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An Unlikely Coalition Trying to Save a Nashville Black Landmark

When Butch Spyridon walked into Leslie Jones’ office in early 2022, Jones was skeptical.

“When a White man walks into a Black man’s office in a Black neighborhood and says he wants to help without wanting anything in return, you’re skeptical,” he says. “I have a few older brothers who are still skeptical.”

But skepticism or no, Jones knew he needed to at least listen to what Spyridon had to say. Spyridon is the CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. He heard the building that houses Elks Lodge #1102 was in serious disrepair. Damages to the roof — which, in part, came as a result of multiple tornadoes — were allowing water inside and contributing to rapid decay.

The building at 2614 Jefferson St. has been home to the Elks Lodge since the late 1960s. The Elks now own the concrete structure. For decades Jefferson Street was essentially Main Street for Black Nashville, a thriving area of restaurants, nightclubs, shops, and, yes, the indoor skating rink. Between 1935-1965, in particular, was a good time to live, work and play near here. And, even before that, the precursor to Jefferson Street during the Civil War era was a wide path, which evolved to a wagon road running from the Hadley plantation to the banks of the Cumberland River.

But when Interstate 40 was built in 1968 (a project that was fought in the courts), it cut off Jefferson Street and surrounding neighborhoods from the economic hub of downtown. Nashville wasn’t alone: Interstate development cut through Black and Brown communities across the country.

“The nation’s transportation infrastructure was built at the expense of Black communities and has contributed to and sustained the underdevelopment of Black America, often making it difficult for Black people to take advantage of society’s opportunities,” Deborah N. Archer, a professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law, wrote in a 2021 Iowa Law Review article.

Though lacking investment, the neighborhood continued to exist, much like the historically Black West Ninth Street business district in Little Rock, Arkansas, Miami’s Overtown community, the Latino enclave of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, and many more — thriving communities interrupted by interstates. Jefferson Street remains home to small businesses and three HBCUs (Tennessee State University, Fisk University, and Meharry­ Medical College). But many of its landmarks were razed; lone historic markers stand in their stead.

Before the 1960s, the now-lodge-building served as a neighborhood pharmacy, a Black indoor skating rink and, in a then-segregated city, a nightclub. It was then, operating under the name Club Baron, the building hosted musicians including Otis Redding, Fats Domino, and Little Richard. Guitar legend Jimi Hendrix played at Club Baron when he lived in Nashville; it is the only stage remaining in the city where Hendrix once played.

Jones, who is the exalted ruler (the Elks’ terminology for the president) of the fraternal organization, had previously heard from some folks who promised to help and then were unwilling or unable to do so.

There was concern the Club Baron building was headed in that direction of so many of those Jefferson Street buildings that have been lost to time and whitewashing. In 2021, Historic Nashville, Inc., a nonprofit that publishes an annual list of nine properties endangered by demolition, neglect or development, named Club Baron as one of its concerns.

So, Jones knew it was important to protect the building from a historical perspective. He knew the building’s condition was a deterrent to recruiting new members. While a brightly colored mural facing the parking lot was a nod to its history, the building needed help.

Read entire article at Boston Globe