Industrial Revolution: How Marathon Village became creative district, top tourist attraction

Monday, December 17, 2012 at 10:49am
121712 Marathon outside topper.jpg
(Michael W. Bunch/SouthComm)

In the past decade, residential and commercial developments have rapidly spread through nearly every neighborhood in the city limits, forever changing the Nashville skyline. Many of the historic structures that give Nashville character find themselves dwarfed by modern high-rises and parking garages, or worse, bulldozed into oblivion.

But in an otherwise nondescript patch of land just northwest of downtown, one man has protected the destiny of Marathon Village, a historic complex of buildings that is a familiar sight to anyone who’s driven by on Interstate 40’s downtown loop.

Located in a four-block radius that owner Barry Walker cites as stretching from “12th Avenue at the interstate, down to the park at 16th, to Jo Johnston [Boulevard] to the train tracks,” the development of Marathon Village was a labor of love overseen by Walker himself.

Parts of the complex were built as early as 1881, and the Marathon automobile was produced there from 1910 to 1914, but the property’s history was mostly forgotten when Walker bought his first piece of it in 1986. The 130,000-square-foot factory now houses the area’s most popular attraction, American Pickers star Mike Wolfe’s retail store, Antique Archaeology. Local radio station WRLT-FM Lightning 100 holds down one end of the complex, and the Corsair Distillery occupies space on the other end, which was the initial home of Yazoo Brewing Company.

The remainder of the massive building is filled with a variety of small businesses representing trades such as architecture, photography, film production, graphic design, and creators of everything from moonshine to marshmallows. Walker’s office is located across the street in the 32,000-square-foot administration and office building at 1305 Clinton St., not far from the entry to Antique Archaeology. The office building contains several other businesses, a 3,000-square-foot event space, and veritable museum detailing the history of the building and the factory’s former life as Marathon Motor Works.

Ten years ago, it’s unlikely most Nashvillians would even set foot in the building, due to less-than-palatial surroundings and a lack of instantly recognizable businesses to draw patrons in. But today, it’s not uncommon to see a line of people stretching down the street, awaiting entry into Antique Archaeology or a live show at the 1,500-capacity venue Marathon Music Works. The music venue, which opened in November 2011, recently hosted the Porter Flea Holiday Market, an event that attracted such a throng the venue had to employ the same “one in, one out” policy you might experience at a hot nightclub.

If not for Barry Walker’s diligence, research and willingness to carve a diamond out of one of the rougher neighborhoods in Nashville, the story of Marathon Motor Works might have disappeared into the ether.

 

 

Barry Walker moved to Nashville in 1979 after attending college at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for a couple of years. The Jackson, Tenn., native barely had enough gas money to get from Knoxville to Nashville, and he was broke.

He found work drumming with bands around town and working odd jobs such as laying stone walls, painting condos, building furniture and working in the gift shop at the Country Music Hall of Fame. “I was living on Snickers bars and rice,” he said. “I’d get my paycheck and I’d pig out. Then I’d go back to starving.”

After a stint with the local branch of the American Red Cross, Walker decided to start his own business. He had scraped together $300 from his odd jobs and spent $150 to buy a wrecked motorcycle, which he rebuilt and traded for a car. In a genius bout of trading up, Walker rebuilt the car, selling it for $3,500. He used that to start his first business, the Ingenuity Shop.

“I bought hand-drafting equipment, table saws, enough to build a little shop in the basement of a duplex off Nolensville Road,” Walker says. His first job was building an audiovisual console. “I was good at designing and drawing, but I had never built a console in my life. I started building them, and word got out. People started calling me.”

As the Ingenuity Shop grew, Walker needed more space, moving into an old post office off Meridian Street in East Nashville. The 700-square-foot building, which cost $110 a month to rent, housed his business as he courted larger clients like Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Caterpillar. In addition to building consoles, Walker started refurbishing elevators, carving out a niche as an expert in rebuilding woodwork and laminates. Soon, 700 square feet was not enough, and Walker was in search of a bigger space.

