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.”
- Bryant Fleming
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.
- 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.
- Georgian Architecture
Georgian Architecture, popularized in the England during the reign of King George I, is an 18th-century architectural style based off of the designs and schematic themes of 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. Some key terms referencing Georgian Architecture are: symmetry, proportion, and balance.
- Rooms of the Mansion
- • Since its completion in 1932, every guest to the home has entered through the same threshold to be welcomed into the Entrance Hall. Comprised of several impressive details including a monumental marble fireplace, curved staircase and important pieces of decorative arts, the space sets the stage for an encounter with unparalleled beauty that continues throughout the first-floor decorated rooms.
- • Leslie Sr. ran C.T. Cheek & Sons, a wholesale grocery distributor. In addition to his wholesale business, Leslie Sr. invested in the Cheek-Neal Coffee Company, the producer of Maxwell House, which was sold to Postum for $40 million in 1928. Leslie’s fortune quickly expanded, likely also expanding his plans for a new residence.
- • Designed by nationally recognized American architect Bryant Fleming, the house is modeled after the grand eighteenth-century Georgian estates of Great Britain. Cheekwood is considered one of the finest examples of an American Country Place Era estate, characterized by exemplary architecture amid spectacular natural surroundings. Cheekwood remains one of America’s best examples of estates of this era, because roughly seventy-five percent of its original vistas are unaltered due to the estates proximity to The Warner Parks.
- • Construction began in early 1929 and the family moved in to the completed home in time for the 1932 holiday season. As an architect, Fleming brought the past to the present by reviving historical styles in homes that were built with modern ingenuity and technology. Cheekwood stands as Fleming’s crowning achievement.
- • Huldah Cheek, Leslie and Mabel’s daughter, and her husband Walter Sharp inherited the house in 1944 and in 1957 decided to leave it to the public as a museum of art and botanical garden. For a long time, the house operated as an exhibition space rather than recounting its creation as a domestic setting. These two histories can be experienced today as guests walk through the house. The first floor was refurnished in 2017 to present the space as it appeared when the Cheeks lived here in the 1930s. The second-floor functions as a gallery space and allows the museum to present a rotating schedule of exhibitions. The building embodies multiple histories, providing a dynamic experience with history and art.
- • Lined with painted canvases that depict the mythological muses and classical interpretations of the seasons, the Transverse Hallway is a decorative corridor that extends from one end of the house to the other connecting several rooms by a central axis. Like much of the furnishings that came to decorate the Cheek family home, the canvases were antique and purchased abroad. The technique used to create the sculpture-like figures on each of these canvases is called “trompe l’oeil,” a French term that translates to “deceive the eye.” These figures are meant to fool the eye into thinking the two-dimensional figures are three-dimensional, creating additional depth in the space.
- • During a buying trip in Europe with Bryant Fleming in 1928, the family went through great efforts to acquire authentic eighteenth-century furnishings and architectural salvage in the form of doors, mantle pieces, stair balustrades, furniture and more. Purchases from the trip filled four railroad box cars that were shipped back to Nashville.
- • The entrance to the hallway from the stairs is framed by a magnificent pair of gilt mahogany doors that the Cheek family acquired during their buying trip to England in 1929. These doors once belonged to the Duke of Westminster at Grosvenor House in London. Grosvenor House, a 17th-century London home, was torn down following World War I. Elements of Grosvenor House and other English mansions were sold piece by piece, typically to wealthy Americans like the Cheeks, who purchased items that imparted a sense of worldliness and wealth to their contemporary creations in America.
- • The Transverse Hallway is the most important thoroughfare of the entire house, connecting one end of the dwelling to the other (where it derives its name). Visitors would have been led this way, to the left, towards the social wing of the Mansion, and the main venues for hosting.
- • In the 1930s, in the space behind this left wall, was a Reception Room and Toilette for women and a separate space for men. The women’s spaces were decorated in the French 18th Century Rococo style with ornate furnishings and moldings. In 1992, to accommodate additional restrooms for museum visitors, the space was converted into modern bathrooms.
- • The Octagonal Hall’s distinct shape might historically hold a variety of cultural or personal meanings, all of which could apply to its use in this space as the Cheek family would have known from their broad interests. In both Christianity and Chinese cultures, the octagon is often a symbol of rebirth and cleansing. It is also said to ward off evil entities promoting good health and fortune. Practically, however, it’s notable that the octagon has been applied in architecture for hundreds of years as it offers stability and strength, particularly when creating a dome.
