If the hallowed walls of Ryman Auditorium could talk, the remarkable story they would tell is unmatched in entertainment history. Its construction is a tale of divine inspiration. In the 1880s, when prominent businessman and steamboat captain Thomas G. Ryman found salvation in the words of fiery evangelist Reverend Sam Jones, he vowed to build a great tabernacle that would project Rev. Jones’s voice clearly and powerfully for all to hear.
Designed by architect Hugh Cathcart Thompson in the Late Victorian Gothic Revival style popular at the time, Tom Ryman’s vision became a reality with the completion of the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892. After his death in 1904, the Union Gospel Tabernacle would henceforth be known as the Ryman Auditorium in honor of the man who built the Nashville landmark.
As the largest structure in the area, the Ryman Auditorium soon became a popular place for community events, political rallies and popular turn-of the-century entertainment including operas, symphonies, bands, ballets and theatrical productions. In 1901, the Metropolitan Opera, for whom a stage was installed, put on special performances of Carmen and The Barber of Seville. Greats such as Ignacy Paderewski and Marian Anderson each performed five times at the Ryman during their long careers. John Philip Sousa, Enrico Caruso, Ethel Barrymore, Roy Rogers, Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Katharine Hepburn, Bob Hope, Mae West and even president Theodore Roosevelt all graced the Ryman stage. It was during these early years the Ryman became known as the “Carnegie Hall of the South.”
While the Ryman was gaining recognition as an entertainment site, George D. Hay was creating a radio show that would become an international phenomenon – the Grand Ole Opry®. In 1943, with crowds too big and too rowdy for other Nashville venues, the Opry found a home at the Ryman. For the next thirty-one years, the Ryman served as the premier stage for the Opry’s live radio shows, which included such legends as Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Minnie Pearl, Patsy Cline and Roy Acuff.
As the home of the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman became inseparably linked to the origins and rise of the modern-day genre of country music. Dubbed The Mother Church of Country Music by Nashvillians, it’s well known by this moniker today. The Ryman’s famous stage is also known as the birthplace of Bluegrass. On December 8th, 1945, the definitive sound of Bluegrass was born when a twenty-one year old Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe on stage for the first time. The State of Tennessee has officially recognized the Ryman as the Birthplace of Bluegrass.
When the Opry moved to its new location in 1974, the Ryman continued to attract fans from around the world merely to step on the stage that had attracted so many greats. In 1994, an $8.5 million renovation project brought this National Historic Landmark back to its original splendor. Each of the original wooden pews was refinished. The stenciled artwork on the face of the balcony was painstakingly recreated. For the first time, proper dressing rooms were added which would ultimately be dedicated to the stars of the Ryman’s rich musical past. The latest technology in sound, lighting and engineering was included throughout every phase of the project. Central heat and air conditioning were added for the first time as well as a 14,000 square foot support building for ticketing, offices, concessions and a gift shop. The result was a state-of-the-art performance hall praised by performers for its beauty and, most importantly, for its acoustics.