Modern Girl, Old City

New to Nashville and a lover of modernism, I realize to talk about modernism in Nashville is… well a bit absurd. Coming from Chicago, the American home of modern architecture with a Miesian skyline that still gives me goosebumps, I am architecturally lost in the land of great southern plantations. Yet, in only a month in Music City, I found new inspiration in 19th century mansions, rediscovered the charm of Queen Anne and Revival-style neighborhood homes, and even found a little modernism betwixt it all.

Belmont Mansion, c.1853. Photo by Jenn Harrman, Jan 2015.

Getting to know Nashville’s historic architecture has meant getting to know the antiquated architecture of great southern plantation mansions. Although I am a nerd for the international style in all its un-ornamented, metal box-ness, I can also be a bit of a romantic. As I walked up to the Belmont Mansion or approached Belle Meade Plantation on its fairytale-like drive, I could hear Dario Marianelli playing in my head and delighted in stepping back in time.

Although my idealized movie-version of these homes and their once inhabitants quickly dissolved, the true stories of the people and these places created a far better picture of the history of Nashville that I much more appreciated. And better yet, the architecture itself told a story that modernism never could. Modernism often shares far more about the philosophy of the architect and the intended perception of the owner than it does about the history of the owner or the place. At Belmont or Belle Meade, you could see how each aspect of these grand homes was like reading the pages of the site’s history book. The crimson transom glass at Belle Meade shared a story of wealth and horse-breeding, being incredibly expensive to produce and also the color of the family’s racing silks. Instead of easily stained carpets, the vinyl-like floor covering in the dining room at the Belmont Mansion was an inventive solution to a life of extravagant parties. These elements of architecture and design create more than a sense of place, they create a sense of history and time.

These beautiful mansions, however, are not the only source of architectural pride in Nashville. There are neighborhood historic districts in the city, including a few in my new home of East Nashville, with residential architecture not to be scoffed at. Great architecture is more often noticed in big buildings built with big price tags, but the architecture of common domesticity during the 19th and early 20th century produced neighborhoods with, now very popular, vintage charm.

Home in the Lockeland Springs Historic District, East Nashville. Photo by Jenn Harrman, Jan 2015.

Luckily for the homes in East Nashville, this new trend has kept historic districts, like my own Lockeland Springs, chock full of historic character. Morning walks with the dog have led to the discovery of some impeccable renovation and restoration of vividly colored Queen Anne, Victorian Revival and even Greek Revival style homes. Gingerbread and turned spindles are far from the modern homes of Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, or even Frank Lloyd Wright that I am so partial, yet I cannot deny the awe of these collections of Americana architecture.

Home in the Lockeland Springs Historic District, East Nashville. Photo by Jenn Harrman, Jan 2015.

Now I’ve begun to settle in to this new town and embrace this new architectural era, but I’ve been happy to find that there are still hints of modern architecture molded into the hills and valleys of this old city. After leaving Belle Meade Plantation, I turned the corner at Belle Meade Blvd. and Harding Pl. and I was surprised to find a modern white concrete home that hinted ever so slightly to me of Le Corbusier and his Villa Savoye. The simplicity of its clinical exterior greatly contrasted with the large Colonial Revival homes lining the neighborhood streets and I was delighted.

Chicago has been my home for the last seven and a half years and it made me a devotee of modernism. I look forward to the contrast of what Nashville’s architecture will inspire in me in this new chapter.

—Jenn

Next… the Little A-Frame House That Was.

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