When Barry Walker acquired the long-abandoned Marathon Motor Works auto factory for $52,000 in 1986, most people around Nashville, Tenn., thought he was throwing good money after bad.
Truth be told, "bad" barely begins to convey the fate that befell the site in the decades after the final touring cars and rumble-seat roadsters rolled off Marathon's assembly line in 1914. Not only was the factory crumbling to dust after years of neglect, but its surrounding downtown neighborhood was a no man's land plagued by poverty, violent crime and drug abuse.
"Marathon was nothing but bums and homeless back then--there were prostitutes all over the place," Walker says. "Everyone said, ‘You're crazy to do this. You're going to die.' So I bought a pistol--a .38 with a 6-inch barrel--and started cleaning house. I'd fire that gun every morning to clear everyone out of here. I did some crazy stuff, man."
A quarter-century later, Marathon Village is one of the cornerstones of downtown Nashville's ongoing revival. The four-block, multi-building complex off Interstate 65 is home to dozens of merchants, offices and creative arts studios, with tenants spanning from the Corsair Artisan craft spirits distillery to video production firm Tacklebox Films to independent radio station WRLT, known to listeners as Lightning 100.
"As far as Nashville has come, and as progressive as it is, this is still the only massive, amazing studio space in the downtown area," says American Pickers creator and host Mike Wolfe, who opened his second Antique Archaeology retail location in Marathon Village this summer. "There are a lot of creative people here. It's that kind of space."
That's exactly what Walker envisioned when he bought the property. "I don't want lawyers and insurance agencies," says the Jackson, Tenn., native and one-time rock 'n' roll drummer who later owned and operated Nashville's Ingenuity Shop, a designer and manufacturer of high-tech audio and video equipment. "I try to keep it eclectic and 95 percent creative--then everyone else wants to get in on it."
At last count, about 60 small businesses had moved into Marathon Village. When the renovation finally wraps up, Walker expects roughly 115 companies will call the complex home; beyond photographers, advertising agencies and recording studios, he is seeking tenants who share his appreciation for its legacy and architectural allure.
"You go into office buildings every day and it's the same thing," he says. "I want people to see the wow factor. Donald Trump does beautiful buildings, but it's all gold-leaf this and fancy that. Now people want huge windows, hardwood floors and exposed brick. It's about time."
Walker's efforts to keep Marathon Motor Works' entrepreneurial spirit alive extend beyond repurposing the property for the next generation: He also owns four of the eight Marathon cars known to survive.
"It's so cool to bring this history back to life," he says. "It's easy to forget about the past. That's what's killing this country. Our grandparents and great-grandparents worked their asses off, but we've had it easy, and it's made us lazy and spoiled. But I stuck with it. When someone tells me I can't do something, it makes me want to do it that much more. People don't laugh at me anymore."