Second Avenue: The ‘birthplace’ of Nashville

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — It once was the commercial heart and soul of Nashville. While still a vital part of the city, the streets and landmarks closest to the riverfront are known as the “birthplace” of Nashville.

To understand the early development of downtown Nashville in the 1800s, you have to start with the Cumberland River.


Second Avenue: Overcoming 2 disasters

Goods were brought in on riverboats and unloaded into the warehouses on what was called Front Street, which is now 1st Avenue.

Those buildings stretch the length of the block to market street, which became 2nd Avenue, where the goods were sold from retail storefronts.

“Nashville is here because of commerce, because of the river,” said Dan Pomeroy, Chief Curator and Director of Collections at the Tennessee State Museum. “Those buildings up and down what is now Second Avenue, were really essential to Nashville being what it is today.”

After the Civil War, the city changed the look of the buildings on Market Street from wood to brick, with Victorian-style architecture.

In the 1890s the Silver Dollar Saloon was built, which catered to riverboat crews.

“It became sort of a rough and tumble district. Saloons and houses of ill repute that would have been established in that area. As Nashville grew, the more civilized, civic-minded people moved further to the west,” said Pomeroy.

The building that housed Silver Dollar Saloon still stands today. It’s now apart of the Hard Rock Café.

1897. Print showing an exterior view of V.E. Schwab Building, also known as the Silver Dollar Saloon, at the intersection of Broad Street and Second Avenue. The corner entrance is visible from the street. Several people are standing outside the building on the street. A building in the background has a painted sign on the exterior. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
1907. Corner of 2nd and Broad shows the Silver Dollar Saloon and W. F. Nease Barbershop. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Circa 1900. Group of men in front of the Silver Dollar Saloon in the V. E. Schwab Building on Broadway and 2nd Ave. Signs advertise Gerst Beer, Maryland Club Old Rye, Lodging 25 cents, and hot lunch 9 to 2 for ten cents. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Circa 1908. Silver Dollar Saloon and W. F. N. Ease barbershop. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
1964. Northeast corner of 2nd and Broadway shows the Silver Dollar Saloon Bldg. and the Phillips & Quarles Hardware Store. Tennessee State Library and Archives
1970. The Silver Dollar Saloon, located at 100 Market Street (Second Avenue). Tennessee State Library and Archives.
1970. Northeast corner of 2nd and Broadway shows the Silver Dollar Saloon Bldg. and the Phillips & Quarles Hardware Store.
1970. Silver Dollar Saloon in V.E. Schwab Building on Broadway and 2nd Avenue. Shows a portion of Phillips and Quarles Hardware Store to the left. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
1970. Silver Dollar Saloon in V.E. Schwab Building on Broadway and 2nd Avenue. Ornamental exterior detail shows two large silver dollars inside a wreath. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Pomeroy said after the advent of modern transportation, the river became less important for commerce.

“Not coincidentally, that was the time when people started leaving downtown. Downtown was being abandoned after World War II,” Pomeroy continued, “2nd Avenue and that whole commercial district began to crumble.”

However, starting in the 1960s, there was a push to revive downtown Nashville and 2nd Avenue.

Pomeroy said advocates planted the flag that the street needed to be saved because of the “importance of the river and the importance of those historic buildings that are the birthplace of the city and are still the nexus of energy for the city.”

The non-profit Historic Nashville Inc. was formed in 1968. Events like the Market Street Festival were held to draw people downtown.

The area was also added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Then disaster hit. A fire in 1985, burned several buildings that predated the Civil War.

“They were owned by some folks in another state. I won’t say which state. I won’t say who they were. And boy, they got the wrecking ball up there just overnight, literally overnight, and tore those exquisite 1850s buildings down, and now it’s just asphalt parking lot,” said Pomeroy.


Second Avenue: 5 months after the Christmas day bombing

Then, more than 30 years later, another blow.

The 2020 Christmas morning bombing caused major destruction to 2nd Avenue.

This time a wrecking ball won’t wipe out history.

In 1996, Metro Council adopted a historic zoning overlay for 2nd Avenue. Meaning, property owners can’t change the look of their buildings without approval from the Metro Historic Commission. Beyond that, there’s a collective desire to save and improve 2nd Avenue.

“The city recognized immediately this street needs to come back. This street is too important to the heritage of this city. It means so much to the city,” said Pomeroy.

If history is a predictor of the future, then the street will come back.


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There are plans being formulated to reinvent 2nd Avenue with reverence to its rich and storied past.

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