The auditorium opened as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892. Its construction was spearheaded by Thomas Ryman (1843–1904), a Nashville businessman who owned several saloons and a fleet of riverboats. Ryman conceived of the auditorium as a tabernacle for the influential revivalist Samuel Porter Jones. Ryman had attended one of Jones’ 1885 tent revivals with the intent to heckle, but was instead converted into a devout Christian, and soon after pledged to build the tabernacle so the people of Nashville could attend a large-scale revival indoors. It took seven years to complete and cost US$100,000 (equivalent to $2,638,148 in 2015). However, Jones held his first revival at the site on May 25, 1890, with only the building’s foundation and six-foot walls standing. Architect Hugh Cathcart Thompson designed the structure. Exceeding its construction budget, the tabernacle opened US$20,000 (equivalent to $527,630 in 2015) in debt. Jones sought to name the tabernacle in Ryman’s honor, but Ryman denied the request several times. When Ryman died in 1904, his memorial service was held at the tabernacle. During the service, Jones proposed the building be renamed Ryman Auditorium, which was met with the overwhelming approval of the attendees. Jones died less than two years later, in 1906.
The building was originally designed to contain a balcony, but a lack of funds delayed its completion. The balcony was eventually built and opened in time for the 1897 gathering of the United Confederate Veterans, with funds provided by members of the group. As such, the balcony was named the Confederate Gallery. Upon the completion of the balcony, the Ryman’s capacity rose to 6,000. A stage was added in 1901 that reduced the capacity to just over 3,000.
Thomas Ryman (1843–1904)