Excursion to Shelbyville

Amanda and Susan in ShelbyvilleYesterday, Drs. West, Graham and I took the Seminar in Historic Preservation students to Shelbyville, TN.

Shelbyville is a small town about 25 miles south of Murfreesboro. Despite its size, it’s an important part of the history of urban development. In addition to being the home of the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration and the backdrop for Miranda Lambert’s “Famous in a Small Town” music video, Shelbyville’s courthouse square was one of four major prototypes.

That’s right: this Tennessee town that today has only 20,000 residents was the model for city planners across America.

Cultural geographer Edward T. Price argues that unlike earlier Pennsylvania models which mimicked European public squares, the courthouse block model in Shelbyville was a uniquely American innovation. From there, it spread through Tennessee to Texas, further west and up into the mid-West.

Joey and Jenna in ShelbyvilleThis is still blowing my mind; I’ve gotta say it again. Unless your county seat predates Shelbyville’s 1810 platting, it was probably built to look like Shelbyville.

Aside from cultural geographers, few people today know about Shelbyville, and with Middle Tennessee’s rapid growth has come suburban sprawl. But the city’s been working to revitalize their downtown district. It’s so exciting to see communities fighting back, drawing businesses and people back to the heart of their historic commercial centers.

Shelbyville these days has several adorable boutiques (which I need to go back and visit … I decided dress shopping probably shouldn’t happen on company time). There are coffee shops and lunch spots as well as a couple of nicer places to get dinner. Since they still have Capri Theater, their historic movie house, you can also catch a flick after your meal, and it’s not a second run cinema.

We will hopefully be helping them with next steps in the process of saving, restoring and reclaiming their historic districts.

As a first step, we asked our students to catalogue the commercial buildings according to the typologies laid out in Richard Longstreth’s The Buildings of Main Street. Along the way, they updated a 1999 survey, noting buildings that had been renovated or demolished and documenting updates in the landscaping around town. It was a chance to practice some of what they’ve learned this semester.

The excursion prompted important conversations about preservation as they debated how they would put their theory into practice if they were working long-term in Shelbyville.

Theresa and Thomas in Shelbyville
Theresa gets a shot of the basement, all that remains of this building.

I overheard one set discussing what they could do to save the interior of an abandoned law office.

Another pair marveled at how a trio of business owners has salvaged their sites after a major fire.

Others considered what they would do with a brick structure recovered in sprayed-on concrete. Would you try to remove it? Leave it alone as a testament to the evolution of the building’s uses?

Several of the pairs wondered about how to handle the empty spaces where buildings had been.

Everybody grabbed coffee at one of the charming spots facing the courthouse.

But they all started to put public history theory into practice. It was exciting to see. Here’s to the next generation of historic preservationists and the next stage of Shelbyville’s development.


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