by Dave Price
The collecting of old Nashville memorabilia is an inevitable result of studying its history. Eventually every student of the discipline accumulates a few old Cartes de Visite and cabinet photographs by local artists. Among the most prolific studios of 19th century Nashville was that of Thuss, Koellein & Giers. To tell its story we must begin with Carl Giers, who founded the firm that eventually took this name.
Carl Casper (or Cooper according to one source) Giers was born April 28, 1828, in Bonn, Prussia. Family tradition has him coming to America in 1845 and to Nashville in 1852 as a conductor on the N&C RR. He may be the Mr. Geers (sic) listed in the 1853-54 Nashville General Commercial Directory as among those living “south of Broad Street, west of High.” Campbell’s 1855-56 Nashville Business Directory lists him with J.W. Northern in the firm of Giers & Northern, Daguerreotypists, at Deaderick Street and the Public Square (note: the studio was on the southwest corner of Deaderick and College; I would like to say it was located at the National Stores site of my youth but by my day Deaderick was much wider than in Giers’ and the site of the studio had long been paved over.)
Campbell’s 1857 edition lists Giers and A.S. Byington (“formerly of Hughes Bros”) with their firm Giers & Byington, Daguerreotypists, at the same address as above. By 1859 Giers’ Southern Photographic Temple of Fine Arts is listed at the old stand with Theodore M. Schleier and Andrew Bulot on the staff. The 1860-61 Directory calls him “Charles C. Giers.”
In December 1862, Giers purchased the former Hughes Gallery at the northwest corner of College and Union (upstairs) from Frederick N. Hughes with his brother Cyril C. acting as his attorney. In October 1863, Giers sold this studio to Thomas F. Saltsman (sometimes “Saltzman”) and leased the former Saltsman gallery a half block farther up Union Street at #42-44 for himself (upstairs on the north side just west of the alley). It is interesting that he discarded the “Southern” part of his business title and used the name “National Portrait Gallery” during the occupation.
King’s 1867 Nashville City Directory tells us that many of Nashville’s streets had been renumbered since the 1866 edition. Giers’ rooms became 43-45 Union.
Carl Giers was very active in community affairs and was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1874. He passed from this life May 24, 1877. Shortly thereafter William Evermond Armstrong (b 1832) bought the studio. During his tenure the streets were again renumbered with the studio becoming 139 Union. He operated it until early 1883, when he leased it to Emil Koellein (1847-1893) and James S. Patterson. The Koellein and Patterson partnership did not do well. Young Otto Burchartz Giers (1858-1940) was brought in but the firm was doomed to fail without additional capital.
Within three months of Armstrong’s lease to Koellein and Patterson, he released them from their contract as they were unable to comply with the terms. The studio was at once sold to the new firm of Thuss, Koellein & Giers, with fresh money coming from the new partner W.G. Thuss.
William Gustav Thuss (1854-1943) had come to Nashville by 1875 and had been in business since that time at the former Hughes (Giers, Saltsman) address at Union and College. He had been in several partnerships, including one with Charles Paret in 1878 and another with Emil Koellein in 1880.
Thuss, Koellein & Giers lasted from 1883 until 1889, when Thuss and his younger brother Andrew Joseph (1866-1956) left to take over the former Theodore M. Schleier studio in the Mc Gavock Block on Cherry. Giers & Koellein continued at the old stand (renumbered 318 in 1888) through 1892. In 1893 Emil Koellein was briefly in partnership with A.F. Weidenbacker until his own death on July 28 of that year. Otto Giers moved to 415 Church Street, where he remained until 1906. In 1911 he became City Clerk.
W.G. and A.J. Thuss prospered, won many awards, and photographed many dignitaries. In 1897 they operated a studio at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition and took souvenir photographs for fair visitors as well as the official portraits used on Season Passes. In 1916 William Ferdnand Koellein (1873-1919), the eldest child of Emil, operated the Thuss brothers’ original (Cherry Street, by then 4th Avenue) studio while the brothers opened a second location at 217 5th Avenue North.
In 1917 the brothers split up with W.G. taking the 5th Avenue studio and A.J. the one on 4th. Ads of the period show that each brother claimed to be operating the original Thuss studio.
In 1927, A.J. moved from 4th Avenue to the Spanish-style building on West End, where he operated what was recognized as one of the city’s premier photographic studios until 1945, when he retired. Palmer Plaza occupies the site today.
In the mid-1930s, late in his career, W.G. and William L. Patterson operated a studio (Patterson and his wife Alice roomed in East Nashville briefly; we have been unable to determine any kinship with the James Patterson mentioned earlier). Shortly before his death in 1943, W.G. was working with Nora M. Witzel of Clarksville.
Charles Paret, mentioned above, came here from New York in 1866 to work for Carl Giers. He and Miss Sarah Catlin (another former Giers employee) were in business with W.G. Thuss in 1878.
James Patterson (also formerly with Giers) seems to have left Nashville after the breakup of Koellein & Patterson but reappeared in 1890 and for a short time operated his own studio on Church Street. Since Otto Giers was still active, Patterson advertised himself as being of the “Old” Giers Gallery. Patterson later had studios in Pulaski, Lewisburg, and Cornersville.
W.G. and A.J. Thuss, although they saw each other from time to time (they both served as pallbearers for William F. Koellein in 1919), never spoke after their breakup. When W.G. lay on his deathbed in 1943, his daughter Bessie went to her uncle A.J. and begged him to go see her father. He refused but did attend the funeral, where in the words of one witness, “he cried bitter tears, but it was too late.”
A.J. lived until 1956, just one hundred years after Carl Giers had taken his first daguerreotype at Deaderick and the Public Square.
Photograph and backmark from NHN photograph collection.