- • In the 1920s, Mabel and Leslie Sr. purchased this mirror and table while shopping in Atlanta. According to family lore, the mirror was too tall to fit in the family’s home prior to Cheekwood. Leslie Sr., jokingly offered his wife two options: the mirror would need to be sold or they would have to build a bigger house. Calling his bluff, Mabel opted for a larger home and Cheekwood soon became a reality. This legendary mirror did not originally adorn this hall but was found in the women’s toilette and powder room.
- • The Drawing Room is the most opulent room in the house, both in scale and furnishings. The space is a double cube, demonstrating the classical inspiration that shaped Bryant Fleming’s creative process. Also borrowed from the architectural vocabulary of the classics is the Palladian window that features an arched window flanked by two rectangular windows.
- • Despite the grand scale of this room, the small clusters of furniture arrangements meant that groups of guests, large or small, could sit and converse comfortably. The Cheeks selected objects that reflected their taste for eighteenth-century antique English furnishings, further complementing the architectural style and desired atmosphere of Cheekwood. The windows and doors in this space offer distinct views out on to the property and neighboring park and remind guests of the home’s integral relationship with the nature that envelopes it.
- • Intermixed throughout the room are family heirlooms, such as the portraits on the exterior walls. The young girl featured in the painting on the right is Huldah Warfield Wood, Mabel’s mother. Mrs. Wood lived with the family at Cheekwood until her death in 1940.
- • To the right of the window is an art deco Steinway piano, signed by Theodore Steinway. The piano was a wedding gift from Mabel to her son, Leslie Jr. While not original to the house, it was in the Cheek family for many years.
- • Of the many grand gatherings and festivities in this room, perhaps the most special was Huldah Cheek’s wedding, held on February 14, 1942. Leslie Jr. gave his sister away, and his wife, Mary Tyler Cheek, served as matron of honor. Huldah wore a gown embellished with the Cheekwood crest and veil made from lace once worn by the Empress Zita of Austria at her coronation in December 1916.
- • This room could be perceived to be a male-dominated area of the house, but it was used primarily by Mabel Cheek. Mabel’s desk occupied this room and she built most of the library collection, which at one time totaled approximately 2,000 books ranging in subjects from philosophy, art, history, travel, and the classics. She also had a deep interest in gardening and designed the view located outside the library windows. Her original garden has been lost over time, but historic photos show lush greenery surrounding a cascading stream.
- • Intended to be a tranquil location for reading, studying, and perhaps writing letters, the Library reveals the Cheek family’s emphasis on education and love of world cultures. Many of the family’s trips around the globe were planned from this room. Their trips took them all over the world, including Europe, Asia, South America, and the South Pacific. Clippings from the Cheek family’s scrapbooks indicate that Mabel spoke to many societal club and organizations about her experiences in Japan, India and Haiti upon the family’s return.
- • Education was a priority for the Cheeks. Leslie Jr. graduated from Harvard and studied architecture at Yale. Later he became the Director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond where he initiated many innovative programs. Huldah graduated from the Shipley School for Girls and Bryn Mawr College, both of which are found outside Philadelphia. Huldah’s portrait hangs over the black marble mantle with its original wood carving.
- • To the left of the fireplace is a bell, used to summon the staff. Through the doorway and to the right is a dumbwaiter. The dumbwaiter was used to transport books from the library to the bedrooms upstairs and to the recreation room on the lower floor.
- • When the Cheeks first moved into the house in 1932, the Loggia was fully outdoors. It took only a few years for the family to realize that the space needed more protection from the hot Tennessee summer sun. With his training in architecture from Yale, Leslie Cheek, Jr., designed and installed a door system that stretched from end to end, with Venetian blinds to keep the sun out while allowing air flow. An oculus window at the top allowed for natural light to pour in, keeping the space well lit. The space is now permanently enclosed with doors inspired by Leslie Jr.’s original design.
- • The Loggia was another favorite social space for the Cheek family in particular because it blended the indoor and outdoor transition. On July 10, 1934, the Loggia and Swan Lawn were transformed into an ancient Greek acropolis for one of the Cheek’s parties, the BC Ball. All invited guests were given the name of a mythological god or goddess and were expected to come to the party dressed in their finest togas. The family led the costumed fun with Grandma Wood dressing as Ceres, Mabel as Minerva, Leslie Sr. as Zeus, Huldah as Diana, and Leslie Jr. as Iktinos. These stories remind us that Cheekwood was a domestic setting and a perfect backdrop for festivities.
