Cheekwood was originally a monumental country estate designed by leading American landscape architect Bryant Fleming between 1929 and 1932 for the family of Leslie Cheek. Cheek had made his fortune from his extended family’s wholesale grocery and coffee-making businesses. Joel O. Cheek and Christopher T. Cheek, two cousins, established the family’s business empire when they started their own wholesale grocery firm in 1890. Within two years, the Cheeks were concentrating on the coffee market. They soon established the firm of Nashville Coffee and Manufacturing, which marketed a prepared, roasted, and blended coffee at a time when most companies merely sold green beans. In 1904 the Cheeks entered into a partnership with James W. Neal, and over the next few years they expanded production throughout the country as Cheek-Neal Coffee. They built a new roasting plant at Cummins Station in Nashville as well as factories in Houston, Jacksonville, Richmond, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The Cheeks and Neal strived to establish their coffee as a prestige product. They convinced Nashville’s Maxwell House hotel to use the coffee exclusively in its restaurants and later acquired the use of the hotel’s name for marketing the coffee. Sold as Maxwell House Coffee with the slogan “Good to the Last Drop” (allegedly praise lavished by President Theodore Roosevelt when he visited the Maxwell House in 1907), the coffee became popular and eventually gained a staggering one-third of the American coffee market. In 1928 Joel Cheek sold the coffee business to Postum Company, later General Foods, for a reported sum of $42 million, enriching family members who had invested in the company. In 1929 Leslie Cheek, the son of Christopher T. Cheek, took a portion of this windfall, approximately $1.25 million, and used it over the next three years for the construction of his lavish country house estate. The family moved into the mansion at Thanksgiving in 1932.
As the architect of Cheekwood (the name combines Leslie Cheek’s last name with that of his wife Mabel’s maiden name, Wood), the family chose the nationally prominent architect Bryant Fleming, of Ithaca, New York, and Cornell University. Fleming’s approach to the design of country estates was to combine interior design, antique furnishings, landscaping, and domestic architecture, all with the purpose of creating a unified statement of time and place. He and the Cheeks traveled to England together to decide on what sort of house, type of garden, and range of antiques that they use for the Nashville estate. This trip would prove crucial for the eventual aesthetic sensibility of Cheekwood. According to counts kept by Nashville newspapers, the doors, door frames, handrails, iron work, mantels, wall panels, molding, chandeliers, tapestry statuary, and furniture to be used at the estate filled four railroad freight cars. Cheekwood records also indicate that the family made several purchases through the prominent London dealer Edward Duveen. A few years earlier in New York City, Duveen had been the primary dealer supplying paintings and antiques for Elsie De Wolfe’s extremely influential interior design of the Henry Frick Mansion.
Cheekwood holds a significant place in the history of the decorative arts and interior design in Nashville. The various English and European antiques were combined with the outstanding craftsmanship of local masters such as Philip Kerrigan Jr., who executed the ornamental metal work throughout the estate; Harold V. Hopton, whose Nashville firm executed the plaster work; and Leo Barthle of Memphis, who led the carpenters who carved the mansion’s exquisite woodwork. Kerrigan’s work is particularly impressive. Kerrigan was a Nashville native who founded his own company at the age of twenty-five in 1929. Cheekwood was his first major commission and there he made a lasting friendship with Fleming, who expanded the young craftsman’s understanding and appreciation of nature and historical European traditions in ornamental metal. They worked together on many other commissions after Cheekwood. Contemporaries also praised Kerrigan’s Cheekwood designs for their revival of the ornamental metal arts in the city in particular and in the South in general.
Kerrigan’s work provides an important visual link between the gardens and house, with the single most important feature being the Wisteria Arbor that links the house’s primary public rooms to the south gardens and the imposing landscaped vista of the Harpeth Hills. Kerrigan’s ability to conceptualize his commission in this manner was a major reason why Fleming so respected the young craftsman and would use him in future estate designs. To Fleming, the house should not only extend into the gardens, but the gardens should extend into the house, fusing the two components into one coherent design. In Fleming’s conception of Cheekwood, the landscape and not the mansion was the focal point of the design, a reality admitted early in written accounts about Cheekwood. In the Nashville Tennessean of April 20, 1952, writer Louise Davis observed that “it is easy to believe that the house was made to grace the gardens.”
