When Butch Spyridon walked into Leslie Jones’ office in early 2022, Jones was skeptical.
“When a White man walks into a Black man’s office in a Black neighborhood and says he wants to help without wanting anything in return, you’re skeptical,” he says. “I have a few older brothers who are still skeptical.”
But skepticism or no, Jones knew he needed to at least listen to what Spyridon had to say. Spyridon is the CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. He heard the building that houses Elks Lodge #1102 was in serious disrepair. Damages to the roof — which, in part, came as a result of multiple tornadoes — were allowing water inside and contributing to rapid decay.
The building at 2614 Jefferson St. has been home to the Elks Lodge since the late 1960s. The Elks now own the concrete structure. For decades Jefferson Street was essentially Main Street for Black Nashville, a thriving area of restaurants, nightclubs, shops, and, yes, the indoor skating rink. Between 1935-1965, in particular, was a good time to live, work and play near here. And, even before that, the precursor to Jefferson Street during the Civil War era was a wide path, which evolved to a wagon road running from the Hadley plantation to the banks of the Cumberland River.
But when Interstate 40 was built in 1968 (a project that was fought in the courts), it cut off Jefferson Street and surrounding neighborhoods from the economic hub of downtown. Nashville wasn’t alone: Interstate development cut through Black and Brown communities across the country.
“The nation’s transportation infrastructure was built at the expense of Black communities and has contributed to and sustained the underdevelopment of Black America, often making it difficult for Black people to take advantage of society’s opportunities,” Deborah N. Archer, a professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law, wrote in a 2021 Iowa Law Review article.
Though lacking investment, the neighborhood continued to exist, much like the historically Black West Ninth Street business district in Little Rock, Arkansas, Miami’s Overtown community, the Latino enclave of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, and many more — thriving communities interrupted by interstates. Jefferson Street remains home to small businesses and three HBCUs (Tennessee State University, Fisk University, and Meharry Medical College). But many of its landmarks were razed; lone historic markers stand in their stead.
Before the 1960s, the now-lodge-building served as a neighborhood pharmacy, a Black indoor skating rink and, in a then-segregated city, a nightclub. It was then, operating under the name Club Baron, the building hosted musicians including Otis Redding, Fats Domino, and Little Richard. Guitar legend Jimi Hendrix played at Club Baron when he lived in Nashville; it is the only stage remaining in the city where Hendrix once played.
Jones, who is the exalted ruler (the Elks’ terminology for the president) of the fraternal organization, had previously heard from some folks who promised to help and then were unwilling or unable to do so.
There was concern the Club Baron building was headed in that direction of so many of those Jefferson Street buildings that have been lost to time and whitewashing. In 2021, Historic Nashville, Inc., a nonprofit that publishes an annual list of nine properties endangered by demolition, neglect or development, named Club Baron as one of its concerns.
So, Jones knew it was important to protect the building from a historical perspective. He knew the building’s condition was a deterrent to recruiting new members. While a brightly colored mural facing the parking lot was a nod to its history, the building needed help.
Spyridon knew the North Nashville history but didn’t realize the condition of the building, which even saw its awning destroyed after a tornado.
“I was just floored when I saw how bad it was,” Spyridon says. “And kind of pissed that the historical commission would just put up a marker and go away without doing anything.”
After his talk with Jones, Spyridon set about fundraising. First up was the new roof, without that, no other repairs would make a difference. Spyridon started making calls to people who cared about Nashville’s musical history. He hoped that in the future live music would return to Club Baron, at some point, but his initial goals were more pedestrian. He very quickly raised more than $300,000 through some personalized asks and an online campaign. Spyridon called it the “easiest money I have ever raised.”
The first $80,000 went to replace the roof: “It was at the point of collapse,” Jones says. Other funds went to creating a new awning that labels the post as both Elks Lodge #1102 and the former home of Club Baron. Plumbing, electrical and flooding repair are all in the works.
“In the big picture, it was not that much money to preserve something that important,” says Ken Levitan, founder and co-president of Vector Management, who donated to the campaign. “Nashville, at times, has been tearing down important landmarks, and I felt this was really important.”
If the restoration is done right, Spyridon says, the club can be a revenue generator without risk for the Elks, a community center for the neighborhood, a living history bright spot, and an example of redevelopment that can serve everyone while using inclusive relationship building to do so.
“I think it would be wonderful to resurrect Club Baron and really pay homage to it,” Levitan says.
Because the building is an Elks Lodge, it is booked with organization business on the first and third Thursdays of every month. Just months after Spyridon first walked in Jones’ office, the building is again open to the public, with a cash bar on Friday and Saturday nights, and occasional holiday parties and funeral repasts. There are two spaces for live music: Upstairs, an intimate 100-seat space that works well for open mic nights, and Downtowns, the 300-seat venue where Hendrix once engaged in (and lost) a guitar duel. Plans now include opening the open mic space to area college students and including Club Baron as a stop on city tours.
Just six months after Spyridon walked in his office, Jones counts him as a friend and believes he is above board. The Elks Lodge has welcomed 12 new members since September and Jones sees the momentum helping Jefferson Street for the long term.
“It has gone from a conversation to a dream, and then a dream to reality,” Jones says.
“I was not convinced it was going to happen until they came in and started tearing the ceiling out.”
Margaret Littman is a journalist who tells the stories of the people and places of the South. She’s the author of several Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Nashville to New Orleans Road Trip along the historic Natchez Trace and 52 Things to Do in Nashville. Follow her on socials at @littmanwrites.