Nashville’s historic Climax Saloon – a bar, gambling hall, and brothel – was located on Cherry Street (now 4th Avenue North) adjacent to Printer’s Alley in an area know as the Gentlemen’s Quarter or Men’s Quarter.
Built in 1887 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the upper floors of the four-story Italianate-style building were closed for several decades and have been restored as part of the boutique Dream Hotel Nashville.
The Climax Saloon was owned by principals of the George A. Dickel and Co. distillery. The three-story saloon began operation in 1887, with a saloon bar on the ground level, pool tables and gambling on the second floor, and prostitution brothel in the bedrooms on the top level. The bedrooms had false wall panels, allowing the working girls a place to hide from police in the event of a raid.
From the late 1880s until 1914, the Gentlemen’s Quarter was Nashville’s most sordid and lewd area. It was a place where any self-respecting Victorian lady of the time refused to walk down the street. A woman who valued her reputation did not ever venture into this block. It was densely populated with saloons and other adult or erotic businesses catering to the interests of men.
The Gentlemen’s Quarter was able to proliferate due to a several ideal circumstances of the time. A constant and abundant supply of male customers, including attorneys from nearby office buildings; businessmen travelling from the famous Maxwell House hotel, which was located adjacent to quarter; and plenty of construction workers and riverboat crews from the nearby Cumberland River. Lax enforcement by local police and support from popular Tennessee whiskey distilleries also played a key role in growth of the gentlemen’s quarter.
In the Gentlemen’s Quarter, men could get a shave and a haircut, buy a new suit, have a lunchtime meal in the city (somewhat of a new trend in the 1890s), enjoy an alcoholic drink in one of the many saloons, or participate in more scandalous and illegal activities like gambling or prostitution. In an era of strict social rules, the Climax Saloon and many others in the Printer’s Alley area provided men a place to drink, gamble, and curse without judgment.
Nashville police were very aware of the illegal activities occurring in the gentleman’s quarter. Occasional raids did take place but they often resulted in only a nominal fine.
It’s known that the George A. Dickel Company Distillery used a method of acquiring or constructing saloons in Nashville, to create outlets for selling their whiskey. The Dickel company owned the Climax Saloon, which survived on 4th Avenue until being demolished for replacement by Dream Hotel Nashville, which features some original fixtures and architectural elements from the old saloon and hotel. The Dream is one of several new boutique hotels in Printer’s Alley.
Jack Daniel is said to have made visits to all the saloons on Cherry Street, buying a round of Jack Daniel’s whiskey for everyone in each saloon. According to legend, Daniel, who was only 5’2″ tall, would accumulate followers in each establishment, following him to the next place for another free round.
The Maxwell House Hotel (from which the coffee got its name) stood across the street at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Church Street until it burned on Christmas night, 1961. The reputation of the Men’s Quarter became so unsavory that the Maxwell House, which had its main entrance on Fourth Avenue, established a separate ladies’ entrance around the corner on Church Street. Two Men’s Quarter saloon buildings, though not the saloons themselves, survive on Fourth Avenue: the Climax at 210 Fourth Avenue North, and the Southern Turf at 212 Fourth Avenue North. The Italianate Utopia Hotel at 206 Fourth Avenue North was designed in 1891 by Hugh Cathcart Thompson, architect of the Ryman Auditorium. The ornate Victorian facades of these buildings stand in vibrant contrast to most of their contemporary neighbors.
In the years leading up to final closure of the Climax Saloon in 1914, local churches including the The Union Gospel Tabernacle (known today as The Ryman) and Tulip Street Church preached against alcohol consumption and the sinfulness of the Cherry Street brothels and saloons. A growing national abstinence movement took hold in Tennessee and found powerful political allies. A series of laws ultimately closed all the saloons in the state, leaving only illegal speakeasies in Printer’s Alley and surrounding areas.