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History of Sunnyside in Sevier Park

photo of sunnysideSunnyside was built in about 1852 for Mary Childress Benton. Its site is part of Nashville’s early settlement history. On July 10, 1788, the state of North Carolina granted Thomas Hardiman 640 acres, equivalent to one square mile, along Brown’s Creek for his service in the Revolutionary War. The property changed hands several times before Mary Benton purchased about 38 acres of it in January 1852. By this time, a house of cedar logs existed on the present home site. Mary Benton was the widow of Jesse Benton and the first cousin of Sarah Childress Polk, wife of President James Polk. Jesse, along with his brother, Thomas Hart Benton, is remembered for engaging in a famous pistol fight with Andrew Jackson in 1813. The ongoing quarrel with Jackson caused both brothers to leave Nashville. Thomas Hart Benton moved to Missouri, becoming a well-known public figure and U.S. Senator. Jesse left Nashville to live and own property in both Texas and Louisiana, refusing to “live longer among people who gave such political preference to a man like Andrew Jackson.” Jesse died in 1843.

During construction of the house, Mary lived in the log house and found it so comfortable that she incorporated it into an ell behind the main house, which is a traditional frame building with two rooms downstairs and two upstairs on either side of a central hall. This form is known as an I-house. Sunnyside’s vernacular interpretation of popular antebellum architectural styles combines decorative brackets, usually an Italianate feature, with the central porch, two-story columns, and symmetry of Greek Revival.

Mary brought her widowed niece, Minerva Douglass, and her niece’s two children, Henry and Mary, to live in the completed house. Young Mary Douglass gave Sunnyside its name, reflecting its bright, open hillside location. Mary Douglass later married Theodore Francis (Frank) Sevier of Kentucky, and the young couple lived at Sunnyside until the Civil War, when Frank enlisted in the Confederate Army.

John Shute bought the property during the Civil War for his daughter, Mrs. Stephen Childress, whose husband was a relative of Mary Benton. The couple changed the name of the house to Lee Monte to honor Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Battle of Nashville raged around the house on December 15 and 16, 1864. The property stood between Confederate and Union lines and still bears reminders of the fighting in scars left by minie balls on the porch door and columns. Wounded Union soldiers were treated here in the days following the battle. The Childress family returned after the war and enlarged the farm to 140 acres before selling it in 1875.

In 1882, Dr. L.G. Noel purchased the estate at auction. Noel owned the property longer than any other individual and renamed it Idlewild for his mother’s home in Memphis. Dr. Noel was a prominent Nashville dentist and also taught dentistry classes at Vanderbilt, where he served as chair of dental pathology from 1905 until the dental school closed in 1926. During this period, the property slowly changed from a country estate to a suburban one as modern conveniences like telephones and indoor plumbing were added. A few chickens, horses, and a dairy cow remained, but farming gave way to suburbanization as the Noel family subdivided part of the land.

After Dr. Noel’s death, Granville Sevier, son of Frank and Mary Douglass Sevier, came back to visit the house where his mother had grown up. In 1927, he purchased 20 1/2 acres from the Noel family and brought his mother back to the home she had christened Sunnyside. Sevier renovated the house, adding the one-story brick wings, enlarging the basement, and building the stone office. His heirs sold the property to the city of Nashville after his death in 1945.

Sevier Park opened on this property in 1948. In 1954, a swimming pool was added to the park, and the community center was built in 1963. By 1985, the park had picnic shelters, a ball diamond, tennis courts, a playground, and a basketball court. Sunnyside was occupied by the family of a Parks Department superintendent until 1987. Later, the building housed various community groups. A major restoration was completed in 2004, and Sunnyside is now home to the Metropolitan Historical Commission and Metropolitan Historic Zoning Commission. A new community center opened in Sevier Park in 2014.

Jesse Benton, Mary Benton, Mary Douglass Sevier, and Granville Sevier are buried at the Nashville City Cemetery, 1001 4th Avenue South.