Redemption for the”Mistake on the Lake”

A three-part series on the United Methodist Publishing House’s move from downtown Nashville to its new location in the repurposed Fountain Square property in MetroCenter. The building was dedicated on July 28.

Part I: Transforming the Culture

United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH), whose roots go back 150 years in Nashville, recently moved from its downtown location to a waterfront campus in MetroCenter. The religious institution’s new home is the former Fountain Square, an outdoor mall built in 1987 that never lived up to its promise to draw tourists and shoppers from miles around. As stores and restaurants failed and most of the building sat empty, it became infamously known as Nashville’s “mistake on the lake.” If you moved to Nashville in the past ten years, you might only remember the building for its distinctive aqua blue roof.

Before-ext-far        After-ext-far

(the first photograph is from before renovation and the second is after renovation)

The blue roof is gone, thanks to Collaborative Studio. Its design transformed the unsuccessful retail venue into a corporate paradise with workers enjoying a modern office environment bathed in heavenly light and equipped with ergonomic workstations, screened-in porches, and strolling paths around the lake.

At one time considered worthy of the wrecking ball by its former owner, the late Bud Adams, Collaborative Studio saw the opportunities presented by the building’s elongated shape wrapping around a manmade lake.

“I saw how this eyesore for the city could be repurposed,” says architect Jenny Campbell, President of Collaborative Studio. “Its shape and the views were really nice, and it had the potential for a totally different feel.”

It also provided the right answer for what Neil Alexander, CEO of United Methodist Publishing House, envisioned for the publisher’s future.

According to Alexander, “I liked the waterside location and the abundance of outdoor common areas. I also liked it not being in a traditional office park and it was a building with more potential for interesting architectural design opportunities than a plain vanilla box.”

Alexander’s last point is significant. He wanted something very different from the UMPH’s home for the past five decades, which was described in 2013 by the Nashville Scene as a “giant air conditioning unit at the corner of Demonbreun and 8th.”

After Alexander called Campbell to discuss his desire to move, Campbell met with Alexander and his team extensively to understand UMPH’s corporate goals for a new space.

“Jenny asked us what we wanted to achieve and listened carefully to our vision and the functionality [we needed],” says Alexander. “There was a lot of listening, playing back ways we could achieve what we wanted, often with some options….both from a design point of view and from a cost point of view.”

What Campbell found out was that the publishing industry had changed dramatically in the past 30 years and how UMPH worked now was out of step with the building it had called home since 1957. To adapt to new technology, UMPH had long ago gotten rid of its huge four-color presses (it was once one of the largest printing operations in Nashville), and recently closed down its Cokesbury retail bookstores. Its downtown building no longer fit the publisher’s new way of working, and many employees were spending their days in windowless cubbyholes or in basement offices.

Collaborative Studio helped UMPH evaluate several properties. Says Campbell, “They are an atypical tenant, so we weren’t looking for the normal corporate headquarters.”

Early concepts of how the Fountain Square building could be used showed a lot of promise.

“The building’s narrow floorplate lets everyone have natural light and let us spread out the office placement rather than a big cube farm,” adds Campbell.

Using “creative thinking” sessions and presenting ideas and possibilities (such as the ability to check email while sitting in the cafeteria or outside by the lake), Campbell and her staff educated the UMPH team on how a modern office environment functions and how the Fountain Square property could be the perfect match for them.

Once UMPH was convinced of the building’s suitability to its company culture, Collaborative Studio began to interview UMPH employees and department heads to understand how they worked together and the possibilities in the new space.

Says Alexander, “She interviewed lots of different staff groups to understand the flow of work.”

He is especially pleased with Campbell’s solution to the company’s desire for an open office concept while preserving employees’ ability to concentrate on their work.

“We needed to find ways to keep traffic away from their work areas, so Jenny  came up with an outer corridor that stretches the length of the building, and things like restrooms and meeting rooms open into this corridor, rather than the work spaces,” Alexander says.

The discussions also led to ideas for public spaces, indoor and out, and the results have been extremely satisfying to Campbell.

“I love seeing how the people are using the new space, responding to the lake. There are four balconies, which we turned into screened-in porches, and now you see people at lunchtime out on the screened porches, and outside, using the space.”

Even better, says Campbell, is how the new space changed the corporate atmosphere.

“People just looked different in the new space,” she says. “The new environment revitalized relationships and formed a common culture they’d never had.”

Early comments from UMPH employees after experiencing the new space confirmed Campbell’s feelings.

“I had one employee tell me she feels like she is on an office retreat, and another said, ‘It’s as if I’ve started a new job but I already know how to do it.’”

Alexander is equally enthusiastic about the impact of the space on the employees.

“The excitement about it among the employees has just been tremendous. There’s been an utter and over-the-top exhilaration of the staff and a sense that they have moved into a space that is appealing, that makes them want to come to work, that’s highly functional and state-of-the-art with respect to digital technologies, and that takes staff comfort into account….The staff response has been the single most important indicator that this has been a good move,” he says.

“It has a wow factor that gives people a sense of excitement about the organization and its future.”

In Part II, we’ll look at how Collaborative Studio pried the diamond from the rough.