About Nashville's Germantown
For a great part of the 20th century, Nashville residents were largely unaware that an area north of Jefferson Street was a prominent neighborhood where many of Nashville’s leading citizens once lived. This German community began flourishing in the 1840s by blending its German heritage with Irish, Italian, Swiss and Jewish neighbors, in public schools and sometimes in churches. The Catholic Church of the Assumption, founded in 1859, held many of its services in German as did the German Methodist Church (Barth Memorial) founded in 1854 on North College Street (Second Ave. North). Many prosperous merchants of the city lived in Germantown and prominent retail names hung on store signs downtown, including Rust, Zugermann, Zickler, Ratterman, Buddeke, Thuss, Grossholtz, Jensen, Jeck, and Wheling. Residents walked downtown or rode in the horse-drawn trolleys between the Public Square and Jefferson Street.
In the 1870s, a second influx of immigrants was attracted to the area by the substantial German population already there. With this, North Nashville became the focus of German immigration in Tennessee; and its leaders influenced the architecture, politics, and history of the city and state.
In the German community, many immigrants worked as butchers, a practice brought over from Europe. They often used sheds in their backyards as slaughtering house and sold their meat first to individuals, then to local markets or to the Nashville Market House. Many opened their own markets or stalls there. Names such as Jacobs, Dieterle, Stier, Warner, Oliver, Neuhoff, Power, Petre, Laitenberger, Baltz, and White were among those from North Nashville. Meat suppliers from “Butchertown” developed the Christmas spiced round, a famous Nashville holiday meat.
By 1915, changes that would eventually bring about the neighborhood’s decline were beginning. As streetcar lines expanded and advancements were made in motor transportation shortly after the turn of the century, there was a trend for residents to move away from the “walk-to-town” areas. Moreover, the development of refrigeration led to the phasing out of many small butchering businesses. Large packing houses were formed in the area, and they infringed upon the pleasant residential atmosphere of the neighborhood that had often been advertised in local newspapers as a growing and fashionable community. It was World War I, however, that dealt the final blow to Germantown as a healthy, inner-city neighborhood.
The papers were filled with stories of German atrocities, such as the use of poisonous gases and deliberate infection of water supplies. Other exaggerated cases of emotion included suggestions by some that other citizens “kill theirdachshunds.” Many German families, therefore, told their older members to stop speaking German – even at home. German Methodist Barth Memorial Church illustrates what happened in Germantown. For many years, services were spoken completely in German, but when World War I started, a shift was made to English. Catholics and Lutherans with German backgrounds did likewise. The uniqueness of a small community with ties to the “Fatherland” was over. The neighborhood as it once was would never come back, and constant decline ensued until a handful of urban pioneers decided to attempt to create a new Germantown in the late 1970s.
During the decades of decline, many houses were torn down and others extensively altered; their repair and rebuilding were deterred by the industrial zoning in place and depressed property values. Industrial and commercial buildings and vacant land replaced the 19th and early 20th century buildings. Nonetheless, studies made by the Metropolitan Historical Commission in the 1970s stated that: “A large percentage of structures are still intact and it can become a viable neighborhood. The quality of architecture is exceptional, and the condition of the structures is, for the most part, quite sound.”
The same studies found the Germantown Historic District to be one of the most architecturally heterogeneous neighborhoods in the city. The eight-block area contains a wide variety of styles and types of residences built between the 1840s and 1920s. In recognition of its historical and architectural significance, the MHC nominated Germantown to the National Register of Historic Places, and it was listed in August 1979.
Steps to revitalize the neighborhood and establish its identity then began in earnest. In 1980, members of two historic churches, the Catholic Church of the Assumption and the Monroe Street United Methodist Church, gave Nashville its first Oktoberfest, a “homecoming” event that has helped to establish the neighborhood’s identity. This event, held on the second Saturday in October each year, has become one of Middle Tennessee’s most popular celebrations.
At this same time, a neighborhood association was established. Through this forum, residents and property owners explored methods for reversing the neighborhood’s decline. Recognizing that the current industrial base zoning was generally not appropriate if the neighborhood were to hope to revitalize and that the mix of residents, businesses and other uses could not successfully fit into any existing zoning categories, the neighborhood worked with the Metro Planning Commission to develop mixed-use zoning, a concept that has become a popular planning tool beyond the boundaries of Germantown. In addition, residents began to acquire vacant parcels as they became available, basically “land-banking” them for the future. The neighborhood was also fortunate to receive a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) that was converted into a revolving fund. Through this revolving fund, several renovation projects, were completed. The fund was also used to acquire several vacant historic houses, reselling them with preservation easements, as well as continuing to acquire vacant parcels and holding them for resale.
A pivotal moment came in 1991 when a block-long streetscape, the 1200 block of Fifth Avenue North, was acquired for the development of an auto emissions test site. Through a rather colorful series of protests, the neighborhood succeeded in stopping this threat to its revitalization. The Metropolitan Development and Housing Authority (MDHA), acquired the property, and it was dedicated for resale for future residential infill development.
MDHA began to take a serious look at the redevelopment potential of Germantown and the surrounding neighborhoods. In 1993, MDHA established the Phillips-Jackson Redevelopment District as a tool to help encourage and guide renovation and redevelopment of this area. An important component of the redevelopment plan was the inclusion of design guidelines for renovation and infill development.
Through the early nineties, several activities occurred that helped spur on the revitalization in the area. The replacement of the 1911-era Jefferson Street Bridge led to improvements along Jefferson Street from 2nd Avenue North to 8th Avenue North. The State of Tennessee celebrated its bicentennial by developing the Bicentennial Mall State Park; dedicated in 1996, the park preserves and enhances the view of the State Capitol.
As part of the Bicentennial Mall project, the old Farmers Market was closed and new facilities were built. The warehouse grocery store was demolished, and MDHA recruited a new Kroger supermarket on Eighth Avenue North to serve the Germantown and Buena Vista neighborhoods.
Germantown, which is located within a few steps of the Bicentennial Mall and less than six blocks to State Capitol, has been undergoing a continued renewal and restoration since the mid-1970’s. The neighborhood is a remarkable community full of diversity, innovation, and leadership in blending the mix of historic buildings and infrastructure with new urban design and sustainable building practices. Redevelopment accomplished since 1997 is providing leadership to the growth of the larger Nashville area and has occurred through the diligence and cooperation of longtime and new neighbors. The original Elliott School building at Jefferson and Sixth Avenue North.
A ride through the area today reveals a new community with restored houses, new infill houses and multi-family developments, restaurants, businesses and shops, a new supermarket and pharmacy, and attractive brick sidewalks. Vacant and under-developed properties still exist as challenges but are now viewed as exciting opportunities. Once again, Nashville can take pride in a neighborhood located within a few steps of the Bicentennial Mall, with a view of the State Capitol. Germantown’s future potential is almost unlimited.