TSLA – Tennessee’s Treasurehouse

by Kathy Lauder.

In early January 2004 Herbert Harper of the Tennessee Historical Commission announced that the Tennessee State Library and Archives building at 403 7th Avenue North “has, upon the nomination of this office, been placed in the National and Tennessee Registers of Historic Places by the National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior on November 17, 2003.”

The 7th Avenue building was declared eligible for the National Register on two counts. The first was architecture. Designed by H. Clinton Parrent, Jr., and completed in 1953, the structure is an outstanding example of late neoclassical architecture. Introduced at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the neoclassical style is marked by “a symmetrical façade featuring a central entrance shielded by a full-height porch with a roof supported by classical columns.” The Nashville building features the slender columns and side-gabled roofs of the later phase, along with some Art Deco touches. It was designed to complement, although not to duplicate, the neighboring Capitol and Supreme Court buildings.

The former home of the Tennessee State Library and Archives on 7th Avenue North across from the State Capitol.

The September 1953 edition of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, reporting on the grand opening of the building, included this enthusiastic description: “With its exterior walls of white Tennessee marble, its Roman Ionic columns suggestive of the Greek Ionic columns of the Capitol and the inscriptions along the upper walls which serve as reminders of the cultural traditions out of which the building grew, it adds immeasurably to the beauty of Capitol Hill. The building is as functional as it is beautiful, with eight stack levels to accommodate [over two million volumes of] books and records . . ., a restoration laboratory for the repair and preservation of old books and records, a photographic laboratory . . ., and an auditorium.”

One of the most surprising features of the 7th Avenue facility is that it consists of two very different buildings under one roof. The handsome front section, which contained the public reading rooms and staff offices, consists of three stories and an attic storage area. A highlight is the elegant marble vestibule, featuring a terrazzo floor embellished with a geographical map of Tennessee, and military symbols reminding visitors that the building was dedicated to the Tennessee veterans of World War II. The rear of the building, functional and much less ornate, consists of eight stories of stacks and work areas.

The original Tennessee State Library was housed in the Capitol itself. Architect William Strickland personally designed the lofty and elegant room across from the Supreme Court chambers. In 1854 the legislature appropriated funds to purchase books, appointing Return Jonathan Meigs III to build the collection. Meigs, a respected scholar, was named Tennessee’s first State Librarian in 1856. By the middle of the 20th century, his successors had overseen many changes in the library collection, including the acquisition of the Tennessee Historical Society papers in 1927. As the number of resources grew, particularly under the leadership of John Trotwood Moore, who developed the collection of military and other historical records, the allotted space became cramped. It became clear that the Capitol-based Library was no longer an effective facility for research and study.

The original State Library was in this beautiful room in the Capitol, frequently used now for meetings and receptions.

For that reason, the educational value of the 7th Avenue facility – its second criterion of eligibility for the National Register – may be even more significant. The building was constructed not only to store the State Library’s growing collection, but also to preserve the state’s archival records after many decades during which they were stuffed into attics, cellars, and odd corners of the Capitol and other buildings. In the early 1890s a janitor had actually burned several cartloads of documents, saying they were “wet and nasty and smelled bad.” An 1893 request to ship 85 trunks of Civil War vouchers to Washington, D.C., led Governor Peter Turney to assign Capitol superintendent Robert Thomas Quarles to find them. Quarles became the hero of Tennessee historians forever when he focused attention on the appalling condition of stored records and began a ten-year effort to sort and preserve them. After Quarles’ death in 1914, the state legislature passed a resolution authorizing the governor to appoint a state official to continue the work of sorting and preserving. John Trotwood Moore was named the first State Librarian and Archivist in 1919, and the Library and Archives officially merged in 1921.

