Historic Morris Building – White Purchase or Black Sell Out?

The historic Morris Building had been deemed perfect to house the new Nashville Civil Rights Museum.

 By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN — The last standing structure of downtown Nashville’s Black Business District, the Morris Memorial Building, is in the process of being sold to developers who plan to turn it into a boutique hotel, said sources close to the sale.

Now part of a Metro Historical Commission walking tour of the Capital City, the building sits on what was once Commercial Hotel, an establishment that operated a slave market on its grounds before the Civil War. The city’s Black Business District itself pre-dates its Depression-era counterpart which saw the construction of the Morris Memorial Building; free blacks conducted business there prior to the war with barber shops and hack stands, according to Metro Historical.

Public records reviewed by Nashville Business Journal show Metro’s previous mayor, David Briley, spearheaded a nine-person committee to assess possible uses for the building in hopes of preserving its legacy. Drafted plans included space within the building for affordable housing, office spaces and a museum to commemorate the contributions made by African-Americans in the city. However, those plans came to a halt at the end of last year when the deal between Metro and NBC didn’t pan out, leaving the building’s future in question. The purchase and rehabilitation of the building was set to cost $25 million, which Briley planned to offset using affordable housing bond funds that had already been approved, the NBJ reported before the deal fell through last year. The funds would have almost split the cost for Metro in half. 

The problem arose when it was decided the affordable housing option wasn’t fiscally feasible despite the bond dollars, leaving Metro with the full bill.

Citing a budget shortfall, Rob Harris, the Mayor’s Office’s Liaison to Metro Nashville City Council said a plan to make the building a Civil Rights Museum isn’t in the cards right now, though he believes the building’s integrity and historic legacy would remain preserved under the new owners. He declined to provide the potential developer’s name as the deal’s finalization hasn’t yet occurred.

As of now the developers are looking at the site and the building is still under contract with NBC, but unless the as-yet unnamed developer walks away from the deal its sale is all but certain. Metro Historical Commission’s Tim Walker said he felt the potential new owners will work to preserve the history of the Morris Building due to a request for a 20% Federal Historic Tax Credit that comes with more stringent rules concerning renovations and modifications, but it’s unclear to what extent the building’s original history will be protected. The tax program has enabled $1.4 billion in certified rehabilitation projects in the state since its inception, said Executive Director and State Historic Preservation Officer Patrick McIntyre.

Although it’s on the National Register for Historic Places that designation doesn’t provide any protections. “The National Register program plays no role in tracking or participating in any way in the transfer of ownership of National Register-listed properties,” wrote Chelsea Sullivan of the National Parks Service Public Affairs Office in an email. Protections are typically put in place through the local historic designation process or the donation of an easement or covenant, McIntyre said. 

The site isn’t part of a historic preservation zoning overlay, a distinction that would offer greater safeguards for its structure by limiting modifications such as additions or renovations to the building, noted Walker.

According to Metro’s website over 4,000 sites in Davidson County are listed in the National Register either individually or part of a National Register Historic District as are six National Historic Landmarks, including Fisk’s Jubilee Hall.

Tennessee’s Historical Commission is responsible for the National Register program and the State Review Board examines nominations and holds public meetings in Jan., May and Sept. before presenting their recommendations to the Keeper of the National Register, states the local program’s website.

Built by the esteemed architectural firm McKissack and McKissack in the mid-1920s for the National Baptist Convention, U..S.A., Inc., the Neoclassical building located at 330 Charlotte Ave. has been on the list of the National Register for Historic Places since January 1985, qualifying due to its architectural style and significance in Nashville’s black history. The building housed the NBC’s publishing division, the Sunday School Publishing Board, along with other African American businesses. Reverend R. H. Boyd of the NBC asked Moses McKissack III to move his office into the building, where the two formed a professional bond–Rev. Boyd provided support to Moses III who built churches and many of their furnishings as he completed an architecture and engineering correspondence course.

The McKissack architectural company has deep roots in the history of Nashville’s black communities and African American history at large. Archived articles published four decades ago in the Nashville Banner by Kay Beasley and The Courier’s Linda Wynn dive into the McKissack legacy and detail the generational journey of the family. Formally established in 1905 by Moses McKissack III and joined by his brother Calvin (a Fisk graduate who went on to teach at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College, now known as Tennessee State University) in 1922, it was the first black architectural firm to operate in the United States and is currently the oldest. 

The McKissack brothers hailed from generations of architectural minds beginning with their grandfather, Moses, who was a member of the Ghanian Ashanti tribe. He was captured and sold into slavery in 1790 to builder William McKissack, learning the trade which he then taught to his son, Gabriel Moses McKissack (born into slavery in 1840), the ninth of 14 children with a Cherokee woman named Mirian. Moses I passed in 1865.

Moses II moved to Pulaski, Tenn., in the 1860s where he continued working in architecture while raising his nine children. His son Moses III carried on his family’s legacy there until he settled in Nashville in 1905, opening an office above the One-Cent Savings Bank owned by Dr. R.H. Boyd, James Napier and Preston Taylor in the Napier Court Building and landing his first project–the construction of Vanderbilt University professor Granbery Jackson’s home on 24th Ave. South. The bank was later relocated and renamed the Citizens Savings Bank and Trust, and it is the oldest operating minority-owned banking institution in the nation today.

Moses III gained notoriety through the construction of elegant homes such as that of former governor A.H. Roberts, and a residence he designed in 1920, the George Hubbard House, has been considered especially significant in its architecture along with the Morris Building. 

Moses III designed Fisk University’s Carnegie Library in 1908 along with buildings in Shelbyville and Jackson for higher education campuses, followed by the construction of the Capers CME church in 1925, Pearl High School in 1936 and the multi-million dollar 99th Pursuit Squadron Air Base at Tuskegee, Ala. in 1942, an accomplishment which earned the brothers a Spaulding Medal that same year as an outstanding black business.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt administration sought Moses III’s advice on the nation’s housing problem due to his lengthy and successful experience in designing housing projects, such as Nashville’s College Hill development.

Calvin ran the firm until his brother’s death in 1952 and Moses III’s son, William DeBerry McKissack, took over the architectural firm after Calvin passed in 1968. The firm, now McKissack and McKissack and Thompson after a 1984 merger with Memphis firm Thompson and Miller, has gone on to commission the building of numerous churches, school structures and hotels, including the Z. Alexander Looby Library in 1976.

Named for Reverend E. C. Morris who presided over the NBC at the time of its planning, the Morris Building has appeared on Historic Nashville, Inc.’s “Nashville Nine” list for years and was listed again last year. The nonprofit’s list is an unofficial ranking of the nine most endangered historic sites in the city per community nomination.

Fort Negley, a historical remnant of the contributions of black soldiers during the Civil War, has also been a consistent mention.

For more information on historic places and the protections they fall under, visit the Metro Historical Commission’s page on nashville.gov.