Imperial House Apartments: 1963-2017

The Imperial House Apartments, featured on our 2010 Nashville Nine list, were demolished in late May of this year. This Mid-Century Modern building in Belle Meade was the first commission of architect Earl Swensson after relocating to Nashville from Chicago, and featured some of the most unique architectural details of this period to be found in our city. Swensson grew up in Old Hickory and his firm is responsible for several landmark buildings, including the South Central Bell/AT&T Tower, Opryland Hotel, and Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Imperial House in 2010. Photo by Robbie Jones.
Undated photo courtesy of Metro Nashville Archives.
Imperial House under construction in Feb. 1962, courtesy of NPL Digital Collections.

Imperial House consisted of the eleven-story apartment building, picnic shelter, parking shelters, and in its heyday, extensive outdoor recreational areas, all featuring the trademark butterfly architectural details that made the site stand out as a stunning example of futuristic Mid-Century style. Opened in 1963, the complex took two years to complete and cost roughly $1 million [1].  In the Nashville Nine nomination, board member Robbie D. Jones noted that the building’s structural framework, the cantilevered “pods” above the balconies, and the parking canopies were all made of pre-cast concrete. Other notable architectural details included the use of perforated concrete block screen walls, an exterior “skin” featuring marble chips and aluminum trip, and stylized private balconies with decorative railings [2].

Imperial House units featured all the latest amenities and appliances, including all-electric kitchens with dishwashers and garbage disposals. It was billed as a luxury complex, and provided a “Country Club atmosphere” to residents with its swimming pool, tennis courts, roof garden, and playground. It also included a Civil Defense approved fallout shelter underneath.  Ads of the time praise the location’s natural beauty and mention a bridge over Richland Creek where residents could fish for bream and rock bass.[3].

Ad for Imperial House in The Nashville Tennessean, Jan. 6, 1963.

Another interesting feature of the Imperial House complex was the glass-enclosed penthouse in the middle of the roof garden, converted into a modern apartment by Robert and Jackie White in 1965 with design principles that might impress today’s tiny house enthusiasts. The Nashville Tennessean profiled the White family and their unique space in an article titled “A Cottage on a Roof,”which chronicled their modifications to the floor-to-ceiling glass structure and their creative space solutions to accommodate their infant son [4].

From The Nashville Tennessean, Jan. 6, 1963.

The Imperial House was among the premier luxury apartment complexes in Nashville in the ’60s, and impressed locals and visitors with its unique look throughout its lifespan. The apartments operated until 2006 and were damaged by the 2010 flood. Saint Thomas Health owns the property and may develop it for healthcare and office uses. Preservationists and Mid-Century enthusiasts mourn the loss of this iconic building and the implications its demolition holds for those who want to see more recent historical structures recognized and saved. We will continue to advocate for the preservation of Nashville’s Mid-Century buildings, including these from current and past Nashville Nine lists:

RCA Studio A — 1964

Bowling alleys — 1950s

The Pagoda of Medicine — 1963

Hillsboro High School — 1954

LifeWay’s Sullivan Tower — 1941-1953

Notes:
1. “Imperial House Dedication Today,” The Nashville Tennessean, Jan. 6, 1963: 10-F.
2. Robbie D. Jones, “Imperial House Apartment Building, Nashville Nine Nomination.” Unpublished document, 2010.
3. Virginia Keathley, “Luxury Apartments Attract Nashvillians,” The Nashville Tennessean, Aug. 12, 1962: 4-D.
4. Clara Hieronymus, “A Cottage on a Roof,” The Nashville Tennessean, July 4, 1965: D-1.

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