The old Tennessee State Prison building was listed on the Historic Nashville Inc.’s inaugural “Nashville Nine” list of endangered historic buildings in 2011.
Two years later, the state is working with architects to develop a variety of plans to repurpose the prison site, which could include a museum in its distinctive main building, built in 1898. The state building commission signed off on an $800,000 expenditure last fall to study all of the options for the property.
EOA Architects is leading the effort to design several possible uses for the site.
“The [Tennessee] Department of Correction has some historical artifacts, some really cool things, that they don’t have a place to put,” EOA founder Gary Everton told The City Paper. “One of the things that came up was, well, we could have one area of this that could be a museum for our [TDOC] artifacts.”
The current property, which is located off Centennial Boulevard in West Nashville, has been closed since 1992. Several movies, including The Green Mile and The Last Castle, have filmed at the site since its closing.
“The old castle itself ... is really a fine piece of architecture, and they want to have it to where it’s available for the public to see it,” Everton said.
The TDOC previously developed a plan that called for a $27 million renovation to relocate the department’s central office staff to the main building. Everton said office space will be a key element in several of the potential plans for the site. The TDOC staff relocation to the old state prison could coincide with state efforts already underway to consolidate office space.
“One [plan] might have the entire building be the administrative offices and we don’t build a museum. One might be the top floor is all administrative offices and bottom floors are a museum and press room, where you can get some vertical separation,” Everton said. “You do a bunch of different schemes to look and see what’s the most efficient layout, the least construction cost and the best benefit to the state.”
Aside from the main castle building, the cell blocks are also being incorporated into the potential redesign. Everton said that one option may be to leave a cell block as is, to be incorporated into the museum plan. Other cell blocks could be rehabbed into office space.
“They actually have some really, really tall windows that lets in a lot of natural light. ... That is an advantage these days when you’re laying out office space,” Everton said.
But there are potential hurdles to opening up the site to the public. The only road to the building runs over active railroad tracks, which could pose access issues. The Tennessee Department of Transportation has been involved in discussions about the site.
The other issue is funding. The earlier office renovation proposal was $27 million — about $11 million more than the state paid to renovate the State Capitol building in 2012.
If a museum option is on the table, the state could look to outside nonprofit groups or a public-private financing partnership.
“That gets into the conversation quite often: Are there groups out there that would see this as an opportunity to work with the state?” Everton said.
The TDOC deferred questions about the old prison to the state Department of General Services. Spokeswoman Kelly Smith said the state hasn’t made any decisions about the site and all options are being considered.
At a building commission meeting last year, TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield said that the state abandoning the property could still be considered. But Everton said it’s unlikely that the prison will see the wrecking ball under any of the proposals.
“I doubt that’s going to get very much credence, because no one wants to take the building down,” Everton said. “I don’t think that’s really in the game plan.”