“I was bouncing off the walls; I needed space,” he recalled. He was familiar with the area around the old Marathon factory, mainly because of its reputation as one of the most crime-prone areas of Nashville. But there he saw an opportunity. In 1986, he purchased a 32,000-square-foot building at 1305 Clinton St., across from the factory, for $52,000.

“It was vacant for about 30 years, and when I set up my shop here, it was rough. They were going to tear this building down,” Walker says. “I came in every day, I’d get my gun and shoot the ground.”

That’s one way to scare off the riffraff. Throughout the years, Walker would find many other ways to keep peace on the streets, or at least on his property. “I did a lot of crazy stuff” to scare off drug dealers and other criminal trespassers, Walker admitted, recalling the many times he saw people get beat up. He is still noticeably disturbed at the memory of seeing an 18-year-old boy get shot and killed.

Walker said he survived by letting everyone in the neighborhood know that he was not one to be messed with. He once broke up a popular meeting place for those who were “up to no good” by ramming his four-wheeler into a 55-gallon barrel, and he had a pretty inventive way to get rid of a group of loitering prostitutes and drug dealers near his property.

“I had a rattlesnake I kept on my desk in a clear box secured with a belt,” Walker said, his eyes vivid at the memory. He pretended to catch the snake in the grass nearby and showed it to the crowd, screaming that he’d found a whole nest of snakes. “They were freaking out. They never did go back, and the grass stayed pretty tall. I took the rattlesnake to the park and let him go.”

Yet the neighborhood’s rough edges didn’t scare off some early-adopting tenants. After he set up shop in the ground floor of the building, he started to fix up the studios upstairs. Walker’s first tenant, a photographer, staked claim in 1989, and the building soon filled up. “That leased out fast; there was big demand for it,” Walker recalled. “So I started looking across the street [at the 130,000-square-foot factory building]. I bought the back of the factory in 1992, put a lot of tenants in that, and bought the front in ’94.”

The cost? $350,000. Today, it almost seems like theft.

At first glance, it might seem surprising that so many tenants were willing to look past the dangerous surroundings of the neighborhood, especially so early on. Walker said he’s always kept rent comparatively low, a byproduct of growing carefully and thoughtfully. “I was paying as I went along — I borrowed very little of the money,” Walker explained. “And I’ve always had people on the waiting list — I still have people on the waiting list now.

“A lot of people borrow too much money, and they assume they’re going to lease it all out right then and there, and they don’t, and then they go bankrupt. You get done fast, you borrow millions, and you’re sweating bullets to pay those notes every month. I’m not going to live like that. Of course, you’ve got to make money to make something happen, but some people get greedy and silly. We keep our rent rates here about half-price of everyone else around town. Places like this are usually about $24 to $30 a square foot, and we’re at $12 to $14.”

But it isn’t just low rents that caused tenants to flock to a massive structure that Walker was lovingly restoring piece by piece. Each studio space is unique, and many of them are visually breathtaking. “[The tenants] love the whole look of the place, with the big windows, exposed brick, and they like the historical part of it,” Walker said. The Marathon Motor Works factory has a palpable vibe, and creative, imaginative souls often resonate with it, making it an inspiring place to work, whether you create websites or handcrafted custom bow ties.

Antique Archaeology owner Mike Wolfe is creator and star (along with business partner Frank Fritz) of the History Channel’s popular antique-hunting reality show American Pickers, which was the top-rated debut reality series in 2010. Wolfe met Walker eight years ago at a swap meet in Pennsylvania, and he’s been a frequent visitor in Nashville throughout the years, often on motorcycle trips or dealing antiques. When he opened his second Antique Archaeology store — the flagship is in LeClaire, Iowa — in the Marathon factory building in July 2011, it was the first business to draw a substantial retail crowd to the building. (Yazoo Brewing, which operated in the complex from 2003 to 2010, had limited taproom hours.)

