Movie stars, outlaws, a Playboy Bunny and high society—the cabin by the Cumberland has hosted them all
Sitting by the massive fireplace in the “big room” of his Inglewood home, Henry Romersa speaks passionately about a love affair that began over 40 years ago. “I had a friend who was interested in historical properties,” the former Vanderbilt music professor says. “She told me about this huge lodge in East Nashville that was in terrible shape but had a lot of potential.”
Driving north on Brush Hill Road through the northwest corner of Inglewood, Romersa found an almost hidden passage under Briley Parkway. It led to a small cul-de-sac of clapboard cabins and log houses on the hilly banks of Love’s Branch that seemed as cut off in time as it was geographically isolated.
“In 1973, I was recently divorced and living in a motor home at Vanderbilt,” Romersa says. “They gave me a plug-in and a parking lot, and I was a very free, going-wherever-I-wanted-to-type bachelor. I came out here, and the stone wall around the driveway had fallen down, the pool was collapsing, nobody had raked leaves for years. The whole place was a disaster, but I thought I’d go ahead and see what they wanted for it.”
The property’s owner, Catherine Lewellyn, was living in the largest house. Although she had been unable to care for the property since the death of her husband, David, she still loved the land and didn’t want to leave, much to the dismay of her children. As Romersa recalls, “The family said, ‘If you will take care of our mother as long as she lives, we will sell you this entire property for $25,000.’ I thought, ‘Why not?’ I could plug in here instead of Vanderbilt and live in the motor home.”
Romersa had stumbled upon one of the most unusual and historic pieces of property in Davidson County. Known as Tanglewood, the land embodied almost 200 years of Nashville history, from the first permanent white settlements in Middle Tennessee through Nashville’s transformation into a modern city in the first half of the 20th Century. In Romersa’s hands, Tanglewood would begin a new chapter, with a cast of characters that included movie stars, Playboy bunnies, academics, country outlaws, and others.
Like much of the area along the banks of the Cumberland River, the land that eventually became known as Tanglewood was hunting ground for native American Indian tribes, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Shawnee. In 1780, Fort Union (just north of present-day Tanglewood) was established by Col. Robert Hays as a way station for visitors traveling northward from Fort Nashboro. Within a few years, the settlement became known as the town of Haysborough.
With the construction of Gallatin Road in 1839, traffic heading north out of Nashville was routed to the west of Haysborough and the small community faded into history. Most of the town’s original site was covered by the waters of Cheek Lake with the construction of a dam on Love’s Branch in 1927. That same year several acres of woodlands just south of the lake were purchased by Robert M. Condra, a young architect and engineer.
A 27-year-old graduate of the University of Tennessee with a double degree in mechanical and electrical engineering, Condra was a living embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude of young, educated Southerners during the Jazz Age. After gaining a reputation as a first-rate architect and businessman, Condra founded his own construction company and was instrumental in the rebuilding of East Nashville after the 1933 tornado, as well as the development of Inglewood.
Although Condra designed and constructed many buildings with an eye on the future, he was also a disciple of the arts and crafts design movement that cast a romantic eye back to the simple and functional designs of pioneer craftsmanship. For the neighborhood he named Tanglewood, he set a personal goal to design and develop the property using as many primitive and scrap materials as possible, building 18 separate log or clapboard cabins between 1927 and the early 1940s. Condra maintained the property as a summer home until he left Nashville to serve with the Army Corps of Engineers in World War II, at which time he sold Tanglewood to his close friend David Lewellyn.
Walking through Henry and Kathy Romersa’s home, the 14-room log house that is the largest in the Tanglewood Historic District, one can’t help but think of it as a large, rough-hewn maze. Moving from room to room often requires dog-leg turns into narrow hallways or steps up and down into rooms on multiple levels. It invokes the feel of a modular space station, but one constructed by some alternate history mountain-man version of NASA.
