Nashville's Historic Woolworth Building is in Trouble

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tags: civil rights, historic preservation, Nashville, John Lewis, Sit Ins

It’s hard to imagine any measure that wouldn’t classify the building at 221-223 Rep. John Lewis Way North in Nashville as historic. Formerly the site of a Woolworth Department Store lunch counter, it was also the place John Lewis first was arrested in what became his life-long pursuit of civil rights equity. The student-led sit-ins there, and elsewhere, in Nashville helped lead to desegregation of restaurants across the country.

Since February 1960, things have changed, and things have remained the same.

In 2020, Nashville’s Metro Council renamed Fifth Avenue, where this particular building sits, Rep. John Lewis Way. But not everyone values holding space for the experiences that collectively shape our lives, including the sit-ins. What’s happened at and to this building is emblematic of activities nationwide that have prioritized real estate and development over informed placemaking.

As the current tenants of the Woolworth building turn their back on its history, it is just one example of how and why the country is ending up with blocks populated with signs explaining what used to be on those spots, rather than adapting and reusing landmarks in ways that weave the narrative into a new use.

“It is hard to go to Atlanta and find even one civil rights’ building still standing,” laments Lee Sentell, founder of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which launched in 2018 as a way for Southern states to educate the public about its past.

Back in 2015, it looked like things were going to go a different way in Nashville. The Woolworth building was purchased for $3.4 million by a trust headed by a local hospitality entrepreneur. Nashville restaurateur Tom Morales converted the two lower floors into Woolworth on Fifth, a restaurant with a replica of the lunch counter designed to educate the public about the sit-ins. It featured historic video, photographs and programming. It opened in 2018 and closed before the pandemic in 2020.

Morales, who grew up in Nashville and no longer owns a stake in the building or any of the projects housed there, was pained to see the artifacts he collected, preserved or replicated, trashed when the Woolworth Theatre began remodeling.

When Historic Nashville, Inc. included the Woolworth building on its annual list of endangered properties in 2021 (the same list that cited Nashville’s Elks Lodge #1102 as being at risk), it issued a statement that read: “We recommend that they bring in [an expert] with a specialization in the Civil Rights Movement or Black Freedom Struggle, a trained historic preservationist, and a conservator who can assist with the identification and care of the building’s remaining historic elements.”

That did not happen.

Read entire article at Boston Globe

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