- • The windows above us are on the Second Floor where the family and guest bedroom suites are located. There were six suites, four for the family and two for guests. Each suite consisted of a study or dressing room, a bedroom, and a bath. A few reminders of the original domestic setting remain intact throughout the second floor such as Leslie Jr.’s Study and decorative features including moldings and stained-glass windows.
- • The Italianate Fountain is original to the Loggia. It is a combination of various unglazed terra cotta pieces that were purchased on the 1929 trip. Fleming wanted to include the sound of flowing water everywhere at Cheekwood and this fountain would have provided that for the back of the property.
- • The Stair Hall is another grand thoroughfare, one that originally provided direct access to private bedrooms and suites. Today, the elaborate staircase leads to Cheekwood’s art galleries where exhibitions are mounted.
- • After designs for the home were complete, Mabel wished to crown the stairway with an elegant cupola. Rather than completely redesign the home, Fleming devised a plan that would allow for the domed rotunda to sit in the attic under a skylight that would provide natural light for the windows of the dome. Today, due to the need for temperature control and environmental stability inside the house, the skylights have been covered up and the light that pours through the cupola’s windows is generated by strategically placed and controlled spotlights. Suspended from the center of the cupola is a Bruce Munro chandelier that was purchased in 2015 following a major exhibition the museum hosted on the artist in 2013.
- • Huldah Warfield Wood, Mabel’s mother, lived with the family for many years, pre-dating Cheekwood’s Just below the staircase is an arched door which leads to three rooms that were formerly Mrs. Wood’s suite but have since transitioned to staff offices. Mrs. Wood owned many pieces of nineteenth-century American furniture that had been passed down through generations, all of which fit perfectly into her suite of a bedroom, bathroom and sitting room/dressing room. Her rooms overlooked the great lawn, out into the pastoral splendor of the grounds.
- • The Dining Room at Cheekwood was designed around the fireplace, the face of which is covered with lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone of intense blue color. The stone influenced the silk draperies, which are accentuated at the top with a pair of restored original French Rococo valances, as well as the blue textiles chosen to upholster the Dining Room chairs.
- • The Dining Room was likely reserved for holidays, celebrations, and special occasions. The table originally belonged to Mabel Wood’s family and was used in the Cheeks’ West End Avenue home before coming to Cheekwood. Six leaves could be inserted to lengthen the table for large parties, such as Huldah and Walter Sharp’s wedding dinner, which was held in this room in 1942.
- • The Cheeks had a large and beautiful collection of porcelain, silver, and glassware which enhanced the splendor of formal dining events hosted at Cheekwood. Many original dinner service sets were gifted back to Cheekwood by descendants of the family in 2005, some of which are on view today. Customized porcelain dishware from notable manufacturers, such as Coalportand Royal Daulton, as well as the family’s largest complete set of silver in the Old Colonial style by Towle, decorated the mahogany dining table. Bright red ruby glassware, originally from eastern Europe, added a final pop of color to the table setting.
- • The paintings originally located in this space would have appropriately depicted still life scenes. Those could not be located in the 2015 restoration, so museum staff opted to show portraits of beautiful ladies, a typical subject matter that would be found adorning the walls of the great country houses of England.
- • The true gem of the room is the sideboard whose purchase is in the Cheek records. The sideboard was part of the Countess of Scarborough’s collection and was exhibited at the Art Institute in Chicago in the early 1900s, along with other pieces of her collection. It is crafted from Santa Domingo mahogany, a wood that is highly prized in the Dominican Republic.
Morning Room, Butler’s Pantry, and Elevator Hall
- • The Morning Room, where less formal meals were held, gave the family views across the Swan Lawn and to the riding trail behind the house. It was from this room that each day at Cheekwood began. Mabel would enjoy her coffee while waiting for the daily report from the head gardener, Malcolm Jackson. After leaving his family at their home in the Gate House Lodge at the front of the Cheekwood property, Jackson would stroll through the property, taking note of how certain plantings were coming along, if any limbs were down, or areas of concern had developed. He would meet Mabel as she sat down to breakfast, give his report and then receive his instructions for the rest of the day.
- • Adjoining the Morning Room is the Butler’s Pantry that once stored many pieces of family silver, cutlery, and porcelain. This space also housed the family’s single person 4’ x 4’ x 8’ Otis elevator. Mabel’s mother, Mrs. Wood, was likely able to take advantage of the elevator being so close to her suite under the stairs. Cheekwood was a modern house encompassing two elevator systems, telephones, an annunciator system, and other new technologies of the 1930s. Most of these amenities were disguised within the veneer of a home that gave the impression of predating the development of such advancements.
