After 125 years, Nashville’s Mother Church of Country Music still harmonizes with visitors

 In 1892, a massive brick building, located on 5th Avenue in Nashville, was the largest auditorium south of the Ohio River and was open to all religions and people to hear ministers and speakers of the day. This building was the Union Gospel Tabernacle that later became the Ryman Auditorium.

Last month, Metro Council voted on a resolution recognizing the Ryman Auditorium “for its 125 years in Nashville as Music City’s most famous and respected music venue attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to Nashville annually.”

Architect Hugh Cathcart Thompson designed the structure for Captain Thomas G. Ryman that took seven years to build. Upon completion, the project was $20,000 over budget, or a half-million dollars by today’s standards. The building cost was $100,00, which is equivalent to $2.73 million in 2017.

Ryman conceived of the auditorium as a tabernacle for the influential revivalist Samuel Porter Jones. Ryman had attended one of Jones’ 1885 tent revivals with the intent to heckle, but was instead converted into a devout Christian, and soon after pledged to build the tabernacle.

Jones sought to name the tabernacle in Ryman’s honor, but Ryman denied the request several times. When Ryman died in 1904, his memorial service was held at the tabernacle. During the service, Jones proposed the building be renamed Ryman Auditorium, which was met with the overwhelming approval of the attendees. Jones died less than two years later, in 1906.

Although the building was designed to be a house of worship, a purpose it continued to serve throughout most of its early existence, it was often leased to promoters for non-religious events in an effort to pay off its debts and remain open.

In 1904, Lula Naff, a widow and mother, moved to Nashville and began working as a stenographer at the Ryman. She booked famous speakers, concerts, boxing matches and acts of the day in her free time, In 1914, when her employer went out of business, Naff made booking these events her full-time job. Her career spanned more than 50 years before she retired in 1955 as General Manager.

In 1943, the world’s oldest and most famous radio show, the Grand Ole Opry, began a 31-year run at the Ryman.

When the Opry moved to Opryland in 1974, the old church was at risk of being torn down.  When WSM president Irving Waugh announced the plans for Opryland USA, he also revealed the company’s intent to demolish the Ryman and use its materials to construct a chapel called “The Little Church of Opryland” at the amusement park.

Waugh brought in a consultant to evaluate the building who concluded that the Ryman was “full of bad workmanship and contains nothing of value as a theater worth restoring.” He suggested the auditorium be razed and replaced with a modern theater. Waugh’s plans were met with resounding resistance from the public, including many influential musicians of the time. Members of historic preservation groups argued that WSM, Inc. was exaggerating the Ryman’s poor condition, saying the company was worried that attachment to the old building would hurt business at the new Opry House.

Preservationists leaned on the building’s religious history and gained traction for their case as a result. The outcry led to the building being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. In 1974, Tennessee’s United States senators Howard Baker and Bill Brock, along with the assistance of the United States Department of the Interior, pleaded with WSM, Inc. and its parent company, NLT Corporation, to preserve the building. The company tabled the decision on the Ryman’s fate, and the building was ultimately saved from demolition. However, no active efforts were made to improve its condition until 1994, when an $8 million renovation took place. The Ryman reopened that year as a music venue.

Today, the Ryman Auditorium stands as “The Mother Church of Country Music,” and has been named ‘Theater of the Year’ eight times by Polster. It seems the lyrics to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” still resonate throughout those historic walls of the Union Gospel Tabernacle.

Wanda Southerland
Contributor to The News