Wolfe, who now lives with his family in Leipers Fork, saw potential in the rundown, 3,000-square-foot space that eventually became his store. “You should have seen it,” Wolfe recalled. “There were no front doors, the windows were broken, and when you looked inside, there was no floor. The beams had actually rotted into the ground. I’m in the business of seeing the potential in things, to look past the dirt and the rot, and I thought, ‘This could be amazing.’ ”

Wolfe, who’d spent years traversing the country in pursuit of unique treasures and collectibles, wanted to find a space in a historic building, consistent with his brand. “You can’t create that space,” he said, noting that a small business has to consider factors such as parking, traffic flow and zoning issues, a particular concern in a historic area. “Marathon is the biggest diamond in all of Nashville. It’s got incredible space, wood ceilings, wood beams, brick walls, wood floors. The exterior of the building is amazing, and the interior is incredible, with all of the natural light coming in the big windows. It’s a historic property, it’s five minutes from downtown, and it’s got so much history.” 

During the summer tourism season, Wolfe said, he sees a couple thousand people a day at the store. The demand to get into Antique Archaeology is so great that he employs a doorman to allow 75 to 100 people in at a time, and people often stand outside in line for hours.

“The tourism board called us the other day and told us we were the second asked-about, go-to location this year behind the Opry,” Wolfe said. During the busy tourism season, the store attracts busloads of visitors from around the world who are fans of Wolfe and American Pickers, which is broadcast widely overseas. “We get about eight tour buses that come by a day.”

And for Wolfe, who has built his entire business around a love for all things historic — particularly transportation-related items — finding a home in the former Marathon Motor Works was a perfect, almost fated fit. “I’m finding old motorcycles, car parts, signage, and I’m bringing it home to a car factory, which is brilliant,” Wolfe said. “You couldn’t write it any better. Any art director or any prop master, they couldn’t build it any better than it is, because you can’t build it. You can’t. That’s why, I think, a lot of these people are moving in.”

And just as Walker kept buying up more of the factory to meet demand for space, Wolfe has expanded past his initial 3,000-square-foot retail store. “The space next to me — Sarah Souther with Bang Candy Company — oh my God, I wish I would’ve not talked her into taking that,” Wolfe said, laughing. “When I rented my space, it was huge! I thought, ‘It’s 3,000 square feet, I’m never going to fill this up.’ But since then, I’ve rented this space behind me for a huge office, and I’ve rented another space behind me for huge storage, so now I’ve got three spaces in Marathon.”

Most businesses in the Marathon factory building have entrances inside the building. But for a retail business, visibility is essential. As one of the few spaces (including Bang Candy and a new cafe, Garage Coffee Company) that have a direct ground-level entrance, Wolfe’s location is ideal. But for businesses that aren’t retail-focused, a lower profile inside the building’s extensive corridors is preferable.

Emil Congdon, chief designer and craftsman for leather and canvas carrygoods company Emil Erwin, opened his 1,200-square-foot workspace in early 2012 with accessories designer Otis James. While James was a proponent of moving to Marathon, Congdon needed some convincing.

“Initially, I was opposed to it,” Congdon said. “I’ve lived here for 25 years, and you’d drive on the loop and see this place. Everyone has seen it, it’s part of the Nashville landscape, but they just don’t know what’s going on. Once you get down here, you see what’s going on — this place is incredible. It takes you back to when things were made right.”

While Congdon and James display some of their wares near the front of their studio, the room is a workspace, and they are completely focused on creating their handcrafted goods rather than running a retail store. “We are here as a destination for those people who are seeking us out,” Congdon explained, noting that some of their patrons like to see where the handcrafted goods are created. “They can come and see our products and see what’s going on back here, but we’re sectioned off, and we can maintain work.”

With the influx of crowds flocking to Antique Archaeology, Congdon and James have been victim to many a wandering tourist, despite the fact that their front door is closed. “Before we had walls, people would walk back here and pick up stuff in production. I liken it to if you went to a restaurant and walked back into a kitchen and started playing with the salad tongs,” Congdon joked.

But while the opening of Antique Archaeology brought buses full of tourists to the building, it also clued in many Nashvillians to the creative scene that has operated quietly under the radar for years. “Antique Archaeology has done wonders for bringing awareness to this place,”
Congdon said.

