Hugh Cathcart Thompson – Nashville’s Legendary Ryman Auditorium Architect Started in Franklin

Hugh Cathcart Thompson Architect The Watson House Lovely Franklin
Hugh Cathcart Thompson, architect of the Watson House and the Ryman Auditorium (Tennessee State Library and Archives)

Hugh Cathcart Thompson is Nashville’s Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet, his name is virtually unknown to most people in Franklin. Thompson is the brilliant architect behind Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. He also designed the Franklin’s historic Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Haynes-Berry House in Franklin, recently renamed the LeHew Mansion, the Watson House, and the Harrison House, a beautiful Victorian tragically torn down in the Five Points district of Franklin at Main Street and 5th Avenue North.

Thompson designed fifty-six buildings during his career as an architect in Nashville, Tennessee. Sadly, only nine are still standing, and Franklin has three of them. His style was highly detailed, and all his structures were exquisitely designed from cottage homes to the massive tabernacle that became the Ryman.

The Ryman Auditorium – Nashville, Tennessee

Ryman Auditorium – Nashville, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

The Ryman Auditorium originally opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Captain Thomas Ryman, a Nashville businessman who owned several saloons and a fleet of riverboats, hired Hugh Cathcart Thompson to design the tabernacle. Ryman had the idea of building a tabernacle after witnessing the preaching of Samuel Porter Jones.  

It was 1885, and Captain Ryman attended a tent revival featuring Jones with the intent of heckling him. But a surprising turn of events happened. Ryman was converted to Christianity! Thereafter, he was determined to build a tabernacle for Nashville’s large revivals. After several years and $100,000 later, Jones held his first revival there on May 25, 1890.

“The Mother Church of Country Music” made its debut when Captain Ryman began renting the building because WSM needed a larger venue for its Grand Ole Opry shows. The Opry was first broadcast from the Ryman on June 5, 1943. The show continued every week for nearly 31 years until it moved to its new location by the Opryland Hotel.

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church – Franklin, Tennessee

Historic Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church has been penned “Franklin’s Ryman Auditorium” by Mary Pearce, former Director of the Heritage Foundation. This historic church was built in 1876 and is located at 615 West Main Street in Franklin, Tennessee. Another Hugh Cathcart Thompson design before he worked on Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. He was an expert in designing church buildings that enhanced musical and choral performances magnificently.

Historic Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

Very few people know the importance of this church that sits in the heart of downtown Franklin between the Five Points District and the historic Hincheyville neighborhood. Its roots run deep in American music history from gospel to country, and even rock-n-roll. There is even an Elvis Presley connection to this church. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Historic Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

Two of the most fascinating members of Cumberland Presbyterian were Felton and Mary Jarvis. Mary was involved in the music industry for 34 years, serving at one time as the executive assistant of RCA Victor, as well as executive assistant to Chet Atkins. In 1969, Mary Lynch married Felton Jarvis, and he also became a member of the church where he later served as an elder until his death in 1981. Mary was also an elder and clerk of the session and served as the pianist for the church for over forty years.

Starting with the Stephens Gospel Quartet, Grand Ole Opry and country music legend Skeeter Davis, and long-time members, Felton and Mary Jarvis added to the musical heritage of the church. In July of 1969, Felton married Chet Atkins’ secretary Mary Lynch.

Stained Glass in Honor of Felton Jarvis (Trenton Lee Photography)

Felton was a musician in his own right, recording several records; however, he eventually found his niche as a record producer for RCA. The first record he ever produced was “Every Beat of My Heart” by Gladys Knight and the Pips. He also worked with many other renowned artists such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Jerry Reed, Fats Domino, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Carl Perkins, Ronnie McDowell, Jim Ed Brown, Floyd Cramer and Skeeter Davis. But he was best-known as the record producer for Elvis Presley from 1966 until Elvis’s death in 1977. When they met, Felton and Elvis seemed to click immediately, and they became close friends.

First United Methodist Church – McMinnville, Tenn.

First United Methodist Church in McMinnville, Tenn.

Another magnificent church building Thompson designed was the First United Methodist Church in McMinnville, Tennessee. By a deed dated April 12, 1884, John H. French conveyed a lot, number 40, on which the First United Methodist Church is located. The purchase price of the lot was $1,100 cash. Clay Faulkner, owner of the Mountain City Woolen Mills, helped build the church.  Like other Faulkner buildings, your will find great limestone foundations, handsome handmade bricks that have not changed or even chipped in the last hundred years, and arches that enhance all windows and doors. 

First United Methodist Church in McMinnville, Tenn. (Photography by Stein)

In 1886, the work had progressed to the extent that the congregation had the ceremony of placing the cornerstone in the building. It weighed over 5,000 pounds.  When you enter the sanctuary, you experience the brightness from the many tall windows with art glass panes of pastel colors, divided by wooden mullion. The massive pipe organ dominates the sanctuary. It has 37 ranks of pipes, two keyboards and 46 stops including chimes.

The old oak pews have a small amount of carving highlighted with the St. Andrew’s cross deeply cut into the side at the top of the pew. The First United Methodist Church is of great historic and architectural value to the people of Warren County. This is yet another marvel envisioned by this famous Nashville architect.

The Watson House – Franklin, Tennessee

The Watson House | Lovely Franklin
The Watson House – Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

One of my personal favorite Hugh Cathcart Thompson designs is the Watson House. Located at 214 3rd Avenue South in Franklin, this incredible home was built in 1881. It’s so beloved that it was even featured in “Treasures of America and Where to Find Them” published by Reader’s Digest in 1974.

Only four Franklin families have lived in the Watson house, all highly prominent with interesting stories of their own. The Watson family lived in the home for over a century before it was sold to Dan and Denise Klatt, then later to Mike and Ann Bodnar, who now live in the historic Harris McEwen House. The lovely Ellen Smith with her two sons, Laird and Overton, now reside in the home. 

The house was originally built for Susan Catherine “Kitty” Puryear Watson in 1881. The style is Second French Empire French Victorian and features a splendid mansard roof. Read our story on the Watson House here.

The Haynes-Berry House (LeHew Mansion) – Franklin, Tennessee

The Haynes Berry House | Hugh Cathcart Thompson |Lovely Franklin
The Haynes-Berry House (LeHew Mansion) – Franklin, Tenn. (Daniel C. White Photography)

Avalyn Berry Swain’s family owned the old Berry Place that was located on Berry Circle. She is the daughter of Tyler Berry and the granddaughter of Walter Aiken Roberts. The Haynes-Berry house has been renamed the LeHew Mansion, after one of the Heritage Foundation’s major donors. The home is located next to Franklin Grove, formerly the O’More College of Design. Mr. Haynes, owner of a downtown hardware store, paid Nashville architect Hugh Cathcart Thompson $6,000 to construct the home. It was completed in the 1890’s and in the style of Romanesque Revival with Eastlake with High Queen Anne touches. The Heritage Foundation recently restored this beloved family home and is the new home of Williamson, Inc.

Read Avalyn Berry Swain’s story of “Growing Up in Franklin” here.

The Harrison House – Franklin, Tennessee

The Harrison House – Franklin, Tenn. (Rick Warwick Collection)

One of the most beautiful homes Hugh Cathcart Thompson designed was the Harrison House in the Five Points district on the corner of 5th Avenue and West Main in Franklin. This beautiful Victorian was tragically torn down. The home was built in 1881 for $28,000. It was the most expensive house in Williamson County at the time.

James W. Harrison was president of the Williamson County Bank and grocery store owner. The home was torn down in 1931 by Irby Watson for Ned Eggleston, who had bought the house and lot from Margaret Watkins.

The Harrison House sat on the corner of Main Street and 5th Avenue North, where Sweet Cece’s, the former Ford dealership, Interurban bus station and fire rescue squad building were located. Preservationist Bill Powell owns that building up to Sweet CeCe’s. Bill says the structure was built from brick, wood, and stone from the Harrison House.

Probably the one good thing that came out of this demolition was that all the materials used to build the shops next door were repurposed. Today, the building houses Franklin Road Apparel, Habit, Skin Theory Rx, and Heylee B.

