Say what you will about the Old South—and these days no one risks saying anything good—it left behind some grand houses. I grew up in South Carolina where I did not live in such a house but in a starter ranch house that my parents built in 1952 from plans in Better Homes and Gardens and then expanded as the family filled in (which was the way of things then). Years later, with a young wife and a fellowship at Vanderbilt, I made my home nearby in a stucco bungalow stoutly built in 1946 to pre-war standards, with nice ivy and a fine magnolia out front, but far too modest for pillars.
Say what you will about the Old South—and these days no one risks saying anything good—it left behind some grand houses.
Pillars mattered, though, and as I then was beginning to learn, antebellum Tennessee provided them in abundance. In 1941, when the little-known Mississippi-born architect Joe Frazer Smith produced a book on the subject, many of these white-columned dwellings still stood. Some stand yet. As much as an architectural guide, Smith’s White Pillars was a travel book of impressive sweep, spanning the Kentucky Bluegrass, the Nashville Basin, the Natchez Trace, Alabama’s Black Belt, French Louisiana, and the Bayou, with his thoughts on antebellum culture riding piggyback on descriptions (illustrated with hand drawings and plans by the author) of some of the finest houses in the trans-Appalachian South. Pillared and evoking a classical symmetry and simplicity, they are, as the experts would say, appealingly legible buildings; to the rest of us, they are simply easy on the eyes. They also illustrate a dynamic from an earlier era that is worth remembering now: pronounced cultural confidence and national ambition, as in the early national and antebellum decades of American history, produced private houses that can still take one’s breath away. The grandeur of tall white columns on a planter’s house signified, as Smith put it, “the glory of the political commonwealth of which he was a citizen. It fitted his conception of democracy that a successful man’s house should resemble the Parthenon.” It was not yet the Gilded Age. It was not just about showing off.
Over the years, I came to know two of these houses, in the neighborhood of Nashville, especially well. Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage was a president’s house, John Harding’s Belle Meade a regular rich man’s mansion. Both, like dozens of their kin south toward the Gulf, betokened great wealth, which that time and place produced in abundance. From fertile land and happy climate, the steamboat and the cotton gin, and entrepreneurship and slave labor arose vast fortunes. Most of these fortunes are long gone, but not the dwellings they produced. Some remain private homes while others have become historic sites, even commercial attractions. But whatever narratives today’s cultural managers may festoon about these structures, the structures themselves resist interpretation. They command attention in their own right.
The Hermitage began as a dogtrot log house on a 640-acre tract of woodland and meadow that Andrew Jackson acquired in 1795 and lived on with his wife Rachel. By 1818, Jackson was rich and renowned and could commission a mansion fit for the Hero of New Orleans. In the 1830s, President Jackson expanded the house more or less to its present size Approached on an elliptical drive lined with cedars, the Hermitage presents a silhouette that has become a regional classic: two one-story wings flanking a center two-floor section with a pillared façade, verandah, and pediment. At the entrance, double doors with lights to either side open into a straightforward interior made for both private and public living: a large entrance hall extending through the house to the rear portico; to the left, twin parlors and a dining room with passage to the kitchen; and to the right, two family bedrooms, Jackson’s office/library, and a side service entry. The floorplan upstairs is a carbon copy of the one downstairs, minus the wings. The foundation is stone, the walls brick. Informal gardens lie to the right of the entrance, visible from Jackson’s study. Both Jackson and his wife are buried there.
Belle Meade is much the same kind of house, but fancier. It has one wing, not two, and stone pillars, not wooden ones. The first proprietor was John Harding, a Virginian who came west to Tennessee at the turn of the nineteenth century and at one time boarded horses for Andrew Jackson. He settled along Richland Creek, then just west of Nashville and at the north end of the Natchez Trace. Under his son William Giles Harding, his original 250-acre plantation burgeoned to more than 5,000 by the time of the Civil War, and Belle Meade became the most famous thoroughbred nursery in the South. No one knows who exactly initiated the house’s transformation from Federal style to Greek Revival in the flush 1850s. Joe Frazer Smith thought it might have been William Strickland, who designed the Tennessee State Capitol. Strickland possessed a copy of Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens, from which he had copied the parti for the statehouse and which also contained a drawing of the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus that may have been the inspiration for the younger Harding’s makeover of Belle Meade. Its six enormous Doric columns, made of limestone quarried on the property, give Belle Meade a more imposing face than Jackson’s homelier Hermitage, but inside the plan is familiar. Double parlors to the north, library and dining room to the south, around a center hall that traverses all three floors connected by a cantilevered spiral staircase of local cherry.
Two details about the stucco bungalow that was my first home forty-five ago now come to mind. With a nod if not quite a salute to the tradition, the front door was flanked with trim in the truncated (it was a one-story) likeness, yes, of fluted pillars. And the house sat on land that had once belonged to Belle Meade. Early in the twentieth century, all but thirty acres of the old plantation was sold off for residential development to the Belle Meade Land Company, which worked hard to maintain a certain tone—a Belle Meade address remains one of the best in Nashville. And though the Hermitage itself is some miles away, Jackson’s presence is also felt downtown, in the shadow of William Strickland’s superb pillared capitol: the beaux-arts and faux-pillared Hermitage Hotel (1910) has the best rooms in town if you’re just passing through.