Monday, September 14, 2015

Lebeck Bros on the Nashville Public Square

Passing through the center of most county seat towns, one tours the public square.  It is often a place of the past, with buildings, some centuries old, lining streets and surrounding the county courthouse, which stands in the middle.  So once was, Nashville's public square.  In the early1950's, before the destruction of buildings began, the square looked much like any town, perhaps a bit larger, because of the size of the town it served.  The square was a center of commerce, from the time the first lots were sold in 1784.  Early businesses, shown on an 1804 map, include several store buildings (one was built of logs), and a couple of taverns surrounding the courthouse, market and jail.  The town grew, and more buildings went up.  Fires were frequent, sometimes taking several buildings down, requiring new buildings. An 1832 map highlights two large hotels and a bank on the public square along with many stores selling wares of every description.  From the middle to the late 19th century, several large buildings were erected, and named for the owner, such as the Ensley Block, the Morgan Block, the Hicks Block and the Burns Block. 

The wonderful photograph posted below, of a building on the public square in Nashville, was reason enough to want to know more.  Known as the Burns Block, the building was owned by Michael Burns, an Irishman, who came to Nashville as a young man.  He had learned the saddlery business in his native Ireland, and settled in Nashville in 1839 to practice his trade.  In 1845, Michael Burns purchased the rear section of lot 24 which ran along Market Street between the public square and Union Street.  He started his saddlery business at that location, soon after. In December of 1861, Burns purchased an adjoining part of lot 24, that fronted on the public square. Burns was a very successful businessman.  He was a railroad man, serving as President of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad.  He was also a banker, associated with First National, Third National and American National Banks.  He was a close friend to Andrew Johnson, who became President at the death of Abraham Lincoln. Burns served in the Tennessee Legislature in 1882. The building that Burns built, stood at the southwest corner of the public square at Market Street.  News ads and city directory listings mentioning the Burns Block begin to appear in 1871, and that may be the year the building was completed. The building had offices and residential rooms for rent, on the upper floors and the lower floors were used for retail. During the early 1870's several attorneys, including West H. Humphreys, and architect, William C. Smith, had offices in the Burns Block. In 1875, S. Powers and Sons, Clothiers were located on the first floor of the building. In 1879, Powers moved out, and Lebeck Brothers moved in.

Lebeck Bros., Burns Block, Nashville Public Square ca 1890. TSLA

Lebeck Brothers was a dry goods store, operated by brothers, Michael, Louis and Samuel Lebeck.  The store sold dry goods of every sort.  They promised satisfaction to every customer.  One ad for the store stated that Lebeck Bros., "make it a rule to place on sale everything new and desirable as soon as it meets the approval of fashion leaders in New York and Paris."

Late on the night of January 2, 1897, a great fire broke out on the Nashville public square.  It was reported to have started in Lebeck's Store.  When the fire was over, in the early hours of the next morning, the Burns Block and several other building on the Public Square had been destroyed.  The building at the south end of the market house, which was used for City Hall was badly damaged.  Also several buildings on Market Street, were lost. Damages were said to have exceeded $500,000. Lebeck Bros. relocated and was never again on the public square.  Lebeck's was in business in Nashville for about 75 years, in several locations.  When the store finally closed in 1942, it occupied a building at 6th and Church. 

Los Angeles Herald, Jan. 3, 1897
There have been many changes to the public square since the big fire that claimed the Burns Block. Entire blocks were removed and every building on the public square torn down and replaced.  The oldest building remaining from the original square is the Ben West Municipal Bldg, that opened in 1934 as the City Market House.  The location of Lebeck Brothers today,  would be just about in the middle of the Public Sqaure Park in front of the courthouse.

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