The Ryman Auditorium is a 2,300-plus seat live-performance venue found on Fifth Avenue North in Nashville. Most people recognize it because it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974.
The auditorium was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. It received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 2001 because of its role in the development of the country music genre.
It originally opened its doors as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892. Thomas Ryman fronted the initial expense and idea using money from his fleet of riverboats and several saloons he owned. After attending a revival in 1885 and converting to Christianity, Ryman envisioned having a place where the people of Nashville could enjoy religious meetings indoors.
It took $100,000 and seven years to complete the structure.
The Ryman Auditorium in the 20th Century
Although the building was meant to be a house of worship, the Ryman Auditorium often leased its space to promoters as a way to pay off debt. Lula Naff took advantage of this opportunity to book concerts, speaking engagements, and even boxing matches in her free time. By 1914, she was working full-time to promote the space in an industry that was dominated by men.
Naff’s knack for booking shows with world-famous entertainers made the Ryman Auditorium a popular spot in Nashville. Names like Charlie Chapline, Will Rogers, and Harry Houdini all performed there. The venue would eventually get called the Carnegie Hall of the South because of this reputation.
The first event that sold out the Ryman Auditorium was a lecture by Anne Sullivan Macy and Helen Keller in 1913.
Ryman and the Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry was in the War Memorial Auditorium in the 1930s, but it was asked to leave because of how rowdy the crowds became. Naff and the other leaders at the Ryman Auditorium though that it would be the perfect venue for those shows. The first broadcast happened on June 5, 1943, and it happened weekly for the next 31 years. Every show sold out.
After the departure of the Opry, the Ryman Auditorium sat mostly vacant for almost 20 years. Urban decay in the surrounding neighborhood began to take hold. Renovation efforts started soon after, including a $14 million project in 2015 to expand and remodel the complex.
Now you can find concessions, a gift shop, a lobby space, and a café named after Lula Naff. If you are in the area, make sure to head over to Honky Tonk Highway for a tour of great music venues, bars, and restaurants.