A Visit to Rose Hill

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The Baxters added this Victorian section to the house.
  • The Baxters added this Victorian section to the house.
Ever since Crema opened, I've noticed a considerable uptick in people asking me if I know anything about "that house" — the one you can't help but notice if you park at the side of Crema. In fact, it's gotten to the point where when someone asks me about "that house," I just assume they mean the gray Victorian that overlooks downtown. I'm almost always right.

I do know quite a bit about it, but until Friday, I'd never been inside it. Home now to the law firm of McCune Zenner Happell, the back part is among the oldest houses still standing in downtown Nashville, if not the oldest. Built in 1821 by Henry Middleton Rutledge and his wife/first cousin Septima Sexta Rutledge (nee Middleton), Rose Hill, as the house was called, faced out toward the Lebanon Road. It was, as you might guess by the name, famous for its rose garden, which ran all the way down to the river.

Supposedly Rose Hill was modeled after the Middleton family home in Charleston, S.C., so if you knew what Middleton Place looked like, you'd have a good idea of what Rose Hill originally looked like. This is what Middleton Place looks like and has since the mid-1800s. So... yeah... not so helpful. A fire also struck Rose Hill in the mid-1800s, but the damage was not quite as extensive. So what we see today is shaped by that fire, the addition Capt. Baxter did, and subsequent additions. Still, you can get a sense of the old house if you study what is now the back part of the house that faces Rutledge Street.

This shows some of the fire damage from 150 years ago.
  • This shows some of the fire damage from 150 years ago.
As the home of the Rutledges, Rose Hill played host to many prominent Tennesseans. The legend is that Lafayette stayed in the house in 1825 when he was visiting Nashville. (You may remember that, during this trip, he was introduced to Timothy Demonbreun, who spoke with him in French, being, supposedly, the only person in town who knew it. I have a hard time believing that Joseph DuRat and some of Demonbreun's many children, legitimate or not, didn't also know some, but let's not quibble with anecdote.)

There's also a legend that the house was used by Union officers for lodging during the War, and after they trampled her roses, Mrs. Rutledge hunted down Gen. Rosecrans and chewed him out for allowing his men to stay in her home without paying or throwing in for groceries, and by god, now they'd ruined her rose garden. It is said that Gen. Rosecrans made the officers replant the rose garden themselves.

While we're telling stories, I should say that I've heard from a lot of people that Septima got her name because she was her father's seventh child, the sixth girl (sept-ima sex-ta). This is not true. She was actually her parents' first child and her unusual name comes from the fact that her father is one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and her name in Latin is a feminized 76.

After the War, Capt. Edmund Baxter bought the house. I'm not sure about the timing, but it's possible he may have moved in with his first wife, Eliza (née Perkins). He definitely lived there with his second wife, Sarah (called Bettie, also nee Perkins). You may remember the Perkins sisters' sister — Sue, who was married to Ben Allen. Capt. Baxter is responsible for the addition that reorients the front of the house toward Lea and has the distinctive Victorian features that make the house memorable.

Its only by looking here under the landing that you can see that the Baxter addition isnt square with the original house.
  • It's only by looking here under the landing that you can see that the Baxter addition isn't square with the original house.
The house eventually fell on hard times and spent some time as a boarding house and apartments. Fortunately, unlike its across the street neighbor, the Ryman House, it was preserved and eventually came into the hands of McCune Zenner Happell, who are as close to dream owners of the home as history buffs could wish for. They clearly love the house, and it appears well cared for. It's nice to see the home back as one thing rather than separated into apartments, and the fact that there are two enormous rose bushes flanking the sidewalk as you walk up just makes you feel like someone who appreciates the history of the house is looking after it.

This is an important kind of historic preservation. We don't just need museums and places we can tour (though, my god, you should get out to Traveller's Rest while they have Shy's casket and the cool yet icky story of how it came to have a huge hole in it). We need buildings rich with history that continue to be of vital use as buildings. In other words, in order to have healthy preservation of historic things, we need both buildings that just anyone can tour and buildings you might never go in if you didn't have business there.

Rose Hill isn't some great tourist destination, but it is a cool place Nashville can feel rightly proud is still overlooking downtown.

I posted more pictures than this over at my blog, if you're curious.

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