September 12, 2009

Three Days in Nashville - History and Art

When the possibility of a trip to Nashville was raised a couple of years ago, my first reaction was "This could be a lot of fun!" Well, last week the proposal became a reality and the visit was even more fun that I had hoped. What began as a simple overnight visit to attend an art opening, turned into a 3-day tour of a region that I was unfamiliar with but thrilled to discover.

Founded in 1779 as Fort Nashborough, a port on the Cumberland River, the city quickly grew into a major railway center and eventually became the capital of the state of Tennessee. Surrounded by salt licks, cotton fields and horse farms, the city prospered and grew. Although it fell to Union troops in 1862, the city rebounded and rebuilt in a grand manner. In the early 20th Century, with the opening of the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville became known as "Music City USA" - a moniker that it bears proudly to this day. Modern Nashville has a thriving downtown with classic and contemporary architecture, a very active arts scene, several national sports franchises, and a citizenship that is very proud of its heritage!

Checking in to the Union Station Hotel set the stage for what was to come. This splendidly renovated structure opened in 1900 as an important station serving travelers and freight during the golden age of rail. Its train shed was the largest unsupported span in America and the lobby boasted a 65-foot barrel vaulted ceiling. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977, the building began a new life as a hotel in 1986. Today, after a recent face-lift (see right), the hotel honors its auspicious past while providing guests with all modern amenities.

Right next door to the hotel, in the former Nashville Post Office, is the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. Another splendid example of building recycling, the Frist is the phoenix that rose from the potential razing of a great Art Deco structure. Built during the Great Depression, the main post office was the epitome of the "moderne" aesthetic - a classic, streamlined marble and granite exterior with interior decorations of bold, geometric aluminum grillwork and doors - but by 1986 the facility had become obsolete and was slated to be demolished. Enter the Frist family, prominent Tennesseans for several generations, who saw this as an opportunity to create a visual arts center. Their dream was realized in 2001 with the opening of a marvelous, state-of-the-art exhibition space that has since housed a wide array of first class shows ranging from "Star Spangled Couture" a collection of fabulous costumes worn by country music stars, to the current "Twilight Visions" a look at Surrealist photography in Paris, and the reason for my visit.

Also located in Nashville is a hidden treasure trove of Modern art on the campus of Fisk University. Located in a former church - cum gymnasium - cum Carl Van Vechten Gallery, the collection is the 1949 gift of Georgia O'Keeffe in honor of her late husband. The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern Art comprises 101 of the most perfect examples of Modern Art you could possibly imagine. To walk though the very un-assuming entrance into a smallish room filled with masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Gino Severini, Diego Rivera, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, John Marin, Marsden Hartley and of course O'Keeffe and Stieglitz, was a heart-stopping experience.

For a step back in time, a visit the historic Belle Meade Plantation will transport you to 1887 and the genteel lifestyle of the Harding-Jackson family. At one time the farm comprised 5,400 acres of fields and farms and was considered the country's premier thoroughbred nursery for the breeding and training of race horses. In fact, many of the greatest champions of today including Secretariat, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones and Barbarro can trace their bloodlines back to Bonnie Scotland - the pride of Belle Meade!

Visitors to the mansion get a comprehensive guided tour and a memorable look at life in Victorian Tennessee. Access is granted to most of the rooms and the furnishings and decor are almost completely original. Our guide was terrific and his spirited recounting of family lore and Nashville history brought the era to life. A self-guided tour of the grounds and outbuildings, including stables, smokehouse, slave cabin, dollhouse and carriage house with carriages was the perfect way to enjoy the beautiful countryside. A last stop at the gift shop to pick up some Belle Meade Plantation smoked ham and I had a delicious souvenir of a lovely afternoon!

Nashville was also the adopted home of our country's seventh President, General Andrew Jackson. Orphaned at an early age, Andrew Jackson was a self-educated lawyer (he passed the Bar on his first try) and a stellar General in the U.S. Army before being elected President for two terms beginning in 1828. Known as both the champion of the common man and a slave-owning cotton farmer, Jackson earned the nickname of a "Democratic Autocrat" and a reputation for protecting the Union at all costs.

It was a 1,000 acre cotton plantation about 10 miles and a 4 1/2 hour carriage ride from downtown Nashville that Jackson and his wife Rachel called home. Purchased in 1804 and greatly expanded in 1819, the property and mansion called The Hermitage was his residence and final resting place. Unfortunately, his adopted son, Andrew Jr., was not careful with his inheritance and was forced to sell the property to the State of Tennessee just 11 years after the General's death. Since 1889 the site has been owned and preserved by the Ladies Hermitage Association who offer daily tours by costumed guides. The house itself is not as grand or as accessible as Belle Meade, but nevertheless it offers an interesting look at the private life of a controversial but respected man. Again, the self-guided tour of the grounds further illustrates the daily routine of the time and is a lovely walk past cane and cotton fields and the impressive "belted" cows that graze in a meadow.

There is a lot to see and do here in Nashville - and we haven't even touched on the main attraction, the music industry! But that's a subject for another blog and I'll be posting it soon! So, to quote our gracious Nashville hosts, "Y'all come back now, y'hear!"

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