By this time next year, if all goes according to schedule, there will be a big, empty space where the Cordell Hull building has stood for the past 60 years. The large state office complex in the shadow of Tennessee’s capitol is scheduled for demolition.
There are obvious questions to ask, like is the structure really beyond saving? But if the building goes away, so will important art made to stand at it doors.
The four bronze sculptures that face the capitol building and James Robertson Parkway are rarely seen as it is. What was meant to be the front of Cordell Hull looks out onto beautifully manicured lawn and walking paths that were once a very popular place for a stroll. Now, the main entrance is on the other side.
Alan LeQuire thinks that’s a shame. The sculptor behind some of the city’s most prominent art – the giant group of nudes in the Music Row roundabout, the Parthenon’s towering Athena – calls these bronzes “the most significant sculpture made in Tennessee in the 1950s.” He says there’s just no other work like that from that era in Nashville.
They were made by one of LeQuire’s first teachers, Puryear Mims.
Nashville’s First Professional Sculptor?
Mims was perhaps the first to make a professional go of sculpture in Nashville. He was also a local, the son of a Vanderbilt professor. He spent part of the 1930s working on a fellowship that sent him through the rural South, carving images of the farmers and coal miners he met. That work and experience shows in the statues outside the Cordell Hull Building. One deals with a dramatic change to the state that he must have seen first-hand during his time on the road: the creation of TVA.
The Tennessee Valley Authority brought hydroelectric power to remote towns and farms, but it also displaced fifteen-thousand families from homes in river valleys that were flooded in the process.
Mim’s “TVA Group” shows a man almost turning into a dam. The expressions on his companion’s faces could either be stoic or pained. In it, LeQuire sees the conflict that he thinks Mims, like so many others, felt about the TVA; discomfort with the negative effects, but also hope for a brighter future.
The three other sculptures are less dramatic, but they’re not entirely natural, either. Mims worked at a time when art was focused on the idea of abstraction, and he tried to bring those ideas to the human form, often elongating bodies and limbs for an emotional effect.
“Stylistically it does look dated now,” LeQuire admits, “but it’s important to have that vision of where we were.”
The statues will survive, no matter what happens to the building. The state museum has already made plans to put them into storage, at least for the time being.
Alan LeQuire is hopeful that his first teacher’s finest work might eventually find a new home where many more people will see it.
Here’s a video produced by TVA in the 1930s to promote the major dam projects the agency was building: