My first visit to The Hermitage, at the age of five years, was with my grandfather in a borrowed Model A Ford. I had to remain in the car and be good, and I didn’t get to go into this big brick house even though I really wanted to see what was inside. Perhaps I should explain.
My grandfather, Samuel H. Seat, was a blacksmith adept at working with iron and fashioning hand-wrought objects. The quality of his work was well known and he was often occupied in some special project. It was 1935 at the time, and The Ladies’ Hermitage Association had contacted my grandfather about reproducing the latch assembly on the window shutters of the mansion since time had taken a toll on the original iron pieces. I had to remain in the Ford while he was inside meeting with the ladies in charge of the restoration. Memory brings back the wasp that came through the open car window, buzzing around me for a few moments and then flying on toward the big house with the loose, sagging shutters.
As time passed, I learned that this was the home of Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel, who died suddenly on December 22, 1828, the year Andrew was elected President of our country. Rachel is quoted as saying, “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than to live in that palace at Washington.” Was her wish granted?
On a return visit thirty years later, I had a five-year-old with me – my son. We toured The Hermitage together. The Model A Ford is past history, along with the grandparent who let me tag along. Memories can last a lifetime and those with whom we experience special occasions live on, too.
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.
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.
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.
Hundreds of motorists rush past the intersection of Old Hickory Boulevard and Chickering Road every day without realizing they have just glimpsed a bit of early Tennessee history. Nearby, on the property of Percy Warner Park, stands an old two-story log house with white siding, its three limestone chimneys now cold.
This is the Hodge House, built circa 1795 by Francis Hodge, an early pioneer settler who signed the 1780 Cumberland Compact and later received a land preemption of 640 acres. As Indian attacks diminished, many of the settlers ventured out from Fort Nashborough to settle on their own land. In the area of today’s Carden Road, Francis Hodge and his family built a log house which they called Hodge’s Station. It became a gathering place where many early Tennesseans, including James and Charlotte Robertson, came to study Methodism. Hodge later sold that tract of land to Joseph Ewing and built a cabin three or four miles south, on the plot where it now stands — land that had previously belonged to James Robertson.
This second Hodge house, originally a single pen log cabin (as has been determined by Metropolitan Historical Commission staff), stands today in the southeastern corner of Percy Warner Park. Francis Hodge and his two oldest sons, James and George, constructed the two-story dwelling of white ash logs. Over the years, the family added several more rooms, white clapboard siding, and a tin roof. To accommodate the family slaves, they built additional cabins, one of which survived into the late 1950s.
Within a few years the property was purchased by Mary and Samuel Northern, James Hodge’s daughter and son-in-law. The Northerns, whose descendants would live on this land for nearly one hundred years, dedicated an acre northeast of the house for use as a family cemetery. When James Hodge died in 1817, he was the first of the family to be buried in this graveyard, near what is now the Harpeth Hills Golf Course.
Pioneer Francis Hodge died in 1828. His will, written in his own hand, shows the excellent penmanship characteristic of an educated man. The will identifies his sons as John, James, Robert, and George; and his daughters as Elizabeth (Betsy) Armstrong, Sarah Slaughter, and Priscilla Carruthers. No surviving record indicates where Francis is buried. His son George died in 1833, willing the land, the house, and fourteen slaves to his wife Elizabeth. George’s 1829 will also stipulated that after Elizabeth’s death several nieces and nephews should inherit the property. One of the nephews named was Francis Hodge Asbury Slaughter, who, with Sterling Clack Robertson, was part of the first Texas colony.
Members of the Hodge family married into other local families whose names are still well known in the area: Betts, Becton, Harding, Northern, Osborne, Page, Reams, Sawyer, Slaughter, and Wilkes. The old house saw the Civil War come and go, with both Union and Confederate soldiers marching past on the historic Indian trail in front of the property. Hodge descendants occupied the home until its sale in 1895. In 1927 the property became part of the Warner Parks and is now listed on and protected by the National Register of Historic Places. According to the Warner Parks website, it is the “only early rural farmhouse of its type under public ownership in the county.”
The house served for many years as a residence for Parks Department employees and their families. In the early 1990s it was boarded up because of its deteriorated condition and was left vacant until a group of Hodge descendants began lobbying for protection and restoration of the property. Renewed interest in the site led to a survey of the old Hodge-Northern cemetery, during which sixteen unmarked graves, including several burial sites of children, were discovered. Moreover, as part of this year’s  celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Warner Parks, the Hodge House has been designated for renovation, in order to make it a more valuable, hands-on local history resource. The Friends of the Warner Parks (FWP) has been working side-by-side with the Nashville Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation to acquire funding for the project. Their first objective is to restore the original white ash log cabin. FWP Director Eleanor Willis, who has spearheaded the project, describes the logs now visible in the attic area as “beautifully preserved.” Work on the foundation and the limestone chimneys is already underway. Visitors will soon be able to view the historic Hodge House as it appeared two centuries ago to the early settlers of Middle Tennessee. (2002)