The Route: From Roycroft and Wedgewood, east to Ridley and then right. Right again on Benton and then left on Grantland. Right on Bradford and then right on Eighth and north to the start.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The crest of Roycroft Place is only about 30 feet higher than its intersection with Eighth Avenue, but it makes those 30 feet in less than 300 feet of road.
But it’s a surprisingly temperate June morning. The remnants of Cristobal — the tropical storm that ravaged the Gulf Coast and then pummeled parts of the interior (The Remnants of Cristobal would also be a great name for a magical-realist novel) — are shuffling through Ontario, and a cold front brought a northerly wind and blessedly dry air to Middle Tennessee. A climb of a 10 percent grade isn’t so terrible in such conditions, with an unthreatening and unblemished sky above.
Unencumbered by clouds, though, the sunlight is relentless, particularly as the first part of the journey is nearly due east, straight down the day arc as the calendar nears the solstice.
But serendipitously, nature finds its balance. Roycroft, a sort of gateway to the Woodland-in-Waverly neighborhood, is lined with luxuriant trees, the canopy extending right up to the sidewalk. There is an abundance of walnut trees, their leaves — like the remiges of a bird — fluttering at branches’ ends, the nuts themselves green and pendulant this time of year. It is easy to get enchanted by the flora, but behind the verdant screen lurk equally enchanting manmade beauties.
Roycroft Place works well as a microcosm of its entire neighborhood. There is a mix of architectural styles popular in the first few decades of the 20th century. There are the gables and pediments of the wedding-cake-evoking Queen Anne style. There are the more capital-R Romantic and Italianate details of the more traditional Victorian styles. There are the four-squares more commonly associated with the Belmont-area neighborhoods a few ticks west. On Roycroft in particular there are several Craftsman-style bungalows; indeed, the street itself is named for the Roycrofters, a community of artisans influential in the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.
And then there are the homes built in what Nashvillians of the time called Turn of the Century. A bit on the nose, perhaps, but essentially it features the interiors of a Queen Anne style with exteriors influenced by the then-popular Colonial Revival, with their columned Federal fronts and Georgian brick.
In short, Roycroft and its neighborhood harkens to the fashionable styles of the fashionable set in fin de siècle Nashville.
Though it would hardly meet the definition today — seeing as how it’s just two miles from downtown as the crow flies — Woodland-in-Waverly was one of the city’s first suburbs, specifically a streetcar suburb served first by mule-drawn trolleys and later by electrified ones. One such line ran along Eighth Avenue South, and this proximity to easy transit drew the well-heeled out of their townhomes into the tree-lined streets and broad yards of the neighborhood.
The neighborhood’s name — a mouthful and a bit confusing, given that it’s nowhere near Waverly, the county seat of Humphreys County — has a convoluted history. The land was the site of the farm of A.W. Putnam, best known these days for the still-essential resource A History of Middle Tennessee. He named his farm Waverly Place in homage to Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. Interestingly, both Putnam and Steven Pavatt, the stagecoach inn operator who named the city in Humphreys County, made the same spelling error.
In the early 1890s, a land syndicate — members of which lent their names to many of the streets — began developing the subdivision. As neighborhoods do, it ebbed and flowed as suburbs became, well, more suburban. The construction of Interstate 65, which barges in to the east, brought the demolition of many historic homes. In an era before preservationism, many others were torn down to be replaced with the ranch-style houses that were more popular in the 1950s and ’60s. Woodland-in-Waverly got its National Register of Historic Places designation in 1980, in recognition of its status as a largely intact streetcar suburb. Five years later, it was designated a Historic Zoning District by Metro Nashville.
Now there is a sense of deep care to the neighborhood. Front yards abound with a variety of gardens. In one, wildflowers — including, appropriately, Queen Anne’s lace — stretch toward the sun that peeks through the arboreal canopy. In another, a squash plant has sent a shoot under the picket fence and into the sidewalk. Yards are well-maintained and porches neat, but not in a Parade of Homes sort of way. They still look lived-in and worked-in rather than staged.
Roycroft abuts Ridley shortly after the crest of its formidable hill. It’s obvious that Roycroft continued to the east before I-65 existed; its remnants form a sort of communal back driveway for a pair of homes, the curb still extant. Stairs from the sidewalk rise to a flattened lot that clearly once held a house but now hosts a wooden playset. At the corner of Benton and Ridley are two of the grander homes in Woodland-in-Waverly. On the left, a 6,800-square-foot, 13-room behemoth with a stately porte-cochere and well-manicured lawn dating from 1920. On the right, a three-story 4,100-square-footer built in 1910. Its yard is a little more funky than its neighbor across the way, with its two dog statues (the hyper-realist one on the front stairs is lifelike enough to force a second or third look), one of those ubiquitous catfish sculptures that served as Nashville’s first public art outreach a few decades ago, and a sculpture of a small tree that surely has some significance to the home’s owner. The asymmetrical porch is classic Queen Anne, as is the broad roof topped with a metallic finial.
