication. Gupton said, “Now everybody is taking a hand in it, and they have a chance to feel that it really belongs to them.” An estimated 40,000–50,000 Nashvillians toured the new building and its luxurious lobby.

Countless pieces of mail have been sent through Nashville’s post office, which has helped tie the city to the rest of the nation. But, meaningful bonds are ultimately forged by people. In the case of the U.S. postal system, those people include the postal workers who operate it and the customers who use it.

Juanita Threalkill: Striving for Equal Rights

Nashville’s postal operations have not escaped controversy. In the 1960s, the post office could be a hostile place for clerks who had the education and skills to do the work but were considered the wrong race or gender. Juanita Prewitt Threalkill Johnson (1937–2020)—mother of local artist James Threalkill, a founding trustee of the Frist Art Museum—was a Black woman who faced gender-based obstacles and racial politics in the course of getting and keeping a postal job.

As Juanita Threalkill, she passed the civil service examination for postal clerks in 1959, upon learning that it was open to women. Three years elapsed before she received a phone call asking her to report for the 2:00 a.m. shift during the Christmas rush. After working for two nights, she was told she was no longer needed. Threalkill was subsequently approached by Robert Everett, president of the local chapter of the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees—the “NAACP of the postal service,” in Threalkill’s words. He asked if she would be willing to file a lawsuit against the post office based on gender discrimination.

“I agreed to the lawsuit, but I did not realize the implications—that I was suing the US government,” Threalkill explains. “I just wanted a job to support my family.”

Represented by Nashville attorney and civil rights leader Avon Williams, Threalkill appealed to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Senator Albert Gore Sr. After many letters and legal maneuverings, Threalkill was finally placed at the top of the federal register. On June 22, 1966, she received a letter telling her to report to work. After four years at her first assignment, followed by seven years at a North Nashville station, Threalkill beat other candidates for a coveted general clerk position at the downtown post office in 1977.

Juanita Threalkill retired from the US Postal Service in 1996.




Recycling the Nashville Post Office

In December 1986, the Nashville post office prepared for its last Christmas rush. Postal workers braced for the red-and-green onslaught of an estimated 57 million cards and letters—enough to make a stack 20.6 miles high. In the spring of 1987, Nashville’s central postal distribution operations moved to an industrial park near the airport. Airplanes had replaced trains as the means for moving mail from city to city. The site next to Union Station was no longer an attraction but a hindrance.

The question was, what to do with the old shrine to federalism? In 1989, developer Pat Emery proposed a nineteen-story office tower for the site. Schematic drawings show the tower looming over the 1934 building like the proverbial eight-hundred-pound gorilla, dwarfing the tower of Union Station. The retention of the original building’s style for the much more massive “addition”—theoretically admirable as a gesture of historical respect—illustrated how stripped classicism, when blown out of proportion, could result in an effect reminiscent of fascist architecture of the 1930s. Fortunately for Nashville’s architectural history, the bottom fell out of the office market before the scheme could be realized. Today, the former post office—now art museum—is dwarfed by surrounding hotels and other skyscrapers as Nashville moves into the twenty-first century with speed.

In 1996, when The Frist Foundation proposed installing a visual arts center in the downtown post office, Nashvillians recognized a compatible tenant. The building’s architecture recalled the classically inspired temples to the fine arts that other cities had built long ago.

The post office was also practically as well as symbolically appropriate. Art museums typically require big rooms with tall ceilings, a large loading dock, and plenty of subsidiary spaces for events, administration, archives, and storage.

The post office had all these, on a site at the edge of the city center, with excellent access to artery roads and interstates. The task for the renovation designers was to carve out galleries and open up sight lines and predictable avenues through areas of the building that had once been off-limits to the public.

Designed as a civic monument, the Nashville post office has adapted to its new civic purpose with the nonchalance all fine old buildings are good at—absorbing the present moment into the larger context of history.

As with any historical structure, the care and preservation of the building is a constant responsibility, which is supported in part by the Frist Art Museum’s Art Deco Society. A major project initiated in 2019 was the restoration of the building’s distinctive windows, an integral element of the building’s art deco style and some of its most identifiable and admired attributes. Intrinsic exposure to the elements over the decades had significantly corroded every steel window frame and weakened the attachment points of the heavy panels, rendering them increasingly vulnerable. Conserving the windows had become more urgent in 2016, when one of the affected panels detached from the building and fell to the ground. The building’s eighty-three window frames were immediately inspected and stabilized where possible, and routine safety inspections were conducted during the course of the restoration project.

