The Fifth Avenue Historic District is significant both in Nashville's commercial history and architectural development. Located in the central business district, this area has traditionally been the retail center of the city and its architecture is reflective of a period of prosperity from 1870 to the 1930s.
The buildings pre-date 1935 and most retain their original architectural character
Before the Civil War the Fifth Avenue area was characterized by up to three- story brick stores and residences while most of the city's commercial activities centered on nearby Second Avenue. The post-war prosperity brought about an expansion of activities with the Church Street and Fifth Avenue area one of the main centers of this development. Companies specializing in dry goods and clothing relocated here. Property changed hands often during this period with new brick buildings erected on the site of former residences and vacant lots.
The oldest buildings from this era are the St. Cloud Block and the Thompson Building both of which were constructed in the late 1860s. The St. Cloud Block was built on the site of the St. Cloud Hotel and was a major storehouse for three businesses. One of the developers was Charles Thompson who opened an adjacent dry goods company in 1868 at 213 Fifth Avenue North. On Fourth Avenue the 219-221 Building was constructed in 1871; occupied by the McEwen Steam Laundry Company, it was the largest cleaning establishment in the city. All three buildings were three-story with Second Empire and Italianate detailing.
Between 1870 and 1890 seven major buildings were constructed along Fifth Avenue, Fourth Avenue and Church Street. Most of these were designed in the Italianate, Romanesque or Chicago commercial styles. Occupants of these buildings catered to middle and upper-class women who shopped for clothing, shoes, sewing goods and household items. Other establishments listed were music teachers, hair dressers, and sewing machine companies.
Many of Nashville's department stores opened their doors in the area during the late 19th century
Another major business of this period was the Jesse French Piano Company, one of the largest piano makers in the South, which constructed the ornate building at 240 Fifth Avenue in 1889. Other major businesses including the Kress Company, W.T. Grant Company, and Woolworths have or continue to occupy buildings in the district.
During the 1890s a distinctly Victorian phenomenon appeared in the downtown area. Fourth Avenue between Church and Union became known as the "Men's Quarter" with the city's most famous saloons and gambling houses located along this block. The corresponding block on Fifth Avenue became the center for women's shopping where businesses catered primarily to female clients.
Between 1890 and 1910 the Fifth Avenue area reached its height of popularity as the retail center of the city. In 1903 the Nashville Arcade created a new shopping complex for the downtown area along this block between Fourth and Fifth. Motion picture theatres were found along Fifth Avenue. At 235 Fifth Avenue was the Strand Theatre, and on the east side of the street was the Rex and Fifth Avenue Theatres. These early theatres provided amusement for children while mothers shopped along the street. Construction of new retail establishments continued along Church Street and Fifth Avenue into the 1930s. The last building erected in the district was the five-story Art Deco Kress Building constructed in 1935; although many storefronts or interiors were altered in later years, the basic architectural configuration of the district remained unchanged. These properties constitute an important architectural, historical and commercial resource reflective of the evolution of downtown Nashville.
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