Once a month, reporter and resident historian J.R. Lind will pick an area in the city to examine while accompanied by a photographer. With his column Walk a Mile, he’ll walk a one-mile stretch of that area, exploring the neighborhood’s history and character, its developments, its current homes and businesses, and what makes it a unique part of Nashville. If you have a suggestion for a future Walk a Mile, email email@example.com.
The route: From the Battle of Nashville Monument, north on Granny White Pike. Left on Ferguson Avenue, left on Belmont Boulevard, and left on Battlefield Drive, continuing back to the starting point.
Abandoned scooters: 2
Rarely has a monument been as peripatetic as the Battle of Nashville Monument.
These days, the granite-and-bronze monument overlooks a pleasant slope between Battlefield Drive and Clifton Lane, just south of Interstate 440 and where 12th Avenue South changes its prosaic designation to the far more romantic Granny White Pike.
The monument was originally dedicated on Nov. 11, 1927, at the intersection of Franklin Road and Thompson Lane. All but its pedestal was toppled by a tornado in 1974. (The original pedestal is still standing, tucked near some apartments.) In the 1980s, the construction of the 440/I-65 interchange and the realignment of Thompson Lane with Woodmont Boulevard left the original site unsuitable for restoration.
For years, the damaged statue sat in storage. In 1999, it finally went back up at its current location, close to the location of the right flank of the Confederate lines in the 1864 battle. The monument is the focal point of a simple amphitheater, and on this March morning, a smattering of daffodils rings the park. Also included is a basket oak certified as a “witness tree” by the Tennessee Landmark, Historic and Heritage Tree Registry (which exists).
The monument is rather unusual, and not just because it’s been quite mobile compared to most other monuments. It was sculpted by Giuseppe Moretti, an Italian who also sculpted the statue of Cornelius Vanderbilt at the entrance to the eponymous university and the famous Vulcan statue in Birmingham (cheekily — forgive me — known as the “Full Moon over Mountain Brook”). The Battle of Nashville Monument is one of few from the Civil War that commemorates soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy. An angel yokes together two horses, representing the two armies joined together to fight in World War I. Rather than the Lost Causeism of the various Odes to the Confederate Dead that are ubiquitous on the sides of courthouse square statues throughout the South, the verse on this monument, penned by John Trotwood Moore, sings the praises of unity, ending with a supplication: “Let The Past Be Past: Let The Dead Be Dead. — Now And Forever American!”
There’s no sidewalk along Granny White as it gently slopes toward 440 — just a well-worn trail on the shoulder. That feels rather appropriate, though. The road is named for Lucinda White, who ran a tavern — famous for its applejack, among other things — between Nashville and Franklin. White left North Carolina in 1800 — the family lore said she had an ox, a spinning wheel, her two orphaned grandchildren and an enslaved person — and after a brief time in Knoxville, settled on 50 acres south of Nashville in Hollow Tree Gap, on the road between Nashville and Franklin. Her inn and tavern became a stopping place and watering hole for lawyers who had to go to and fro the two county seats, and she became well-known and much beloved. Later, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton told her story on the floor of the U.S. Senate as an example of the utility of giving land to the poor. (A man named McCrory essentially gave White the acreage, with which she established her business.) It was an embryonic formulation of distributism a half-century before Leo XIII wrote Rerum novarum.
Despite being wedged between the density of Green Hills and 12South, this little stretch is pleasantly open with long tracts of as-yet undeveloped space, allowing the vine-covered oaks and strong-smelling Bradford pears room to grow. Oddly, this is due, at least in part, to 440 and its bizarre history of best-laid plans.
Originally, 440 was intended to truly be a parkway, with commercial traffic prohibited (count the semis to see how successful that proved) and with the right-of-way including a greenway. This was intended as something of a salve to the well-heeled neighborhoods through which it would be routed. The trucking ban didn’t last long, and the greenway remained a forgotten scheme for decades, though the easements for its construction remained. Now Metro is committed to fulfilling that promise, and in a remarkable show of foresight not usually associated with Nashville’s political class, the city actually held onto the land rather than giving it away tax-free to some corporate doodad.