Construction of the 7th Avenue building was proposed at the first meeting of the Tennessee Historical Commission on December 3, 1941, by Moore’s widow and successor, Mary Daniel Moore. Unfortunately, the entry of the United States into World War II four days later forced the plans to be delayed for several years. Finally, in 1947 and 1949, under the administrations of Governors Jim Nance McCord and Gordon W. Browning, the state legislature appropriated the necessary funds to begin construction. Ground was broken in 1951; the formal opening took place on June 17, 1953.  

The current home of the Tennessee State Library and Archives is this striking facility on Bicentennial Mall near the Tennessee State Museum .

Update: Early in the 21st century, having outgrown available storage space in the 7th Avenue building, the State of Tennessee approved the development of a new facility. Construction began on December 11, 2017. Designed by Tuck-Hinton Architects, the new TSLA building stands adjacent to the Bicentennial Mall at Rep. John Lewis Way and Jefferson Street. The 165,000-square-foot facility, built at a cost of more than $120,000, includes a climate-controlled chamber for storing historic books and manuscripts within a space-saving robotic retrieval system, a blast freezer to help save water- and insect-damaged materials, and improved work spaces and meeting rooms. The ribbon-cutting and grand opening ceremony took place on April 12, 2021.

The author is grateful to Dr. Edwin Gleaves, Jeanne Sugg, Fran Schell, Greg Poole, and Ralph Sowell, who graciously shared the documents and information used in the preparation of this essay. Originally written in 2004, it was updated in 2021 to include more recent events.

A Place in History: Nashville’s Historic Elliston Place

by Terry Baker.

The Nashville street that connects Church Street with West End Avenue was known as Richland or Harding Pike in 1881 when Ed Buford built a house there and called it “By Ma.” He gave the house that folksy name because it was situated next to Burlington, the estate then owned by Elizabeth Boddie Elliston, Buford’s mother-in-law and widow of W.R. Elliston. As a result of the 1904 changes in street names, Elliston Street became 23rd Avenue North, and Richland was renamed Elliston Place.

Burlington (TSLA photo)

A look at the 1889 Nashville City Atlas gives us some idea of the extent of the Elliston holdings, which included land now occupied by Vanderbilt University. At 23rd and Elliston Place the AT&T building now fronts where “By Ma” once stood. Burlington went up just to the west in two stages, first when former mayor Joseph Thorp Elliston bought the land in 1821 for just under $11,500. When he died in 1856 his youngest son, W.R. Elliston, inherited the property. William F. Strickland, the architect who designed the State Capitol, drew up a plan for the “new” Burlington, at least according to Elliston family lore. Strickland died in 1854, but a floor plan drawing he is said to have made for Burlington has survived.

Joseph Thorp Elliston, 4th Mayor of Nashville (1814-1817); portrait by Washington B. Cooper

Though not strictly historical, family legends can augment dates and surviving maps. Stories recorded in Burlington: A Memory, published in 1958 by Josephine Elliston Farrell, make the house the scene of several interesting anecdotes of the Civil War. One of W. R. Elliston’s daughters, Louise, is the star of most of the tales, but the most poignant story concerns Willie, Elliston’s youngest son. At the age of five he was taken into custody on the almost laughable suspicion of being involved in espionage. His father was able to secure his release, but not before Willie’s shoes had been cut apart and his clothing searched.

Willie (William Jackson Elliston) on a pony (TSLA photo)

Both Joseph T. Elliston and his son W.R. were slaveholders. W.R. sided with the Confederacy and is even said to have enlisted in 1861, but he was at home in 1862 when Burlington was taken over by the occupying Federals. The family legends tell us of skirmishes on the property and of a wounded Confederate spy hiding out in the house.

The names of W.R. Elliston’s daughters read like a Who’s Who of European royalty. Maria Louisa, usually called Louise, was twenty-three when she married Dr. L.P. Yandell in 1867. Research indicates that he had been a surgeon in the Confederate Army. Josephine married Norman Farrell in 1869. A freshman at Columbia University in New York when the war broke out, Farrell booked passage for Cuba, was put ashore in Florida, and eventually joined Forrest’s cavalry.