 

 

When Walker purchased the first building in 1986, its history was mostly obscure. So he started digging, and learned not only about the Marathon factory, but also that the Marathon automobile was originally produced in his own hometown of Jackson. Walker located the son of a former employee of Southern Engine and Boil Works, the company that initially produced the Marathon car in 1907. He toured the company’s former headquarters in Jackson and found a boarded-up darkroom that contained glass negatives, blueprints and drawings for Southern Engine Boil Works and Marathon Motor Works.

“It was kind of meant to be,” Walker mused, recalling the moment he held up a glass negative and saw the Marathon building in Nashville. Throughout the years, Walker uncovered more information about the Marathon and purchased four of the eight known remaining vehicles, which are currently on display in the showroom adjacent to his office. The hallways in the factory and particularly the lobby outside Walker’s office serve as a kind of museum, detailing the history of the Marathon car through photographs, blueprints, diagrams and artifacts that Walker has found or received from likeminded enthusiasts throughout the years.

While Walker maintains he’s always had a waiting list for tenants, it’s fair to say the general public’s awareness of the building has been low until recently. Antique Archaeology may have the highest profile of the tenants, but it isn’t the only draw.

Independent radio station WRLT-FM Lightning 100 has brought luminaries to the building since 2005, and Yazoo helped put the building on the map for locals when it opened its brewery and taproom in 2003. (Corsair Distillery took over the space when Yazoo moved to the Gulch in 2010.) And Congdon and James have received plenty of press as well; both have been written up extensively in the Nashville Scene and Southern lifestyle magazine Garden and Gun. “We bring attention to this place; we’ve been written up in national publications, and they always talk about the space,” James said.

“Barry wanted us over here, Lester [Turner, CEO of Tuned In Broadcasting, WRLT’s parent company] and Barry have been friends for a long time, and Barry wanted us to come over here, as this was the perfect example of the type of business he wanted over here,” explained Gary Kraen, financial and operations chief at Lightning 100.

When walking around Marathon Village today, the remnants of the seedy past are still visible, and tenants who have weathered the storm are amazed by the complex’s rebirth.

WRLT’s afternoon drive host and local music show “The 615” producer Wells Adams often worked late nights when he started at the station in 2007. “I was the board op, so I’d be here at odd times, Sundays until 11 or 12 at night, by myself,” Adams recalled. “Back then, there weren’t a lot of people around, and it was terrifying. I’d be by myself, leaving after midnight, and there would be less-than-reputable people walking by. It’s amazing to see the total transformation of this place — it went from being a sketchy neighborhood to one of the hippest places in town.”

Today, Walker manages 80 commercial studios throughout the Marathon complex, from Popcorn Sutton’s moonshine to Shaun Silva’s Tacklebox Films. “We’ve got a lot of great studios, architects, interior designers, website designers, music management companies,” Walker explained.

As for future plans, Walker has big ones. Six studios are vacant, and within the next six to 12 months, Walker plans to start making space for a French restaurant, a vintage racing-themed bar called Gearheads, and another music venue next to Josh Billue and Chris Cobb’s Marathon Music Works.

Walker said he’s selective about tenants. “We have probably four or five calls a day of people wanting space,” he said. “We have a lot of people who want to come in who we say no to. I’m really picky. There are some people who will rent to anybody just to get them in for the buck, but in the long term, it’s not good. We try to keep it fun,” he said.

“I try to keep it at least 90 to 95 percent creative. Mike [Wolfe] was the first retail; I never really pushed retail. I had so many people wanting in,” he added. “Now we have guys who make leather work, Richie Owens’ Pickin’ Parlor, of course, American Picker, Bang Candy, Garage Coffee, Moonshine Nettie” (a vintage garment and accessories store at the corner of Clinton and 14th).

Most of the retail-focused businesses have opened in the past two years, and Walker sees more in the future. “I see a whole lot more retail, but it’s got to be really cool — it’s got to be different,” he said. “If it’s fun and funky, I’ll just have to look and see. Not the same run-of-the-mill stuff that you see at the mall, but something that holds people’s attention.”

