By Katie Sutton Randall, Fieldwork Coordinator, Center for Historic Preservation
From the Rolling Mill Hill development Web site: “To live and work at Rolling Mill Hill is to thrive within a culture of creativity and collaboration – and to exhibit a shared commitment to environmental stewardship and historic preservation.”
Over the past few years, a collection of historic buildings at Rolling Mill Hill in Nashville has been developed into mixed-use space, featuring condominiums, creative and flexible office space, and the trendy Pinewood Social, an eclectic watering hole where one can have coffee from neighborhood-favorite Crema, meet coworkers for lunch, sip a carefully crafted cocktail at happy hour, sit by a pool, or even enjoy a game of bowling with friends.
The Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) worked with the Metropolitan Historical Commission to list some of these buildings on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, and it has been thrilling to watch the neighborhood’s transformation take place. It’s not often that we as preservationists get to see such progress in such a short window of time. However, as a preservationist and Nashville resident, it has been interesting for me to witness how the history of these buildings has been misunderstood from the beginning.
Six industrial buildings at Rolling Mill Hill were listed on the National Register as the Municipal Public Works Garage Industrial District. These single-story, red-brick buildings are more commonly known to Nashvillians today as “the Trolley Barns.” Though “trolley barn” is a much shorter and catchier name than “municipal public works garage,” these buildings never housed trolleys or streetcars. In fact, the garages were completed in about 1940, around the same time that the streetcar system in Nashville was abandoned in favor of buses for public transportation.
Originally funded by the Public Works Administration (PWA) in 1938, these buildings were completed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sometime between 1939 and 1941, following the dissolution of the PWA. The garages housed several city public works departments, including Engineering; Water Works; Streets, Sewers, and Sidewalks; Street Cleaning; Street Sprinkling and Sanitation; and the Municipal Garage. Buses, police cars, and other city vehicles were serviced there.
So where did the “trolley barn” myth begin? One possible explanation is that the parcel of property the garages inhabit has long been owned by the city of Nashville and was at one time the location of city stables. Nashville’s earliest streetcars were mule-drawn, so perhaps the connection between the stables and trolleys began there. The truth remains, however, that the real trolley barns of Nashville were located downtown near the Public Square and are no longer extant.
Many people proudly cite the National Register designation when talking about Rolling Mill Hill but are evidently not reading the full National Register nomination. The Rolling Mill Hill development Web site gives such a description: “Rolling Mill Hill’s character reflects an industrial strength tempered by nostalgia and poetic charm…The trolley barns, originally home to Nashville’s streetcar fleet, are on the National Register of Historic Places and now house office and commercial spaces for some of Nashville’s most visionary companies.”
The trolley barn myth has been further perpetuated by Metro’s own Housing Development Authority’s “Trolley Barns Fact Sheet,” which correctly cites the garages’ WPA connection but not their original use, and by articles in The Tennessean, The Nashvile Scene, and The New York Times, which all refer to these historic structures as “trolley barns.”
So what can we as historians and preservationists do about this misconception? It seems to be very firmly entrenched in the minds of Nashvillians already. Signage at the site directs visitors to the “trolley barns,” and to many, this difference in distinction may seem insignificant or trivial. Thankfully, the true narrative is preserved through the National Register program, a great resource for documentation. Aside from that, perhaps the best we can do is continue to put forth the history, educate the public as opportunities present themselves, and discuss this and similar topics concerning the intersection of preservation and the enormous growth of our beloved city whenever we get the chance. Forums like this blog and other forms of social media can be a great means for spreading the word. In addition, groups like Historic Nashville, Inc. have tackled this topic on their Facebook pages.
For further reading on Nashville’s transit history: http://www.nashvillemta.org/Nashville-MTA-history.asp
For images of an actual trolley barn in Atlanta: http://www.thetrolleybarn.com/history