“He was very creative, building the place out of junk and scrap wood,” Henry Romersa says of Condra’s design and construction, as he conducts a tour down hallways of rough, dark-stained wood. “He built all of these as fishing cabins for him and his friends. He just kept adding on and consolidating one cabin with another. The National Register of Historic Places named this ‘Rustic Style,’ and it’s very rare. You either love it or you think it’s a dump.”
After his first look, Romersa’s passions clearly ran toward the former. Romersa has spent much of his life dedicated to preserving the legacy of the past for the benefit of future generations. A graduate of the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Romersa taught music at Cornell University and the University of Maryland before coming to Nashville in 1962. At Peabody College and Vanderbilt University, he was instrumental in launching one of the first music business education programs in the U.S. In the early 1970s, he served as national coordinator and executive director of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Institute and assisted in the creation of music business programs at Belmont, MTSU and many other colleges and universities. He also led the development of a music business degree program for Southern Illinois University, teaching a special extension class based in Nashville for 30 years.
In addition to his public career, Romersa has been a dedicated antique car collector and restorer for many years. After buying Tanglewood, he brought the same care, patience, and attention to detail he used on automobiles to the restoration of wood and mortar.
Agreeing to the Lewellyn family’s terms, he began work on the property that included the sprawling main house, a large, separate “party room,” the in-ground pool, a nearby guest house, and various out buildings.
“The first thing I did was fix up the guest house and move Mrs. Lewellyn into it,” Romersa says. “Then I started at the front of the main building. I didn’t have a lot of money at that time, and with my responsibilities at Vanderbilt as professor and band director, I worked on the property at night. I did one room at a time until I completed the whole building.”
Romersa’s main focus was on restoration and preservation rather than renovation. “Very little was altered, changed around or modernized,” he says. “I tried to put everything back the way I found it. I didn’t change any beams or the floor plans. I tried not to interject anything modern. I just cleaned the floors, made repairs, and finished raw wood where needed.”
One of the few additions was to connect the main house to the nearby party room, which features over 1,000 square feet of open space dominated by an exposed beam ceiling, a massive stone fireplace, and removable windows. Both Robert Condra and the Lewellyns used the space for cookouts, parties, and other special events.
“All the windows were out of it,” Romersa says, “but fortunately, I found them in the basement. They would have cost a fortune to replace. All the wood was raw; none of it had ever been finished. It took me forever to stain the ceilings and finish them.”
For the short foyer and passageway that now joins the main house to the party room, Romersa followed Condra’s style as closely as possible. He used many materials he found stored on the property, including bricks salvaged from the old Maxwell House Hotel after it burned in 1961. Romersa eventually added a kitchen area to the big room, making it the main living space for the house.
Tanglewood’s in-ground pool, possibly the first ever built in Nashville, was also a unique Condra design. The 30-by-85-foot brick and mortar structure held over 110,000 gallons of water that was constantly recirculated from nearby Love’s Branch, with the water running through an outside fireplace for heating. To maintain the pool, Romersa had to modernize some aspects of its design, but he strived to keep it as close to the original design as possible.
After a year of dedicated labor, Romersa returned Tanglewood to its former glory on a very slim budget. “I finished the repairs but had no furniture,” he says. “I couldn’t afford any.” It was then that an unexpected benefactor entered the picture.
In the summer of 1974, Hollywood came to Music City. Director Robert Altman was preparing to shoot “Nashville,” his idiosyncratic mosaic of America in the 1970s, and he was scouting locations for the film.
“Altman sent his people over here,” Romersa says. “They said if I would furnish the house they would rent the entire place to stay in and use in the movie. I went to the flea market and bought everything I could on credit.” Tanglewood became the headquarters for the production for three months. In the film, it became the home of old-school country music star “Haven Hamilton,” portrayed by actor Henry Gibson.
Romersa moved into a small apartment in the basement, staying out of the way of his tenants while managing the property. He was offered a role in the film, but his big-screen debut fell victim to Altman’s improvisational filmmaking.
