By Meredith Robinson
Many features of Nashville’s Market Street Apartments drew the 26-year-old me: its 20-foot ceilings, exposed brick, and spiral staircase, and the opportunity to live in the emerging downtown community of the city, instead of a suburb with cookie-cutter homes and a long commute to work. But what convinced me to sign a lease on a newly available third-floor apartment in 1995 was a window, through which I could step out onto the flat roof and see my city. My rooftop redoubt offered me afternoons of sunbathing to the muted sounds of car horns and people on the street, Fourth of July celebrations that showered me with ashes from fireworks, music from a riverfront barge or nearby bar, and late-night conversations with friends.
Teachers like me lived in the building, as did artists, architects, waiters, lawyers, musicians, actors, computer technicians, bartenders, and business people. The Market Street Apartments were a microcosm of downtown Nashville, and we all enjoyed living within walking distance of restaurants, bars, and offices. Renowned photographer Jack Spencer lived there as did Cheap Trick bass player Tom Petersson. Many of us kept our doors open, inviting neighbors to visit. One such neighbor from the first floor stopped by on Halloween night, 1997, for a drink. We became good friends. He was part of my support system when my third-floor relationship ended and I moved to the first floor alone. We would later marry.
Fred Branaman provided stability to the Market Street Apartments family. He was the apartments’ caretaker, and he looked after the tenants as if he was our guardian. He celebrated our achievements, checked on us when we were sick, and reprimanded us when we didn’t clean up after our parties. Years after I moved out, I regularly returned to visit him. Fred and his wife attended my wedding. I took my newborn son to see him at Market Street, and he prayed over him with happy tears. Later, as a toddler, my son enjoyed those visits, running up and down the long first-floor hallway and getting a piece of candy or small toy from his pal, Mr. Fred. When Fred died in 2010, many former tenants attended his memorial service. I was one of many mourners who spoke about Fred’s commitment to that building and his love for its people. A stone marker commemorating Fred rested at the building’s entrance for almost a decade.
The Market Street Apartments’ buildings, over a century, survived natural disasters, endured renovations, and saw countless people come and go.
On April 16, 1998, a rare tornado tore up downtown Nashville. The apartments sustained minimal damage, but the experience was chilling. The downtown area was blocked off all day, until nighttime. I remember driving into the parking lot and seeing parts of the roof hanging over the side of the exterior brick wall. Snapped trees and debris littered the streets.
In 2010, a two-day torrent of rain raised the Cumberland River over its banks and submerged the first floor apartments, seeping into the basement first. The rising water level continued when a crew at the nearby Pinnacle building pumped water out of its garage and onto the street. Officials issued a mandatory evacuation order. The entire first floor of apartments and the parking lot were submerged in 13 feet of muddy river. When the river crested, the apartments flooded a second time with devastating damage. It would be a couple of years before renovation began, and 11 apartments remained unfinished and stayed empty.
When the original buildings went up in 1909, the riverfront area was bustling. The Cumberland River was an essential transportation highway for downtown businesses of that era. Steamboats carried commodities down the Cumberland to 1st Avenue warehouses for sale in 2nd Avenue stores. The wholesale grocery company, C.B. Ragland, warehoused meat, produce, poultry, eggs, and feed in the oldest of the Market Street buildings. Wholesale liquor was stored and sold there.
As Nashville grew over the decades, its dependence on river transport declined. Riverfront warehouses fell into disrepair until a revitalization from preservationists, government, and the business community infused new energy and money into the downtown core.
Market Street Apartments were born in the late 1980s, when the old buildings were refurbished and a new one, the largest building, was added.
Those efforts birthed “the District” in the 1990s, an exceptional time to live downtown. Riverfront Park hosted a live music event called Dancin’ in the District every Thursday in the spring and summer, bringing thousands of people into my backyard. In May, the annual three-day festival, Riverstages, brought high-quality acts to Nashville. Foo Fighters, Widespread Panic, Hole, Everclear, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, and many others performed.
In 2004, the thermal plant across the street from the apartments was torn down. The vacant field inspired a green space for art and music in the city. By 2015, Ascend Amphitheater filled the space, but by then, Market Street Apartments’ days were numbered.
Nashville’s growth has engulfed my old home. Its buildings eventually appeared insignificant and out of place among the surrounding modern behemoths. The low-storied buildings have become relics in a city that has abandoned the brick remnants of history for shiny glass skyscrapers. The new downtown has emerged in a flurry, as if from a fever dream of growth.
The Market Street Apartments will soon be demolished to make way for a Four Seasons hotel with condominiums. It will be the second tallest high-rise tn Tennessee when completed.
With growth and progress, there must be a letting go. Those of us who remember will mourn the disappearance of the bricks and mortar that witnessed our cherished Nashville memories.
March 30 was the last time tenants, old and new, gathered to share their stories, raise a glass with friends, and say goodbye to their apartments. This final cookout was a reluctant closure. It was by turns high-spirited, sad, and cathartic. I recognized a kinship with tenants who came after me. I noticed that, despite age differences, professions, or at what point in recent history we lived there, we all shared the same stories of community. Many stories flowed through the empty halls and rooms that night. As we wandered through the apartments, we laughed about long-ago drunken shenanigans and elevator parties. Before the evening was over, each of us wrote a message on the lobby wall. “MSA - A collection of friends who have stories to tell that, although different, are very similar to mine,” wrote one tenant. “Much love to each and every one of you.”