If These Walls Could Talk: Merchants, Nashville
By Kathleen Squires
August 30, 2013
If the walls in restaurants could talk, what stories would they tell about the people who passed through and the events that occurred there over time? Restaurants, like an old, venerable relative, can be full of fascinating, quirky, and sometimes sordid tales of the past. In our new series, we uncover some of those intriguing histories.
Today, Merchants is one of Nashville’s hottest spots to dine. Operated by the Goldberg brothers - Max and Benjamin, whose restaurant empire also includes the popular Catbird Seat - Merchants is comprised of two dining concepts: a casual, comfort-food-driven menu on the first floor, and a more upscale seasonal menu on the second floor. The restaurant’s history reveals that it wasn’t always such a place to be, however.
The original three-story building was constructed in 1870 with a pharmacy on the first floor, a hardware manufacturing company on the second level, and wholesale drug company, known for selling a mix of opium and alcohol, on the third floor, where an ad for the “blood medicine” remains on a brick wall. The building added rooms in 1892 to become the Merchants Hotel, which accommodated the tradesmen of the Nashville waterfront. “We’ve found old liquor bottles in the walls, old receipts, business cards, and letters from that era,” Max Goldberg says.
One of the most notable artifacts uncovered was a “Dear John” letter from a hotel employee, Georgia Edmundson, to a former Confederate soldier named Charlie Keenan. The letter accused Keenan of being a two-timer; he subsequently committed suicide. Today, Goldberg says that Keenan’s restless ghost haunts the restaurant (guilty conscience, perhaps?). “A chef who worked at Merchants in the late 1980s/early 1990s had always heard stories of a Confederate soldier who killed himself. One night the chef was the last person in the building, and when he locked everything up, he saw a light come on on the third floor. He saw a man in full Confederate uniform, and when he ran up the stairs to get a closer look, the light went off,” Goldberg says. “Spooked, he left the restaurant, and when he was in the street, he saw the light go back on. A year later, again when he was alone, the chef swears he heard the bathroom door open and close, and voices saying ‘Shhh.’ When he went to investigate, no one was there.”
Although it sounds far-fetched, there have been several accounts of ghostly sightings on Merchants’ third floor. According to the 2007 book Nashville Ghosts and Legends, one spirit dates back to the building’s pharmacy days, when the owner found his son-in-law hanging from the rafters on the third floor. Legend has it that for over a century thereafter, employees who visited the third floor would experience rushes of coldness and witness inexplicably moved objects. The ghost would also often blow cold breath down the necks of servers, startling the staff and causing much dish-and-glassware carnage. The book also reports panicked passers-by rushing into the restaurant, or to the nearby police precinct, to report the sight of a man hanging from a noose through the window of the third floor. The 2011 Nashville Haunted Handbook corroborates stories of the “hanging” apparition.
Despite the rumored hauntings, the hotel saw a heyday at the turn of the century and in the 1920s, when the Grand Ole Opry debuted at the Ryman Auditorium across the street. Goldberg adds that during Prohibition, it was also the site of a speakeasy affiliated with Al Capone. Because of the Opry, country music royalty, from Hank Williams to Patsy Cline, passed through the hotel. Periods of peaks and decline began during the World War II era, however, when it is said that the hotel was used as a brothel, like many buildings around Printer’s Alley at the time.
By the 1970s, the spot transformed into a honky-tonk dive bar. Surrounded by porn shops and peep shows, lower Broadway became known as a skid-row hangout for local boozers. Southern Reader recounts the sidewalks as “rough-and-tumble” and “in its death throes” during the time, and writer Steve Newton described Merchants itself as “crucifixion-born and whiskey-bred in the red dirt and gasoline pumping heart of Southern life, with characters so outlandish, archetypes so exaggerated, that to walk into the Merchant’s [sic] was like entering Federico Fellini’s great film of the late Roman Empire, Satyricon, only transferred to hillbilly central, with revelers wearing cowboy hats and party dresses instead of togas, drinking bourbon instead of wine, but with the same come hither, spider-to-the-fly leers.”
Things didn’t get much better in the 1980s, when a policeman pumped five bullets into an escaped felon named Roy Flowers in the bar. (Flowers miraculously survived.) A 1986 article in the Nashville Banner called the area "still 'the place to be' - except tourists and shoppers are increasingly being replaced by vagrants, prostitutes, pimps, female impersonators, and what police officials and businessmen call 'thugs.'”
The hotel was slated for demolition at that time, but a preservationist named Ed Stolman, together with the Nashville Arts Commission, saved it by having it listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1988, Stolman opened Merchants Restaurant on the site. Although the area was still seedy, the restaurant is credited with spurring lower Broadway’s revitalization.
The Goldberg brothers and their Strategic Hospitality Group took over the restaurant in 2010. Today, the patrons enjoying duck fat tater tots or braised short rib with charred carrots, sofrito and horseradish couldn’t be farther from the seamy characters of Merchants’ past. They currently dine without worries of shootouts or police raids. They still may, however, experience a ghostly sighting or two.