Walker also wants to do even more to honor the history of the building and the legacy of the Marathon automobile. While patrons can wander the halls of the factory — or for a quick course, spend some time scanning the artifact-covered walls in the lobby outside Walker’s office — he envisions another medium to tell the Marathon’s story.

“I want to put a little theater area for people to watch a movie, learn the history of the Marathon and the whole trials and tribulations I went through,” Walker said. “I could tell you crazy stories all day about what it took just to make this place come back alive. Luckily, I was young while I did it, but I did some crazy stuff. The renovations, dealing with fire marshal, codes — I went through hell. I enjoyed a lot of it, but there are a lot of chapters I’d like to leave out. They’d get a kick out of the history.”

From the moment he saw the Marathon buildings, Walker has been a man with a vision, and as he fervently pursues that vision, he’s always maintained more than a respectful nod to the past. In our ever-evolving city, Walker has been a pioneer in preserving historical structures while enabling them for modern purposes. But he can’t do it on his own, and he’s concerned about the changing landscape here and across the country.

“The historical commission, they can only go so far,” Walker says. “These [buildings] are all on national register, but the owner can still have it torn down. Historical structures need to be saved. I think it’s important; it shows young generations what it really took. The American people mostly are from other countries, and they had dreams, they brought that heritage and built these beautiful structures. They made stuff with such quality, and they took pride in what they did. That’s what we’re losing in this entire country.”

Walker said when people come into the Marathon Motor Works factory or the adjacent building, they’re intrigued by the history and moved by the visual that has been painstakingly restored. “They love that oldness, the big windows, exposed brick, the whole feel. You go in France, England, and you’re inspired by these great old structures, you’re like, ‘I’m alive!’ You walk around here and see metal buildings, and you feel cheap. Structures are enlightening to the heart.”

And for those who cite a weak economy as a deterrent to restoring and investing in old buildings, Walker is unsympathetic. “If I can do it, as far as being an entrepreneur, or doing historical rehab, anybody can do it,” he says. “I started with $300. Nobody gave me a penny. I started my business. I’m no smart guy — as far as no big smart-guy school — I was just thinking about playing drums and chasing girls and riding my motorcycle. I got by, went to college for two-and-a-half years, goofing off, but I had a dream, and I went for it. A lot of people are scared; they say things are different. Well, back in 1986, things were rough. The economy was rough. When I bought this, people said, ‘You’re crazy. They said it was going to be a financial disaster and ‘you’re going to get killed over there.’ ”

Twenty-six years later, Walker shows no signs of slowing down, though he now uses a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident in 2008 nearly killed him. He acknowledged that  in retrospect, there are a few things he’d do differently, but said he’s glad he’s always tried to keep it “fun” by bringing in like-minded entrepreneurs.

“I saw a lot of stuff go down over the years,” Walker mused. “And now, it’s Disney World!”     

2 Comments on this post:

By: michael huffine on 12/19/12 at 10:44

As an employee of the "O Gallery " who spends many days in a week in the Marathon Village Complex I appreciated this article about the growth and history of the businesses located within both the larger Motor Works building and the second building across the street which houses not only Barry Walker's management offices but a variety of other businesses as well.
i was disappointed that there was no such mention in the article about the "O Gallery" and it's Artist in Residence owner Olga Alexeeva as one of the early core and highly visible retail business that help anchor the whole Marathon complex..
The " O Gallery " and Olga have not only been the core retail business in this building for over one year and a half, having opened the same week as other businesses across the street in 2011, but has brought recognition to her working studio and personal gallery and to Marathon Village by being recognized in Nashville Scene Magazine as the number one art gallery in Nashville as voted in the Readers Poll in 2012.
The continued success of Marathon Village will always be dependent on having unique and successful businesses which contribute to the growth of the neighborhood and "O Gallery" looks forward to many great years ahead in this historical village and hopes many more Nashvillian's and our visitors will continue to discover us....Come see us at "O Gallery" in Marathon Village.....

By: Moonglow1 on 12/21/12 at 8:42

Moonglow1: Good article. It's great to see success that is not based on corporate multinationals. Great that the owner wants innovative retail and not "junk from the mall" which is mass produced in China and Pakistan in sweat shops.