The Tennessean from Nashville, Tennessee on May 28, 2010 · N10
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The Tennessean from Nashville, Tennessee · N10

Nashville, Tennessee
Issue Date:
Friday, May 28, 2010
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ION FRIDAY, MAY 28, 2010 Margaret and Elise Croft sit on the porch of the Croft House in 1973. The sisters worried the house and its natural surroundings would be swallowed up by the rapidly developing Nashville. They sought out a way to conserve and preserve it through a nonprofit, ultimately making a gift to the Cumberland Museum, submitted Croft House turns 200 CROFT FROM IN Michael Dunn bought 200 acres and built the house in 1810. Dunn's descendants included some of the city's early public figures, but most were ordinary, albeit comfortable, private citizens. So the house is a typical, middle-class home, "not a Belle Meade," Mason said. The 1810 Federal-style house was renovated in the 1850s into the more ornate Italianate style. What is unique is that 95 percent of the furnishings, from family portraits to soup spoons, are the family's possessions. The dining room is special, Mason said. The table is set with everyday china, except for Christmas, when zookeepers bring out the finer sterling and porcelain. "Every family member that ever ate here ate in that dining room," Mason said. Some family members left other permanent reminders. Venie Shute, an aunt of the Croft sisters, scratched her name in a windowpane with a diamond engagement ring. The story is that she was testing whether her fiance had given her a real gem, since diamond is harder than glass. Her name is still there, and she married him. Power of the Purse Natalie Dickson, Deb Durrett and Renee Anzalone the Power Purse Lun- M cheon, which benefits The Women's Fund of The Community Foundation of Middle Courtney McCracken, Meredith Risner, Tammy Johnson and Dianne Spencer Tennessee, photos by larry mccormack the tennessean yj ' 'j Hope Stringer and Perian Strang HF ' iMt Gail Williams and Ellen Lehman Guests look at the purses at a silent auction at the Power of the Purse Luncheon. The house is imbued with the spirit of its final owners, the sisters Elise and Margaret. "That's what makes this house come alive," Mason said. "We have all of Elise's diaries from the 1920s through the 1970s. We know who she was and what she thought." The sisters lived in Cuba, where their father had a sugar plantation, but returned to their mother's family home at Grassmere for the summers. "Their mother felt Cuba was not the most marvelous place to bring up two young ladies, so each summer she brought them back here or (took them) to London or Paris to go to galleries and cafes," Joe Thompson Jr., a distant relative of the two, recalled in a 1986 interview. The sisters moved back to Grassmere permanently in 1931, living comfortably on the income from the farm and Cuba holdings. Ruth Warner remembers the sisters from their visits to her aunt, Elizabeth Overton Colton, in the 1960s. "My mother called them 'the Croft girls.' They were like Victorian relics, not of this time. They'd go up to their attic they called it 'the garret' and rummage through and dress up. COMMUNITY LIFE They'd arrive in these old hats, and they'd just cackle." She reconnected with the sisters when she curated a hand-weaving exhibit at Cheekwood in 1976. Margaret, who spent her summers at a weavers' school in North Carolina, provided some of her works, "but anonymously. They were very skittish about publicity." Then after Margaret's death, Warner would visit Elise to take soup and fresh bread. "The house was chilly, so we sat in the hall by the heater. I remember after church, we'd have dry sherry and shortbread." The sisters reminded her of characters from a Jane Austen novel, "like landed gentry, provincial but aristocratic in their eccentricities." But they were much more than stereotypes, she adds. "They were refined Southern gentle ladies. But with their time in Cuba, I think they were a little bit exotic. They were very connected to the land, very literate, and had some more international perspectives." The sisters' income from Cuba vanished with Fidel Castro's revolution, and they struggled to pay property taxes on the increas- . - - ' i, - q- : 0 - o : t tit A -3 Elise Croft's bedroom contains the furniture she used. It dates from the 1850s and is a style known as cottage. Many of the home's furnishings date from the mid 19th century, when the house was extensively remodeled, alicia gipson the tennessean ingly valuable land. They were offered $1 million for the land, but the sisters balked at plans for an industrial park. They sought out a nonprofit organization to preserve it and deeded the property to the Cumberland Museum, with two conditions. They could live out their lives with the museum paying the property taxes, and at least 200 acres would be a permanent nature park. In 1996, Mayor Phil Bre-desen brokered a partnership that created the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. The zoo always recognized the house as an important feature. But the first priorities were to launch the zoo. The house also needed basic repairs. A $250,000 grant in 1997 stabilized it. The vision was to create a farm exhibit, as most others zoos have, to "teach kids that milk and eggs don't just come from the grocery store," Mason said. But Nashville's farm has a unique asset, the historical house. So the zoo is now focusing on heirloom farm breeds, which reflect the self-sufficiency of 19th-century family farms like Grass-mere. Black and white Wyandotte chickens stroll the coop. The pasture holds Devon cattle, a breed used for milk, meat and work animals. Visitors can learn about the animals from keeper talks. And soon visitors can try a virtual tour guide. The zoo's first podcast will describe and interpret the farm as visitors stroll the THE TENNESSEAN grounds. Visitors will be able to download it onto their iPods or pick up a loaded one at the zoo. Mason hopes the anniversary celebration, continuing until September, will add more knowledge about the house and its family. "Places like Mount Vernon and the Hermitage, all of it is pretty much learned. We're still learning. Hopefully, we'll get more stories so we can continue to change and grow our interpretation." Warner thinks the sisters would be thrilled that their home and its natural surroundings have been preserved. "I often think, 'What would Elise think?' If she could see these giraffes and elephants there, she'd just cackle."

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