After the dip as it crosses 440, the road — now 12th Avenue South — rises up toward Sevier Park, a rolling expanse crisscrossed by running trails and sprinkled with playgrounds. Sevier Park opened as a park in 1948, but the history here is far longer. At the center of the park is the Sunnyside mansion, built by Mary Benton in the 1850s. Mary was the cousin of First Lady Sarah Polk and the widow of Jesse Benton, one of the few men who definitely got in a duel with Andrew Jackson. Coincidentally, also involved in that duel was Jesse’s brother, the aforementioned Thomas Hart Benton. The Benton brothers both left town after their 1813 pistol fight with the future president. (Jesse said he would no longer “live longer among people who gave such political preference to a man like Andrew Jackson.”) Thomas became a prominent Missouri politician and Jesse a landowner in Texas and Louisiana. After the latter’s death in 1843, Mary moved back to Middle Tennessee and built the home that still stands. It changed hands a number of times, usually between various branches of Mary Benton’s family tree, and it was stuck between the two armies in the Battle of Nashville. (There are still marks from Minié balls on the porch columns.) It eventually came to be home of prominent dentist L.G. Noel, who sold it to Granville Sevier, the grandson of Mary Benton’s niece, who’d lived in the home. When he died in 1945, Sevier’s heirs sold it to the city. It’s now home of the Metro Historical Commission.
Sunnyside represents just one of the many generations of architecture that exist on the street. There are new builds, which asymptotically approach tall-and-skinny status but hew enough to the Craftsman look of their neighbors to not be jarring. There are also modest brick ranches stubbornly holding out against the gentrification that’s spread from the neighborhood north toward downtown.
As we turn onto Ferguson, the Craftsman cottages swell into Craftsman castles, some of which are obviously modern rebuilds of the classic style. Twitterpated squirrels chirp on what patches of lawn still exist after the contractors pushed Metro’s setback rules to the limit. The homes do have character, though, and individualism — a blessed respite from the repetitious design that’s sucked the soul out of so many changing neighborhoods, rendering them little more than high-priced Levittowns. One home on Ferguson is a charming cacophony of additions clinging to a Cape Cod, of all things.
Tudors emerge as Ferguson meets Belmont, here a pleasant tree-lined thoroughfare with sidewalks and side yards, less densely packed than it is nearer to the name’s-the-same university. There’s the Nashville Chess Center and the Sound Emporium, the latter originally the recording studio of Cowboy Jack Clement where they churned out hits, every one a yellow Sun record from Nashville, as The Lovin’ Spoonful sang.
Christ the King Catholic Church and its attached parochial school are across the street from the famed Martin’s Bar-B-Que. This morning, the restaurant’s smoker must have already completed its work, for there is no smell of hickory, and the only haze in the air comes from the jackhammers of the road workers up ahead at Polly’s Marathon gas station. The station’s curvilinear look and big windows show its vintage is from the charming time when even filling stations had character. No promises, but it seems like they may even offer full service at Polly’s.
Belmont rises over 440 here, passing what once was the Sunshine Market, an early purveyor of health food. The building is now the home of School of Rock Nashville and an Iron Tribe Fitness outpost.
Junipers — what we in Tennessee often call red cedars — form a gateway onto Battlefield, where the lots are bigger and the homes are newer than they are farther north. Still, that swath of open space, destined perhaps once again for its designed purpose as a greenway, hugs the beige walls meant to muffle the sound of 440’s bustle.
Another battle may also be in the offing. Yes, there are new homes, large and imposing. But those old ranches are stubbornly hanging on.
There’s not likely to be a John Trotwood Moore to versify on the outcome of this battle, but his dream of cooperation and peaceful coexistence is a sentiment worth remembering.