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Former downtown library the latest modernist structure threatened by the wrecking ball

Will the West Be Lost?



Nashville's midcentury modern architecture is under attack again. The City Paper's Pierce Greenberg reported on April 1 that a proposed land swap between Metro and the state "could result in the demolition of the old Ben West Library building in downtown Nashville."

In late March, the State Building Commission approved a plan to swap the former library at 225 Polk Ave. near Legislative Plaza for the former Tennessee Preparatory School site off of Foster Avenue, part of which houses Metro's Nashville School of the Arts. Metro currently leases that land from the state.

Under the conditions of the swap, the charter school STEM Preparatory Academy would relocate from Nolensville Road and lease the part of the TPS property identified as the "Old High School." As for the Ben West building — according to Peter Heimbach, executive director of the state's Real Estate Asset Management — it would be razed at Metro's expense and converted by the state into a surface parking lot.

This is the third hit our modernist architecture has taken in recent months. In his budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, Gov. Bill Haslam proposes demolition of the 1952 Cordell Hull state office building on the east flank of Capitol Hill, at a cost of $24.9 million to state taxpayers. (See "Hull and Void," April 4.)

Last month, William Williams reported in the Nashville Post that Holladay Properties will raze the former TDOT building — the long-neglected but still cool icon for modernist lovers, with its rusticated stone and horizontal windows — as part of the "transformation of the Midtown stretch of Charlotte Avenue." The "Sheds on Charlotte" will include "the rehab of the 1940s-built row of corrugated metal sheds . . . into a light-filled office and retail complex linked with courtyards and offering free surface parking."

Now it's Ben West, a 1966 design by Taylor and Crabtree, which reinterpreted the columnar style of the Athens of the South in modernist language. John Charles Wheeler did a similar translation in 1965 with the former Genesco headquarters on Murfreesboro Road out by the airport.

I'll admit, I always found the high ceilings on Ben West's main floor impractical for book stacks. But when the mayor and Metro Council camped out there during the renovation of the courthouse, the building, unencumbered by shelving, seemed to come into its own. And the views over the Nashville cityscape from the upper balcony have always been magical.

Now the views will be from an asphalt parking lot — after Metro pays for the demolition.

To build Ben West, Nashville razed its 1904 Carnegie library. In the 1960s we couldn't see that turn-of-the-century architecture had enough value to save and rehab.

Why make the same mistake twice?


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