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The Other Attractions of Nashville

April 12, 1987|ELLEN ALPERSTEIN | Alperstein is a Santa Monica free-lance writer.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The first thing that probably comes to mind with the word Nashville is the term country music. But as vibrant as Nashville's music scene is, to experience the city only in terms of its musical abundance is to be sadly limited.

Nashville, a city of roughly half a million, is blessed with a topographical environment that begs closer scrutiny than what you can see riding in a car from Opryland to Music Row.

Ten minutes from city center you can find yourself in the middle of a cow pasture, if that's your thing, soaking in the rural ambiance along with the humblest of creatures. Things grow well here, and people have the good sense to keep nature drawn close.

A visitor can enjoy the urban-rural character of Nashville in a couple of ways. One is to tour some of the refurbished plantation homes that freckle the area.

In terms of sheer beauty of design, both architectural and landscape, my vote goes to the Hermitage, home of America's seventh President, Andrew Jackson. Nicknamed "Old Hickory" after the legendary strength of the tree that is so indelibly identified with Tennessee, Jackson built a home that is a delightful combination of established, stately elegance and personal indulgence.

The cedar trees that line the driveway in the shape of a mandolin are a tribute to the musical talents of Jackson's daughter-in-law, Sarah. Elsewhere, maple, dogwood, magnolia, shagbark, oak, cedar and tulip poplars grace the 625 acres that remain of the 1,050 that Jackson held at his death.

Product of Love

Rachel Jackson's inviting garden, with tea roses, peonies, lavender and other blooming profusion is a must-wander. Clearly a product of love (it was designed by noted English gardener William Frost), it serves as a fitting venue for the family tomb.

Within the walls of the Hermitage, much of the original furniture remains in excellent condition, with the exception of those pieces lost in a fire in 1834. Among the more notable effects is the hickory wood fireplace mantel, painstakingly hand-carved over a period of 24 years by an unnamed soldier with profound allegiance to his commanding officer.

The Thomas Sully portraits throughout the house are curious as well, as much for their worth as the fact that the artist was the one who fashioned Jackson's visage on the $20 bill.

A 12-mile drive east of Nashville off Interstate 40, the Hermitage is at 4580 Rachel's Lane, Hermitage, Tenn. 37076. Phone (615) 889-2941. Admission for adults is $3.75, youths $1.25; hours daily except Christmas and Thanksgiving, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Another plantation home is Belle Meade, seven miles southwest of downtown Nashville at 110 Leake Ave., Nashville 37205.

Belle Meade (beautiful meadow) sets an appropriate scene for the property's 250 acres (from a mid-1800s total of 5,300), and has a rich horse-racing history.

Much of Belle Meade's contents have to do with the horsy set, and those folks were serious thoroughbred racers. Where portraits of people grace the halls of the Hermitage, at Belle Meade you're more likely to find portraits of horses.

William Harding, owner of the property at the time, bought a particularly pricey piece of horse flesh in 1872, and was called a fool for spending $8,000 on a 19-year-old horse that had to make the trip from England. Ancestor to contemporary thoroughbred racers Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Swale, among others, Bonnie Scotland (and Harding's perspicacity) are celebrated.

Journalists at Funeral

Additional horse lore at Belle Meade stems from the life of Iroquois, the first American horse to win the English Derby. If you like that tale, you'll love the fact that another Belle Meade product, Enquirer, was the namesake of the Cincinnati newspaper, and upon his death, circa 1890, 800 journalists attended the funeral.

There's more to the place than tales of horses, including plain old gossip. There's the tidbit about President Taft who, on a visit, managed to wedge his 300-pound frame so securely within the confines of the bathtub as to require much assistance in removal. This episode prompted the hospitable hosts to install one of the first showers in America.

Admission to Belle Meade for adults is $2.50, students $2 and children $1. It's open daily--except Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's--from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.

Another way to enjoy the quieter aspects of life in Nashville is to drop into a few nearby places of interest such as Franklin, about 20 minutes south of downtown Nashville, a town rich in Civil War history.

The Civil War Battle of Nashville was one of the most decisive, waged in Franklin in 1864. At the time, Nashville was under Union dominance and, unfortunately for the Southern contingent, was to remain so despite the efforts of Gen. John Bell Hood.

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