Thursday, October 20, 2016

Thomas Scott Marr and the Evolution of Nashville’s Urban Landscape

By Trent Hanner

If you’ve been in Nashville recently, you probably noticed the proliferation of construction cranes piercing the Music City skyline. Shiny glass towers like SkyHouse, 1212 Laurel, and The SoBro rise as evidence of a robust economy. Density has increased in residential areas as modern homes replace vintage housing stock. While many progressive projects advance, a number of structures both important and mundane have fallen to the wrecking ball. The story of Nashville’s accelerated development can be explored through the fates of several buildings designed by one noteworthy early 20th century architect.

Inspiration: The U.S. Customs House on Broadway instilled an admiration for architecture in young Thomas Scott Marr.
Library Collection

Born in Nashville 150 years ago this month, Thomas Scott Marr was reportedly inspired to become an architect as he watched the city’s Customs House being built in the 1870s. He was educated at the Tennessee School for the Deaf, Gallaudet University and, briefly, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The architectural firm of Marr & Holman first appears in the Nashville City Directory in 1913. Marr’s eye for design, coupled with his partner Joseph Holman’s talent for networking with the city’s elite, resulted in dozens of high profile commissions.

Demolition: Marr & Holman’s Sam Davis Hotel falls in 1985.

In 1927, The Tennessean newspaper reported that “Nashville’s skyline promises to experience an interesting addition within the year.” Marr & Holman’s 12-story Sam Davis Hotel served the city until 1985, when it fell to make way for a much larger hotel and parking garage complex at 7th Avenue North and Commerce Street. The parking garage behind the Nashville Public Library (which is itself undergoing an addition) occupies the site today.

Nearby, on 7th Avenue North between Church and Commerce Streets, a non-descript, 7-story parking garage sits. The structure was designed by Marr & Holman in 1929. In terms which sound familiar today, The Tennessean described the developer’s rationale for undertaking the project:

"The decision to build the half-million dollar parking garage was the result of a careful study of the parking situation in Nashville, the city’s staple [sic] and continuous business advance, and the demand for a downtown parking garage. The prosperity of the city and its surrounding rich area were deemed sufficient reason to make a permanent investment profitable." (Tennessean, June 21, 1929)

Indeed, the parking garage must have been a wise investment for the Pritchett-Thomas Company to have stood for nearly 90 years. But its days are numbered. The United States Congress recently approved funding for a new federal courthouse to be built on the block. Nashville will benefit from its modern new federal building, but another piece of the Marr & Holman legacy will disappear from the urban fabric.

Adaptive reuse: The Tennessean heralded the opening of Marr & Holman’s James Robertson Hotel on July 7, 1929.

Sometimes a building is fortunate enough to be reimagined so it can continue to welcome guests through its doors. This was the case of Nashville’s main U.S. Post Office (1933-34) on Broadway. In 2001, far-sighted Nashvillians reopened the Art Deco-style building as the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. The cavernous interiors of the former post office lend themselves well to traveling art exhibitions.

In other cases, buildings are renovated or repurposed in ways that increasingly lead to the use of the term “gentrification.” This may be exemplified by another of Marr & Holman’s 7th Avenue North designs, the James Robertson Apartments. For nearly 40 years, the 1929 mid-rise operated as a subsidized housing option for low-income Nashvillians. Soon, however, the building will reopen as a 191-room luxury hotel.

Endurance: The Tennessee State Supreme Court Building (1937) in Nashville.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection

The Tennessee State Supreme Court Building on Capitol Hill is perhaps Marr & Holman’s finest structure. This 1937 Depression-era Public Works Administration project has not only survived but continues to serve its original function. The Library and Archives is proud to have it and its tenants as a next-door neighbor.

Marr and his partner left a rich architectural legacy for their hometown of Nashville. But Marr also left a monetary gift to his alma mater, Gallaudet University. That college recognizes its “deaf outstanding architect” alumnus with a page on its website and a silent film in which Marr can be seen standing before many of his Middle Tennessee designs. The video was produced in 1934 and is available at The 30-minute film is a delightful opportunity to reflect on the change Nashville has seen since the firm of Marr & Holman left its impression on the city.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives holds the Marr and Holman Architectural Firm Records, 1910-1965, a Tennessee Historical Society collection. More views of Marr’s architectural work can be seen in his designs for Knoxville’s Tennessee School for the Deaf in the Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA).

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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