Southern Turf: The story of Nashville's notorious 'gentlemen's quarter' and its remaining architecture

Two original saloons can still be found in what was once Nashville's most disreputable red light district

From the late 1880s until 1914, a single city block was Nashville's most disreputable areaa place where self-respecting Victorian ladies refused to walk down the street. This single block was the 200 block of Cherry Street in downtown Nashville (now 4th Avenue North), but it was densely packed with saloons and other businesses catering to the interests of men.

A perfect storm of clientele

The gentlemen's quarter was able to thrive due to a perfect set of circumstances: 

  • A steady and abundant supply of male customers, including lawyers from nearby office buildings; traveling businessmen from the famous Maxwell House hotel, which was located adjacent to quarter; and plenty of construction workers and riverboat crews from the nearby Cumberland River 
  • Lax enforcement by local police
  • Support from popular Tennessee whiskey distilleries

Vintage ad for Maxwell House Hotel

Vintage ad for Nashville's Maxwell House Hotel, published about 1870. The Maxwell House was near the gentlemen's quarter.

In the gentlemen's quarter, men could get a haircut and shave, buy a new suit, have a lunchtime meal in the city (apparently a new trend in the 1890s), enjoy a drink in one of the many saloons, or participate in more prurient and illegal activities like prostitution and gambling. In an era of strict social rules, the quarter provided men a place to drink, gamble, and curse without judgment.

Nashville police were well aware of the illegal activities occurring in the quarter, and while occasional raids did take place, they often resulted in only a nominal fine, along with a wink-and-a-nod.

Support of Tennessee distilleries

It's known that the George A. Dickel Company Distillery used a strategy of buying or building saloons in Nashville, to create outlets for selling its whiskey. The Dickel company owned the Climax Saloon, which survived on 4th Avenue until being recently demolished for replacement by a boutique hotel, which will feature some original fixtures and architectural elements from the old saloon and hotel.

Jack Daniel is said to have made trips to all the saloons on Cherry Street, buying a round of Jack Daniel's whiskey for everyone in each house. According to one source, Daniel, who was only 5'2" tall, would accumulate followers in each establishment, accompanying him to the next place for another free round. It must have been a spectacle to see the diminutive (yet larger than life) Jack Daniel leading a troop of revelers down the street like the pied piper.

Statue of Jack Daniel on the grounds of the historic distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee

Life-size statue of Jack Daniel on the grounds of his historic distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee

Vintage ad for The Southern Turf

The Southern Turf

In spite of its seedy reputation, sources claim that no drunks could be found in the gutters of Cherry Street. Business owners, aware of growing religious and temperance opposition to the quarter (and saloons in general), were eager to present the street as respectable. Many of the saloons were opulently decorated and furnished, and The Southern Turf may have been the fanciest of all, with bronze statues and fine paintings, mahogany furniture, and even electric fans. 

The Southern Turf opened in 1895, with a saloon, gambling, and hotel. It offered imported beers, and wines, brandies, and liquors. It also sold whiskey for outside consumption, like a package store. The Southern Turf closed in 1914 as a result of prohibition in Tennessee. Its bar was removed and the building became the Tennessee Publishing Company. In the basement of The Southern Turf, accessed in the Printers Alley behind the building is Skull's Rainbow Room, established 1948.

The Climax Saloon and Hotel, circa 1900.

The Climax Saloon

A few doors down from The Southern Turf was the Climax, owned by partners from the George A. Dickel and Co. distillery. This three-story saloon opened in 1887, with a bar on the ground level, pool tables and gambling on the second floor, and prostitution in the bedrooms on the top floor. The bedrooms had false panel walls, giving the working girls a place to hide in the event of a police raid.

The Climax was demolished recently, to be rebuilt as a boutique hotel, with construction still underway (see the purple construction walls in the video). It will feature some original fixtures and a rescued front facade, but will not be the same building.

 The Utopia

The Utopia

Neighboring the Climax was the Utopia, called the only European hotel in Nashville. Ads proclaimed that the elevator ran all night. Built in 1891, the Utopia is a six-story stone building. It featured 60 rooms and had a popular restaurant. As can be seen in the video, the Utopia is also currently undergoing renovation, and while it's being gutted, at least the original building is in tact. Photographer Carla Ciuffo was allowed access to shoot the upper floors prior to demolition, and her website claims they had not been entered in 80 years. See her photographs of the old building here.

The end of the gentlemen's quarter

In the years leading up to final closure in 1914, local churches including the Tulip Street Church and The Union Gospel Tabernacle (now The Ryman) held sermons against alcohol consumption and the sinfulness of the Cherry Street saloons. A growing national temperance movement took hold in Tennessee and found powerful political advocates. A series of laws eventually closed all the saloons in the state, leaving only illegal speakeasies.  

Fine art photographs of the Southern Turf and other buildings

Fine black and white photographs of The Southern Turf and other Nashville architecture are available.

Southern Turf Building in Nashville (A0022577), black and white photograph by Keith Dotson. Click to buy a fine art print.

The Southern Turf Building in Nashville (A0022577), black and white photograph by Keith Dotson. Click to buy a fine art print.

White Column on the Historic Climax Saloon, Downtown Nashville, and architectural detail photograph by Keith Dotson. Buy a print.

White Column on the Historic Climax Saloon, Downtown Nashville, and architectural detail photograph by Keith Dotson. Buy a print.

Strange Carved Stone Face on the Historic Utopia Hotel in Downtown Nashville. Buy a print.

Strange Carved Stone Face on the Historic Utopia Hotel in Downtown Nashville. Buy a print.

The now-demolished Climax Saloon (front) with the taller Utopia behind.

The now-demolished Climax Saloon (front) with the taller Utopia behind.

Skull's Rainbow Room in Printers Alley - Nashville

Skull's Rainbow Room in Printers Alley - Nashville. Buy a print here.

The Tulip Street Church, where sermons preached against the vices taking place on Cherry Street

The Tulip Street Church, where sermons preached against the vices taking place on Cherry Street. The church played a role in the demise of the gentlemen's quarter in Nashville. Click to buy a print of this photograph.

Sources

  1. Christensen, Mason K. "The Saloon in Nashville and the Coming of Prohibition in Tennessee."  http://jewlscholar.mtsu.edu/bitstream/handle/mtsu/3578/Christensen_mtsu_0170N_10152.pdf;sequence=1
  2. The Nashville Saloon History Tour nashvillesaloons.weebly.com
  3. Thomason, Philip. “The Men's Quarter of Downtown Nashville.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 1, 1982, pp. 48–66. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42626258.

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