Williamson County's historic Beechwood Hall unprotected by zoning, could be torn down
Published 10:12 a.m. CT Nov. 8, 2022 | Updated 3:31 p.m CT Nov 8, 2022
Beechwood Hall was completed in 1856 and sits on hundreds of acres in bucolic Williamson County. The home has been called "one of the most significant homes in Williamson County."
Beechwood Hall, built in 1856, is not protected by any historic zoning in Williamson County
Preservationists fear the owners plan to tear down the historic home
A historic home situated on hundreds of acres along Bear Creek Road in Williamson County — known as Beechwood Hall — was built in 1856 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
That designation, however, does not protect it from being torn down.
Mary Pearce, a longtime preservationist and former head of the county's Heritage Foundation, learned from an Instagram post by @LovelyFranklinTN that Beechwood Hall's new owners intended to tear down the existing home and build a new one in its place.
She isn't happy.
"This home is a peer property to Carnton Plantation," Pearce told The Tennessean. "The staircase inside is very similar to the staircase at the Hermitage. The historic home is on the prettiest setting and I would say the crown jewel of Williamson County. It's one of the most significant homes in the county."
The home's owner, Larry Keele, responded by saying that much of the information circulating online is incorrect.
The staircase inside Beechwood Hall is Williamson County is very similar to the staircase at the Hermitage in Nashville. This photo was taken before the current owners began removing the staircase spindles. Fridrich & Clark Realty LLC
"We have been working on plans for the property for some time," Keele said via text message. "Those plans have and will continue to evolve over time. We are working closely with the Heritage Foundation and its team of advisors. There is absolutely no plan for demolition."
But photos provided to The Tennessean show a back addition to the home has already been deconstructed and portions of its marquee staircase have been removed.
Pearce said she hoped the owner wasn't utilizing structural engineering reports on the 150-plus-year-old home to justify any sort of deconstruction.
"In my 30-something years at the Heritage Foundation, if we had used a structural engineer's report to decide whether to save something or not, we would have torn down the Franklin Theatre, the Old, Old Jail and Carnton," Pearce said.
"This place can legally be torn down, and the only thing I feel like we have on our side is trying to get citizens to tell the owners how much we all care about this home and its history."
Mike Wolfe of 'American Pickers' speaks out
Mike Wolfe, best known for his History Channel show "American Pickers," is a Williamson County resident and has also restored and saved multiple historic buildings in and around Nashville that might not have been candidates for renovation if it weren't for his vision. "I restored a house in Leiper's Fork that every person that looked at it said they were going to buy it and tear it down," Wolfe said. "Another building I restored in Nashville, I had three different contractors tell me I was nuts and 'this can't be restored.'"
Pearce and Wolfe have both been in touch with Keele and have encouraged him to reconsider any potential plans to tear down and rebuild.
"I said to Larry that just because you have the money to buy it and to tear it down and build what you want does not mean you have the right to do that," Wolfe said.
This photo shows the current status of Beechwood Hall's grand staircase. Preservationists fear the owners of the home are dismantling it in preparation to demolish the historic home. Submitted
Beechwood Hall's history, back to 1856
H.G.W. Mayberry and his wife completed Beechwood Hall in 1856. It was built using contractors Byron and Jasper Lillie, who also built Old Town, another historic property in Williamson County. Beechwood withstood the Civil War.
In 1951, Hank Williams Sr. purchased the property, although he never lived there. It was later owned by country music stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
The home is a combination of Greek Revival and Italianate architecture with features such as floor-to-ceiling windows and a grand, open foyer displaying a freestanding spiral walnut staircase, according to the home's historical marker, erected by the Williamson County Historical Society.
Ninth-generation Franklin resident Leonora Clifford can trace her roots back to Mayberry and his wife, who are her second-great-grandparents. She told The Tennessean she still has furniture, as well as paperwork and photos, of the various generations who have lived there.
"I had followed the house through the years and kept up with various owners," Clifford said. "I had only been aware of the plans to tear it down very recently and was heartbroken. I hope with the media attention, this will not be the end for this beautiful house."
File | The Tennessean
Signs of a bigger problem
Although the city of Franklin has a historic zoning overlay designed to protect historic structures, unincorporated Williamson County does not. A call to the county planning department revealed that "anything" can be torn down – without a permit – in the county, even historically significant buildings.
"Seeing this happen to historic properties is heartbreaking," Wolfe said. "It’s devastating. Everybody is at a loss. How can this happen?
"I am standing in a 1910 beautiful old farmhouse right now. The next person after me could tear it down. If we do not have a historic overlay in Williamson County, this is going to be something we are dealing with over and over. We’ve been lucky to this point that a lot of people who have bought these properties have restored them."
Pearce said it is her understanding that under county government, there isn't a tool to do historic overlay zoning, but she would at least like to see some restrictions and structure enabled.
"I’d hope you’d have to get a demo permit and 90-day notice," she said "That, at the very least, would give people time to advocate for preservation, work with owners to come up with a preservation plan that would meet new owners’ desire for the property while saving the historic structure. That would be a giant first step."
According to an Instagram post by @LovelyFranklinTN, Beechwood Hall's owners had contracted with an architect to draw the new home that would replace Beechwood Hall. That architect, according to the Instagram page, has withdrawn from the job due to its historic nature.
Preservationists see that as a small win in what is becoming an increasingly large battle.
Wolfe said he told Keele that Beechwood Hall has a lot of interest and is bigger than just him now.
"We need a historic overlay," he said. "It's a big deal that this house is on the historic register. But unfortunately, I thought as something that significant, there’d be absolutely no way it could ever be under the wrecking ball. I didn’t know we are all just hoping and praying and wishing that the caretakers of these properties care in the same way we do.
"I hope he makes the right decision," Wolfe added. "I truly do."
Commitment in writing? Declined
This photo shows the current state of Beechwood Hall. The home, built in 1856, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The home's owner has removed an addition to the rear of the home leaving the home exposed to the elements. Submitted
Pearce said she asked Keele to put in writing that he would work to see the house rehabilitated.
"He has declined to put it in writing, and to this point, he has declined to let me come into the house with a preservation specialist," Pearce said. "We have kept historic houses one negotiation with the property owner at a time. We just hope this will be one more property owner who is compelled to do the right thing."
He also declined to make a commitment to Wolfe.
"When I spoke to him, I shared my background and my hopes that he would reconsider and not tear the house down and possibly renovate it and maybe add an addition," Wolfe said. "He would never commit to saying, 'No I don’t want to tear it down.' I wanted to do my due diligence."
The good news, Wolfe said: He was willing to listen and willing to talk.
Wolfe said his interest in this home stems from the fact that he lives in Williamson County and understands the home's historical significance.
"If I can be a part in any way of bringing a voice to the house or the people it means so much to, then I’m blessed to be able to do that," he said.
Pearce, however, said she sees the current homeowners as ideal candidates to save this house. They have made investments in other homes in Williamson County, she said, and their plans for this property morphed from restoring this house to tearing it down because of complications.
"I am working with the African American Heritage Society to save the home at 264 Natchez St. in Franklin," Pearce said. There are mold, structural issues, water damage, asbestos and lead paint.
"But guess what? We are going to save that house. We're using that report to give us guidance as to everything that needs to be repaired."
Melonee Hurt covers growth and development at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today Network — Tennessee. Reach Melonee at firstname.lastname@example.org.