Of course, the whole setting at Cheekwood reflects Fleming’s love for the eighteenth-century English country house. He successfully translated to a southern suburban setting the eighteenth-century tradition of an irregular garden design where every element seems to be rooted in nature, be they the various water features, the statues, the rock-lined walks and pools, or the attractive shapes of ornamental metal. Perhaps Cheekwood’s best example of this is at the northwest gardens, where ornamental metal balustrades by Kerrigan combine with stone walls, stone steps, stone pedestals, two lead Roosters, two iron urns, and a marble Cherubic Bacchus urn to create a place of incongruity, surprise, and variety.
After Mabel Cheek died in 1946 (her husband had died in 1935), the estate passed into the hands of Walter Sharp and Huldah Cheek Sharp, who had married four years earlier. The Cheekwood estate soon thereafter gained a significant association with the beginnings of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. While the symphony performances took place at the downtown War Memorial Building, planning and fundraising sessions took place at Cheekwood, and the estate hosted a grand reception after the first performance of the symphony on December 10, 1946. The Sharps also provided living quarters at Cheekwood for symphony conductor William Strickland, who lived there until 1951. Walter Sharp is a significant figure in the modern history of the arts in Nashville. He chaired the Department of Fine Arts and Music at Vanderbilt, was a trustee at Fisk University, was the first president of the Nashville Arts Council, and was a founder of the Tennessee Commission on the Performing Arts, a predecessor organization to the Tennessee Arts Commission.
In 1959 the Sharps deeded fifty-five acres of the estate for the creation of the Tennessee Botanical Gardens and Fine Arts Center, which converted the mansion into an art museum while Fleming’s original ornamental gardens became the foundation for a large public outdoor museum devoted to gardens, plants, and landscape architecture. Cheekwood as a museum and garden opened to the public in 1960, and it soon established itself as the city’s primary fine arts institution. Over the next forty years, various new buildings, structures, and gardens were built, but never did the new use of the estate obscure the original monumentality of Fleming’s house and gardens. For example, although contemporary in design, the Botanic Hall (1971) by Neil Bass relates well to the overall Cheekwood landscape, reflecting the spirit of New Formalism while its concrete exterior mimics the masonry of the manor house. The hall’s interior curvilinear plan was an attempt to relate to similar architectural motifs in the mansion. In 1981 the Stalworth Gallery, designed by Ed Street of Nashville, was added to the house by incorporating the first floor kitchen and part of the second floor servants’ quarters into a new addition of complimentary design and materials.
Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art undertook a large campaign in the 1990s to raise funds for mansion and garden restoration and to create new gardens and expand public programming at the institution. Architect Graham Gund and interior designer Albert Hadley prepared the plans to restore many of the original interiors of the mansion, particularly on the ground and first floors. The restoration updated the interiors to professional museum standards and improved visitor access. Another team of designers and conservators, led by Nashville landscape architect Ben Page, repaired and restored the original gardens and water features of the estate. This team concentrated on restoring the boxwood gardens and paths, as well as the garden elements immediately surrounding the house, to their general appearance at the time of Fleming’s work in the early 1930s. Perennial plantings and a dominant green color replicate the initial landscaping effect at the mansion, and the restored gardens convey this historical tradition well. Several of the original viewsheds from the mansion designed by Fleming were also restored. The institution held a grand reopening of the Museum of Art at the mansion on August 29, 1999.
Today the museum features a year-round schedule of special exhibits and events and has developed a strong core collection in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art, especially the work of major regional and Tennessee artists, allowing it to become one of the state’s leading art institutions. The museum hosted a major exhibit on African American sculptor William Edmondson in 2000 and will open a major exhibit on twentieth-century Tennessee painting in 2002.