- • The doorway with the ornamental framing in the elevator hallway was the barrier between the staff and the family. The staff bedrooms, washrooms, workrooms, and the kitchen were located in this area of the house. Opposite the elevator was a staircase for the staff that extended from the Ground Floor to the Second Floor. In the 1990s, these spaces were taken out to create offices for the museum staff. During the recent refurnishing, a part of the railing for this stairwell was found and installed here.
- • The Recreation Room was designed with the family in mind. This space was a quiet, cool place for relief from the summer heat, and a comforting, warm room during the cold of winter. This is where the Cheek family and their guests were the most relaxed and casual. They would pass the time listening to music, playing board games, or cozying up by the fire. On the walls are photos that bring the Cheek family to life, showing them during their travels, at Cheekwood with their pets, and spending time on the property. These images provide insight to the individual people that made Cheekwood their home for many years.
- • The room has undergone significant restoration in recent years, including the revelation of historic wood paneling that had been covered up by dry wall while the room functioned as a library. For years, there were different theories of the origins of the paneling of the Recreation Room. One document identified the interior pine paneling as eighteenth-century English, having arrived at Cheekwood with the other furnishings and architectural salvage in 1929. A different theory stated that the paneling was from the interior of a former eighteenth-century home in South Carolina. Scientific testing eventually proved that the paneling is indeed eighteenth-century southern yellow pine confirming the theory that the Cheeks acquired the interior of a former South Carolina mansion.
Cheekwood began the lengthy process of preparing and planning for a historic restoration of the mansion’s interior in 2012. The restored and refurnished mansion opened to the public on June 17, 2017. Approximately 40% of the furniture in the house is original to the Cheek family and stood in Cheekwood during the family’s time in the home. The remaining 60% is new to Cheekwood. Some pieces are antiques and some are more recent replicas
Documentation that guided the restoration included:
– Oral histories with family members, friends of the Cheeks, former Cheekwood staff, and members of the community with ties to Cheekwood
– Receipts saved from the family’s 1929 trip to England with Bryant Fleming. These itemized lists include descriptions and feature many architectural elements still located in the house.
– A 1932 household inventory. Initiated by Leslie Sr., for insurance purposes, the list includes all structures, automobiles, furniture, china, linens, and decorative objects. The inventory is separated by room and features vital information as to the color and texture choice of textiles and arrangement of furniture, as well as an overall understanding of how the Cheeks curated their space.
Photographs were available from two sources:
– Family scrapbooks passed down through the generations include pictures of the Cheek family from the days at their home on West End in the to the lavish parties held on Cheekwood’s grounds in the 1930s. The contents of these scrapbooks bring the family to life and show how they made a grand house into a home.
– The September 1934 issue of Country Life Magazine featured a stunning seven-page spread on Cheekwood, including photos documenting the main rooms of the home. These photographs, the only known images of the mansion’s interior, show room arrangements, curtain and drapery design, height and placement of paintings, and other valuable visual clues that allowed the rooms to be restored to their former glory.
The gathering of information related to Cheekwood will never cease. Documents, photos, objects, and stories continue to reveal themselves and enrich our understanding about the family and their place in Nashville’s history.
As part of the ongoing work to return the remaining rooms of the Cheek mansion to their original beauty, photographs of the loggia and notes written about the space by Leslie Cheek Jr., were recently uncovered. After describing the steps he took to design the first set of doors for the space, he noted that the color scheme throughout the room was white, yellow and green, and that there was “much use of clear and mirrored glass to aid in the effect of coolness.” The lamps and rugs were bought at W. & J. Sloane, a store in New York City which catered to prominent spaces and families, including the White House and the Vanderbilts.
Over the summer months of 2019, the loggia is undergoing extensive conservation efforts. The eighteenth-century terracotta fountain is being restored off-site, while work is completed on the underlying plumbing system. The plaster walls are returning to their original color following patchwork and refinishing. Finally, furniture reflecting the original 1930s décor is being added so that Cheekwood visitors can experience the true luxury of the loggia beginning in August 2019.
- Conservation Efforts
Did you know that Cheekwood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places? We prioritize preserving the historic structures, landscape design, and gardens at Cheekwood and often have preservation projects going on across the estate.
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.
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.
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 is 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.
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.
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.
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.