Josephine and Louise Elliston (TSLA photo)

Of special interest is the youngest, Lizinka, born in 1851. Her namesake was the widow Lizinka Campbell-Brown, herself named after the Czarina of Russia. In 1875 Lizinka Elliston married Ed Buford, another Confederate veteran.

Lizinka Elliston Buford (courtesy of the author)

W.R. Elliston died in New York City on July 4, 1870. He and his wife Elizabeth had traveled there to seek a specialist’s advice on his abdominal pains. In a bureaucratic irony stemming from the rules governing the census, he was enumerated on the day of his funeral. Buried with him that same day was Medora Thayer Elliston, the eleven-month-old daughter of his son Elijah, who had married Leonora Chapman.

W. R. Elliston (Tennessee Portrait Project)

The widow Elliston left Burlington from 1870 until the 1880s. A house at 52 N High (6th Avenue) was home not only to Elizabeth but also to the Bufords and Farrells, according to the 1880 census. Elliston descendants believe that Elijah took over Burlington for his own use. It was not until 1875 that Elizabeth bought her share of the town house, while G.M. Fogg bought the other half. Norman and Josephine Farrell moved in by 1873, and the Bufords by 1876. The year 1881 would see these families back at the old Elliston lands.

Elizabeth Boddie Elliston “Ma,” 1820 (Tennessee Portrait Project)

A photo database at the Tennessee State Library and Archives contains numerous images of Burlington as well as of the Ellistons, Bufords, and Farrells. In 1901 the widow Elliston posed for a group photo with her three daughters and some of her grandchildren. Seated next to mother Lizinka Elliston Buford is ten-year-old Eddie Buford, who would go on to become Nashville’s WWI flying ace.

Josephine Elliston Farrell, author of Burlington: A Memory (Tennessee Portrait Project)

Burlington was not destined to see the Second World War. The mansion was torn down in 1931, and Father Ryan High School, which has since relocated, went up on the site the next year. A part of the original house was saved and reconstructed on Abbott-Martin Road by Ed Buford’s daughter Elizabeth Shepherd, who died in 1955.

Land will pass from one owner to another, buildings will be torn down and new ones constructed, names will be forgotten, and stories will be embellished over time. Through all that, the Ellistons have maintained a place in history, and the importance of that family is witnessed today by a well-known Nashville street–Elliston Place.

Author’s note: We were never positive that the paper picture used here, taken from a carte-de-visite, was really Lizinka, but based on the two known images of her at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, I’d say the odds are pretty good. This one was taken by C. C. Giers at his Union Avenue studio around 1875, the year Lizinka married Ed Buford. The address on the Giers logo on the reverse side can be shown by city directories to date to 1872-1877.

Chancery Court, the Adelphi, and Adolphus Heiman

by Linda Center.

The Davidson County Chancery Court dockets located at Metro Archives are a little known and greatly underutilized resource for Nashville history. Established in 1836, Chancery Court for this district was held in Franklin, Williamson County, until 1846. In that year a separate court was created for Davidson County with Terry H. Cahal appointed as Chancellor. In 1997-1998 Archives staff and volunteers took on the task of cleaning, flattening, and indexing dockets dating from 1846 through 1865, and they were able to complete the first five years (through 1851). From those first 800 dockets staffers created a database of over 16,000 entries listing the names of the principals, along with their family members and slaves.

The dockets from these early cases, some of which continued for years, contain a wealth of details about daily life in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. The depositions, exhibits, and supporting papers are lively documents describing personal items of dress, toiletries, medicines, and sometimes even personal appearance. In the depositions themselves, which were phonetically recorded by the clerk, the speech patterns, pronunciations, and idioms of the day come through loud and clear. Many documents contain vivid descriptions of people, places, and buildings long gone. Consider the case of Gilman et al. vs. The Adelphi Theatre Company, filed April 23, 1851.

In 1850 the Adelphi company was incorporated by the state and proceeded to purchase property on North Cherry Street (today’s 4th Avenue). The major stockholders in the company were Anthony Vanleer, J. Walker Percy, and Hugh Kirkman. The company hired Adolphus Heiman to design a “costly and handsome edifice suitable for theatrical performances.” Timothy W. Gilman, of Gilman & Hughes, submitted his bid of $8,000 plus $200 in stock in the company, and he was selected to be chief carpenter and mechanic under Heiman’s supervision. Major Heiman’s design, completed at a cost of $25,000, was indeed handsome and included a two-story arched entrance which led to the brick-paved lobby. A ventilation system and other up-to-the-minute features were highlights of the plan. At the time, the theater was reputed to have the second largest stage in America.

Gilman found Heiman’s supervision arbitrary and his plans “so vague and indefinite as scarcely to form a basis for a contract and so frequently and repeatedly were they departed from when they were specific that they furnish scarcely a shadow of the work after it was completed.” In several instances, Gilman stated, “when the work had been done according to the original design said Heiman would change his plan have it pulled down taken away and something different put in its stead.”

The theater’s opening night, July 1, 1850, was a gala affair. The opening notice ran in the Republican Banner immediately following the Sexton’s report of burials in the city cemetery: five of the seven deaths had been caused by cholera. “The Theatre – Opens to-night . . . and we expect to see a large audience on hand . . . to see the interior of one of the prettiest and best establishments of the kind in the West or South.” Although, as the notice stated, it was not considered “an auspicious time to commence operations,” Nashville’s finest did indeed turn out for the premiere performance.

The epidemic struck with a vengeance that week. The Banner called for the entire city to limit or cancel July 4th celebrations and did not publish on July 5th, but the Adelphi opened every night of its first week.

Johanna Maria “Jenny” Lind (1820-1887), Swedish soprano

In February 1851 after a successful campaign led by the local newspapers, P.T. Barnum was convinced to bring Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, to sing in the shiny new theater. However, a third tier of box seats was deemed necessary to accommodate the anticipated crowds, and William Strickland was hired to design the added tier. Gilman & Hughes were once again chief carpenters. They agreed and bound themselves “to make the alterations and enlargements of the interior of the Adelphi Theatre according to the plan now furnished by W. Strickland as Architect…to be finished so it can be used comfortably on the night of the 31(st) March present, being the time fixed as the first concert to be given by Jenny Lind.” Gilman & Hughes charged $1,500 for their services: $1,000 from P.T. Barnum, $250 from the Adelphi Theatre Company, and $250 from ticket subscriptions by hotels and other businesses.

The company did not pay its debts in a timely fashion, and in April 1851 Heiman, Gilman, Strickland, and the other contractors sued. The depositions and bills give a vivid picture of the construction and finishing touches to the building. The court clerk’s copy of Heiman’s written “plan and specifications” describes “a ground story of 142 feet by 65 feet front on Cherry Street . . . with a room on each side of the main entrance of 19 by 23 feet, to be furnished with doors and side lights. All the doors of exit and entrance, are to be put upon pivots instead of hinges, so that they may be opened and shut in either way by any pressure from within or without.” All flooring, seats, doors, box fronts, and the roof shingles were “to be made of well-seasoned poplar.” The stage was furnished with four traps and two stairways leading to the rear of the stage from below.

Many of the leading businesses in Nashville filed claims against the theater company. A.G. Payne supplied the stone for the two-foot-thick foundation and completed the masonry work. Samuel Watkins finished the brickwork for $3,437.89. Painters Hutcherson & Flemming used paints purchased from Kirkman & Ellis Hardware – and what remarkable colors they were: sienna, yellow ochre, rose pink, Vandyke brown, Paris green, Prussian blue, Venetian red, chrome yellow, red, and green. From McNairy & Hamilton came books of gold leaf and gallons of lead and turpentine. Claiborne & Macey supplied braces, pulleys, plates, chains, hooks, and brackets. From W. & R. Freeman came gilt frames, yards of damask and gimp [ribbonlike braid or cord used to trim furniture or clothing], silk tassels, a pair of “curtain ornaments,” and 689 feet of gilt molding.

Chancellor A.O.P. Nicholson decreed that the theater should be sold at public auction to pay all debts against the company. Heiman, acting as agent for the creditors, offered the winning bid of $10,000. The property was to be “vested in them as tennants (sic) in common,” the share of each creditor to be in proportion to his claim against the company. After Heiman failed to “execute his notes,” the theater was again put up for sale. This time W.W. Wetmore made the winning bid, and the creditors were paid at last. William Strickland, as a Class III claimant, was paid only after all other debts were satisfied. He received $100 for his services. 

In the 1870’s the ownership changed again, and the Adelphi became the Grand Opera House. The theater was gutted by fire in 1902, but the facade with its arched entry remained standing. The theater was rebuilt and opened once again in 1904 as the Bijou. Because other theaters and businesses on Church Street were drawing the crowds away from Fourth Avenue, the Bijou closed its doors in 1913. However, it was rescued one more time in 1916 when the Bijou Amusement Company opened it as the Bijou Theater for Negroes, one of a chain of theaters throughout the south.

Bijou Theatre

The Bijou was a venue for movies, vaudeville shows, concerts, and boxing matches. Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey entertained to packed houses. Special nights were set aside for white audiences to hear blues greats like Smith and her sister Mamie with her band the Jazz Hounds. The tornado of 1933 lifted the roof and dropped part of it across the street. However, not a performance was missed, and under a temporary roof, the Bijou was open again the next day.

The Adelphi/Grand/Bijou Theater stood at 423 4th Avenue North for over one hundred years through bankruptcy, fire, and storms. In 1957 it fell to the wrecking ball to make way for the new Municipal Auditorium. (1998)

Lost Nashville: The Second Presbyterian Church

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Nashville began to attract streams of visitors almost from the moment it became a frontier trading post.  As time passed, tourists and settlers came for the music and theatre and food, for history and politics and education, for the casual atmosphere and friendly people.  It was educator Philip Lindsley (1785-1855) who first referred to Nashville as the “Athens of the South” (Philip actually said “Southwest”), for the city has long been a center of educational and cultural activities.  And high on the list of attractions is the intriguing variety of architectural styles to be discovered here.

 One’s first impression of Nashville, the downtown skyline, features the “Batman” and “R2-D2” building silhouettes, several tall hotels and banks, and the dear old L&C Tower, whose 31 floors made it, at the time of its 1957 opening, the “tallest commercial structure of its day in the Southeastern United States.”1 Church Street and Broadway feature some of our most interesting church buildings: the First Baptist Church; Christ Church Episcopal; McKendree Methodist, its earlier façades buried beneath layers of renovations; Downtown (First) Presbyterian with its rich and compelling history; and, a little farther out, the graceful Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Sixth Avenue. 

This 1880-era photograph, taken from the State Capitol looking east, shows the railroad bridge over the Cumberland River and the steeple of Second Presbyterian Church (right center), which stood on 3rd Avenue near where the Criminal Justice Center stands today. (TSLA photograph, used by permission)

 Many tourists come to Nashville specifically to visit historic homes, and the city has a lovely collection of these as well: The Hermitage, fourth most-visited Presidential home in America (after the White House, Mount Vernon, and Monticello); Belmont, former home of one of the country’s richest women, and now the centerpiece of the Belmont University campus; Belle Meade and Travellers Rest, renowned for the breeding of magnificent horses; Cheekwood, with its exquisite gardens and galleries; and the wedding-cake charm of Clover Bottom and Two Rivers.  Equally unforgettable are the stand-alone architectural delights of the Tennessee State Capitol, the Customs House, Union Station, Ryman Auditorium, and the splendid Parthenon, the crowning glory of Centennial Park and the only full-scale replica of the ancient Athenian temple in the world.

Yet if we could visit the Nashville of earlier days, we would be astonished, not only at the number of public buildings that have been transformed into more modern spaces, but also at the number that have disappeared forever.

Not all the stories have tragic endings, of course.  Union Station was saved from impending destruction a few years ago, as was the Ryman.  Moreover, the Metropolitan Historical Commission encourages preservation activities by presenting a number of awards each year to individuals and groups who have rescued and restored public or private structures throughout the city.  But the very word “progress” conjures up an image of bulldozers, and Nashville, like many American cities, has seen far too many beautiful buildings destroyed to make room for, among other things, motels and parking lots!

One of the city’s loveliest lost buildings was the Second Presbyterian Church, once part of our riverfront skyline, but now only a fading image in a handful of old photos.  The church stood on Third and Gay Streets, not far from the spot where the James Robertson Parkway crosses Third Avenue before swooping across Victory Memorial Bridge.  Dr. John Todd Edgar and Dr. Philip Lindsley spoke at the church’s 1844 dedication.2

There are significant differences of opinion about the history of “2nd Pres,” as John Berrien Lindsley called it in his 1859 diary.3 Many Nashvillians believe that William Strickland, architect of the Capitol, designed the church.  However, according to James Patrick, author of Architecture in Tennessee, 1768-1897, the architect was James M. Hughes, a man the Nashville City Directory lists as a carpenter.4 Patrick refers to a silver plate deposited in the cornerstone of the church naming Hughes as the architect.   In 1844 the Nashville Whig listed the full text of the inscription:

The Second Presbyterian Church
of Nashville,
erected in the year of our lord 1844.
Rev. Robert A. Lapsley, Pastor.
Samuel Seay, William B. Shapard, William H Marquess,
James M. Hamilton, and Adam G. Adams, Elders.
Samuel Hill, Foster Williams, Abram Stevens,
and John McCrea – Deacons.
Organized February, 1844, with 32 Members.
JOHN TYLER, President of the United States.
James C. Jones, Governor of Tenn.
P.W. Maxey, Mayor of Nashville.
Population of Nashville, 8,000.
James M. Hughes, Architect.
Engraved by D. Adams.5

Adding further weight to Patrick’s assertion, Nell Savage Mahoney, a lifelong student of Strickland’s work, omits Second Presbyterian from her list of his creations.   

Support for Strickland’s involvement, however, may be found in “William Strickland, Architect,” a 1986 article from the Tennessee Historical Quarterly.  Author James A. Hoobler, Curator of the Capitol, compares the altar area of the Second Presbyterian Church with a Strickland drawing labeled “Second Presbyterian.” 6 The structural similarities of shape and dimension cannot be denied.  (Hoobler has also discovered compelling evidence that St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, long attributed to William Strickland, was, in fact, built by Adolphus Heiman, but that’s a story for another day.) 

Actually, a fairly strong case can be made for the possibility of a collaboration between the two men, with Strickland as teacher/adviser and Hughes as apprentice/contractor.  Mahoney herself provides evidence of an earlier such alliance between Strickland and one of his students.  Strickland is believed to have drawn the original elevation used by his former pupil Thomas U. Walter when the younger man was appointed to design a building for the Girard College campus in Philadelphia.7 

Further evidence of a Strickland-Hughes partnership comes from Circuit Court records, January term 1857.  Strickland had been engaged by H.R.W. Hill “to serve as an architect for and superintend the erection of a Methodist church [in New Orleans] . . .. William [Strickland] was put to great expense in going to and from said city during the progress of said work . . .. The church was built at the same time that the St. Charles Hotel was erected – both the St. Charles and the Methodist Church on Pozdras street were burned in February, 1850 . . .. Strickland and Hughes were here at the time, as this witness learned from Hughes, to get a contract for [re]building the St. Charles.”8

So even finding James Hughes’ name inside the cornerstone does not rule out the possibility that the original drawings for Second Presbyterian came from Strickland.

