Airdrie – Let There Be Paradise

Musings by Mike Slate.

Life is fundamentally different on Airdrie’s three acres. Hours and minutes dissolve into the background; decades and centuries move to the forefront. The cavalcade of history is palpable there; yet a timeless tide flows among the magnolia and poplar trees, across the columned portico, and around back through the sanctuary where birds and humans study one another through the porch screens.

Scene in the Airdrie gardens (photo from NHN collection)

In Paul Clements’ monumental work, A Past Remembered: A Collection of Antebellum Houses in Davidson County, the home is called the Petway House, after owner Hinchey Petway, a Middle Tennessee businessman whose memorable name could easily have come from a Dickens novel. Clements’ research reveals that prior to Petway the plantation and dwelling – which was originally a log house – had belonged to not one but two members of the early 19th-century U.S. House of Representatives, William Dickson and Thomas Claiborne. Still further back we encounter William Coldwell, who owned the property at about the time Tennessee became a state. Perhaps it was he who built the frontier home now largely enveloped by the present structure. (A few of the interior rooms clearly show their log-house origins.) Finally, we meet John Foreman, the recipient of the original 1784 North Carolina grant for the land on which the mansion would be built.

In the Metro Historical Commission’s Nashville: A Short History and Selected Buildings, Airdrie is called the Buell-King residence, highlighting not only the present owners but also the post-Civil War Buell family, who owned the house for about 80 years. An interesting sidelight mentioned in the Commission’s book is that a relative of the Buells, Don Carlos Buell, was the Union general who accepted the surrender of Nashville in 1862. Around 1910 another relative of the family, architect George Norton, extensively renovated the structure and engineered the Classical Revival style presented today.

Entrance to Airdrie (photo from NHN collection)

Tennessean columnist George Zepp has alluded (21 June 2006) to the origin of the current appellation, “Airdrie.” That name is derived from the Airdrie Land Company, set up by the Buell family in the early 20th century to stimulate the sale of surrounding acreage. The Kings preferred “Airdrie,” and the mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places under that designation.

An article by Rebecca Rice in The City Paper (12 August 2005), titled “Own a Home as Old as Tennessee,” also documented Airdrie’s provenance, including the ownerships of Judge John Brien and Vanderbilt professor Ward Allen. Brien owned the estate after Petway and before the Buells, while Dr. Allen’s possession covered the decade prior to the King’s 1963 acquisition of the property.

Harold and Dorothy King, contemporary heroes of historic preservation, have simultaneously nurtured two marriages: one to each other and a second to Airdrie. Together the Kings have opposed boredom, embraced adventure, conquered illnesses, and championed enthusiasm. Through prodigious labor and uncommon spunk, they transformed the estate from ramshackle relic to refined retreat, from anachronistic anomaly to alluring arbor. After 43 years of devotion to this landmark, they finally chose to move to a neighboring state in order to be closer to their family.

Since Airdrie has such a mystique and so many historical facets – some known only to the Kings – we might aptly call it the Hope diamond of Nashville private residences. Complete with two historic outbuildings (a log cabin and a barn) as well as the notable Buell spring, the compound features one of the finest historic homes in Nashville.

The Confederate Twenty-Dollar Irony

by Mike Slate.

From 1862 through 1864 the Confederate States of America printed an estimated ten million twenty-dollar notes featuring an engraving of the Tennessee State Capitol. Today many of these notes survive in the hands of collectors and others, who may not be aware of the historical irony surrounding this currency.

Early Confederate twenty-dollar bills featured representations of a sailing vessel and various classical goddesses as well as a bust of CSA Vice President Alexander H. Stephens. Pursuant to the Confederate Congressional Act of October 13, 1862, the first Tennessee State Capitol notes were soon printed . . . and there the irony begins. This note’s design shows miniscule yet visibly genteel folk strolling the Capitol grounds. However, months earlier, on February 25, 1862, Nashville Mayor R. B. Cheatham had surrendered the panicked city of Nashville to Union General Don Carlos Buell. Long before October 13 Confederate currency was worthless in Nashville.

With the Federal occupation of Nashville came the immediate securing of the statehouse and the hoisting of William Driver‘s famous flag, “Old Glory,” on Capitol Hill. To be sure, no Southerners lolled around the Capitol grounds after February 25.  Iron-fisted military governor Andrew Johnson arrived in Nashville on March 12.  By the time of the October 13 Act, the Capitol was undergoing heavy fortification as Fort Andrew Johnson.                  

It seems likely that, although the “Tennessee Capitol” note was issued twice more (following the Act of March 23, 1863, and the Act of February 17, 1864), many Nashvillians did not see this currency until years after its initial printing. The bill was engraved – and presumably printed – by the firm of Keatinge & Ball in Columbia, South Carolina, a city significantly distant from occupied Nashville. There may be more of these notes in Nashville today than there ever were during the Civil War.

The Tennessee Capitol vignette was engraved probably by Edward Keatinge, who had worked for the American Bank Note Company in New York City. Recruited by the Confederacy for its treasury department, Keatinge teamed with Virginian Thomas A. Ball to form Keatinge & Ball, Bank Note Engravers, in Richmond. Soon the firm removed to Columbia, South Carolina, a strategically safer location. There they produced Confederate currency using equipment and supplies smuggled from Europe through the Federal blockade. General Sherman destroyed the firm’s facilities in February 1865.

Only two other Southern capitol buildings adorned Confederate currency: those of Columbia, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia. Despite the irony of its issuance, the Tennessee Capitol twenty-dollar bill is nevertheless a tribute to an architectural gem, the timeless work of Philadelphia architect William Strickland.