Why Old Houses Are Like Old Guitars

By Rod Picott


Nashville, Tennessee

Gentrification is complicated. The charming little coffee shops, the second-hand record store, and the hipster bicycle shop rolls in on oversized tires. Most residents are delighted to have these businesses in their neighborhood. My god, you might, if you are very lucky, even get to buy a decent slice of pizza.

I moved to Nashville in 1994. The town, to be kind, was in a slump. Actually, it was fully in the ditch and trying drunkenly to crawl out. I didn’t know a single person when I moved to Nashville. I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone. My then wife and I rented a room in a cheap downtown hotel. I asked at the desk where we might find a restaurant to have dinner. They told us there weren’t any. Disbelieving, we wandered out into downtown Nashville. There were no restaurants. Plywood boards graced multiple buildings. A few adult establishments littered lower Broadway and unfortunates hobbled the streets begging change. There might have been a gift shop open. We didn’t make it far before my wife broke down in tears looking across the bleak wasteland of our new city. We went back to the hotel. She went back to New England.

We're talking about a time just before the Stetson-hatted Garth Brooks money arrived. That new country music money eventually made its way through the hands of record company executives and down to builders and contractors. I didn’t know it at the time, as dismal as Nashville looked, but the city was about to bust wide open. Country music around 1994 made a mad dash to become the genre of the moment. The explosion went on for quite a few years before the record labels cannibalized themselves. I had moved to Nashville to become a songwriter (which I have, thank you very much), but I was skilled in a construction trade and found a job within a day or so. For the next 24 years, I’ve watched my adopted city shift and change.

In the beginning, much of the construction was rehabbing beautiful older buildings on famed Music Row. Many of the record labels had offices there. Publishing companies thrived and died in turns. A renovation would complete, a publishing company would hoist their logo into place, and the money would pour in and back out again until they cut and run. Then another publishing company or recording studio would re-renovate and slap a new sign over the old sign. Many of these building were historical by nature. They were old. They were glorious. There was often gorgeous woodwork throughout, mahogany staircases, oak crown molding and other artistic building expressions that are now nearly lost arts. Having grown up in the north where old-school plasterwork is revered (and expensive), I had a half an arthritic leg up on the other workers in my trade as I could repair plaster.

At one point I was told we were renovating the oldest standing building in downtown Nashville and they required my services. The ancient oak staircase had one long curved plastered ceiling that spiraled from the bottom floor to the third, and I was one of literally three plasterers in the city. I didn’t ask who the new owners were, assuming a law office or something suitably stuffy would be going in. The ravishing old building deserved as much. A year later a Subway sandwich shop domesticated the bottom floor, and I knew historic Nashville, and its beautiful old buildings and houses were fated. Indeed, a few years back a historic building downtown was leveled in the middle of the night (with no permit—some small paperwork glitch), and the city looked away. I tour roughly nine months out of the year, and I can tell you that there are occasions when I return to Nashville (remember I’ve lived here 24 years) when I literally don’t know where I am. That’s how fast the city is changing.

From downtown the renovating spread. East Nashville, once notoriously known as “the other side of the river” became Mecca for the artists and artisans of the city. A few funky restaurants and coffee shops opened, and the neighborhoods exploded with rejuvenation. I remember a few years back driving through the grid of east Nashville trying to find a street with a house that I hadn’t done work. I couldn’t find one.  I helped renovate some stunning homes. Buildings from the turn of the century up through the Craftsman styles of the thirties were ubiquitous. In the early days, the owners typically wanted to keep intact all the unique and handcrafted elements of these often dilapidated homes. It was arduous work. It was also rewarding. I remember one homeowner near tears of joy having located a handful old green tile the exact shade of the few missing original tiles from the fireplace.

Those days are long gone now, and I miss them. Although my music career took on enough oxygen to breathe life into a second act for myself, there will be no second act for the buildings of Nashville. Last year more than one hundred people per day were moving to this fair city. A friend of mine counted over eighty high-rise cranes working in Nashville at the same time.

The renovations in East Nashville have become tear-down and rebuilds. Contractors were raising what East Nashvillian’s call “tall and skinny’s.” There is a utilitarian purpose, and it’s all about the money. They’re built tall and skinny to wring the most square footage of house from the lot size. Most of the time these houses are built on lots where the contractor has razed a property and squeezed every penny from the lot size. I know people who have had these houses constructed on each side of their own home — blocking out the sun and setting their own property in permanent mossy darkness.

I find a strange dichotomy in the fact that this is happening in a city where a high percentage of the population would favor a 1940s Martin guitar over a new model. There is no stopping the money once it starts its greasy path. Luckily, for many of the first neighborhoods to be renovated in East Nashville, the rising value of property has driven them above the danger line of demolition.

Like those exquisite old Gibson and Martin guitars, the older renovated homes are coveted more than ever. Like those old guitars that need to be played for them to be the right thing they are in this universe, I love to see those grand old homes in East Nashville standing solid, toys in the yard, lived in. They breathe. They fit. They define the neighborhoods with their grace, style and the ghosts of history.