 Newcomers may wonder why William Strickland’s buildings are so valuable.  In fact, many people consider them national treasures – Strickland is widely considered to be one of the most influential architects of the nineteenth century.  Prior to his move to Nashville, he built so many notable buildings in Philadelphia, he was sometimes called “the city architect.”9 Among his important designs there are the Second Bank of the United States (His best-known portrait places him in front of the Bank, which strongly resembles the Parthenon.); the Merchants Exchange; St. Stephen’s Church; Masonic Hall; and dozens more.  In Nashville Strickland contributed to the design and re-design of many private homes, burial monuments, and a wide variety of public buildings.  Best known, however, are the Downtown (First) Presbyterian Church – now widely considered America’s finest surviving example of church architecture in the Egyptian Revival style – and his masterpiece, the Tennessee State Capitol.  Many of Strickland’s buildings have been designated National Historic Landmarks.

In 1902, convinced that the neighborhood was becoming too commercial, the Second Presbyterian congregation sold the building and relocated to North Nashville, moving again in 1929 to better oversee the Monroe-Harding Children’s Home in Green Hills.10  They left behind not only the classical simplicity of the building’s exterior, but also the beautiful interior, which included a painted fresco behind the altar suggesting a classical porch with a view of distant hills, and a network of intricate trompe l’oeil panels and columns adorning the ceiling and walls.  For many years thereafter, the original building – described at the time of its dedication as a “new and beautiful edifice . . . an ornament to that part of the city”11 – was used by the Standard Candy Company as a warehouse.12

By the late 1970s the church building had become the property of Metro Nashville.  The city’s plans to build a new Criminal Justice Center involved razing the old church and other nearby structures.  Although preservation advocates from the Metropolitan Historical Commission and the Tennessee State Museum pleaded with city officials to be permitted at least to salvage significant architectural elements from the building, their requests were denied.13   In 1979 Nashville’s historic Second Presbyterian Church was bulldozed into rubble in order to provide a handful of parking spaces for the Criminal Justice Center.       

Sources consulted:

1 Zepp, George. “Nashville L&C Tower once offered bird’s-eye view of Nashville,environs,” Nashville Tennessean, 16 Feb 2005.

2 Nashville Whig, April 27, 1844.

3 Lindsley Family Papers, ca. 1600-ca. 1940.  Tennessee State Library and Archives.

4 Patrick, James. Architecture in Tennessee, 1768-1897.  Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.

5 Nashville Whig, April 27, 1844.

6 Hoobler, James A.  “William Strickland, Architect,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Spring 1986.7 Mahoney, Nell Savage (1889-1986) Papers, 1825-1972.  THS Acc. No. 457 & 681. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

8 Mahoney.

9 http://www.greatbuildings.com/architects/William_Strickland.html

10 http://www.secondpresbyterian.net/Home/ChurchHistory/tabid/14992/Default.aspx

11 Nashville Whig, September 2, 1846.

12 Hoobler, James A.  A Guide to Historic Nashville, Tennessee.  Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008.

13 Hoobler, James A.  A Guide to Historic Nashville, Tennessee.

This article was first published in The Nashville Retrospect. We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here. Much gratitude also to Jim Hoobler, Cathi Carmack, Lori Lockhart, and Mike Slate for helping me untangle the knotted threads of this story.  KBL      

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.

Courthouses of Davidson County, Tennessee

by Debie Oeser Cox, author of Nashville History blog.

How many court buildings have stood on the public square in Nashville? Published sources offer conflicting information, some stating the number as four and others as five. Research in the minute books of the Davidson County Court has provided the following details.