Michael Lewis
Post Office Interior, MainLevel, 1998
Archival pigment print
Frist Art Museum

The Gallery Floors at the Frist Art Museum

When possible, throughout the conversion of the downtown post office into an art museum, great care was taken to preserve original features such as the wood flooring. The pine floors in the galleries, formed with the ends of two-by-four-inch pieces of lumber, are incredibly durable because the tough end grain provides superior hardness and resistance to wear. The sections are each three and a half inches wide, two and a half inches thick, and approximately forty-six inches long, bound together with wire.

During the renovation, the original floors were taken up, refinished, and reinstalled. As you walk through the galleries, you can see staples, screws, and gouges that remain as historical signs of the original warehouse use.

Michael Lewis. Interior view of the Nashville post office, 1998. Photograph © Tuck-Hinton Architecture & Design

Seab A. Tuck III, with Tuck-Hinton Everton Architects
Redevelopment Scheme for the Nashville Post Office, 1989
Reproduction
Colored pencil and pastel on paper
Collection of Tuck-Hinton Architecture & Design

Seab A. Tuck III, with Tuck-Hinton Architects
Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 2000
Based on a photograph of the Marr & Holman
presentation drawing, The Tennessean archives
Reproduction
Graphite on paper
Collection of Tuck-Hinton Architecture & Design




Art Changes Lives: Celebrating Twenty Years of the Frist Art Museum

Approximately seven thousand guests celebrated the opening of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts on Sunday, April 8, 2001. It was the culmination of almost a decade-long civic dialogue and planning process led by The Frist Foundation. Originally inspired by Nashville’s Agenda, a 1993 community-wide visioning project, the institution relied on the community’s input again when its name was changed to the Frist Art Museum in 2018. Working together for the past twenty years, trustees, staff, and volunteers have endeavored to fulfill the founders’ vision of bringing the art of the world to the Mid-South, providing opportunities for learning, connecting and engaging with the community, and being welcoming to all.

Founder Dr. Thomas F. Frist Jr. stated that the museum would be “a place that will bring the power of great visual arts to the center of our city and the center of our lives.” Kenneth L. Roberts, president of The Frist Foundation, envisioned the museum to become “a key element in our culture and in the revival of downtown,” and to set Nashville apart. Their vision and that of the Frist family, the Board of Trustees, and many supporters and donors was for the museum to be a place for the entire community, regardless of individuals’ backgrounds or abilities. This was concretely demonstrated with a commitment that admission for visitors ages 18 and younger would always be free.

The Frist Art Museum greeted its four-millionth guest in November 2019. Since 2001, we have presented exhibitions from all the continents except Antarctica, in partnership with premier institutions from around the world. We’ve showcased the work of people from a variety of eras, cultures, and disciplines, from local elementary school students to highly acclaimed established artists, in a dazzling array of genres and mediums, ranging from assemblages, cars, and fashion to paintings, sculptures, and videos.

The other central tenets of the Frist Art Museum are education and community engagement. As a twenty-first-century museum, we have been dedicated to developing and coordinating interactive learning opportunities for our guests throughout our existence: instead of gathering in our no-longer-existent computer classroom, participants can now access a multitude of guided activities and lessons with their own smartphones and laptops. The Martin ArtQuest Gallery, a beloved and innovative intergenerational learning and art-making space, attracts thousands of guests yearly. Other educational offerings include dance presentations, films, gallery guides, lectures, tours, music and spoken word performances, and workshops. Families, teens, college students, seniors, military personnel, and people with disabilities can find programs and opportunities that address their interests throughout the year.

Community engagement activities began a year before the museum opened, with staff connecting to organizations such as Head Start and public libraries throughout Davidson County. These enduring Community Partnerships remain central to the Frist and today reach more than sixty organizations and institutions annually. These connections also include ongoing commitments to support Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) and Middle Tennessee school systems with professional development programs for educators, exhibition tours, school art shows, and art resources.

With intentionality, The Frist Foundation led the effort in collaboration with Metro government to secure the former main post office as a site that would be inclusive. It would be a place to give all Nashvillians a “window on the world of art” and to transform how people see their world through art.

We celebrate all that has been accomplished over the past two decades and, as Nashville continues to dramatically change around our building, we remain steadfast in our commitment to working collaboratively with the diverse community of creative voices in our region.



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