Benton Avenue is believed to be named for Thomas Hart Benton (the senator, not the Regionalist painter whose last major work hangs at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum). For 15 years, Benton lived in Middle Tennessee, on a farm near what is now Leiper’s Fork. His family called the place Hillsboro after their North Carolina hometown, still reflected in the name of Hillsboro Road. Among other things, Benton was Andrew Jackson’s aide-de-camp during the War of 1812, but the future president sent him away from the front lines to instead represent him in Washington, D.C. Angry at being denied the chance for battlefield glory, Benton got in a brawl with Old Hickory. The future senator must have been a tough son-of-a-gun, because the fight left Jackson wounded. In any case, Benton realized after the war he’d have a hard time rising to glory in Tennessee in the long shadow of Jackson, so he moved to Missouri. Benton never lived on the street, but Tennessee Gov. Albert Roberts did. Roberts served just one term as the state’s chief executive, due in large part to his support for women’s suffrage. (He called the famous special session that led to the ultimate ratification of the 19th Amendment.)
Timothy Demonbreun never lived on Benton either, but the house that faces the street’s intersection with Grantland bears his name nonetheless. Now a bed-and-breakfast, the 22-room house was built in 1902 by the Robinson family and named Robincroft. Richard Demonbreun, a local attorney and one of the innumerable local descendents of the famously fecund French-Canadian pioneer, bought the house in 1995 and named it for his great-great-great-great-grandfather. France’s Le Tricolore and the three gold fleur-de-lis on a blue background that served as New France’s flag (though not at the time of Demonbreun, it should be noted) fly outside the home.
South on Grantland, the architectural variety continues. A Queen Anne’s curvilinear porch all but beckons you to follow the road where trees erupt from the artificial bounds of backyards and property lines and loom and dip on the sidewalk. Such variety abounds that it’s almost as if Grantland is a glorious arboretum free and open to anyone with the desire to walk it.
The houses on Grantland have a little more panache than their statelier neighbors up the road, particularly in their paint jobs with bold primary and secondary colors, toned down so as to not be garish but not far enough to be truly pastel. Delicate accents on pillars and posts come in contrasting color choices. Even the clapboard houses likely built after the neighborhood’s peak ooze a simple elegance dusted by the fairydust of whimsical personalities.
A home just on the other side of Grantland’s intersection with Prentice, for example, is painted purple with light blue-gray accents, and the front stairs are decorated with an all-encompassing mosaic featuring depictions of a sea monster and a sugar skull. Even a passing dachshund — one of the silliest-looking dogs — walks with dignified insouciance.
Alas, this walk through a reimagined past comes to an abrupt end at Bradford with a towering wall of a New Nashville apartment building, nothing but right angles and beige. At Eighth and Bradford is the newest outpost of Hattie B’s, once the home of the much-loved but short-lived fast-casual seafood shack The Hook. Across the street, yet another Publix is under construction.
There are, a bit concerningly, no sidewalks to speak of on the east side of Eighth here, though industrious perambulators have worn a distinct if dusty trail under the streetlights, which mimic the iconic lights of Paris’ Metro.
The Smiling Elephant, a homey Thai restaurant, even gets into the architectural mishmash game, with Southeast Asian details on its eaves. And across the street, we can complete our architectural bingo board with the sorta-Tudor stylings at a now-vacant office building.
Behind an imposing wrought-iron fence up the road is the blindingly white Gruhn Guitars building (once, coincidentally, home of the Nashville Scene).
The antique stores for which this stretch of Eighth is at least locally known begin to pop up, from the more traditional Dealer’s Choice Antiques & Auction to the more off-center Classic Modern and Pre to Post Modern, the former fronted by an ersatz cannon made from old wagon wheels and a creosote-covered utility pole. The number of faux-oranges on display at the store is alarming for any fans of The Godfather, but they don’t seem to bother the line of caffeine addicts outside 8th and Roast. Zanies promises upcoming shows, and Douglas Corner says it’s coming back soon (despite last month’s announcement that it would close permanently). Though local businesses are certainly in the majority here, there are plenty of reminders of the nearby interstate exit — gas stations, fast-food restaurants and, this being Nashville, a Dollar General.
But the free spirit of the neighborhood shines anyway: the signpost at a Subway hosts a collection of oddball birdhouses and, for some reason, a plastic frog. A scattering of homes rises up from the street as we close the mile-long circle, the steep stone stairs lifting from the sidewalk hinting that the sharp climb of Raycroft is nigh.
Beyond the reservoir, the unrelenting sunlight glistens off the silver towers of downtown, conveniently close. But not too close — just as Woodland-in-Waverly has liked it for a century.