Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Saving Studio A

            I am a preservationist.  I live in an historic district in a Victorian home that my wife and I have painstakingly restored and renovated.  I love old houses and buildings and hate to see them torn down.  That's my bias.

            At the same time, I am not an absolutist.  I studied historic zoning in law school and I know the Constitutional arguments pro and con.

            Like many Nashvillians, I was surprised but not shocked to learn that the RCA Building (which includes  Studio A) on Music Row was about to be sold.  I read Ben Folds' open letter to the powers that be trying to save Studio A from demolition. My wife and I attended a rally as Studio A on June 30 and listened to eloquent, impassioned speeches from Folds, Dave Pomeroy and many more people about the need to preserve the "music" and  Music City before it becomes Condo City.

            The very next day I read property owner Harold Bradley's stunning rebuke in a letter where he basically said that he and the late Chet Atkins had been trying to unload this piece of property for 24 years and that it had no historical value or cultural relevance whatsoever. 

            I have a great deal of respect and empathy for Harold Bradley but I think that he is mistaken.  Sometimes those involved in making history are not the best judges of their own contributions. 

            I spent the first 20 years of my career in various offices on Music Row.  Like most people who work there, I probably wasn't noticing the architecture because I spent my time driving through the alleys from building to building and  trying to avoid the tourists driving the wrong way down 16th Avenue South.  But I have always admired the RCA Building.  To my eyes, it is a great example of mid‑century modernism and a symbol of all things "Countripolitan"-the sound and the magic that Mr. Bradley, Mr. Atkins and their peers created.  To my mind it is important that we preserve the RCA Building just like it is important that we preserve the recordings that were made there and the stories of how those recordings were made and the people that made them.

            One of the things that struck me when I visited the RCA Building last week was that it was not a dormant relic.  Most of the offices looked occupied by living, breathing music businesses and the studio itself was large and vibey ‑ in that way that all great studios are.  More importantly, it was active. This is one of my main complaints in dealing with the developer versus historic preservation issue:  Why tear down something that is still useful and vibrant?  As Ben Folds alluded, it really goes to the fabric of a city.  Music Row is famous for reasons and the music business developed there for a reason.  There is positive energy created by all of these music businesses operating in proximity to each other. Music Row  is one of the first places out‑of-town guests want to see when they hit Nashville and as record companies and publishers vacate the area it's getting more and more difficult to find much to showcase ‑ the RCA Building and Studio A is a shining exception.

            Obviously, no one is suggesting that the building owners be stripped of their property rights but this is a wakeup call for a public/private discussion of the steps that could be taken to preserve this landmark building before it is too late.  Remember that Liverpool tore down the Cavern Club only to rebuild a replica across the street.  Memphis razed Stax Records only to rebuild a Disneyworld-like replica in the same spot because it realized its error.  Nashville does not have to make the same mistake.  Start the discussion.