Open Menu
Open Menu

Nashville preservationist aims to save city’s oldest garage from demolition

Published in

Image courtesy Google Street View.

If media reports of Nashville’s pending billion-dollar Nashville Yards renovation project bother to mention the little brick one-story building off Church Street, they do so only to note that developers intend to raze it to make way for entertainment venues and high-rise hotels. However, one area preservationist who recognizes the building as possibly the South’s first dedicated auto dealership thinks he has a shot at saving it from the wrecking ball.

In 1905, when Duncan R. Dorris built the garage on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Church Street specifically to retail cars his brother, George Preston Dorris, was building in St. Louis, only about 25 automobiles plied the roads in the entire county. “His friends told him that he was a fool for risking his capital in such a big business, that his garage was big enough for all the automobiles in the world, and that he would lose all of his money,” the Nashville Tennessean wrote in 1946, pointing out that a local salesman for White steam cars closed up his business about the same time “in the belief that Davidson Countians had bought all the cars they were going to.”

The Duncan brothers, who owned and operated a bicycle shop about a block away, became early automobile enthusiasts after they read about the 1895 Chicago Times-Herald-sponsored automobile race. George believed he could easily build an automobile on par with those in the race while Duncan – who already had experience retailing bicycles for a number of brands, including National and Pierce – set about reviewing the cars already on the market.

His first car, according to the Tennessean, was an Orient Buckboard, which he ordered directly from the Waltham, Massachusetts-based bicycle company that built it:

There was no one to teach one to drive in those days, and Dorris recalls that you had to “pick it up yourself.” After carefully reading the instruction booklet which came with the Orient, Dorris cranked the machine and climbed in for a trial spin. The booklet advised him to advance the spark and throttle levers to accelerate, so he did. He was speeding up Eighth Avenue toward Broadway, “doing every bit of 12 miles per hour,” when it occurred to him that the booklet had failed to tell him how to stop the thing, or slow it down… Dorris rounded the turn at Eighth and Broadway on two wheels and headed out West End Avenue, and he had reached Vanderbilt University before he thought to cut the switch to stop the speeding machine.

He went on to man the wheel in a number of cross-country treks and local races over the next several years. He also apparently played a part in Nashville’s first auto accident when he hit two women with his car on the corner of Twelfth Avenue and was cited for fast and careless driving.

George, on the other hand, built his first car by 1897 and in 1898 traveled to St. Louis to build cars with his friend as the St. Louis Motor Carriage Company. Only when his friend left the company in 1905 did George start building cars under his own name, apparently choosing to sign on his brother as his first dealer.

The Dorris Motor Car Company did rather well over the next 20 years. The cars trended toward the upper end of the automobile market, and George eventually curtailed production and increased the price of the car. His brother did rather well over 10 of those 20 years, too, selling 72 total cars. Duncan’s downfall as a dealer came due to his lack of liability insurance; lawsuits stemming from simple accidents involving cars that the Dorris garage sold piled up, and rather than face them all, Duncan shut down the Dorris garage in 1916.

In the century-plus since, the garage has seen a number of changes – to its facade and to the surrounding neighborhood – but nothing as drastic as the Nashville Yards development, announced in June, the plans for which call for leveling several buildings across multiple blocks between downtown and the old railyards. Minus one if Barry Walker gets his way.

An entrepreneur who bought the former Marathon Automobile factory in Nashville in the Eighties and since then transformed it and the blocks around it into Marathon Village, Walker recently outlined a plan to save the Dorris garage by literally lifting it from its foundation and moving it a half-mile northwest to Marathon Village.

“The city did not know anything about the historical significance until three weeks ago,” Walker wrote. “We have lost so many old car factory and dealerships and old car garages in the last 10 years and try to think out of the box to save them.”

Walker said he’s spoken with local civic leaders as well as the principals behind the development, and he believes he can get the developers to pay him what they budgeted for demolishing and removing the building, leaving just the expense of moving the brick building. After moving the building to Marathon Village, restoring it, and installing tenants in it, he believes he will see a return on his investment within three to four years.