“We’re in Shock But We’ll Come Back”: Nashville’s Preservationists Commit to Rebuilding Following Downtown Bombing

by Marge Davis, Scenic Tennessee

When a tech-savvy loner detonated himself and his RV in the heart of Nashville’s thriving entertainment district on Christmas morning 2020, the devastation went far beyond the piles of bricks, blown-out trees, burned-out cars, mangled businesses, and condemned residential spaces left in his wake.

Second Avenue after the December 25, 2020, bombing. Photo by Andrew Nells/ The Tennessean, Pool

Though no one else died or was even seriously hurt in the blast—the bomber had deliberately attracted police in time for them to evacuate the area—the worst of the heartbreaking carnage was to Nashville’s historic identity. The RV had parked next to a row of iconic nineteenth-century commercial buildings, once known as the Cast Iron District, that in 1972 earned a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Nowhere in the United States, except along the East Coast, is there any group of buildings to compare with the handsome warehouse row on Second Avenue,” wrote Nashville historian Louise Davis in 1973. “No one building … is particularly outstanding in itself,” she continued, quoting from the district’s nomination to the National Park Service. “However, as a group, the buildings with their Victorian Italianate design make a remarkable sight.”

Second Avenue Commercial District as it appeared in 1970

Two weeks after the bombing, historians, architects, planners grant writers and others began meeting to assess the prospects for recovery. Of the 30 buildings in the district, more than a third were completely collapsed, partially collapsed or in “imminent danger” of collapse. “There’s a good chance a great deal of the historic district is lost,” the (Nashville) Tennessean somberly informed readers on January 14.

In a moving tribute that felt somewhat like an obituary, reporters noted that the riverfront buildings “had stood for more than 100 years. [With] narrow storefronts [that] stretch roughly 200 feet deep,” the district “was the gateway for goods brought to and from steamboats on the Cumberland River.” Archival photographs, newspaper accounts, and the ghosts of painted signs reflect a wide range of entrepreneurship that ranged from breweries to pharmacies to corn brooms to harness-making to woodenware.

To members of Nashville’s historic preservation community, the grief has been especially acute. Preserving Second Avenue was one of their first undertakings following passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and their success has been central to the transformation of the area from depressed industrial zone to one of the top tourist and convention destinations in the country.

But they are determined to rebuild. In addition to the many donations already made to support displaced businesses, employees, and residents, a fund has been set up to support structural assessments and facade repairs.

As Ann Roberts, longtime executive director of the Metro Historical Commission, told a reporter, “Those buildings … have survived 150 years or so. … [T]here’s a lot of life in them. We’re in shock but we’ll come back.”