The Ryman Auditorium is a National Historic Landmark
In an urban landscape increasingly marked by skyscrapers and condo complexes, The Ryman Theatre feels like the mother church of country music. Built as a church back in 1892, its hallowed space remains revered.
Riverboat captain Thomas Green Ryman became inspired after hearing Sam Jones deliver soul-stirring sermons under a tent in Nashville. His goal was to build an inclusive church where people of different religions could worship together.
Early Life and Education
Thomas Ryman was a riverboat captain on the Cumberland River who amassed a fleet of vessels. While known for being blunt-spoken and crude in conversation, Ryman also earned respect as an honest and fair deal maker. At Reverend Sam Jones’ 1885 revival meetings intending to heckle, but instead became converted and pledged to build a tabernacle so as to hold such meetings indoors.
The Union Gospel Tabernacle opened in 1892 and quickly became known for hosting events ranging from political rallies to operas, symphonies, ballets and ballet performances. It soon earned itself the moniker “Carnegie Hall of the South.” Tullalah Bankhead, Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Hepburn were all seen performing here on its stage.
Ryman Auditorium remains an iconic cultural landmark and music venue, drawing artists and fans from all around the globe. Visitors may take a guided tour through this historic structure led by experienced guides.
Thomas Green Ryman was a riverboat captain and businessman who founded the Union Gospel Tabernacle, later known as Ryman Auditorium – now recognized as a National Historic Landmark. Ryman first attended one of Reverend Sam Jones’ revival sermons in 1885 with the intent to heckle, yet left feeling inspired to create a church capable of hosting large religious revivals indoors.
The auditorium quickly became home to various entertainment events such as musical acts and theatrical productions; later a stage was installed to facilitate more theatrical performances as well as high profile speakers like Susan B. Anthony.
Ryman hired Lula C. Naff, a former stenographer for DeLong Rice Lyceum Bureau who demonstrated her determination by going to court to defend “Tobacco Road,” insisting it wasn’t offensive.
Achievement and Honors
At Ryman Auditorium’s 125th anniversary celebrations, two stars were given on Music City Walk of Fame: one honoring founder J. B. Ryman himself, as well as Little Big Town performing currently in residency there, and Lula C. Naff who ran it for over four decades and booked acts for Grand Ole Opry at Ryman.
According to her plaque, Naff was an immovable force: She battled against local censors who attempted to limit the language and subject matter of shows at Ryman. Furthermore, she defied Jim Crow laws and regularly allowed integrated audiences into performances at Ryman.
The Ryman Theatre remains an arena for premier concerts today, hosting numerous high-profile shows throughout the year.
Ryman’s father owned and operated a fleet of fishing boats on the Cumberland River, using the proceeds to support himself and raise his family. At times he sold liquor or gambling; these activities eventually were discontinued.
After attending a religious revival in Nashville, Ryman was convinced of its religious message and pledged to build a tabernacle as part of an anti-slavery initiative on his boat. He even took an anti-slavery stand by participating in anti-slavery rallies.
Sam Jones came to town shortly after its opening for a revival and praised Ryman, calling him “one of God’s purer, stronger, nobler servants.” Upon Ryman’s death in 1904, he was interred at this tabernacle; it later became known as Ryman Auditorium in his honor.
Ryman amassed wealth through operating his family’s fleet of riverboats on the Cumberland River, most notably his construction of Union Gospel Tabernacle which cost him over one million dollars to construct.
Reverend Sam Jones held a large tent revival that focused on discouraging alcohol consumption and gambling activities. Rumor has it that Ryman attended in order to cause havoc at this event and force out Reverend Jones from town.
In 1994, Ryman Auditorium underwent a multi-million dollar renovation that restored it back to its former grandeur as a National Historic Landmark. A new structure featuring performer dressing rooms and ticket booth was added, while oak pews were preserved through removal and restoration for preservation purposes. Since that time, audiences from around the globe continue to visit this iconic venue.