This article is part of our “This is Nashville” series, where we are highlighting companies and people who are working hard to embrace and protect attributes that define our Music City spirit: entrepreneurial, creative, friendly, quirky, charitable, forward-thinking and neighborly. It’s Nashville’s amazing people — as individuals or collectively as companies — who make us happy and proud to call Music City home. By featuring these people and businesses, it’s our small way of saying, “Thank you!”
Everyone is buzzing about Music City’s growth. We are constantly alerted of new restaurants and hotels, real estate developments and high-rise apartments … the news never stops! And while it’s an exciting time for our city, there is always the question: But at what cost? What happens to the former buildings, tenants and businesses that have been replaced by the new ones? There is room for opportunity and progression, but at the same time, we want to preserve the things that make Nashville unique and alluring. That’s why we’re especially thrilled with the growing trend of repurposing the structures that have long been loved in Nashville: churches.
Captivating in architecture and design, churches have long been revered for their beauty but seldom used for non-religious purposes. That is changing! The first of which occurred years and years before the new wave of conversions at The Ryman. Nashville’s “Mother Church” has its roots in worship services, but shortly after its opening, it booked other acts to help afford to keep the doors open. Perhaps it was the precedent The Ryman set so many years ago that brought us into the slew of churches repurposed for businesses today.
But why are these buildings empty and available now more than ever? There are certainly reasons specific to each building itself, but one worth noting, especially here in Nashville, is the rising popularity of more modern churches. The large, non-denominational groups opt instead for large warehouse-like buildings fit for more people and a new non-traditional feel. On the flip side, smaller, up-and-coming churches rent space instead of buying. The landscape is changing, and one of Nashville’s newest converted churches, Clementine, actually lends its building to this purpose.
Clementine is located on Charlotte Avenue in the former West Nashville United Methodist Church. It is owned by the same team behind Ruby, another church-turned-event space that is located on Blakemore Avenue. Uniquely, both of these event spaces maintain Sunday services. Dan Cook, owner and visionary behind the two buildings, shares, “We have church services in both every Sunday. We’re big fans of buildings maintaining their context. It’s not easy, but it works in this case.” Dan laughs that he could look at church buildings every single day. “Just because it’s a church doesn’t mean it’s a great building,” but it’s clear that Dan has found two special ones — more than just buildings.
Clementine is fairly new to the scene of recent church developments, having opened last year, and it hosts events of all kinds within its walls. Different than Ruby, Clementine had this gorgeous structure and only needed top-level plastic surgery, Dan explains, not a total renovation. They stripped the walls down to the original brick — brick never intended to be seen! — and everyone who enters agrees that it’s one of the building’s most beautiful features. “We don’t have a design formula. We have program formula,” says Dan. “We let the building – the patient – speak to us. There’s obviously a lot of engineering and science that goes into this as well. It’s the question of ‘How do you make an old building resonate with people in a new context?’ That’s the secret sauce.” His secret sauce is our delight as Clementine and Ruby both serve their original purposes and serve the community in new ways, a true exemplification of how to take an empty church building and revive it.
On the opposite side of town, Snapshot Interactive inhabits the former home of Riverside Drive Church of Christ. The digital marketing agency came across this location ideal in character, size, parking and room for creative design, and knew it was a fit for their team and future growth. CEO Mark Scrivner shares, “Not only do we have a great building and ample parking, but we were also able to preserve something of historical significance for the community. We had a lot of outreach expressing how thankful they were that we preserved it and didn’t tear it down.” In fact, the church elders attended the open house when Snapshot Interactive moved in. “It was a cool way to give back to the people who had been giving back for 70+ years,” Mark adds.
The team recognized the significance that the building held and preserved it by making use of almost everything they removed or changed. For example, they had to tear up the floor and replace it with a flat floor – not sloping down to the baptismal. The wood from the floor was repurposed for the long central table as well as the outside of the stage (now an open conference room) and other areas throughout. The stained glass art in the Inglewood conference room was created by an East Nashville artist, C. Lawrence, and reclaimed from the original windows. It’s these decisions that allow the roots of the space to remain while opening up new creative opportunities while breathing new life into the building.
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Down the street, one of Nashville’s newest boutique hotels, The Russell, recently opened in the former home of Russell Street Church. Micah Lachter of Anchor Investments, The Russell’s parent company, tells us, “Our company has worked on multiple historic church properties, and I have always loved redeveloping them. They have a character that cannot be matched with modern construction.” When he drove by 819 Russell Street, Micah knew it needed to be a boutique hotel. Now, its doors are open, and there are 23 unique and colorful guest rooms. The striking design of the hotel balances modern elements with preserved features from the building’s previous use.
At The Russell, headboards are created out of church pews; historic brick walls and trusses are exposed, and the vibrant colors in every room are pulled from the original stained glass. Not only does The Russell draw from the physical elements of the church, but also from the pillar of outreach. Russell Street Church was a longtime place of refuge for the people of East Nashville, and today The Russell donates a sizable amount of their profits to ministries that support the local homeless community. An average weekend stay at this boutique hotel provides either 16 nights in a bed, 100 free showers or 30 free meals through their way of giving back: “Rooms for Rooms.” While the building’s purpose has changed after 110 years, its legacy remains.
Beloved new and pre-owned music destination Grimey’s is located in a former church home. Co-owner Doyle Davis explains the decision to inhabit a church. “It seemed like a great idea and what a cool concept for our business, which people have called a ‘temple of music’ many times over the years.” When they finally visited their current space at Trinity Lane with their realtor, they jumped on it. “It couldn’t be more beautiful or appropriate for what we’re doing,” Doyle adds.
Doyle says that the exterior of the church includes a nostalgic marquis, as well as stained glass detail that was actually added by the Grimey’s team, making an appealing first impression to locals and visitors alike. Inside, the basic layout remains the same. “The vibe is incredible. The vaulted, wooden ceiling is amazing. It’s gorgeous, and it’s exactly as it was.” They scaled back the rather large altar just a bit, creating the 12-by-12-foot stage where live performances take place at the store. “The Pentecostal church that previously occupied the space featured live music in all of their services, which we’ve continued with our in-store performances by artists releasing new records,” Doyle explains. “One of the church ladies we met when we were doing the lease even told me she was so happy that live music would live on in the space.”
A spin-off of The Ryman’s moniker, Grimey’s is lovingly and playfully known as “the other church.” They, too, seek to carry out the building’s traditions in the form of music.
There are more churches becoming businesses in the coming weeks and months as Brightside Bakeshop opens its second location in a church on Indiana Avenue in The Nations, and Bob Dylan’s highly anticipated Heaven’s Door Distillery and Center for the Arts opens downtown. When we asked Doyle what he thought of this fast-growing trend, he says it best: “It needs to grow faster and bigger! I hate that so many old buildings are being torn down in Nashville. It feels very shortsighted. I much prefer to preserve original buildings, at least the bones, and repurpose them for today’s trends.”
It’s people like Doyle, Micah, Mark and Dan, among a host of others, whose visions for the future of Nashville’s businesses, from hotels and restaurants to retail and event space, give us hope that we can welcome growth and change with open arms while maintaining the historic buildings and traditions that make us Nashville.
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