Historic Beechwood Hall stirs preservation activism in rural Williamson


HomeHome / Blog / Historic Beechwood Hall stirs preservation activism in rural Williamson

Jul 05, 2023

Historic Beechwood Hall stirs preservation activism in rural Williamson

Beechwood Hall, just south of Franklin in Williamson County, was built in 1856 and is the center of a land use dispute. (Photo: John Partipilo) On an expansive pasture in Franklin, Tenn., at the end

Beechwood Hall, just south of Franklin in Williamson County, was built in 1856 and is the center of a land use dispute. (Photo: John Partipilo)

On an expansive pasture in Franklin, Tenn., at the end of a lengthy driveway, prominently stands a tall, two-story, columned house that dates back to the 1850s. Known as Beechwood Hall, the home has long served as a connection to Williamson County’s storied past to those driving along the area’s rural roads.

“It is the most beautiful homesite,” said Leonora Clifford, a descendant of the Mayberry family who built the home. “The sheer beauty of it, it just takes over that whole valley.”

In the hands of a new owner, Beechwood Hall’s fate is uncertain and its designation on the National Register of Historic Places does little to prevent its destruction. In recent months, the home has become the focal point of a dispute concerning property rights and preservation, as well as a catalyst for greater scrutiny on how historic homes are regarded in a county undergoing rapid development and growth.

Beechwood Hall owners Larry and Leiyan Keele have considered, along with other options, replacing the home with a new, larger house that resembles the original version. No decisions have been made.

“There is no imminent plan to tear down the house,” Larry Keele said. “Every option is on the table. It’s just too premature to say what we are going to do with it.”

The issue has all the right elements to elevate a controversy — Hank Williams Sr. owned the property at one time, as did country music artists Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Well-known local preservationists, including Mike Wolfe of American Pickers, have weighed in on social media, and Kid Rock raised the issue on Tucker Carlson Tonight. ‘Save Beechwood Hall’ signs and social media posts on the matter have proliferated, leaving several parties feeling attacked.

For historical preservationists and some residents, the issue is bigger than Beechwood Hall.

They describe several historic sites and features in the area that have been replaced or torn down in recent years and point to others that are at risk. In a county known as a conservative foothold, county officials are being asked to explore new regulations that give greater consideration to historic sites in the rural parts of the county.

There is no imminent plan to tear down the house. Every option is on the table. It’s just too premature to say what we are going to do with it.

– Larry Keele, owner of Beechwood Hall

“Beechwood Hall was sort of the call-to-arms, but this will affect so many other properties,” Williamson County resident and former commissioner Mary Brockman said at a recent commissioners meeting in support of new requirements for historic homes. “We as a county are reflected in this in so many ways.” She added, “Sometimes it takes sort of a pivotal movement to say, ‘We can do something. Our hands are not tied.’”

Beechwood Hall’s cultural landscape ‘quite significant’

The brick and stucco Beechwood Hall house was built in 1856 with Greek Revival and Italianate Influences and the property once included a cotton gin and gristmill and slave quarters, a historic marker reads. H.G.W. Mayberry was a captain in the Civil War and in 1860, he was one of the largest landowners in Williamson County, according to National Register records from the 1980s. That same year, he owned 24 enslaved people. In the mid-1900s the house was used as a barn and was vandalized and in the 1960s, it was renovated and remodeled, with the main staircase staying intact.

“The cultural landscape of Beechwood hall, or the house that is known as the former Mayberry plantation, is quite significant,” said Rachael Finch, preservation director of the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County. She has conducted extensive research on the property in recent weeks for the nonprofit focused on local historic preservation. “One of the most important aspects of preserving Beechwood Hall is telling its African-American history.”

The front hall of Beechwood Hall in Franklin, with much of the 1970's era wallpaper stripped. The chandelier is also not original to the house. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The interior of a Beechwood Hall bedroom shows the deterioration of the house with paint peeling from plaster walls. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A view into one of the second floor bedrooms. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The current master bathroom was built out in the 1970s. Long unoccupied, the sink is now marked by waste from birds that have lived in the house. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Beechwood Hall's floating staircase. The original bannister has been removed and put into storage by owner Larry Keele. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Property records show Hank Williams Sr. owned the property for about one year, shortly before he died in 1953. According to the Heritage Foundation, he never lived in the home. Neither did Hill and McGraw.

The Beechwood property was part of a 750-acre tract, until Hill and McGraw sold 130 acres in 2015, according to the Nashville Business Journal, and Columbia-based buyers BKDM Partners purchased the remaining land for $15 million in June 2021. Days later, they sold a 268-acre Beechwood Hall tract to the Keeles.

