Ewing: Higher ground

Monday, June 14, 2010 at 10:45pm
David Ewing

In the beginning, Captain Tom Ryman was a boozer, a bettor and a man a few steps short of God.

Ryman owned a fleet of riverboats that mainly transported goods and whiskey on the Cumberland River. His steamers also provided first-class travel in the area. Ryman served the finest food, distilled water and alcohol on board.

In 1884, Ryman made a large bet that Grover Cleveland would win the presidential election. Ryman was influenced by local gamblers to continue to bet on this 1884 election, and he couldn’t say no as more bets arrived.

By election time, Ryman had waged his entire fortune — including his stately house on the hill near the Cumberland River.

Fortunately for Ryman and the city of Nashville, Grover Cleveland won the presidency. And Ryman, who would later reflect that he had spent “a good part of his life serving the devil,” would put his money to good use.

In 1885, a traveling minister stopped in Nashville for a series of sermons and tent revivals. Ryman and his rowdy friends were part of the thousands in attendance under a big tent downtown. Ryman was present not to listen to the sermon but to heckle and mock.

But instead of disrupting the service, he found himself moved by the words, and he converted to Christianity. He thought it was unfortunate that Nashville did not have a large permanent place for preachers of the gospel, and so he decided to build such a facility.

To show he was a changed man post-conversion, Ryman went down to the dock where his boats were, reduced all the bars on his ships to kindling, and dumped gallons of whiskey from his steamboats into the Cumberland River. He painted Bible quotations where the bars once were.

Ryman selected a site on Fifth Avenue, a few blocks from his office overlooking the Cumberland, for his new building. In his report to donors, Ryman said, “this building is an ornament, not only to the city, but to the state, and when completed as it should be it will certainly be a pride to all of us.”

Ryman hired Nashville’s most famous architect, W.C. Smith — later the architect of Nashville’s Parthenon. He wanted the new building to hold large audiences indoors, where all citizens regardless of social class or religious affiliation could hear the gospel. The new hall would also become the largest convention facility in the South, seating more than 6,000 people.

When the Gospel Tabernacle was near completion in 1892, Ryman was disappointed. He remarked on the “unfinished and crude state of the interior, which at present is provided with only rough seats, and the walls are undressed.” Interestingly, the exposed walls and wooden church pews are now part of the character of the world-famous auditorium.

Desperate to raise the money needed, Ryman spent $25 for names and addresses of 5,000 millionaires. He paid another $110 for postage and mailing to ask these people for money. The millionaire campaign failed, and Ryman changed architects a month later, selecting Hugh C. Thompson, who designed the famous brick gothic structure with the soaring roofline.

The Union Gospel Tabernacle opened in 1893 and later became known as the Ryman Auditorium, after the Rev. Sam Jones asked attendees of Tom Ryman’s 1904 funeral to stand if they agreed that the building should be named for its visionary. Thousands rose to their feet.

Over the years, the Ryman has hosted Teddy Roosevelt, John Phillip Sousa, Marian Anderson, Bob Hope and many others. It was the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974.

Today, the Opry plays at the Ryman seasonally, and the rock, pop and country acts that also perform there consider the Ryman hallowed ground.

David Ewing is a ninth generation Nashvillian. He practices law at Rudy, Wood & Winstead and can be reached at dewing@rudylaw.net
 

7 Comments on this post:

By: wwhowell on 6/15/10 at 11:32

I'm puzzled by your attribution of the Union Gospel Tabernacle to W. C. Smith, architect, later replaced by H. C Thompson. I wrote a biography of Thompson (now in the Nashville Room and the State Library) titled "Hugh Cathcart Thompson: Native Tennessee Architect". I don't recall coming across W. C. Smith's name in connection with the project. My sources were the Nashville Daily American of July 5, 1889, the Nashville Banner of Sept. ??, and Sept. 27, 1889 and Andrew Morrison's The City of Nashville, p. 74. There was also an article by Jerry Henderson in the Fall 1968 edition of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly. I'd be interested to learn more about Smith's role in the Ryman.

Also, while the temporary replica of the Parthenon for the TN Centennial was, indeed, designed (as far as a replica can be considered to be "designed") by William Crawford Smith, the permanent building that still stands was designed by Russell Hart, whose name is still on the firm of Hart, Freeland and Roberts who, together with Robert A. M. Stern, designed the new Nashville Library main building.

By: DavidEwing on 6/15/10 at 6:15

My research on Tom Ryman is from my rare private collection of Nashville items which include items which are not in The Nashville Room or Tennessee State Library and Archives. I have a diary of Captain Ryman's sister in law from the 1890’s where she talks about seeing Sam Jones preach at "The Tabernacle."

Most of the items which were mentioned in the article are from a "Treasurers’ Report" (which is probably not in The Nashville Room or Tennessee State library and Archives either) which Tom Ryman presented to donors. Items in the report include purchasing the land and paying W.C. Smith before Hugh Thompson was hired and paid by Ryman. Since the report was published in 1892 by Ryman whose idea the building was to begin with, I think it would be more accurate than any of the other sources especially those published in the 20th century.

I am aware that Smith was the architect for the original Parthenon created for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897. My columns in The City Paper are short and my editor cut the mention of Smith designing the “first” Parthenon out of my final version. I am familiar with the work of Russell Hart and know he designed the later version of The Parthenon. I am on the board of the Parthenon and am very knowledgeable of its history and that of the Exposition. W.C. Smith name is on a plaque near Lake Watauga but we should probably correct the omission to credit his design of the first structure.

By: wwhowell on 6/15/10 at 10:13

Thanks for the clarification. I'm impressed by your collection and your research. But you need to understand that attributing the design of the Ryman to W. C. Smith would be a revolutionary development in the architectural history of Nashville. I raise my questions reluctantly, but devotion to historical accuracy drives me to do so. I'm surprised there have not been others questioning the attribution.

