The end of a downtown Nashville institution

Published 11:26 am Tuesday, September 20, 2022

By Bill Carey
In a few months, Nashville’s oldest center of commerce may close for good.
There’s been a post office in the downtown Nashville Arcade since April 1903. Since that time, we’ve had 20 presidents and two world wars. The mansions that used to line Eighth and West End Avenues have been torn down and replaced with skyscrapers such as the L&C Tower and BellSouth Tower. Downtown grew as a work location, then experienced a suburban exodus, and has since transformed into a tourist and entertainment venue where parking costs upwards of $30 a day.
Meanwhile, if you don’t know what the Arcade is: it’s a two-story, old-fashioned shopping mall that was modeled after similar venues in Europe, such as the Royale Arcade in London.
For generations, the Arcade’s small shops, cage elevator, hardwood flooring, cast-iron frame and glass roof have made it a unique place. In the first half of the twentieth century, its first-floor shops sold umbrellas, women’s gloves, toys and hammers. After shopping migrated to the suburbs, the Arcade’s first floor shifted to a restaurant tenant base — “downtown’s food court” — I once called it.
“If you sit on one of the tables and have lunch, you will likely see judges, attorneys, politicians — you will see more influential people walk by than any other place in Nashville,” the Memphis Commercial Appeal once quoted me as saying.
In 1999, when I co-founded the news service NashvillePost.com, I wanted an inexpensive office in the heart of town that would feel the opposite of corporate and modern. I paid $300 a month for a tiny office on the second floor of the Arcade, and my partner David Fox and I had to paint the walls and install an air conditioner in the window (which is still there, by the way).
I started one of the world’s first internet newspapers with a jewelry repair shop on one side and an antique book binder on the other. The post office was directly below us, and the odor of pizza, Greek food and roasted peanuts ensured that I didn’t forget to eat lunch a single time.
The Arcade was a perfect atmosphere for what I was trying to do. And, sure enough, I got stories by just being there. Politicians like Governor Don Sundquist and U.S. Representative Bob Clement (not to mention countless state legislators) would actually drop in. They didn’t have PR people; they didn’t make an appointment; they didn’t have to go through security. They just walked in my unlocked door, and about half of the time I had a story by the time they left.
Charming or not, it was obvious even then that the Arcade needed to be renovated, since its bathrooms were sub-par and the place didn’t meet modern electrical codes. Over the years I have also wondered when it would expand its hours (even as night life took over downtown Nashville, the Arcade continued to roll down the grilles at each end and lock its doors at 6 p.m.).
Last year a national real estate firm called Linfield Capital bought the Arcade for $28 million, in one of those staggering transactions that we in Nashville have gotten used to hearing about. Nashville real estate veteran Rob Lowe is Linfield’s local partner, and I’m happy to report that he’s overseeing a historically sensitive renovation on the Arcade’s structure.
However, the money Linfield is putting in means it will need tenants that can pay more. Most of the small businesses in the Arcade have had to close down, but for some reason the Peanut Shop, Manny’s House of Pizza and Percy’s Shoe Shine have been told that they can stay.
Last month NashvillePost.com reported that the Arcade’s new owners have notified the U.S. Postal Service that its lease will be discontinued. Assuming this does happen, it will mean the end of (stretching the definition of “business”), Nashville’s longest continuously operating business at one location.
Since that time I’ve done some snooping around and learned that the post office may have to abandon its present location as early as January. At that time it will move its operation (which includes several hundred post office boxes) either to the Broadway branch (in the basement of the Frist Art Museum) or to a closer location, which can’t be publicly identified yet.
I’d prefer it remain where it is, but I’m very sentimental about the Arcade and the sense of community that’s slipped away from downtown Nashville. I’m also sad to realize that a post office so old that it once delivered mail to and from World War I soldiers is not as important as a domed NFL stadium.
Bill Carey is the founder of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers cover social studies. 

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