“I was supposed to play the part of the builder of Tanglewood,” Romersa says. “I had my lines and we were all set to go with my scenes. Then a limousine came down the driveway and Elliott Gould gets out of it.” Gould, the star of previous Altman films, was passing through Nashville. “Altman never stopped the camera,” Romersa says. “The whole scene changed and all my lines went out the window.”
Despite his missed chance at stardom, by the time filming wrapped in September of 1974, Romersa had paid off his emergency furniture buy and made a profit. Word of his unique cabin in the woods spread, and he soon found himself with another celebrity tenant: Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy magazine.
“Hefner was trying to get his girlfriend Barbi Benton into country music,” Romersa says. “She couldn’t sing worth a damn, but he flew in and rented the entire place. He asked me what I wanted, and I said $800 a week. He said, ‘That isn’t enough, I’m going to pay you $1,200.’ His staff, maids, butlers all came in, and he had guys with machine guns at both of the entrances to the property. He was supposed to be here for a month, but they stayed for three, and I was tickled to death. By the time he left, I was really in business.”
Romersa continued to rent Tanglewood to occasional tenants for both special events and more extensive use, relying on word of mouth to spread the reputation of its unique appeal. One guest became a frequent tenant.
“Charlie Daniels came over,” Romersa says. “He saw the big room and said, ‘This place is great, the acoustics are perfect. I want to rent it for two or three months and write a whole bunch of stuff.’ For several years, the main room at Tanglewood became Daniels’ regular practice and work space. His 1979 hit single, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (which, incidentally, was recorded at Woodland Studios), was just one of the many songs developed at Tanglewood before being taken into the recording studio.
“Charlie ran his band like a factory,” Romersa says. “Nine o’clock all these pick-up trucks would arrive. The band would warm up, and Charlie would walk in at 9:30—off they would go until 12 o’clock. Then they all went out to the pool and went swimming. At one o’clock they all came back in and went back to working. Three o’clock, they climbed in their trucks and were out of here. It was like clockwork.”
Another repeat tenant was “Hee Haw” head writer Budd Wingard, who brought his entire staff to Tanglewood each year to write scripts for the comedy-music show. Many country music stars dropped by during the marathon writing sessions. Waylon Jennings was a frequent visitor.
By the late 1980s, the number of rentals diminished, and Romersa found someone to share his passion for Tanglewood. “I went to the bank one day,” Romersa says, “and there was this beautiful woman named Kathy Walker. She told me how broke I was. I owned a lot of stuff but didn’t have any cash. So I decided to marry her because I knew she was right. She said, ‘That’s enough of these people tripping through our house,’ and that was the end of that era.”
With the end of Tanglewood’s days as the hideaway for stars, Henry and Kathy Romersa began concentrating on preserving the heritage of Robert Condra’s vision. Over the last three decades, they’ve purchased six of the eight remaining houses built by Condra on Tanglewood Drive. After three years of research and documentation, the Romersas secured a listing for the Tanglewood Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
Their love for the property extends beyond pure history, as Kathy Romersa points out. “We know everybody here,” she says, “and we all feel like we’re part of a community. We have great tenants. It’s not uncommon for people to rent from us for nine, 10, or 11 years. We host a Christmas breakfast every year for the neighborhood, and when someone does move we have going-away parties.”
In the front living room, a small, cozy space that was the first cabin constructed by Robert Condra, Henry Romersa recalls when he received a visit from Tanglewood’s first paramour, Robert Condra.
“Condra was in his 80s at the time,” Romersa says. “I was working on a 1931 Packard in the garage when he drove up. He said, ‘I can’t believe it, I had a Packard just like this when I lived here.’ We came down to the house and he said, ‘Henry, can I ring the doorbell?’” Romersa gets up from his chair and walks to the front door to demonstrate. He reaches outside and spins a small metal crank with the enthusiasm of a small boy playing with his favorite toy. The sound of jingling bells fills the room.
Romersa continues, “Condra said, ‘That sound is so familiar to me.’ He was a multi-millionaire, but he just wanted to hear that bell again.”