Debauchery, burlesque and booze reflect what Printers Alley does best: nightlife. But it wasn’t just booze that built Printers Alley, and it isn’t just booze that defines it today. A National Register Historic District, Printers Alley has a past that is part of the larger conversation of Nashville’s history, but it is also a place that holds a character uniquely its own. The hub of Nashville’s printing industry, which hit its heyday in the early 1900s, Printers Alley is aptly named to reflect its storied past of publishers and printers — The Tennessean and the Nashville Banner being two of them. Men in the industry, along with judges, lawyers and other high hitters frequented the saloons and cafes after a long day’s work. When Prohibition came, the neighborhood’s saloons turned to speakeasies.
Those who don’t know the past of Printers Alley are likely to guess how it got its name but not how it became a hot spot in Nashville’s nightlife. The dry days of the Prohibition era were accompanied by lawless nights of gambling, prostitution and cocktails — all under the protection of the police. When liquor again became legal, nightclubs opened and acted as host to names such as The Supremes, Jimi Hendrix and Boots Randolph. If you have lived in Nashville long enough, I’ll bet you’ve heard passed-down memories from The Black Poodle Lounge, Brass Rail Stables, The Rainbow Room, Carousel Club, The Voodoo Lounge, The Sundowner or The Western Room. It is even more probable you have heard of David “Skull” Schulman, the unofficial Mayor of Printers Alley who brought live music and burlesque together at The Rainbow Room, which he opened in 1948 and operated until he was brutally murdered in 1998. At the time, the glory days of Printers Alley were long gone, and Skull was the last link to the past.
Today, Skull’s is back in operation, and although the club only resembles the original joint, it is helping modern-day Nashvillians to reimagine the days of their Printers Alley predecessors.
A stretch running parallel to Third and Fourth Avenues from Church Street to Union Street, Printers Alley is home to a handful of establishments that range from karaoke clubs to blues bars. The historic entertainment district still plays host to revelry and mischief, but the main vice is music, not prostitution nor the illegal consumption of liquor.
Cajun cuisine and blues can be found at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, drunken acts and hidden talent perform karaoke at Lonnie’s Western Room (now on Church Street) and Ms. Kelli’s Karaoke Bar, pub fare is served at Fleet Street Pub and nightly jazz music and weekend burlesque shows draw crowds to Skull’s Rainbow Room.
On the surrounding streets, new establishments are bringing life back to Printers Alley. Located on the first floor of a historic building on Third Avenue that dates back to the late 1800s, Black Rabbit celebrates Prohibition-era culture with cocktails, canapés and Wednesday night cabaret. “American jazz and live piano music enhance the vibe and ambiance, a heartfelt nod to the nightlife of Printers Alley during its heyday,” their website reads.
“We have created a place where people can snack, socialize and drink,” shares Black Rabbit co-owner Trey Cioccia. “I welcome tourists but want locals to find a home here, too.”
Another spot catering to tourists and locals is the 224-room Noelle hotel, complete with three bars, a restaurant, a coffee shop and retail space. Built in the 1920s, the building was home to Noel Place, a luxury hotel. Original art deco design remains and pairs well with modern touches from some of the city’s top creatives: Nick Dryden of Dryden Architecture & Design, Bryce McCloud of Isle of Printing, Benji Peck of Peck & Company, Andy Mumma of Barista Parlor and Libby Callaway of The Callaway.
This boutique hotel is the first in a series of overnight accommodations to join the area. Fairlane Hotel is an 81-room boutique hotel housed in a repurposed mid-century bank building on the corner of Union Street and Fourth Avenue North. Hotel Indigo, a 130-room hotel, overlooks Printers Alley. Dream Nashville will revive four buildings in Printers Alley and transform the spaces into a 169-room hotel. And expected to open in late 2018, Dream Nashville will be preceded by Bobby Hotel, a 144-room hotel.
“Printers Alley is an iconic, off-the-beaten-path destination to some of Music City’s original restaurants and bars. We believe that Bobby Hotel will amplify the iconic feel of this microneighborhood and lend itself to an inherently creative yet lavish experience and solidify you as a lifelong friend of Bobby’s,” Avi Niego, general manager at Bobby Hotel tells us. “We are creating a destination to invigorate this area of downtown Nashville. The entire area of Fourth Avenue North is being developed as a continuation to Broadway and downtown attractions, making it close and easily accessible yet far enough to get some shut-eye.”
Hotels aren’t the only option for hanging your hat in Printers Alley. Two residents of the area, Gary Bowie and Melody Malloy, have transformed historic apartments into vacation rentals that offer (most) of the amenities of a hotel with all the character of individual spaces. Twelve luxury lofts that occupy two buildings on Third Avenue allow you to live like a local in Printers Alley. Known as Printers Alley Lofts, these rentals are ideal for visitors or locals looking to be visitors in their own city. Read more about the lofts here.
As you walk the alley, you are likely to see remnants of Printers Alley’s past, but moreover, you will see how the soul of the alley is being replenished. You’ll see where Andrew Jackson had his law office and where burlesque dancers drew an audience at the Brass Rail, but you will also see Bobby’s Garage Bar, a reinvented Rainbow Room and the eager faces of those pushing Printers Alley towards the future.
Find the iconic Printers Alley neon sign, and you will know you have arrived!
Learn more about Nashville’s many neighborhoods here.