NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Barry Walker was just 28 years old in 1986 when he first laid eyes on the Marathon motor car factory in what had become a rough part of town. The neglected, decaying Clinton Street structure was surrounded by weeds and inhabited by addicts.
“It was rough,” Walker says. “Dead dogs, needles, drug addicts. It was disgusting when I came over here.”
But Walker couldn't stop thinking about the space, its proximity to downtown and what the history behind it could be. “I was taken by this building and just kept coming back and coming back,” he says.
Walker had been in the market for a building for his burgeoning business, Ingenuity Shop, which builds audio/video consoles and computer workstations. He also began building elevator cabs for an elevator company and supplying skilled labor to Vanderbilt.
“I got really big, really fast,” he says, adding he had more than 30 employees. "I would interview people at restaurants because didn't want them to know how little I was."
His office at the time was about 700 square feet, much too small for his needs. But space wasn't a problem once he bought the 32,000-square-foot building.
“People are too apt to see old buildings and say, ‘Ah, it looks like hell, tear it down.’ We are tearing down pieces of beautiful art when we tear them down,” he says. “You can't get this kind of stuff back.”
After he moved his business in, he still had an abundance of space he didn't want to go to waste.
“I was creative, had done sculpture and all kinds of stuff, and so I said, ‘Gee, I'll fix this space up for some real creative people and make it a real fun place,’” he says. So he did just that, fixing the upstairs of the building and renting out the units to an eclectic group of clients.
Since that initial purchase in 1986, Walker has been adding piecemeal to it, buying up the other buildings that were built at different times – the oldest in1881 and the newest in 1912. He didn't know what the buildings were when he bought it but now he is an expert on all things Marathon.
“In 1989, I finally found out it was part of the Marathon car company,” he says. “I started researching and there really wasn't that much out there.” No stranger to treasure hunting, thanks to a history of scuba diving for shipwrecks, he kept digging. Then, he found out his hometown of Jackson, Tenn., is where the company originated.
In 1884, the Southern Engine and Boiler Works opened in Jackson, manufacturing gasoline engines and boilers for industrial use. By 1904, it had grown into the largest plant of its kind in the nation. Cars were becoming more popular and by 1909, the name was changed to Marathon. The company offered two models.
Marathon moved its operations to Nashville in 1910, but it was in the old building in Jackson that Walker hit jackpot.
“It was vacant and they told me I could have anything I wanted,” he says. “I found a sealed off darkroom, so I knocked out the plaster and found that it had 68 glass negatives and blueprints of the Jackson plant and all the Nashville stuff. I felt like Indiana Jones.”
He now owns and is fixing that building, too.
By 1914, Marathon had ceased operations and stopped manufacturing the cars. “At the time they made between 8,000 and 10,000 cars and had a dealership in every state of the country.” Walker says there are now only eight known left in existence. He owns four of them.
Of course, not everyone initially saw the beauty and potential of what is now Marathon Village. People thought he was crazy, Walker says, adding he acted the part – complete with a gun he would shoot into the ground – so people in that rough neighborhood wouldn't bother him.
“I had to come in like a nut and have no fear,” he says. “People really thought I was crazy for buying this place. But that is how things get started. Someone has to make a move. And I knew it was only a matter of time. I would sit up here on top of this building and see all this land around here and be looking right downtown. Nobody could really see it, but I could.”
As the years have passed, the buildings have become a growing museum for all of Walker's Marathon findings, while more and more tenants continue to move in. About six years ago, Lightning 100 moved their offices in, after a decade located on top of the L&C tower.
“It is unique and eclectic like we are,” says Fred Buc, general manager for the station. And while they gave up a killer view, what they got in return was easier access and like-minded neighbors. Yazoo Brewery anchored the other side of the building, which was a good way to help people understand where they were now located. Now, that space is occupied by the Corsair Artisan Distillery.
“It cost this company a lot of money for parking downtown every month, so it saved us a bunch of money moving here,” Buc says. “But what we lost in the process was being able to walk out our front door and have 20 places to eat and a post office and a bank and drycleaners and Walgreens and the Arcade. In return we got easier access in and out for our sales people who come in and out all day.
“And even though we are a little bit harder to find now, at least the people who are coming to us don't have to fight for a parking space and pay $10. It is just easier.”
Among the nearly 50 tenants of Marathon Village are photographers, distillers, personal trainers, interior designers, sculptors, printmakers, music video producers, recording studios and advertising agencies.
The tenants seem to love being there, but might love Walker even more. After working through serious motorcycle accident three years ago, they rallied around him.
“Barry is one of a kind,” Buc says. “He has had some misfortune but he really is surrounded by a lot of people who care about him and love him. He has really bounced back, and I think that is due to the closeness of the people he associates.
“The building is his baby and, while a lot of tenants could go to other places that may be more developed or fancier or ritzier, I think a lot of people have chosen to come here because of him and because of the uniqueness of the building and the area.”
Walker feels the same about the building and neighborhood he has helped bring back.
“We never have a boring time,” he says. “I have had tons of people who want to buy but I am not interested in selling. I have my own little village. It is my own little hangout.”
Information from: The Nashville Ledger, http://www.nashvilleledger.com
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