NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Batman has been a popular figure for almost a century, ever since the caped crusader first debuted in a comic series in the late 1930s. Batman’s popularity met a resurgence in the ’90s as the character was center-stage in a series of feature films and cartoon series. So, when you factor all that in, it’s only natural a connection was made between Batman and the new skyscraper dominating Nashville’s skyline in 1994.
“I mean, nothing wrong with Batman, but that wasn’t what we were talking about in the back room,” said David Minnigan, a design principal with the architecture firm Earl Swensson Associates (ESa).
Minnigan, joined by ESa principals Ronald Lustig and Todd Hilbert, spent time with News 2 reflecting on how the Batman building came to be.
“When we got this job, I think I was 32. I think Todd was 34, and Ron may have been 36. We’ve slept since then,” Minnigan joked. “It was very fond memories.”
In the early 1990s, BellSouth was looking to centralize all of its Middle Tennessee offices into one building in downtown Nashville, according to Lustig.
“You’ve also got to understand that BellSouth at the time was in Green Hills where the cinema sits at the moment,” he said. “They were very nondescript. No one knew where they were. They flew under the radar. But in every other city they had a very strong architectural statement.”
BellSouth was also making a statement by deciding to locate the headquarters for Tennessee in downtown Nashville, which at the time was “very seedy,” according to Minnigan.
“Not only was it going to be the tallest building in the state, but there was also nothing except the L&C tower that was close by that really was going to compete with it, so the skyline belonged to this building,” he said.
The company had put out a call for designs with a list of concepts in mind. Lustig explained, “BellSouth wanted everybody to have a view from their spaces, and everything was designed from the center out.”
“It was an invited list, but all of the local architectural folks were really excited about this, and so it got to be very competitive,” said Minnigan.
ESa responded with 33 different models.
“We were fortunate enough to get shortlisted,” Lustig said. “Mr. Ezell [President of South Central Bell] went just a thumbs up, and ‘That’s it!'”
Hilbert added the team considered what the skyline would look like from all angles, including what the building would look like driving in from I-40 versus I-65.
“It took on two different elevations,” he said.
“There are points in Nashville that you come over the hill, and you see what that looks like: it just sort of pops up on the skyline – some of that we didn’t even realize the impact of that,” said Minnigan.
While the character wasn’t the inspiration for the iconic Nashville landmark, the team said the spires that stretch into the sky resembling Batman were meant to be symbolic of technology at the time. Lustig said BellSouth was thinking about moving to cellular technology at that time.
“He pulled out a flip phone and said, ‘Guys, this is the future,'” he said.
“They wanted this building to point towards the future,” said Minnigan.
The future was also a part of the late Earl Swensson’s philosophy.
“As a mentor, as a boss, as an innovator, his comment was you always look to the future,” said Minnigan.
At the same time, Hilbert said, ESa was also considerate of the surroundings. He demonstrated with a model how the building reflected historic landmarks near by.
“There’s a lot of parts and pieces that I like to talk about that we pulled from the vocabulary of Nashville into this. It wasn’t something that we beat our chest and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to build this really cool building,'” he said.
Now almost 30 years later, the building has withstood the test of time and continues to be symbol other builders aspire to achieve.
“We constantly get calls from developers who try to get taller than the spire,” Lustig said.
While the AT&T building will continue to be part of Nashville’s future, the three all agree there’s still a lot of opportunity in the city’s evolving skyline.
“The opportunity now to do something that’s going to change the trajectory for Nashville for the next 100 years is on the East Bank,” said Minnigan. “It needs to be something that really, really benefits all of Nashville and Middle Tennessee.”