TomKats Hospitality announced its newest project—the rehabilitation of the historic downtown Nashville Woolworth building. An integral location of the Civil Rights movement in Nashville, Tomkats Hospitality Owner Tom Morales revealed his plan to restore the building and reopen in late 2017 as Woolworth on 5th—a soul food-inspired restaurant and live music venue.
“We should save this history,” Morales says. “We should identify, embrace it, and make sure that it stays. Our renovation will reflect the Nashville of today while honoring its past. Woolworth on 5th will be a place of welcoming celebration, joyful experiences, and shared camaraderie.”
For the announcement, Morales was joined by community leaders to tell the story of the space and pay homage to its history. The group included local Nashville actor Barry Scott; Nashville Mayor Megan Barry; Vanderbilt professor Alice Randall, daughter of Alice Randall and granddaughter of a lawyer who defended Woolworth protestors after the sit-ins, Caroline Randall Williams; Nashville Civil Rights activist King Hollands; and gospel singers The McCrary Sisters.
Located at 221 5th Avenue North in downtown Nashville, Woolworth was constructed in 1930, and the building is a registered historic site as part of the Fifth Avenue Historic District in Nashville. One of the original “five and dime” stores, F. W. Woolworth offered discounted merchandise for five, 10, or 15 cents, and a lunch counter, which would become the site of some of the Civil Rights sit-ins of the 1960s.
On February 13, 1960, 124 students from Nashville’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities walked into Woolworth, Kress, and McClellan, sat down at the white-only lunch counters, and asked to be served—to no avail. Their goal was desegregation. The student protesters experienced no violence until the fourth sit-in on February 27. On that day at Woolworth, white resisters threw the protestors from their seats, punched, kicked, and spat upon them. Eighty-one student protestors were arrested and charged with loitering and disorderly conduct. Two days later, the court fined each one $50. The students took a principled stand, refused to pay the bail, and spent 33 1/3 days in jail.
Peaceful protests continued in Nashville, and after the April 19th bombing of Attorney Z. Alexander Looby’s home, a diverse crowd of approximately 4,000 people silently marched from Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State University) to the courthouse, where Mayor Ben West met them at the steps. After an intense dialogue between Mayor West and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash stepped forward and asked the mayor if he recommended that lunch counters be desegregated. The mayor agreed and the next morning, the Nashville Tennessean’s top headline read, “‘Integrate Counters’ –Mayor.” On May 10, 1960, Nashville became the first major Southern city to begin desegregating its public facilities when six downtown stores, led by Harvey’s and Cain-Sloan, opened their lunch counters to African Americans. The Nashville Student Protest Movement to desegregate all public facilities continued until the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As Morales previously successfully rehabbed and reopened the century-old Acme building on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, he is no stranger to preservation projects. In early 2017, TomKats Hospitality took possession of the first floor, mezzanine, and basement level of the Woolworth building and began work on restoring it into a lively restaurant and music space. Much of the original architecture will be preserved, including the upper level mezzanine, gilded handrails and wall accents, and hand-laid tile. Parts of the 18,000-square-foot space that cannot be preserved will be recreated to echo the style of the past with flowing staircases, the rebuilt lunch counter, wood-paneled walls, turquoise colors, and an art deco-inspired vibe. The atmosphere will set a tone of style, seductiveness, and smarts that cannot be found anywhere else in Nashville. The space will remain true to its past, while creating new traditions for the future.
Woolworth on 5th will be where Nashville goes for soul food with a beat. The menu will be inspired by traditional Southern dishes fused with contemporary, healthful cuisine. Dishes and pairings that conjure memories of days gone by will make their own bold statement for the future. It is a soul food movement being reborn—healthy ingredients and local sourcing coupled with sustainable practices.
The same inspiration that Woolworth will draw for the menu will come through in the music scene as well. At Woolworth, the music will be what Nashville longs for—funk, spoken word, and grooves that turn the dial back to where we came from. Music will not just be performed live; it will live at the center of the experience Woolworth creates.