Love on a Train
In 1896, Leslie Cheek and Mabel Wood married in Clarksville, Tennessee. The pair had met only a few years earlier on a train to Nashville from New York, and it has been said Leslie bribed a porter with a box of cigars to find out the name of the beautiful young Mabel. Following their nuptials, the new Mr. and Mrs. Cheek settled in Nashville and Leslie worked his family’s company, C.T. Cheek & Sons—the largest wholesale grocery distribution conglomerate in the Southeast region of the United States.
World Class Travels
In addition to the education of their children being a top priority, the Cheeks also spent a good deal of time planning trips across the world. By the time Leslie Jr. was ten years old and Huldah age five, international travel became an annual routine for the entire family. After a 1919 journey to China and Japan, the Cheeks’ travel itineraries expanded, covering much of North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
Good to the Last Drop
Another Nashville-based Cheek family business was the Cheek-Neal Coffee Company, creators and brewers of MAXWELL HOUSE COFFEE and TEA. The specialty blend was named after and marketed by the best hotel in Nashville, the Maxwell House. The success of the brand launched the local business into nation-wide production and is said to have captured the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who exclaimed that it was “good to the last drop!”
Cheek-Neal was created by Joel Cheek, the cousin of Leslie Sr.’s father C.T. Cheek. C.T. had been an early investor, and Leslie Sr. bought stock as well. In 1928, the Postum Company, later renamed General Foods, purchased Cheek-Neal Coffee Company for $45 million. As an investor, Leslie Sr.’s fortune quickly expanded, likely also expanding his plans for Cheekwood.
The Origin of Cheekwood
What is one to do if a singular piece of furniture is too big to fit in one’s home? Build a bigger house, of course! The origin of Cheekwood, as a concept, is traced to a family story involving Mabel Cheek making sure her husband, Leslie Cheek, Sr., kept his word to build a bigger house that could hold a gilt mirror, too tall for their current home in the 1920s. Cheek allegedly told his wife, “I suppose we will have to either sell the mirror or a build a house to fit it in.” After reciting these options, the couple set out to combine their tastes, interests, and family names “Cheek” and “Wood,” the maiden name of Mabel Cheek, into the design of a grand estate, to be called “Cheekwood.”
The Cheeks appointed architect Bryant Fleming of Ithaca, New York, to design all of what would become Cheekwood. In addition to the design and construction of a house, the gardens, surrounding landscape, and all of the necessary buildings were assigned to Fleming, who was a great talent in both landscape and structural architectural design.
Fleming had commissions from across the country, as well as in Tennessee. He designed and developed gardens, homes, and estates for individuals such as Andrew Carnegie, Stephen C. Clark, Roy Chapin, William E. Scripps, and Robert Carrier. Upon receiving the Cheek assignment, Fleming and the Cheeks set off for England to study the architecture and interiors of great English country estates, and to acquire antique furnishings, decorative objects, and historic, architectural elements that would go in to the construction of Cheekwood. The voyage began in the Spring of 1929 and lasted several months. Upon return, the entirety of acquired architectural elements were delivered by way of five train cars—not including the numerous furniture and fine art purchases.
In 1932, Leslie Sr., Mabel, and Mrs. Wood moved into Cheekwood. Huldah was at the Shipley School and Leslie Jr. was at Harvard while Cheekwood was under construction. When home for summer vacation, large, lavish parties were thrown, making headlines near and far.
Leslie Sr., and Huldah kept their horses, Platinum and Rosewood, in the Cheekwood stable, and would ride frequently around the expansive estate and into the neighboring Percy Warner Park. Mabel, an avid reader and gardener, spent much of her time in the Library as well as the gardens. Leslie Jr., a promising architect and art historian, devoted his time at home in the studio his parents built for him and designing an impressive door system for the house Loggia.
