Nashville’s Massive Old Slaughterhouse Envisioned As Riverfront Destination

Jul 12, 2016

The brick building on the edge of the Cumberland River has been described as a dilapidated castle. And to some, it looks haunted. But the old Neuhoff slaughterhouse is getting a fresh round of attention this summer for possible redevelopment.

The complex has lurked on the fringe of Nashville’s popular Germantown neighborhood since 1906.

It grew until the 1950s, but the departure of the meat industry in 1977 has allowed vines to run rampant over its red and pink bricks and trees to sprout on the roof, six stories up. The vegetation peeks up, visible from a nearby greenway, when crossing the Jefferson Street bridge, and from the river.

“If you look at it from the other side of the river it looks like Frankenstein’s castle,” said T.K. Davis, architecture professor at the University of Tennessee. “It’s actually a lot larger building — the slaughterhouse — than people realize. It’s the size of three super Walmarts … 600,000-square feet.”

This summer, Davis assigned his students to study the plant’s history, tour it from top to bottom, and envision its future through dozens of new renderings.

That’s generating some buzz at the same time that the property owners — the McRedmond family — have hired a local architect to craft an official redevelopment plan.

Looking over the elaborate student designs last week, Linda McRedmond Orsagh lingered at one that depicted an entire wall of windows with a panoramic view of the downtown Nashville skyline, just 2 miles to the south.

“This gives me hope,” she said.

A Cautious Family Rekindles Its Vision 

Orsagh said the family has no debt on the property, allowing them to move carefully on redevelopment.

“But now we know we can’t keep muddling along. We want it to be something,” she said. “We don’t want to sell it to somebody to tear it down.”

(Aerial photography by Contrast Visuals.

That’s not to say the property is vacant. A small fraction has been in use for more than a decade as part of a longstanding vision of creating a campus for arts, culture, research and social enterprises.

Tenants include the Nashville Jazz Workshop, Peter Nappi luxury leather goods, offices for nonprofits like Tennessee Craft, and a garage that’s popular for music videos and photoshoots (it has attracted the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nicole Kidman, Garth Brooks, and Slipknot).

“Everything that’s rentable is rented,” Orsagh said.

Yet the bigger vision has been on hold since the death of its leading proponent, Stephen McRemond, who was murdered by a relative in 2011.

“We didn’t know what we wanted to do. But we knew we don’t want to sell it,” Orsagh said. “My goal has been not to make big mistakes.”

She said fixing the biggest buildings — the slaughterhouse and the holding pen — will take major investment.

As seen from the east bank of the Cumberland River, along Cowan Street, the roof of the old Neuhoff plant is a mix of plateaus adorned with greenery.
Credit Tony Gonzalez / WPLN

Yet Orsagh said she is feeling pressure to act, especially with taxes and insurance costs mounting. There’s also encouragement in the form of explosive development all around the property in Germantown, including the adjacent land.

She said the family has been fielding a couple dozen inquiries each month for years. Lately, there’s been interest and visits from Metro officials, the music and fashion industries, and even prominent chefs from as far away as Ireland.

All of them are drawn to the enchanting old buildings on the water’s edge.

“Everybody loves it, but you can’t do it until you spend a lot of money and do it up to codes,” Orsagh said. “It’s like everybody wants a date with you.”

Students Sketch Out A Vibrant Village

In the early days of redeveloping Neuhoff, around 1999, Stephen McRedmond made a point to invite prominent architects for an on-site lecture series. That vision has, in a way, come full circle this summer through the UT architecture students who were assigned to “revisit and extend” his vision.

(Recommended reading: 2002’s “Slaughterhouse Revived,” by The Nashville Scene.)

Davis, the professor, asks students to tackle a Nashville project each year. He and other local architects and urban planners lend advice, and the students are encouraged to think big.

The students also get to work out of the Nashville Civic Design Center, which showcases their work in displays and through publications — and which happens to have had close ties to the McRedmonds and Neuhoff for years. 

An aerial rendering shows landscaping and the feel of a campus for Neuhoff.
Credit University of Tennessee College of Architecture + Design

“As you come across that bridge and you see this castle-looking structure you’re just really drawn to what could be there,” said student Austen Barrett. “That’s the way were are supposed to look at it: there’s so much potential in this space.”

Yet the tour was also intimidating, several said.

“For me, it was pretty dark, and I could really tell that it used to be a slaughterhouse,” said Aaron Wright.

On paper, student ideas include an amphitheater and beer garden, microhousing units made of reused shipping containers, rooftop dining with panoramic views, and even a pedestrian bridge over the Cumberland (which has appeared in other urban plans).

“I think of this campus as almost the American (version of) The Academy in Rome,” said student Josh Murray. “Think about people with shared interests and shared values, and maybe very different artisans — living here, working here, seeing each other doing their work.”

And in presenting their ideas, it was common to hear a description like the following from student Mara Caoile: “While the slaughterhouse is more retail-oriented, we envision the holding pen to be more akin to a museum or a gallery space.”

A three-dimensional image strips away the slaughterhouse bricks to add windows and light.
Credit University of Tennessee College of Architecture + Design

This sense of grappling with the site’s fascinating-but-delicate past pervaded the presentations, especially as they took into account parts of a building that had been dedicated to storing blood, or animal tongues.

As Davis reminded his students, the architecture of Neuhoff was designed with slaughter in mind.

“There used to be some pretty horrific things that’d gone on here. That sense is still there,” said Wright, the student. “To embrace that, in a way that is not morbid, I think it would be something that’s pretty cool.”

And it wasn’t just the students embracing the metaphor.

Jason Young, director of the UT school of architecture, applauded one design (see below) that “gutted” as many bricks as possible to create a glassy and light-filled building.

“I think it would be compelling to kind of slaughter that building … clean out its organs,” Young said.

This rendering by UT students shows a view from the river, with the slaughterhouse reimagined as a glassy mixed-use development.
Credit University of Tennessee College of Architecture + Design

Young and Davis also implored students to think about the trade-off between renovation costs and potential. In some cases, a building might require major repairs, but could lead to the creation of a “sublime space.”

In his remarks, Young compared investing in the Neuhoff slaughterhouse to the labored process of carving out the finest cut of meat.