DesignDowntown Nashville

Discover Downtown Nashville: Pressing Culture in Printer’s Alley

By April 1, 2016 No Comments

Printers Alley Nashville

Located between Nashville’s Third and Fourth avenues stretching from Union to Church streets, a billboard announces your passage into the “World Famous Printers Alley.” But the sign only hints at a piece of this neighborhood’s storied past.

Nearly a century before the area earned the Printer’s Alley name, it was home to the law practice of a pugilistic young lawyer named Andrew Jackson. Each morning the would-be president rode miles from his home just outside of town to the stable house just behind his office. It’s here in this alleyway where he began to prosper in the rough-and-tumble world of frontier law, unafraid to roll up his sleeves and have it out with a political foe, more than once from 20 paces away.

Those stables that housed his horse would later shelter the mules that pulled the neighborhood’s newspaper wagons. As the area and opportunity flourished in the 1860s, Mr. Jackson’s legal battleground and barn made way for growing industry. But the barn’s sturdy walls remained, framing up the town’s most popular gourmet restaurant, the Brass Rail Stables and Lounge — a precursor to the beloved barbecue and hot chicken restaurants found here today.

By the late 1890s, the little backstreet had become the printing capital of the world, serving as hub for over 36 major printers, two large newspapers, multiple publishers, and one of the oldest working letterpress print shops in America. The Hatch brothers’ ink-stained woodblocks and metal type stamped out a distinctive style that advertised many of the first vaudeville acts, minstrel shows and movies seen anywhere. More than a century later, visitors can still watch posters roll off the presses at Hatch Show Print today. It’s this long-running neighborhood tradition that inspires the design of Hotel Indigo Nashville Downtown, where letterpress images are subtly woven into guest room murals and the printer-themed lobby.

With businessmen and their money flowing down the alley in the late 19th century, saloons and gambling halls soon sprang up to help them part with it, transforming Printer’s Alley into “The Men’s District” with a speakeasy vibe that catered to many thirsts.

Even after alcohol was outlawed in 1909, the social renegades and underground good times remained as local law enforcement and prominent politician regulars looked the other way. The repeal of Prohibition in 1939 allowed for mixing bars, but only if patrons provided the liquor. “Bring your own bottle” advertisements allowed guests, including Nashville’s elite, to walk in carrying high-proof hooch of their own in brown paper bags, which they could also keep on the back of the bar. The era foreshadowed today’s brewing craft-beer scene.

As more nightclubs opened, rising music legends like Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Sr. and Jr., and Dottie West gave these gritty streets an authentic soundtrack and paved the way for today’s up-and-coming bands. While many of the presses have stopped, the Alley’s iconic neon signs flicker against the twang of a distinctly country music culture perfectly imprinted with unmistakable character and a carefree spirit.