In 1935, Leslie Cheek, Sr. died suddenly at age 61. As his family and the surrounding community mourned the loss of a man described as, “a man who gave every casual acquaintance the impression of sincere friendship, and, to those who knew him better this friendship became a personal thing, which never lacked for proof of its reality.” Mabel, now a widow, continued to live and care for Cheekwood, taking great strides to maintain and perpetuate the home she built with her devoted husband. Their daughter, Huldah, would go on to marry Walter Sharp in the Cheekwood Drawing Room. Their son, Leslie Jr., married Mary Tyler Freeman and settled in Richmond, though frequently visiting their Nashville family.
As preparations for construction began in 1929, it was not until 1932 that the Cheeks were finally able to call Cheekwood “home.” The 36 – room house (excluding service quarters) included eleven bedrooms, twelve bathrooms, two elevators, a hidden staircase, and a library to hold the collection of two thousand books the Cheeks amassed. Suites of rooms created for son, Leslie Cheek Jr., daughter, Huldah Cheek, and Mrs. Cheek’s mother, Huldah Wood, were furnished with antique 17th and 18th century-style English furnishings, creating an atmosphere of old-world elegance.
Over the next twelve years, the Cheeks hosted family and friends, entertained celebrities, and threw lavish parties
End of an Era
Mabel Wood Cheek passed away in 1946 at the age of 72. She left the furnishings, fine art, and family heirlooms to her two children and grandchildren, of Leslie Jr. Huldah, who had settled in Nashville, was deeded the Cheekwood estate, and thereafter lived at Cheekwood with her husband, Walter, and later with their daughter, Leslie.
From Private to Public
In 1957, Huldah and Walter Sharp offered for Cheekwood, the buildings and surrounding grounds, to become a public garden and fine arts center. Following the cultivation and fundraising efforts of the Exchange Club of Nashville, the Horticultural Society of Middle Tennessee, and many other civic groups and individuals, the necessary funding was achieved. The pre-existing Nashville Museum of Art had disbanded, and offered the new institution the funds amassed from the sale of the Museum’s building and to transfer its permanent collection to Cheekwood to help establish the new primary destination for visual arts in Nashville. On May 31, 1960, Cheekwood opened its gates and doors to the public.
What is an American Country Place Era Estate?
The American Country Place Era movement began in the late 19th-century following the success of the Industrial Revolution, which garnered great fortunes for many American entrepreneurs. With this newly established wealth, many individuals chose to build vast estates in the country, away from the increasingly over-crowded urban metropolitans. Estates built during this time period were designed to express affluence in many different forms; the domestic structure would be large and imposing, formal gardens were grand as well as intricate, and the views from and of the property were untouched except for the splendors of nature.
The individuals who designed these great estates were often just as notable as the wealthy barons who built them. Creating a place that had beauty, as well as a sense of tranquility, was only part of the motive of these extravagant residential undertakings. According to the Cultural Landscape Foundation of America, “[d]esigners worked in close partnership with clients to create extravagant gardens inspired by European and Asian precedents in order to lend a sense of tradition, age, and affluence to what, in many cases, was ‘new money.’ Taking inspiration from European Beaux-Arts design styles, there was a return to symmetry and more formal geometries. Instigated in part by the vast fortunes industrialization created for the wealthy, for most this era ended abruptly with the onset of the Depression.”
Why is Cheekwood Considered One of the Finest?
Bryant Fleming, the architect of both the house and the surrounding landscape, developed a symbiotic relationship between the views of the house from the grounds and the view from the grounds of the house. Fleming created areas such as the Arbor, known as the Wisteria Arbor, where the Cheekwood landscape is framed as beautifully as a painting.
Due to the foresight of Leslie Cheek, Sr. in 1928, the property he purchased abutting a state park to create Cheekwood means the historic views are intact today. The tract of land where Cheekwood resides shares nearly 75% of its perimeter with The Warner Parks, managed by the Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation of Nashville and Davidson County. Due to the conservation efforts of Warner Parks, Cheekwood is only one of a few examples of American Country Place Era estates that retain their purposeful views.