THE CRAIGHEAD HOUSE AND GARDENS ARE ACCEPTED INTO THE ARCHIVES OF AMERICAN GARDENS AT THE SMITHSONIAN
Craighead House is one of Nashville’s oldest homes completed in 1810. This Federal style brick home was built by John Brown Craighead as the manor house for his one hundred ninety-four acre farm. In 1998, Mr. Steve Sirls, a landscape designer by profession, and Mr. Allen DeCuyper began this marvelous garden and home renovation.
These two men have taken ownership of such an important property to an unprecedented level, working tirelessly in the community to protect and save this property and its rich history into perpetuity. The house is on the Tennessee Register of Historic Places it is part of a historic overlay for the Richland and West End Neighborhoods.
it is included in the Tennessee Conservation Easement Program through Historic Nashville and received an Architectural Award from Metropolitan Nashville’s Historical Commission in 1999.
See comprehensive description below also click on this link to the Smithsonian
THE CRAIGHEAD HOUSE AND GARDENS
Craighead House is one of Nashville’s oldest homes completed circa 1810. This Federal Style brick home was built by John Brown.
Craighead as the manor house for his one hundred ninety-four acre farm. As wealthy merchants, the Craigheads did not commercially farm the land, but the forty-five slaves who resided on the property did raise and produce all the food for the family and their servants here. The house was left abandoned during the Civil War when it was horribly vandalized.
In 1890, the property was purchased by Samuel A. Murphy who sold the entire tract to Richland Realty Company in 1905. The land was to be sub-divided into one of Nashville’s earliest planned subdivisions. During that period, Nashville was growing away from its town center. A trolley line went west of downtown Nashville along West End Avenue. The developers paid to have the line extended to their neighborhood, thus making it one of Nashville’s “trolley car neighborhoods,” which were beginning to ring downtown.
Craighead House now sat on a one-acre lot and was sold to W. E and Sarah Watson by Richland Realty in 1914. It remained empty until 1915 when Homer T. Derryberry purchased it. He renovated the house and grounds, residing there until 19 when Bonnie A McGraw became the owner. It changed hands again when Jack and Sarah Gillaspy purchased the property in 1954 and sold it soon thereafter to Frances Moore Ewald and her husband, W.E. Ewald in 1957. Mrs. Ewald re-designed the gardens and tended them until 1971 when John and Ann Nixon became owners. The Nixons only owned the house two years. It was sold in 1973 to George V. Mann who became a true steward of the house and grounds.
Mr. Mann excavated the original brick kiln, adjacent to the west back entrance to the house, where all the brick for the original house and kitchen were made by slaves on the property. The kiln was re-purposed into a water feature as it remains today. Mr. Mann sold the property to Carl Hasty who owned the house until 1998 when the present owners, Steve Sirls and Allen DeCuyper took over the care and maintenance of this Nashville treasure.
When Mr. Sirls and Mr. DeCuyper became owners, the property had been neglected for years by the then elderly Mr. Mann. They added a modern kitchen and master suite, along with a sunroom and porches, while keeping the original detailing of the 1810 house and its two previous additions in 1826 and 1842. Mr. Sirls, a landscape designer by profession, began the grounds’ renovation by establishing beds, amending soils and laying out walkways and vistas throughout the site.
These two men had taken ownership of such an important property to an unprecedented level, working tirelessly in the community to protect and save this property and its rich history into perpetuity. The house is on the Tennessee Register of Historic Places; it is part of a historic overlay for the Richland and West End Neighborhoods; it is included in the Tennessee Conservation Easement Program through Historic Nashville and received an Architectural Award from Metropolitan Nashville’s Historical Commission in 1999.
Not only have they worked for these historical protections, but they generously share the house and grounds with the community by opening their gates to numerous charitable events and Home & Garden Tours. On average, six garden clubs are treated annually to a personal tour of the gardens by Mr. Sirls.
The property itself is bordered on all sides by fencing. The street front or Southern property line adjoins the sidewalk with a natural wood picket fence allowing glimpses of the house through the garden’s vegetation beyond. The public enters through an arched gate which leads down a brick pathway to the front entrance of the house.