The Keeles toured the property in May, at a time when hay and corn were growing, Larry Keele said. They appreciated its proximity to downtown Franklin, its large frontage and a lake with a cabin overlooking it. Along with the cabin, they inspected a three-bedroom brick home and Beechwood Hall, which showed clear signs of deterioration at the time. More than a dozen windows were broken and there were signs of birds and rodents. More than anything, they were drawn to the land itself, he said.

“Buying the property had nothing to do with the old house. It was really the beauty of the land that drew us to it,” he said.

A native of Lewisburg, Tenn., and graduate of Tennessee Tech University, Keele returned to Tennessee from Los Angeles in 2018 after retiring from a lucrative investment career. He has family in Middle Tennessee and wanted to be closer to his mother in her final years, he said. The Keeles have bought multiple large properties in the region, including a home near Leiper’s Fork and 500 acres in Maury County. They have supported local land conservation efforts and dedicated hundreds of acres to the Land Trust for Tennessee, a designation that will limit future development, they said.

“It’s one of the prettiest areas in the entire country,” Larry Keele said of the region. “It’s important to protect as much of Middle Tennessee as we can.”

After purchasing the Beechwood Hall property, the Keeles boarded up the house to protect against rain and pulled vines from a side of the house that were cutting into the stucco. They removed a central banister of a winding walnut staircase, still in good shape, and put it in a separate area to better protect it, Larry Keele said. They also tore down an addition to the house from the 1960s or 1970s.

Months ago, the Keeles drafted plans for a new, larger home for them to live in on the Beechwood Hall site, seeking to replicate the front of the house. They wanted to bring back its older porches that had been changed, revitalize the front entrance and add Southern rocking chairs and swings. The interior additions would include more bathrooms, closets and other amenities that much older houses often lack, and a new, stronger foundation would be laid, Larry Keele said.

“Our thought was to build a new home that was very similar to the original Beechwood Hall,” he said. “We thought it was a smart, respectful move.”

By November, social media posts about the property’s fate gained momentum. An online petition to ‘Save Beechwood’ collected support, and Kid Rock appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight. Carlson called the destruction of Hank Williams’ home “an assault on the soul of country music.” Kid Rock said residents feel “under invasion from the state of California” and that those newcomers are told to leave their “politics at the state line.” He suggested getting “some hillbilly” stuff going on if the issue couldn’t be resolved in a good way.

To Clifford, the home’s more recent music-related history is secondary to its earliest years, when her family lived there and contributed to the area’s burgeoning business community. Buying a property with a historic structure comes with an obligation to take care of it and those who can’t or won’t carry out that responsibility shouldn’t buy such properties, she said.

“Mr. Keele is perfectly within his legal rights to take this house down,” she said. “I do not think he is within his moral rights to take it down.” She added, “It is wrong to tear down a structure that has meant so much to the history of this county.”

Aubrey Preston, a Williamson County preservationist who revived Leiper’s Fork in the 1990s and helped launch the Land Trust for Tennessee, advised BKDM on the deal. He said the group had sought to avoid a subdivision development and maintain the landscape’s character by recruiting buyers willing to do so. Preston said Larry Keele verbally committed to preserving the house and that protecting the house was the “most important part of the whole deal.”

“In the rural areas of Williamson County, we’ve been able to operate off the idea of recruiting like-minded, preservation-type buyers,” Preston said. “The preservation of our county has really operated on trust and common sense.”

Restoring the house was never part of the purchase deal, Keele said. Claims that he made an agreement to do so, he said, are “absolutely false.”

Also at issue is a 2019 donation the Keeles made to the Heritage Foundation, listed as between $10,000 and $25,000. Clifford is among those who see that as a means to gain favor from the nonprofit now advising him on next steps.

Mr. Keele is perfectly within his legal rights to take this house down. I do not think he is within his moral rights to take it down.

– Leonora Clifford, a descendant of H.G.W. Mayberry, builder of Beechwood Hall

Keele said the donation had nothing to do with the property purchase he made two years later from another buyer. Heritage Foundation CEO Bari Beasley said the dollars have no influence over protecting historic resources, which is their ultimate aim.

“That was long before he owned the property,” Beasley said. “It has no bearing on how we work on Beechwood and donations have no bearing on how we work on any historic property.”

For the Keeles, the controversy and online comments surrounding their new property have been “shocking,” Larry Keele said. They have installed cameras and hired security to protect the property. “It’s been disheartening and saddening,” Keele said.

Part of Keele’s frustration is that the home had been deteriorating for years with little effort to preserve it. The property has had several owners in past decades who could have restored it or taken more steps to prevent decay.

“No one has taken any steps,” he said. “This house didn’t fall apart in the last year and a half. There have been lots of opportunities for other people or organizations to do something and it never happened.”

