NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — It looms large over the city, watching, protecting. With more than 30 floors, a glass atrium and its own winter garden, the tallest building in Nashville boasts more than 600 feet tall. It’s featured on the state of Tennessee driver’s license.
It has an official name, but everyone in Nashville knows it by its unofficial nickname: The Batman Building.
Home of the Tennessee headquarters for AT&T, the building, known also as the Bat Building or the Bat Tower, has been the iconic piece of the Nashville skyline for 30 years.
“It was an immediate hit on the Nashville skyline and still is today,” local historian David S. Ewing told News 2.
Construction on the tower began in 1992 and was completed two years later, in September of 1994. The purpose at the time, Ewing said, was to consolidate multiple smaller offices for the South Central Bell company into one workspace.
“South Central Bell had a very large presence in Tennessee. Their main office in the state of Tennessee was in Nashville; they had a lot of smaller offices around the city, and they consolidated those all into downtown in a very tall building to put everyone in one space—about 1,800 workers,” he said.
The nickname comes from the building’s resemblance to the DC Comics caped crusader Batman.
“If you look at [news] coverage at the time when the Batman building opened in 1994, everybody saw this iconic image of Batman. Even months before the building opened, on the front page of The Tennessean, there was an image of the building and an image of Batman side by side that said, ‘Holy High Rise!’” Ewing said.
The imagery, while iconic, was entirely accidental, according to AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips.
“That’s a reflection of good old Middle Tennessee people calling things what they thought,” she told News 2. “I think it was just kind of a natural thing.”
Neither the company nor the architects sought out to create a building using that specific type of imagery, but the resemblance was unmistakable.
“When the Batman building opened in 1994, a reporter asked DC Comics, the publisher of Batman comic books, about it, and they were flattered that Nashville would do a building that looked like Batman,” Ewing said. “The person suggested that they build a smaller building after Robin with an R and a circle on it.”
According to Phillips, locals had to assure members of Warner Media, who at one time was part of the same company as AT&T and protected the name and image of Batman products, that the name was an organic creation and not meant to infringe on anyone’s intellectual property rights.
“I remember one time being on a call with some of the Warner Media folks who manage all of the protection of those marks, and there was someone there who was very concerned about who was calling us the Bat building,” she said. “I had to explain that this was kind of just an organic thing that has happened over time and nobody’s making money on calling it the Bat building. It’s just what people call it. If anything, we kind of came away from that conversation with even the folks who control the Batman mark thinking it was good for the brand. People call [the building] that in a very positive way.”
For the last 30 years, the Bat building—or the Bat tower or the Batman building—has been the centerpiece of the Nashville skyline, leading the charge for downtown Nashville’s growth.
Ewing said he considered the tower’s construction the “bat signal” for redevelopment following an economic slowdown in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“That was a real signal to come back to downtown Nashville—a bat signal, if you will—that downtown was open once again, and it caused a lot of other people to invest in the core of the city,” he said. “A lot of people were building buildings outside of the Nashville area, in the Green Hills area and the Cool Springs area, but we weren’t building these iconic towers. In fact, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, most of the other tall buildings in our skyline were built as hotels or by banks.”
While the building is iconic from the outside, the inside is equally as unique, according to both Phillips and Ewing.
The interior was designed by the late local architect Earl Swensson and includes a signature design element that Swensson put in many of his buildings: the all-glass atrium.
According to Ewing, Swensson “kind of invented” the grand glass atrium for the Opryland Hotel and used similar atriums in other large projects, including the AT&T building and Centennial Hospital.
“You walk in and you see this huge glass roof and all this open space,” Ewing said. “Swensson did that with Centennial Hospital and many other things, and a lot of other architects have copied him over the years.”
The building was one Swensson didn’t want to look like a typical boxy skyscraper, according to Ewing.
“There’s a ton of light in the building,” he said. “The way the rooms and the floors are set up, there’s not your typical grid system. There’s a lot of curves and different angles. It was really meant to be technology and architecture combined.”
Information from Earl Swensson Associates says the building includes a two-story economic development center, a nine-story, 1,308-space underground parking garage and an 8,000-square-foot enclosed winter garden, which serves as another point of interest.
“The facility incorporates green space into an urban landscape through its public park at the main entrance and another smaller park at the rear of the building that works with the grade of the site by traversing over three levels,” the firm writes about the design. “Accessible from both the front and rear parks is a three-story winter garden, which serves as a foyer to the lobby of the office tower and as a connector between the office tower and an adjacent high-tech center, which is available to the general public for meeting space.”
Another feature of the building is its direction. While most skyscrapers or downtown office buildings run parallel with the streets they’re on, the Batman building sits catty-cornered on its lot, facing the corner of Commerce Street and 3rd Avenue North rather than any one street.
“So the building doesn’t turn its back on either side,” Phillips said.
While AT&T and previous iterations of the company were the first owners and sole renters of the building at first, starting in the mid-2000s the tower began hosting other companies through rental agreements.
When Nissan North America announced it would be relocating its headquarters to Franklin, the company needed a temporary space for its employees to work, and the AT&T building made room. AT&T cleared out about half the building for Nissan to use while they were awaiting the opening of the Williamson County facility.
“In fact, for a time, there was a Nissan signage kind of down low over the front door of the Bat building,” Phillips said.
Eventually, other tenants worked out leasing agreements with AT&T, including law firms and accounting firms, Phillips added, but one of the more prominent tenants was the Vanderbilt Ophthalmic Imaging Center, which needed the super high-speed internet the building had before advances in wireless internet came about.
“They set up in our building because, at the time, the kind of fiber connection necessary to do that was pretty uncommon,” Phillips said. “This was before the explosion of everybody needing that kind of connectivity. So for a while, they looked at people’s eyes in a dark studio in the Bat building.”
Nowadays the building is home to multiple tenants, including U.S. Bank and law firm Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs. It is owned by limited liability company MTL Leasing.
The Batman building is located at 333 Commerce Street.