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Nashville Council buys $20.3M former Tennessee School for the Blind, ultimate use remains undecided

·3 min read
Metro Council members and members of GHP Construction Services tour the former Tennessee School for the Blind on Hermitage Ave. Friday, June 3, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.
Metro Council members and members of GHP Construction Services tour the former Tennessee School for the Blind on Hermitage Ave. Friday, June 3, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

Nashville taxpayers now own the former Tennessee School for the Blind.

Metro Council approved the $20.3 million purchase from the state in a 20-9 vote with two abstentions Tuesday after weeks of debate over the true cost of renovating the 1940s-era structure at 88 Hermitage Ave.

The campus served as a segregated school for visually impaired Black students starting in 1944. White students were taught at a separate campus until the schools integrated in 1965.

Local historians believe the building may be one of few remaining historic segregated school buildings for people with disabilities in the state, if not the country.

How Metro will ultimately use the land and the structure has yet to be determined.

Metro officials said the city could partner with the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, which owns an adjoining parcel, to create up to 350 housing units on the 2.6-acre parcel surrounding the historic building along the Cumberland River in the Rolling Mill Hill neighborhood.

After the purchase is finalized, a technical feasibility study will consider the structure of that housing and potential uses for the existing buildings.

The former Tennessee School for the Blind on Hermitage Ave. Friday, June 3, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.
The former Tennessee School for the Blind on Hermitage Ave. Friday, June 3, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

The city passed on a chance to buy the property for $11.3 million in 2019 — something several Metro Council members said was a failed opportunity. At the time, Council members cited hesitancy to move forward with plans that did not specify the school building would not be leveled for new construction.

Council member Courtney Johnston voted against the purchase due to the lack of a concrete plan for the land's use and questions over the final costs to redevelop the existing building. The money would be better spent, she said, toward the approximately $145 million in standing deferred Metro Parks maintenance.

"I don't understand what the difference is between today and 2019 when there's people in this room that voted against it then," Johnston said Tuesday.

Mayor John Cooper's administration has repeatedly stressed this may be the city's last chance to own the property, as the state could choose to sell to a private developer if Metro Council declined to buy it.

Learotha Williams, a scholar of African American history and Tennessee State University faculty member, said the building is a "monument to African American history and their efforts to negotiate the boundaries placed upon them by Jim Crow segregation in Nashville."

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The school also employed Black women as matrons and "house mothers" during the rise of "colored women's clubs" created by Black women to support and advocate for one another.

Williams said the building "demonstrates (Metro's) commitment to preserving, highlighting and protecting its African American spaces and past."

Designs to renovate the 17,000-square-foot building into an office or similar use could cost around $8.8 million, not including site work, according to a report released last week.

The modern interior of the vacant building is in disrepair, damaged by vandalism and by people experiencing homelessness who sought shelter there. Inspectors say the building's overall structure, much of which is made of poured concrete, remains sound.

Metro Council member Brett Withers tours the former Tennessee School for the Blind on Hermitage Ave. Friday, June 3, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. Metro government is considering whether to purchase the property from the state for $20.3 million in hopes of transforming the land and rehabilitating the building for new uses, including affordable housing and park space.
Metro Council member Brett Withers tours the former Tennessee School for the Blind on Hermitage Ave. Friday, June 3, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. Metro government is considering whether to purchase the property from the state for $20.3 million in hopes of transforming the land and rehabilitating the building for new uses, including affordable housing and park space.

The historic building's floors are littered with fallen acoustic ceiling tiles and shattered glass. Site inspectors urged Council members to avoid the building's bathrooms — presumably filled with human waste — during a walkthrough tour last week.

The building's interior will require "full abatement" of hazardous materials, including presumed asbestos-containing materials. The electrical, plumbing and other systems will also need to be replaced.

Vote Breakdown

Metro Council approved the $20.3 million purchase of 88 Hermitage Ave. 20-9 with two abstentions.

Council members Bob Mendes, Sharon Hurt, Robert Swope, Ginny Welsch, Tom Cash, Gloria Hausser, Russ Pulley, Courtney Johnston and Joy Styles voted against the purchase.

Council members Tanaka Vercher and Antoinette Lee abstained.

Cassandra Stephenson covers Metro government for The Tennessean. Reach her at ckstephenson@tennessean.com or (731) 694-7261. Follow Cassandra on Twitter at @CStephenson731.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Nashville Council buys $20.3M former Tennessee School for the Blind