A MANSION IN THE ‘HOOD

Riverwood Mansion opens its doors to the Arts

  • Debbie Sutton has a very precise memory of her first glimpse of the grand Inglewood mansion known as Riverwood. “It’s was November 13, 1999,” Sutton says, “and I was catering a wedding at Riverwood. I walked through the front door and it was, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I looked at my husband and said, ‘One day I will own this place.’”
         While Sutton doesn’t own Riverwood, she has taken ownership of the Antebellum mansion’s future. Sutton’s catering and events company, 8 Lavender Lane, assumed management of the property in July and has big plans for the future of the more than 200-yearold East Side landmark.
         With its grand Greek Revival entranceway, original hardwood floor parlors, black Egyptian marble fireplaces and the added, modern pavilion — Riverwood Mansion has hosted many corporate events, holiday parties, and weddings since it opened as a private events venue in 1997. While the private events and weddings will continue, Sutton says that her team’s mission is to expand the scope of events held in the mansion and on the surrounding eight acres.
         “I’ve always felt a connection with the property and felt it could do great things,” Sutton says. “I love all realms of art, and I think we have so much to offer with it. We want to take it from a weekend private events venue to a seven days a week arts and events venue. We want to offer a variety of fun things, both public and private — pop-up dinners, chefs’ forums, art shows, music events, educational field trips, luncheons, holiday parties. We’re partnering with other groups to find the right events because we want to maintain the integrity of the mansion, its history, appearance, and the grandness of it all.”
         The history of Riverwood is a grand one indeed. Irish immigrant and businessman Alexander Porter built the oldest sections of the house in the late 1790s, less than two decades after the founding of Nashville. Built as the main house of a 2,500-acre plantation on the banks of the Cumberland River, the original structure was a two-story, brick, Federal-style home. Porter named the house and grounds Tammany Woods in honor of his family home in Ireland. In the 1820s, Porter built a second structure in front of the original house.
         Tammany Woods’ transformation into a grand mansion occurred in 1850 under the ownership of Alexander Porter’s grandson, Alexander James Porter. A majestic, two-story, Greek Revival style portico supported by six Corinthian columns was added to the house along with additional rooms, transforming it into one of the grandest mansions in pre-Civil War Nashville. Many experts believe that noted architect William Strickland, best known for his design of the Tennessee State Capitol, designed these additions.
          In 1859, prominent jurist William Frierson Cooper purchased the property and renamed it Riverwood. Cooper and his descendants controlled Riverwood for over a century, making further additions and changes to the house while it continued as one of Nashville grandest homes. When Cooper, a bachelor, died in 1909, ownership of the property was divided into five lots, with his brother Duncan Brown Cooper inheriting the portion containing Riverwood Mansion. Duncan’s daughter, Sarah, and her husband Dr. Lucius Burch, dean of the Vanderbilt University Medical School, inherited Riverwood in 1922.
         Under the ownership of the Burches, Riverwood became a locus for Nashville’s high society. The Burches’ annual Christmas parties were considered the crown jewel of Nashville’s social calendar with hundreds of people attending the all-day event. One knew they “had arrived” socially when they received one of the lifetime invitations to Riverwood’s Christmas soirees. After the death of her husband in 1959, Sarah Burch sold much of the property surrounding Riverwood to housing developers in order to pay debts, but she retained ownership of the mansion and eight acres of land, living there until her death in 1975 at age 98.
         After the death of Sarah Burch, Riverwood sat vacant for almost two decades. Ownership passed through two local physicians, both of whom planned to restore the grand mansion, but were unable to do so. Joe and Jackie Glynn purchased the property in 1994. They immediately began work on restoring the home and transforming it into a private events venue, officially reopening to weddings and other events three years later.
         Riverwood’s history has included a long roster of notable guests including Presidents Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. But perhaps the most interesting guest is the one that remained with the house through the decades: The Lady in Gray.
         William Cooper was the first owner of Riverwood to report the occasional appearance of a mysterious, silent feminine figure dressed in gray who was seen flitting up and down the stairs or joining guests in the parlors and bedrooms of the house. Two possible stories have been offered for the origin of the ghostly apparition. Some believe The Lady in Gray is the spirit of Mary Watson Porter, the former mistress of the mansion who passed away in 1860 shortly after her husband sold the property to William Cooper. Others say it is the spirit of a former visitor to Riverwood who died broken-hearted at the mansion after learning her betrothed was killed in a logging accident. Whichever story one chooses to believe, the spirit still makes the rounds of Riverwood.
         We were recently meeting with a client,” Sutton says. “He was standing near the staircase when he suddenly went white. He said, ‘I would normally never admit this to anyone, but something just ran up the staircase. It was a gray shadow.’ We just kind of laughed it off, but at the same moment one of the staff left her office to go to the break room and when she got back, the office door was closed and locked. And no one ever locks that door.” Despite the occasional overzealous locking of doors, The Lady in Gray seems to be adjusting to the recent changes at Riverwood. With the ambitious plans for changing the branding of Riverwood and a busy events schedule, the staff at the Mansion has grown from five to fifteen fulltime employees, including head of marketing Matt Wilson.
         “We have so much talent on our team,” Wilson says, “because every one of us brings something different to the table. We’re working on creating events that have never been done in Nashville. In September we held our first public event, opening the house and grounds to the neighborhood. Over 500 people showed up on a Monday. We had food tastings, sample cocktails from SPEAKeasy Distillery and tours of the mansion.”
         “So many neighbors had great stories,” Debbie Sutton says. “It was very touching how many people had personal family memories of the house. We want to open the property up to neighbors to use the lawn for a picnic or to walk through with your dog. We’re also planning to launch regular public events on the lawn like yoga, various art events, and gospel recitals.”
         With Sutton’s focus on fine food, it’s no surprise that culinary events will remain a prominent feature at Riverwood. In keeping with the history of the house, the events will focus on both past culinary achievements as well as look to the future. “We actually have the menu with recipes of the original Burch family Christmas dinners,” Sutton says, “and we plan to offer them for our holiday parties this year. I would love to see Riverwood become a Southern-style James Beard House that would not only focus on culinary arts, but all the arts. Of course we’ll feature chefs from around the world, but we really want to concentrate on our Southern heritage and traditions.
         To achieve those goals, Sutton and Wilson are forging partnerships with local businesses and organizations. Trey Cioccia of Farm House restaurant will be overseeing an on-site garden at Riverwood to supply fresh produce for the many culinary events, and the East Nashville-based arts organization, Unbound Arts is planning an ambitious schedule of programs at Riverwood for the next year.
         “I just love this property.” Sutton says. “I love the house. I love the history behind the house. It’s got a lot to offer, and I think it’s been Nashville’s best-kept secret for too long. We’re now ready for Nashville to feel at home here.”