First Courthouse

The building of the first Courthouse was authorized by the Davidson County Court at the October Term 1783: “The Court then proceeded to fix on a place for Building of a Courthouse & Prison, and agree that in the present situation of the Settlement that it be at Nashborough and Built at the Expense of the Publick. And that the size of the Courthouse be eighteen feet square in the body with a Leanto Shade of twelve feet on the one side of the length of the House. And that the house be furnished with the necessary benches, Barr, Table &c fit for the Reception of the Court.” In April of 1792 the Court “ordered that David Hay repair the Court house by Making Two Doors well fixed and Hung with three window shutters well hung; and the house Well chinked.”

Second Courthouse

Davidson County Court minutes of October 15, 1802, page 367, report as follows: “Court adjourns for five minutes, to meet in the new Courthouse. Court met according to adjournment in the New Courthouse where was present . . ..” A further search of Court minutes yields few clues as to the size or type of building. In 1804 the Court ordered the purchasing of a bell for the Courthouse and in 1806 the painting of the roof and steps. In 1822 the Court “ordered that opening at the head of the Stairs be closed, leaving a door there to which he shall have a shutter made and to have the two stoves placed one on each side of the house behind the bar with pipes extending so as to render the house comfortable for the different courts that are to set here during the winter . . ..” In October 1825 a commission was appointed to determine whether the Courthouse could be repaired to make it comfortable enough for the Court to meet in winter or whether it would be necessary to rent a building for the winter.

Third Courthouse

In January 1826 the acting Justices of the Court met and voted to raise, with a special tax, $15,000 over a period of three years for the purpose of building a courthouse for the county. The Courthouse was finished in late 1829 or early 1830. It is described in Eastin Morris’s Tennessee Gazetteer, 1834: “The Court House which stands on the public square, is a spacious and commodious edifice. It presents a handsome front of 105 feet and is sixty-three feet deep. The basement story contains a number of rooms, designed for public offices, and on the second and third floors there are two rooms forty by sixty feet each, two others thirty-six by forty, and two others twenty-three by forty. The basement story is eleven feet high, and the two principal ones are eighteen feet each, and the height of the whole building to the top of the dome is ninety feet. The foundation and part of the lower story is of fine hewn stone, and the remainder of brick, and the two fronts are ornamented with four white pilasters each, The dome contains a good town clock, and is supported by eight columns of Ionic order.” This Courthouse burned in 1856. The County Court minutes state: “Monday Morning April 14, 1856 Court met pursuant to adjournment at the State House in Nashville (the Court House having been burned down) . . ..”

Fourth Courthouse

Fourth Courthouse, 1906 (postcard from NHN collection)

On May 10, 1856, the Court met in the Market House: “The County Court will build a Courthouse on or near the center of the Public Square in Nashville . . ..” According to County Court minutes, architect W. Francis Strickland, son of William Strickland, designer of the Tennessee State Capitol, was “employed at a salary of one thousand dollars per annum as architect of the court house.” The design chosen by Strickland was very similar to that of the Capitol building designed by his father. The building was to have a basement and three stories above ground, and was to be 118 feet by 72 feet in size. The Court first met in the new building in January 1859. The building was remodeled in 1910 with an additional story added. In 1935 this building, along with the City Hall and Market House, was demolished to make room for a new courthouse.

Fifth Courthouse

The present Courthouse was completed in 1937. The architects, Emmons H. Woolwine of Nashville and Frederic C. Hirons of New York, won an architectural competition in 1935 with their Art Deco design. The cornerstone of the building was laid August 10, 1936, and the building was dedicated on December 8, 1937. The general contractor was the J. A. Jones Construction Company. The building is eight stories high and measures 260 feet by 96 feet. The years have taken a toll – the building is in need of repair and the need for space is critical. Mayor Bill Purcell hopes to relieve the crowded conditions in the Courthouse by the construction of a General Sessions-Criminal Court complex, near the Ben West building. Plans are under way for a major renovation of the Courthouse to begin in the spring of 2003.   (Article was published in 2002)

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.