Upon entering the front gate, a lush woodland shade garden is situated East of the gate encompassing the entire Eastern property line. A mixture of shade-loving plants is thriving beneath the mature tree canopies. An elder hackberry tree residing here was awarded Nashville’s “Big Old Tree Award” in 2008. The East woodland border opens up to a lawn at the front of the house upon which is centered by local artist, Steve Bennyworth’s “Merging Steel” sculpture.
The woodland garden continues along the Eastern border to the North-East corner where filtered light allows a beautiful lawn providing a vista of the terrace and house, and into the kitchen garden beyond. Hydrangeas, hostas, and ferns border the Northern property line. Throughout you will find fortuitously placed benches, faux bois planters with lemon cypress, tropical elephant ears which winter in the greenhouse and even an Egyptian Revival baptismal font serving as a birdbath.
Located on the North side of the house is the terrace garden. This circular brick terrace, under the canopy of a grand old hackberry tree, is used for seating and dining accessed by brick pathways from the South, East, and West. All the brick used in the terrace and walkways came from the original kitchen, a separate structure which had been raised in the 1950’s. Instead of mortar, “chicken grit” has been used which is comprised of ground granite so as not to compromise the tree roots. The center of the terrace is a three-foot circle of broken pottery chards set in concrete. All the pottery came from pieces excavated during the garden renovations.
Bordering the terrace garden on the North is a limestone retaining wall separating the terrace from the lawn beyond. The wall, tree canopy, and plantings all contribute to the “room like” feel as you sit in this space. Every nook and cranny provides a surprise: a lantern, a pot of papyrus or dwarf plants and a group of antique iron stars called “Earthquake Bolts” used to hold 18th Century building together. Of note is the water feature made of an antique stone sink brought home from travels to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico with a moss covered stone ball and recirculating water providing the main attraction for any bird visiting the area.
During a visit in June, a giant hanging pot of night blooming cereus hung down with no less than 50 spent blooms which had all come out the previous night. This South American plant blooms rarely during the Summer; their large white flowers open in the dark of night and die by morning’s light. Many “viewing parties” have been planned around the spectacular blooming event by the owners.
Back to the North West of the site, is the “Service” area of the property. The kitchen garden is accessed from the North lawn through an espaliered arch of Bartlett Pears. Organized beds are centered around pea gravel walkways ending at the greenhouse. The beds contain herbs and vegetables with marigolds for pest control. Wooden tuteurs support climbing spinach. Large iron urns along the path contain cypress with annual color. South of the greenhouse is a cutting garden with perennial flowers, also cherry, apple, pear, and banana trees with espaliered grapes along the back of a tool shed west of the greenhouse.
Through a latticed garden arbor climbing with clematis, one can leave the kitchen garden and enter the West car park beside the free-standing garage. This graveled area has beehives, blackberries climbing a fence, a cluster of pots containing a succulent collection, and pots of Meyer lemon and bay trees. The foundation of the original brick kiln, used to make all the brick for the original house, is situated at the Western rear entrance to the house. The kiln was re-purposed into a water feature by one of the former owners in the 1970’s.
Rounding the house, the Southern perennial border parallels the front sidewalk. A sunny area with a central lawn is profuse with a kaleidoscope of blooms and textures ever changing with the seasons. Across from the perennial sun border is the Southern foundation plantings containing unusual plant material. Hardy palm, Katsura, dwarf evergreens, and clusters of perennials provide a colorful vista seasonally.
The variety of plant materials found in these gardens is, at first glance, overwhelming; the majority, however, are native plant specimens placed in their natural habitat, both wild and cultivated. But tropical plants are also represented and carefully placed in pots and areas where they can be dug up and protected during the Winter months.
Using the historic house as its foundation, the gardens of Craighead House have been developed both to follow the natural flow of sunlight as well as provide vistas from within the house and its six porches, areas to entertain, areas for service and areas for quiet reflection have all been considered when laying out and developing the site into the spectacular and inviting garden space it is today. The owners live in and share these grounds with friends and the community at large so frequently, it is rarely without a visitor.