Everyone has an origin story.
Some carry a soul-stirring strength that extends across time and space. They may be so powerful that they aid in protecting the setting, preserving the very places where the story originates. While watching a repeat of the Ken Burns film The National Parks: America’s Best Idea on my local PBS station, I am reminded of how many of our parks include mountains, lakes, and meadows that are part of the origin story for Native Americans. Places that have deep meaning for the soul. Sacred places.
Other origin stories evolve, as the nation, group, or individual comes to a fuller understanding of who and what they are. As is appropriate for a nation built on the shared work of the imagination, the complex American origin story continues to unfold, especially during this era of turmoil and change.
“All of us tell stories about ourselves,” write Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback in the Harvard Business Review. “Stories define us. To know someone well is to know her story — the experiences that have shaped her, the trials and turning points that have tested her.”
Individuals use origin stories to define the people and places that have shaped them from the beginning. Part of mine involves tomorrow’s date, June 30th, when we would celebrate my parents 70th wedding anniversary, were they still alive. And it involves a place near to me that I last visited a little over ten years ago.
Having just arrived after a morning flight in the fall of 2009, I found myself in the lobby of Nashville’s Union Station Hotel waiting for a room and for my meetings to begin. That left me with time to think. And remember.
Union Station is a Nashville landmark. As one approaches on Broadway, it looms alone on the landscape, like Mount Monadnock or a butte in Monument Valley. It is a beautiful old pile of a building in what is known as the Romanesque Revival style, with heavy cut stone, rounded arched windows, and high towers and turrets. With its Italian marble floors, decorative wrought iron, crystal chandeliers, oak-accented doors, three outsized limestone fireplaces, and a 65-foot, barrel-vaulted, stained glass ceiling, the lobby is designed to showcase the power and opulence of the railroads at the turn-of-the-twentieth century.
After settling in to one of those large, overstuffed chairs that are ubiquitous in university and city clubs throughout the country, I took it all in. The building’s history as a key Louisville & Nashville Railroad station is worth remembering. Its architectural and decorative features add to what makes it important. Yet all of that wasn’t enough. By the early 1980s, the building was threatened with demolition. Abandoned and deteriorating, Union Station was just another eyesore from a bygone era.
Places with imposing presence, with designs built for the ages, places that once served noble purposes, are — from my perspective — worth the effort to find a new use in today’s world. But for some, especially among those who control the money and political power, what is seen as the push for progress is worth the loss of the buildings and landscapes that provide continuity with the past. No, Union Station wasn’t going to be saved because of its railroad history and grand architecture alone. It became a landmark in so many minds — providing the motivation behind the effort to save it from the wrecking ball, even in the midst of decay and deterioration — because of the building’s innumerable, varied, and deeply personal connections to people in Middle Tennessee.
Emotions, stories, and memories flow through Union Station like so many trains. Emotions, stories, and memories like mine, for instance, that help tell how I grew to care about the importance of history and place in modern life.
Union Station was incredibly busy in the years before the advent of the automobile, taking men, women, and children to places near and far, creating memories on a daily basis. Many were traveling for pleasure. But others — like African Americans riding in segregated cars during the Great Migration of the 20th century — were looking for a better life or, at least, a different life from the stifling restrictions of the Jim Crow South.
My father had an early encounter with Union Station when he joined the Navy during World War II. The station was never as busy as it was in those years, shipping young men and women like Tom Brown to bases and ultimately battlefields all across the globe. Before the train shed was lost to fire and lack of imagination in 2000, my father and I walked the platforms and studied this engineering marvel as my insatiable interest in history began to morph into a career path in historic preservation.
My parents were part of the post-World War II marriage boom that begat the well-documented baby boom. Both were from the small town of Franklin, a rural farming and commercial center south of Nashville that grew in the early 20th century thanks to the connections made possible by the Interurban Railway, where Granddaddy Brown served a stint as a conductor. My father had just graduated with his engineering degree from Vanderbilt and was enrolled in a training program that led to his life-long career with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Mom, then a couple of years beyond her high school graduation, married my father on June 30, 1950, in downtown Franklin’s First Baptist Church just blocks away from their family homes. Before moving first to Columbia and soon thereafter to Cookeville for my father’s first major position with TVA, Tom and Helen Brown had a honeymoon to take.
Luckily for them, Mary Dixie, my father’s sister who was named after her mother, lived in Chicago. That meant that my parents came to Union Station — like so many honeymooners, soldiers, professionals, laborers, and families before them — and boarded a train bound for the Windy City. There’s a signboard behind the hotel check-in desk today that is from this era. I look up and see the same schedule that my parents saw as excited newlyweds, ready to begin their life’s journey together. The same schedule with those evocative Southern train names: The Azalean, The Humming Bird, Pan-American, The Georgian, Dixie Flyer.
I’ve heard stories my entire life about the theatre shows they saw in the city, the food they ate at the ethnic restaurants that was so foreign to their Southern palates, and their visit to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox. My baseball genes apparently come naturally. Uncle Howard and Aunt Mary Dixie’s next-door neighbors, the Standards, took Mom and Daddy to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox play the St. Louis Browns. Daddy recalled that it was windy and cold, and that Mrs. Standard made newspaper capes to break the wind. The St. Louis players included a few with immortal baseball nicknames from an earlier era. Names like Ribs, Snuffy, Cuddles, and Stubby. What they didn’t see were many of the best players in the game. For while St. Louis had been the third team to integrate Major League Baseball in 1947 with the signing of Hank Thompson and the first team ever to play two black ballplayers in the same game in that same year, the White Sox were not integrated until 1951, when the famous Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso joined the ballclub. The vast majority of teams still had only one or, at the most, two black ballplayers throughout the early 1950s. Many of the game’s finest players were still relegated to the Negro Leagues.
The facts from the trip have been filled in through the years, but the memories always originate with that train ride from Union Station. It is what makes it such a vivid part of my origin story.
Old places matter because their materials and appearances connect with human souls through emotions and memories. For some, those places may be mountains or streams. For others, buildings, neighborhoods, and streetscapes are involved.
The story of the saving of Union Station, like similar accounts of preservation successes in communities big and small, has thousands upon thousands of personal stories intertwined with the brick, stone, marble, and mortar. Stories hold these places up, literally and figuratively, embedding the connections from the past into our lives today and in the future.
Everyone has an origin story and many revolve around places. On that October day in 2009, I just happened to be sitting in the lobby of the place that launched my personal history. Because of the power of stories, this place remains today as a touchstone for innumerable individuals and families.
Emotions and stories flow through places, like the train leaving Union Station with two newlyweds bound for Chicago and a life unimagined ahead.
More to come…
Image: Ceiling at the restored Union Station Hotel in Nashville by DJB