Curious Nashville: What's Up With That Golden-Domed Bank On Charlotte Pike? | Nashville Public Radio

Curious Nashville: What's Up With That Golden-Domed Bank On Charlotte Pike?

Jul 25, 2016

Anyone who's driven through the intersection of Charlotte Pike and 51st Avenue in West Nashville has likely wondered some version of this Curious Nashville question from Katie Gonzalez:

Why does the Regions bank on Charlotte Pike have such an elaborate golden dome? When was the building built, and has it always been a bank?

It's impossible to miss this gleaming golden dome of interlocking triangles. It brings to mind a 1950s sci-fi movie set, the crash site of a burning meteor. The building is so eye-catching that Regions Bank branch's current team leader Andrew Singleton tells me pilots flying to nearby John C. Tune airport use the roof as a navigational tool. 

After a little digging, here's what we found:
In November of 1960, The Tennesseean announced “Nashville’s most unusual bank branch” would soon be built at 5100 Charlotte Pike. By early 1962, business was humming at First American National Bank’s newest branch. 

Other businesses came down to make way: There was Gleaves Drug Store, Allen & Bean Furniture Company, Binkley Brothers Jewelry and West Nashville Self-Service Laundry — lining Charlotte from the corner of 51st Avenue to what is now Thistle Farms at 5122. 

The new bank's designer was John A. Preston, an in-demand Nashville architect. Preston had drawn up more conventional plans for several Nashville-area churches in the mid to late 50s, but he also designed utilitarian and modern buildings: hotels, hospitals, a library and gym at Belmont University, and a master plan for 10 vocational schools across the state. 

The Pioneer Center, an amphitheater in Reno, Nevada was built in 1967 — five years after the bank branch on Nashville's Charlotte Pike. The building's contractor Don Richter was a student of Buckminster Fuller, and he built several of these gold-anodized aluminum structures.
Credit Ken Lund

Why the gold dome?
It's been 54 years since this building was completed, and John Preston is no longer around to ask. The same goes for First American's then-CEO Andrew Benedict, and other executives who signed off on the bold plans.

Furthermore, after a few bank mergers, there's no institutional memory to speak of. In 1999, First American was bought by AmSouth, which merged with Regions seven years later. 

It appears that whatever records existed at the bank were purged somewhere along the way — the branch staff doesn't know much. Anything with a First American logo on it is long gone. 

As fate would have it, my dad worked at First American Bank for about 30 years — at the downtown headquarters just a couple of miles from the Charlotte branch. I called him up, hoping he knew something. But he started with the company in 1963, a year after the Charlotte branch opened. He just remembers it being there — and who the branch manager was at the time. (The branch manager has also since died.)

One reasonable guess as to the design's origin is self-evident in the announcement from the Tennessean: "Nashville's most unusual bank branch." Does the building's uniqueness bring in customers? Regions' Andrew Singleton believes it does. "I'd say 60 percent of our customers say something about the building," he tells me. And he guesses new transplants to West Nashville are more likely to open accounts there because of that recognition. For the record, my dad also supports this theory. 

Buckminster Fuller 
Perhaps someone who knows more details about how this design came to be will read this and get in touch. However, we do know that thanks to futurist Buckminster Fuller, the roof style — called a "geodesic dome" — was having a bit of a moment at the time. 

Though Fuller didn't invent it, his name is forever tied to the geodesic dome by his fervent championing of it.

Buckminster Fuller imagined a future of domed cities, where large-scale, clear geodesic domes protected cities from harsh weather and pollution. Here he is showing the concept to residents of East St. Louis in 1971.
Credit Steve Yelvington / Wikimedia Commons

Fuller was interested in throwing out traditional styles to explore modern building techniques that improved efficiency, affordability and durability.

There was a lot to be said for the geodesic dome from that point of view. It's made up of triangles, rather than squares, which Fuller pointed out were much stronger. It's able to enclose a large area using fewer materials than traditional building techniques. It's also said to be conducive to efficient airflow. 

It's hard to think of a better nod to the ideals of mid-century modern architecture, when decorative frills were falling away so that form could follow function. The roof grabs your attention and tells you that whoever built it was looking to the future. 

The Fallout Shelter Below
Another hallmark of early-1960s modernity was existential fear in America. The Tennessean article announcing the bank's construction was published just a month after a deal between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ended the Cuban Missile Crisis. Russian missiles had been discovered 90 miles from U.S. soil, nearly turning the Cold War into a catastrophically hot one. 

Nuclear preparedness drills were being conducted in schools, and fallout shelters were dug under homes and incorporated into the designs of new buildings — including First American's new Charlotte branch.

Though he wouldn't let me take photos, Regions' Andrew Singleton took me into the building's basement of thick, exposed concrete. In the middle of the main round room, there's a long conference table (and little else.) The room is used for branch meetings but doesn't appear to have been touched by any of the remodeling that has transformed the upstairs over the years.

Along the walls are doors into sealable shelter chambers. Singleton says that not long ago, Regions employees finally threw away shelves full of dehydrated food that he assumes had been there since the building was new. 

I found the bank listed in a 1969 directory of fallout shelters in publicly-accessible buildings all over Nashville — a topic, perhaps, to explore in a future WPLN story. 

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