Preserving History: Tour of the Tennessee State Prison

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When you hear the word prison, your mind doesn’t necessarily imagine exquisite architecture. Prisons are places that automatically come with a dark or negative impression.

The Tennessee State Prison is a place that served it’s purpose in time for what it was designed for and also is a prime example of exquisite architecture. Built in 1898, the Tennessee State Prison (TSP) is an ambassador to 1890s architecture.

Recently, Historic Nashville, Inc. members had the distinguished honor to an exclusive tour of the beautiful prison. The tour was led by Tennessee Department of Corrections staff Torrey Grimes and Theresa Thomas. The prison is not open to the public and sits unoccupied and fighting the elements of decay.

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The prison opened in 1898 and operated until 1992. When it was built the prison was only supposed to house 800 prisoners. Upon the prison’s first arrivals when it opened, the prison had up to 1400. Almost double what it was suppose to hold. Before the newness of the prison could wear off, an escape from some of the inmates happened within the first couple of months. Prisoners took  TNT dynamite that was kept at the prison and blew a hole in the side of the prison.

IMG_5505 Side of the prison that was blown out from TNT.

Historic Nashville, Inc. members walked around the exterior of the building to see what remains of the historic prison today. Members were given pieces of historical information along each step of the way.

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When the prison closed in 1992, it was given up for free to the film community. Films such as The Green Mile, The Last Castle and Ernest Goes  to Jail were filmed on prison’s property. If you’ve watched The Green Mile, you may recall the little rat that was a companion to one of the inmates. We were told that the rat was not a current tenant of the prison but rather a trained one the film crew brought.

While walking around the exterior, the peeling of paint is all around. This is a result of a production company that painted the exterior for a film. The paint still shows today. The paint was not removed after filming and unfortunately it was not discovered until years later that “cheap” paint was used. This resulted in moisture getting trapped behind the paint and thus harming the bricks.

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The tour took us to the back side of the prison where the yard was and remains. The only interior portion of the prison members were able to go into were the cell blocks and the mess hall. My husband and I opted to view the inside of the cells first.

Standing in the entrance of the exterior exit of the cells was quite an experience. The cells climbed up three stories and each cell held two prisoners. The tour guides explained that even though the prison was built to house approximately 800 inmates, the population was over that. At one time, the prison had approximately 3,300 to 4,000 inmates. We were told to imagine how loud it would have been within the walls.

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Before we wandered into the mess hall, we peeked into other parts of the building. Below are a few pictures of what remained in an interior room. As you can see, a lonely ledger sits waiting on it’s owner to complete the tasks for the day.

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As we entered into the mess hall, the staff members continued giving us lots of history about the prison. Such as the mural that still  remains  proudly in the mess hall. It was painted by prisoners during their own time since the prison was a working farm and all prisoners had a job. They were supposed to defray the cost of their incarceration.

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IMG_5559 A jacket waiting on it’s owner to come back to claim it.

When the prison closed in 1992, there was a lot more entrance into the interior of the prison. However, asbestos has staked it’s claim and has caused it to be unsafe for anyone to enter without proper gear. Historic Nashville, Inc. members were very lucky to take the tour as this is normally reserved for senators and governors.

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The Tennessee State Prison’s future is currently unknown. Many ideas have been brought to the table but I believe we all can agree on one thing: to preserve it’s rich history. Just like Alcatraz in San Francisco, Calif., the Tennessee State Prison deserves to age with dignity and be on display for people to admire. If you’d like to learn more and perhaps learn how we can move into the direction of preserving this late 19th century landmark, go to the Tennessee State Prison Historical Society or the Save The Tennessee State Prison Facebook page. Grand landmarks like these deserve to thrive in preservation history.

For more information about becoming a Historic Nashville, Inc. member, please visit their membership page.

 

Wanted: Old West Enthusiasts

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Grab your saddle and trusty horse pod’ners and get ready to discover the Old West. I’m not talking about visiting a museum either. I’m talking about the fully-operational Pioneertown in Southern California.

Yes, you read correctly, Pioneertown. The place where all your Western dreams come true. If you’re a fan of the Old West films and television shows, this unincorporated community village is your slice of heaven. Nestled in the high desert in the Morongo Basin region of Southern California, Pioneertown came to fruition in 1946.

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The town’s purpose (other than being so totally cool) started in the 1940s and it was to serve as a live-in Old  West motion picture set to the Hollywood stars. Makes sense, considering Los Angeles is only a couple of hours away and the surrounding land is perfect for a western film set. The entire set was designed to look just like an 1800s western town but with live-in capabilities to accommodate the stars while they filmed. Many films were shot here during the 1940s and 1950s. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry are among the famous that were responsible for this Old West Town. Roy Rogers was one of the original investors of Pioneertown.