Does the "Treasurer's Report" explicitly state that Smith was the architect for the design of the building? Might he have been employed as a consultant to Ryman for the selection of the architect and advice on the project as it unfolded (owner's representative) rather than doing the design personally? The contemporary newspaper accounts are pretty convincing documentation of Thompson'e role. Had they been incorrect, I'm sure Smith would have called it to the attention of the editors. As a matter of stylistic analysis, the Ryman is more in keeping with Thompson's vernacular body of work than with Smith's high-style designs.

Other secondary sources that credit Thompson are: The Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress) -- http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=hhdatapage&fileName=tn/tn0000/tn0030/data/hhdatapage.db&recNum=0&itemLink=r?ammem/hh:@FIELD(DOCID+@BAND(@lit(TN0030))); Patrick's Architecture in Tennessee; Nashville, A Short History and Selected Buildings; and Brumbaugh's Architecture in Middle Tennessee (though he cites Thompson's initials as "A. T."). That makes it pretty widely accepted history with no contenders for the credit. Please check and recheck your sources before this develops into an academic kerfluffle,

Sincerely yours,

Bill Howell

By: DavidEwing on 6/16/10 at 8:29

I am not sure if you read the article I wrote above but I never said W.C. Smith designed the place we now know today as The Ryman Auditorium. To the contrary I state in the article “Hugh C. Thompson, who designed the famous brick gothic structure with the soaring roofline.”

This is the reason no one else has questioned my attribution because the article clearly says Hugh Thompson designed the Ryman. There is no need to recheck anything and this will not turn into an “academic kerfuffle.”

It is unlikely Ryman who had limited funds would hire the best architect in town to help as a “consultant” or in the “selection of the architect” or be a “owner’s representative.” Today in Nashville a builder would not hire Tuck-Hinton, Hastings or Earl Swensson Architecture firms to help them find another architectural firm in their same city. Architects are in the business of designing buildings not giving their work away to a rival.

W.C. Smith designed buildings and I have never seen any mention where he served as an “owner’s representative” working under another architect. If you know anything about Captain Ryman, he struggled and made the construction of the building his full time job, He would have been considered for this project what we now call “the Owner’s Representative.”

Big projects like this were few and far between in Nashville in the 1890’s thus Smith was most likely brought in to be the original architect for the building. He is only a footnote today because for whatever reason Ryman decided he wanted to use someone else. Most likely this was because Captain Ryman was not happy with the design or cost based on what Smith proposed.

Smith did not call attention to this because he was only on the project for four months and replaced by Thompson the architect who in fact designed the Ryman.

By: wwhowell on 6/16/10 at 11:56

You say, "Ryman hired Nashville’s most famous architect, W.C. Smith", then the next paragraph starts, "When the Gospel Tabernacle was near completion in 1892, Ryman was disappointed....", then "Ryman changed architects a month later, selecting Hugh C. Thompson, who designed the famous brick gothic structure with the soaring roofline." The newspaper sources cite Thompson as the architect in 1889. That fits with his having designed a building that was "nearing completion" in 1892. How could he have designed a building that was "nearing completion" before you say he was hired? Does the "Treasurer's Report" include the dates when payments were made?
BTW, an owner's representative does not work under an architect, but is employed directly by the owner to assist in the selection of an architect, review the architect's work and give the owner a "second opinion". It's an uncommon practice now and was surely less common in the 19th Century. I merely suggested it as a possible explanation for Smith's role in the project. The Union Gospel Tabernacle was an unusual project because it was a civic project, funded from contributions, including local government funding. Many of the participants who did the work discounted their fees or forwent profits. Maybe Smith was unwilling to cut his fee.
You say that Smith was only on the project for four months. Does your source say which four months?

By: Music City Ed on 6/17/10 at 6:55

Anyone who knows anything about the Ryman knows Thoimpson designed the building and that is what Ewing said. Sounds like he is upset because someone else has found new information about the Ryman he does not have.

I thought the article based on Ewing's new research was interesting. Mr. Howell your responses are petty and you should write your own articles if you know so much!

I always side with primary sources over Howell's secondary ones. A report written by Ryman trumps whatever you found or did not find.

Howell seems to believe if he could not find the information, it must not be true!

Keep up the good work Mr. Ewing, I will look forward to more new information about Nashville.

By: JHWINUSA on 8/1/13 at 11:32

PERHAPS THERE IS NO ERROR OR DISPUTE... RATHER A WORD PROCESSOR, UNINTENTIONAL TRANSPOSITION OF PARAGRAPHS. SHOULD IT HAVE READ:

...
Ryman hired Nashville’s most famous architect, W.C. Smith — later the architect of Nashville’s Parthenon. He wanted the new building to hold large audiences indoors, where all citizens regardless of social class or religious affiliation could hear the gospel. The new hall would also become the largest convention facility in the South, seating more than 6,000 people.

Desperate to raise the money needed, Ryman spent $25 for names and addresses of 5,000 millionaires. He paid another $110 for postage and mailing to ask these people for money. The millionaire campaign failed, and Ryman changed architects a month later, selecting Hugh C. Thompson, who designed the famous brick gothic structure with the soaring roofline.

When the Gospel Tabernacle was near completion in 1892, Ryman was disappointed. He remarked on the “unfinished and crude state of the interior, which at present is provided with only rough seats, and the walls are undressed.” Interestingly, the exposed walls and wooden church pews are now part of the character of the world-famous auditorium.
...

HIS CHANGE OF ARCHITECTS MAY HAVE BEEN DUE TO HIS INABILITY TO RETAIN THE ESTEEMED W.C. SMITH

JHWILSON