In recent years, the Heritage Foundation has conducted a Sites to Save initiative, which calls for nominations for properties that could benefit from restoration efforts. Beechwood has never been nominated and the Heritage Foundation had not been informed of its deterioration until October, Beasley said.

“There obviously have been many opportunities for anyone that was inside the home to contact the Heritage Foundation if they were aware of the deteriorated state of the home,” she said.

A team of Heritage Foundation staff and other professionals are researching the property, developing preservation options and cost assessments for a presentation to the Keeles in January. The nonprofit has taken a position of working alongside the owners in hopes of finding a preservation solution and has uncovered new information about the land and home in its research, Beasley said.

“It is a significant property,” Beasley said. “Obviously, we want to see it preserved.” She added, “At the end of the day, the final outcome is up to the owners. It is private property rights, and so we respect and understand that. All we can do is advocate, and we believe that the best advocacy is to approach it with kindness, respect, (to be) solutions-driven, and that is what we are doing.”

Keele said he welcomes the upcoming discussion with the Heritage Foundation team and that every outcome — from selling the property to restoring the home to rebuilding a new home — is possible. “We are excited to hear what the Heritage Foundation presents to us,” he said. “We will evaluate after that.”

Preservation efforts underway

Williamson County is growing at the fastest rate in the state. Large tracts of land have transformed from massive farms to dense subdivisions in recent decades at the same time several high-income earners and celebrities have bought estates there. The area is also a county steeped in Civil War history, known for the Battle of Franklin and the homes that survived it. Of the 2,000 Tennessee places on the National Register of Historic Places, 130 are located in Williamson County.

At a November Williamson County commissioners meeting, several other properties that had been replaced, torn down or were at risk were mentioned by Brian Laster, secretary of the Williamson County Historical Society. Among them were the Fly Place on Wilson Pike, which dated back to about 1910, and the Samuel Houston Moran house on Old Natchez Trace, which dated back to the 1850s. Both were torn down in 2022, Laster said.

Being listed on the National Register of Historic Places means that sites are considered “worthy of preservation,” but it does not mean there are any restrictions on what an owner can do with the property, unless it receives federal funding, according to the National Register’s site.

Currently in Williamson County, if a property with a historic structure on the National Register is poised for development, zoning laws allow for certain protections, such as putting it on an individual lot with lot size restrictions. If properties are not slated for development, there is no such oversight, said Joe Horne, Williamson County Community Development Director.

After residents and preservation leaders raised concerns about Beechwood and historic properties in general, Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson proposed a taskforce to study historic preservation efforts in November. Demolition permit requirements that would include a months-long delay period for historic structures is among options to be evaluated.

A demolition delay period does not preclude demolition but it can add enough time to alter an outcome, Beasley said. She pointed to a property in Brentwood, known as Owen-Primm House, that avoided demolition in 2021 after an owner opted to sell to a preservation-minded buyer during a required 90-day period. The house will be added onto and incorporated into a larger build, according to Finch and Beasley.

A demolition permit may be an effective measure, but tracking and enforcement must also be considered, Horne said in an interview.

“In a county the size of Williamson, it’s pretty difficult to track. You can take all the cities out, but Williamson is approximately 600 square miles.”

In Franklin, a historic overlay requires approval for property owners seeking to renovate, remove or build, but the jurisdiction is limited to specific areas and properties. To add a historic overlay in Williamson County would mean developing a historic zoning commission. State law specifies a commission’s size and composition and requires guidelines be established for proposed districts or zones. In Williamson County, historic sites and features are spread out, Horne said.

“When you have individual sites sprinkled throughout the county, it’s kind of hard to figure out a zoning mechanism,” he said. “That’s something the county commission is going to have to chew on.”

Beasley said the Heritage Foundation is also working on an inventory of the hundreds of remaining historic features — homes, rock walls and cemeteries — to help guide discussions on how the county wants to proceed with protective measures.

“There is so much development happening,” Beasley said. “We want to be sure we have our eye on what is happening across Williamson county.”

When it comes to Beechwood Hall, Beasley said she cannot predict the home’s outcome. While some of the social media commentary has been unproductive to preservation efforts, she is grateful for the awareness it has brought to historical properties and the work that goes into protecting them. With so many more sites and features, there is much more work to be done.

“We want to preserve the places that matter,” Beasley said. “We want to tell the stories that are so important to our community, and we want to make sure that what people love about Franklin and Williamson County is here for the next generation and the generation after that.”

by Jamie McGee, Tennessee Lookout January 9, 2023

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Jamie McGee covered economic issues for The Tennessean and prior to that, was a reporter for the Nashville Business Journal. Her stories have been featured regularly by USA Today, and she received a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant. She has written for Bloomberg News and The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., and has a Masters in journalism from Columbia University.