As you walk down the “main street,” you completely get the feel of a western town. Complete with saloon, bathhouse, undertaker business and livery, just a name a few of the buildings. You’ll be humming the Marty Robbins tune, “El Paso” as your spurs kick up the dirt underneath your feet.

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If you get the chance to visit this place, don’t feel like you’re too far off the beaten path if you need to rest your weary bones. On the property there is the Pioneertown Motel that will give you a place to rest your head. You won’t be sleeping in a tent either. This small yet charming western motel offers rooms with a bed, bathroom, kitchen sink, and microwave to travelers. However, I must heed a warning: be ready to live up to Pioneertown’s way of life. You’ve heard of no shirt, no shoes, no service. Well, be ready for no t.v., no radio, no service, as in internet service. My husband and I did have the pleasure of staying here and I must say, it was quite refreshing to unplug for a while. So if you’re okay to forgo the electronic entertainment we’re all use to, bunker down for a night’s stay in this unique place. Just make sure you bring a book or companion to keep you company. And just remember, you’ll be “sleeping” with the stars as this is where they lived and worked.

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Don’t be imagining you’ll be counting tumbleweeds blowing by as your only source of entertainment. On the property is a live music venue called Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. And if you’re hungry, they’ve got you covered with their full menu. The venue has changed hands a few times since it’s inception in 1972. But the current owners have kept the 1982 owners’ names on the bill and have brought in musicians such as Robert Plant and Vampire Weekend.

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One cool fact among many about Pioneertown is the bowling alley on  the property. I mean, the famous stars had to have activities while they worked, right? Apparently, the bowling alley is one of the oldest in continuous use in California.

So if you’re passing through these parts, I highly recommend  you take a gander at this western wonder. Be sure to soak up the entertainment, stay for a spell and imagine you’ve been transported back into the historic American Western frontier.

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Behind the Scenes of the Southern Turf Building

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Being a member of Historic Nashville, Inc. definitely has it’s perks. Once a month Historic Nashville, Inc. hosts members-only behind-the-scenes tours to various historic places in and around Nashville, Tenn. Pretty much they had me at “behind-the-scenes.” What a treat to see historic buildings and places that aren’t often or at all seen by the public! For the month of March, we had the opportunity to view the historic Southern Turf Building.

The Queen Anne-style building was built in 1895 by a wealthy bookmaker, Marcus Cartwright. It’s home was located in what was known as Nashville’s “Men’s Quarter.” If you need me to elaborate on what was Nashville’s Men’s Quarter, it was a male domain that hosted gambling, saloons and quiet prostitution. A place no “well-to-do” lady would ever venture in. Living up to it’s section of downtown Nashville, the Southern Turf building operated a saloon on the first floor, a gambling parlor on the second floor and a bordello on the third floor. The building had it’s hey-day during the late 19th and very early 20th century. A black cloud called prohibition was looming and when statewide prohibition passed in 1909, the operations at the Southern Turf came to an end. Following this was the campaign to shut down the red-light district surrounding the Capitol. By 1957, vice could no longer call this section of the city home.

Following the passing of statewide prohibition in 1909, the saloon closed in 1916. The building’s manager, Ice Johnson, shot himself to death on the third floor where he lived while operating the saloon. We did visit this area and it has a new resident today. Between 1916 and 1937, the Southern Turf was home to The Nashville Tennessean newspaper. Following the The Nashville Tennessean, others called this place home including, a billiard hall, a restaurant, a shooting gallery, a clothing store, a restaurant, and a paint store. In the basement of the building the infamous Skull’s Rainbow Room entertained tourists and Nashville’s own residents in historic Printer’s Alley. Unfortunately, the owner, David “Skull” Schullman, was murdered and what glitter was left faded.

Between the years 1916 and 1982 the beautiful building was robbed (in my opinion) of it’s grand furnishings and fell under many unjustified remodelings. Below is a picture of the saloon.

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In 1982, the building did fall into the hands of kind owners who took up the responsibility of restoring the building to it’s former architecture and style. Today it is owned by the law firm Trauger & Tuke. Historic Nashville, Inc. members can rest easy with the Southern Turf’s current owners as one of the owners, Mr. Robert “Bob” Tuke, has fought to save many of Nashville’s historic building and sites. Mr. Tuke was also our tour guide for the Southern Turf building.

And to save the best for last, while on our tour, we passed through one of the coolest doors we’ve ever seen or walked through. It was a heavy and tall door that had a little sliding “peephole” window that was used during it’s speakeasy days. You hear so much about these types of doors it was so awesome to actually use it! One can only imagine what the passcode was to enter.

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Below are some exterior photos of the grand historic Southern Turf and interior photos of the infamous Skull’s Rainbow Lounge that is currently undergoing renovation in hopes to once again be a source of entertainment to Nashvillians.

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