There are many museums, historic sites, and associated venues for Nashville tourists to enjoy, but for those looking for something a little quieter outside the visitor district, I recommend a visit to Cheekwood Estate and Gardens. Located about 8 miles southwest from downtown, visitors can expect a new experience every time they come to Cheekwood, which functions as a combination of art museum, historic house, and gardens with a year-round schedule of special events and installations. I have been lucky to visit several times, but this time devoted myself mainly to the house since the gardens were not quite ready for spring yet.
Cheekwood Estate and Gardens was the former residence of the Leslie Cheek, Sr., family. Leslie Cheek joined the family business, a large and successful wholesale grocery distributor, ultimately becoming president of C. T. Cheek & Sons in 1915. Leslie Cheek also invested in his cousin Joel Cheek’s-Neal Coffee Company, better known as Maxwell House Coffee. When General Foods bought the coffee company in 1928, Leslie Cheek was ready to fulfill a promise to his wife Mabel and invest his part of the sale profits in a grand new mansion. Construction began in 1929 under the supervision of architect Bryant Fleming, and the family moved to the property in 1932 as work on the gardens was finishing. The estate, named Cheekwood from family names, was a model of the American Country Place Era where the architectural design of the mansion extended into the gardens and landscaping elements. Members of the Cheek family were in residence until 1957, when Huldah Cheek Sharp and her husband Walter Sharp donated the land in order to develop an art museum and botanical garden. Cheekwood opened to the public in 1960.
Visitors will see English architectural influences in the Georgian style house, extending outward onto the massive wisteria arbor and the boxwood gardens. Even with the new addition of the Frist Learning Center, the historic stable and tack room reflect the American Country Place style. While Cheekwood is still as dedicated to art and art education as when it first opened, the more recent historical interpretation in the stables and the main rooms of the house allows visitors to understand the family, the employees who worked there over the years, and the era in a more meaningful way. Further, this interpretation leaves visitors with a sensation that the family is still in residence, just out of sight. Another benefit from this interpretive focus on the Cheek family is that it further reflects the intertwined indoor/outdoor living motifs prevalent in the American Country Place Era. This is evident especially in the Loggia, a fully enclosed space now but once a covered porch-like space that was the site many parties over the years.
The original emphasis on Cheekwood as a botanic garden remains as the primary reason to visit the estate. There are several different study gardens, color gardens, and perennial gardens over the fifty plus acres. Upkeep, maintenance, and renovation are constant in the garden spaces, but the results are spectacular. Water features and sculpture only emphasize the beauty of the gardens as they change with the seasons. Special events that combine Cheekwood’s art and horticulture missions like Steve Tobin: Southern Roots, LIGHT: Installations by Bruce Munro, and the 2020 Chihuly installation, highlight these already cultivated spaces and attract thousands of visitors to the site. At this writing, although excited for the upcoming Chihuly installation, I am specifically looking forward to the reopening of Shomu-En, Blevins Japanese Garden, originally designed by David Harris Engel but updated and extended by Sadafumi Uchiyama, the garden curator for the renowned Portland (Oregon) Japanese Garden.
Not every space at Cheekwood Estate and Gardens is wheelchair accessible. Further, while curators and caretakers do their best to make sure guest satisfaction, it is a historic mansion and gardens with several places that are narrow, require steps, or difficult to navigate due to special installations. Also, families with very young children should know that strollers are not allowed in the mansion. There is shuttle service available for many parts of the estate from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM, but I recommend stopping at Visitor Services to ask about times and routes.
Admission to Cheekwood is $22 for adults, $20 for visitors 65 and older, $15 for children aged 3 to 17 years old, and free admission for children aged 2 and under. The Nashville area has many schools, colleges, and universities, and to acknowledge and encourage student engagement there is a discount with a valid student id. Cheekwood Estate and Gardens is a Blue Star Museum, so active-duty military families are admitted at no cost from Armed Forces Day (the third Saturday in May) to Labor Day. Parking is $5 per car. Additional fees are applied during special events and installations, which is explained on their web pages at https://cheekwood.org/visit/buy-tickets/.
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Donna J. Baker is the University Archivist for Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Prior to this, she was Head of Special Collections and Archives and curator of the Appalachia-Kentucky Collection at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. She received her MA in History from Eastern Illinois University and her MSLS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.