How Nashville Dishonored a President and Altered American History

Musings by Mike Slate.

The maintenance of our metropolitan humility requires us occasionally to confess and recount our sins against historic preservation. The current Nashville building spree may lull us into forgetting that during the twentieth century we destroyed probably the finest of Tennessee’s public squares (along with Francis Strickland’s courthouse), countless other downtown buildings (flirting, even, with razing Union Station and Ryman Auditorium), and several historic mansions (including two gubernatorial residences). Topping any catalog of questionable annihilations should be Polk Place, erased from our national heritage in 1901.

Postcard image of President James K. Polk from NHN collection.

Having expanded the nation’s borders to the Pacific Ocean, James K. Polk retired to Nashville a very weary man. A workaholic, he had served as a Tennessee state legislator and governor, U.S. Representative and Speaker of the House, and president of the United States from 1845-1849. In 1847 he had purchased the home of one of his mentors, the distinguished Felix Grundy, and refurbished it to his and First Lady Sarah Polk‘s desires. He lived there, however, for less than two months, dying on June 15, 1849. Sarah Polk lived on at Polk Place as the grande dame of Nashville for more than four decades, passing away in 1891.

President Polk’s will (which itself has had an incredible lost-found-lost again-found-again existence) expressed his wish that Polk Place be tendered to the State of Tennessee after Sarah’s death. Polk’s heirs wrangled and the State balked. The upshot of the imbroglio was that Polk Place was sold in a Chancery Court sale to another of Nashville’s preeminent citizens, Jacob McGavock Dickinson, Grundy’s great-grandson. In turn, Dickinson sold the columned mansion and its hallowed grounds – which until 1893 had included President and Mrs. Polk’s tomb, classically designed by William Strickland – to J.C. McLanahan, a Philadelphian. McClanahan proceeded to tear down Polk Place and build an apartment complex, the Polk Flats.

Polk Place was situated near the heart of Nashville between 7th and 8th avenues. Today’s Polk Avenue was once the lane that led from Church Street to the mansion on the rise at Union Street. The house certainly had a fortuitous location, leading us to wonder how the city fathers could have been so shortsighted as not to have seen the patriotic and economic benefits of a president’s residence in downtown Nashville. And just as the Ladies’ Hermitage Association rose up in 1889 to save Andrew Jackson’s estate, why did no such organization successfully lobby for the salvation of Polk Place? I suppose that the truism of the real estate business – that value is determined by “location, location, location” – ironically facilitated the home’s demise.

The Polk tomb (on the right above) once graced the lawn of the former president’s mansion. It was later moved to the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol. (Photograph of the Polk home by Calvert Brothers Studio. Used by permission of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.)

What if the Polks’ retirement house were here today, surrounded by beautiful, well-kept grounds of even modest size? Literally millions of visitors would by now have toured the home, and James Knox Polk, rather than being relatively obscure in the presidential pantheon, would be far better known and interpreted. However, instead of enjoying a national landmark, we must confess to having spilled the milk of American history.

In a detailed article about Polk Place written for The Tennessean (“Learn Nashville,” 7-10-02), columnist George Zepp mentioned Mayor Richard Fulton‘s 1979 plan to acquire the original site and replicate the mansion. Evidently this magnanimous idea was not feasible at the time, but it seems worth revisiting today. At the least, an enterprising builder could duplicate the house – perhaps in an upscale development such as the Governors Club – using the elevations and floor plans published in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly in 1966 (pages 280-286). Perhaps such a replica already exists at some location.

Blessed with geographic significance, Nashville has expanded impressively over the years. We are justifiably proud of the landmark structures we have built and are building, yet we must be vigilant in remembering that the counterbalance of growth is destruction – and we have been excellent at that, too. In the twenty-first century a healthy respect for history will save us from more hard-to-swallow humble pie.