It’s Irresistible: Why Nashville’s Rising Skyline Isn’t Purely About Economics

Adam Anders surveys Nashville’s skyline from atop the AT&T Building. Anders runs Lotus Cleaning, which washes and caulks windows there. (Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter)

Adam Anders surveys Nashville’s skyline from atop the AT&T Building. Anders runs Lotus Cleaning, which washes and caulks windows there. (Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter)

Construction in Nashville is booming—not just outward, but upward.

Cranes dot the skyline, and some say mid-rises around five stories could become the norm in areas near downtown.  A 22-story development is planned for suburban Green Hills.  And in the heart of the city, one proposal would dwarf what’s currently the tallest building in the state.

So, Why? Why Up?

Some explanations speak to ambition, or poeticize a human drive toward the sky—more on this later.

Other answers are practical, and tend to deal in economics: fitting more people onto less land, as opposed to sprawling into concentric rings of suburbs, for instance.  Experts talk about making core areas “denser,” and say it ties in with transit, tipping points in the cost of parking, and perhaps ways of life and daily routines that are healthier.

One other factor has to do with demographic shifts and culture: in a nutshell, people who want to be in walking distance of entertainment, schools, shopping, and so on.

The AT&T Building, often called "the Batman Building" because of its twin spires' distinctive shape, is Tennessee's tallest, at 617 feet. (Credit Frank Kehren / flickr)

AT&T’s “Batman Building” has been Nashville’s tallest since 1994. Some developers are aiming to eclipse it. (Credit Frank Kehren / flickr)

‘Because We Can’

All of these things matter, says David Minnigan, who helped design Nashville’s AT&T (formerly Bellsouth) building, the distinctive twin spires of which earn it a fittingly distinctive nickname: the “Batman Building.”  It’s currently Tennessee’s tallest, at 617 feet.  But Minnigan also points toward the other kind of answer to the ‘Why up?’ question:

“The bottom line—I’m not for speculation.  I’m not for doing things that don’t make economic sense, or sense for the community.  But the real reason that I think it would be good to have more high rises and taller buildings is because we can.”

The slew of practical reasons to build upward is echoed by Nashville architecture critic Christine Kreyling, who’s currently working on a book on the “connection between health and the built environment.”

But Kreyling too suggests another consideration, one she terms “aspirational,” which others might deem a bit personal: “Some of it is a sort of form of branding in a highly masculine form, the tall vertical shaft, as it were.”

Portrait of the L&C tower, circa late 1950s, shared by Kem Hinton in his office.

Portrait of the L&C tower, circa late 1950s, shared by Kem Hinton in his office. (Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter)

Southeast’s First Skyscraper Still Looms

Nashville was once home to the tallest building in the Southeast—the 30-story L&C Tower at 4th and Church Street.  Architect Kem Hinton (whose work one might recognize at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, among other places) says when he was growing up he “would behave for a week” just to earn a chance to go to the top.

In his office one day, he pulled out a portrait of the building, its image reflected in the Cumberland river, from before the rest of downtown rose up around it.

“I have a compromised opinion about this, because I grew up in Nashville, so when you ask me to describe it, I’m talking about something that was meaningful in my childhood,” Hinton says.  “If someone builds a sixty- or seventy-story tall building, this oughta be on their bull’s-eye to top.”

Indeed, it is.  Tony Giarratana’s developments include several tall condo towers downtown, and he says there’s an appeal in soaring past the record for Nashville’s tallest building.  Giarratana is also a fan of the L&C, mentioning it was finished in 1957, the same year he was born.  He says since then, the city has plateaued around roughly the same 30-story height.

View toward the L&C Tower, as seen from just below the AT&T sign on the Batman Building. (Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter)

View toward the L&C Tower, as seen from just below the AT&T sign on the Batman Building. (Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter)

“I think it’s about time, after 56 years, for our city to push the envelope and go taller,” Giarratana says.  Before the recession, his doomed Signature Tower proposal would’ve been among the tallest in the world, going up some 70 stories.

That same site, at the corner of 5th and Church, just up from the L&C, recently got approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for a new proposal that would go up some 770 feet—head and shoulders above the Batman Building.

“We wanted to go taller, but that’s what we were approved for,” Giarratana says.

The Cat On The Fridge Effect

From just below the AT&T sign near the top of Nashville’s tallest building, one might feel akin to a cat surveying his domain from atop a refrigerator.  Adam Anders, who runs a business cleaning and caulking windows in such places, says from the top of the Batman Building, there’s simply not a bad view: “It never gets old.”

Done right, a skyscraper marries the math over parking, tenants, and density, with sculpture.  It’s a feat of engineering, dealing with challenges like pumping water up to higher stories, to say nothing of running elevators efficiently.

But also, there’s a sense maybe it’s not always form following function.  Maybe people choose a point in the sky they want to reach, and everything else is just a matter of how to get there.


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