Franklin Road Apparel Brandon Baril Lovely Franklin
Franklin Road Apparel – Franklin, Tenn. (Misty Westebbe Photography)

The Franklin Road Apparel building dates back to 1935 and was the location of both a Dodge and Ford dealership, and later housed Franklin’s fire and rescue squad. It has been carefully restored, while keeping its fascinating history thanks to the efforts of preservationist Bill Powell. Since moving to Franklin in 1974, Bill has restored over 75 homes and buildings in Franklin. Read our feature on Bill Powell here.

Hugh Cathcart Thompson’s Residence – 1201 Holly Street in Nashville, Tenn.

Hugh Cathcart Thompson’s Private Residence in East Nashville

In 1885, Hugh Cathcart Thompson designed and built his own lovely Victorian home in East Nashville. The home has been called “The Crown Jewel of Lockeland Springs.”

Hugh Cathcart Thompson’s 1201 Holly Street Residence in East Nashville

This beauty is located at 1201 Holly Street in Nashville. Filled with original millwork, hardwoods, mantles, transom windows, and grand staircase, this is a true piece of Nashville history.

Hugh Cathcart Thompson’s Home – 1615 Woodland Street in Nashville, Tenn.

Hugh Cathcart Thompson’s Private Residence in East Nashville

In 1910, he built this adorable Victorian cottage at 1615 Woodland Street in Nashville. The home is a one-of-a-kind piece of Nashville history. It features 15 ft. ceilings, and the intricate trim work Thompson was famous for on the exterior and front porch of the home.

Utopia Hotel – Nashville, Tennessee

The original Utopia Hotel designed by Hugh Cathcart Thompson at 210 4th Ave. North in Nashville

Located between Fourth Avenue and historic Printers Alley, the Utopia was designed by Hugh Cathcart Thompson to be a luxurious European-style hotel. Now part of the Dream Nashville hotel, it was built in 1891. The hotel was designed to accommodate the visitors of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition held in Nashville from May 1 – October 31, 1897, in what is now Centennial Park. A reproduction of the Parthenon was built for this event.

President William McKinley officially opened the event from the White House, where he pressed a button that started the machinery building at the fair. He later visited the fair in person a month later. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Rutherford B. Hayes visited the Utopia Hotel.

Utopia Hotel Developer Alex Mark (The Tennessean)

In 2014, it was turned into a luxury boutique hotel alongside other buildings around it, by developer Bill Barkley and investors Alex Marks and Billy Frist. During the renovation, they found beautiful pocket doors, original trim and molding, ornate overhead light fixtures and rare Tennessee pink marble. All of those elements were preserved and incorporated into the new 160-room, six-story hotel.

The Utopia was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Glen Leven Farm – Nashville, Tennessee

Glen Leven Farm | Nashville, TN
Porte-cochère, c. 1887, likely designed by Hugh Cathcart Thompson for Glen Leven Farm in Nashville, (Nancy Rhoda)

This Porte-cochère, c. 1887, was likely designed by Hugh Cathcart Thompson for Glen Leven Farm in Nashville. Early settler Thomas Thompson established Glen Leven Farm in 1790, six years before Tennessee became the 16th state of the United States. The home at Glen Leven Farm was designed by John Thompson, for his fourth wife, Mary Hamilton House Thompson. In the 1880s, the house underwent a renovation that was attributed to Hugh Cathcart Thompson. Located on the corner of Franklin Road and Thompson Lane, the farm was left to The Land Trust of Tennessee.

Spring Hill Cemetery – Nashville, Tennessee

Hugh Cathcart Thompson Gravestone – Nashville, Tenn.

Hugh Cathcart Thompson is buried in the Spring Hill Cemetery at 5110 Gallatin Pike South in Nashville. Notice his gravestone says, “Uncle Hugh Thompson” along with his wife “Aunt Ellen Thompson.” The couple did not have children, but it was believed to have raised their niece. So, we assume she purchased this marker to honor them.

This historic Nashville cemetery is also the final resting place for Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, Keith Whitely, Floyd Kramer, Billy Walker, Earl and Louise Scruggs, along with Johnny Wright and Kitty Wells, the “Queen of Country Music.”

We hope you have enjoyed this story about one of the most important architects in Nashville history. Hugh Cathcart Thompson, we honor you and your remarkable talent to create some of Nashville and Franklin’s most spectacular churches, buildings, and homes.

Sharing the backstories of historic Franklin with love,

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