Tennessee Royalty Ellen Smith Opens Up Her Stunning Home – Franklin’s Historic Watson House

If you could envision a captivating story about one of the most important homes in Franklin, Tennessee, it is without a doubt the spectacular Watson House. This home is so full of fascinating stories and architectural details, we can’t wait for you to step inside with us as we share her backstory.

Located at 214 3rd Avenue South as you enter Franklin from Highway 96 and I-65, this incredible home built in 1881 is among a long line of stunning historic homes before you reach the downtown square. 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.

Hugh Cathcart Thompson, Tennessee’s Legendary Architect

Hugh Cathcart Thompson, architect of the Watson House and the Ryman Auditorium (Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives)

The most incredible piece of history about this home is that it was designed by Hugh Cathcart Thompson, the architect who designed the Ryman Auditorium. Thompson also designed the historic Haynes-Berry House in Franklin, recently renamed the LeHew Mansion in partnership with the Heritage Foundation and Williamson Inc.’s Center for Innovation. He designed Franklin’s Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and the Harrison House, a beautiful Victorian tragically torn down in the Five Points district of Franklin.

Notice the similarities of the Ryman between the Watson House. The Ryman 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 and continued every week for nearly 31 years until it moved to its new location by the Opryland Hotel.

Hugh Cathcart Thompson’s Private Residence in East Nashville

In 1885, just four years after the Watson House, 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.” This beauty is located at 1201 Holly Street in Nashville. In 1910, he built this adorable Victorian cottage at 1615 Woodland Street in Nashville.

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

Thompson designed and built 56 homes and buildings in the Nashville area, only nine are still standing today including the Utopia Hotel, now part of the Dream Nashville hotel, the phenomenal First Methodist Church in McMinnville, Tennessee, and a carriage house attached to Glen Leven Farm.

Hugh Cathcart Thompson is buried in the Spring Hill Cemetery at 5110 Gallatin Pike South in Nashville.

Four Generations of Fabulous Families Resided Here

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 Second Most Expensive Home at the Time in Franklin

Kitty Puryear Watson and her daughter Letitia (photo courtesy of Rick Warwick)

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.

Kitty had the original 1802 home torn down that was much smaller but kept the basement and built on top of it. She hired Nashville architect Hugh Cathcart Thompson to design and build this incredible home for $18,000. It was the second most expensive home in Franklin at the time.

When Franklin was first established, there were 192 original lots laid out by founder, Abram Maury, who donated most of the land. The downtown was sectioned off into 16 identical blocks with 12 lots per block. The Watson House is located on lot 110. 

Kitty was a widow, and after her husband Thomas died she wanted a home closer to town to educate her three daughters, Letitia, Marietta, and Kate. 

Kitty’s Father Mordecai Puryear – The Gentleman Farmer

Kitty’s father was Colonel Mordecai Puryear, a gentleman farmer who lived at 1251 Lewisburg Pike in a house he built in 1830. It’s located on a large tract of land his father Major Hezekiah Puryear acquired following the Revolutionary War. Built with bricks fired on the property, this magnificent home almost two centuries old has been expanded twice.

The Puryear House built in 1830

Surrounded by majestic beech trees, the Puryear home survived the Civil War, but its outbuildings and a cotton gin were destroyed by Federal soldiers. Colonel Puryear was one of the ten original investors in the National Bank of Franklin in 1871. He helped his only child, Susan Catherine, who went by Kitty, purchase the property on 3rd Avenue South.

The Lady of the House – the Lovely Ellen Smith

In our opinion, there is no house in Franklin more beautiful with such a fascinating history as the Watson House. The charming Ellen Smith owns this marvelous home, and she graciously gave us a tour to share it with you. It rivals any house you will find in Architectural Digest, yet genteel enough to be featured in Southern Living

Ellen attended Harpeth Hall, and later graduated boarding school from Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Virginia. She returned to Franklin to attend O’More College of Design where she took all their interior design classes, and later worked at Annali Interiors in Nashville. Ellen’s exquisite taste runs through the entire home. She has masterfully created a home that honors its historic past, while making it a comfortable space to raise her two growing active boys. 

Ellen is truly Tennessee royalty. She is the fourth-great granddaughter of Superior Court Judge John Overton. He is known as the “The Founder of Memphis” on land he owned with his best friends, Andrew Jackson and James Winchester. John Overton was married to Mary McConnell, the daughter of the founder of Knoxville, James White. Ellen’s esteemed father, Henry Laird Smith, Jr. was a graduate of Montgomery Bell Academy and Vanderbilt University, and later worked as an administrator for MBA. This wonderful family photo below was taken at Glen Leven.

Ellen Smith’s Family (her father Henry Laird Smith, Jr. is second from the left, and Ellen’s great grandmother, Margaret Lipscomb Thompson, is third from the left)

Here is Ellen’s fascinating family lineage:

  • Judge John Overton married Mary McConnell White Overton 
  • Col. John Overton married Harriet Virginia Maxwell (the original Maxwell House Hotel was named after Harriet)
  • Their daughter – Mary McConnell “Con” Overton married 1852 John Thompson
  • Their Son – Overton Thompson married Margaret Campbell Lipscomb
  • Their daughter – Margaret Allison Thompson married Henry Laird Smith, Sr.
  • Their son – Henry Laird Smith, Jr. married Catherine Louise Donahoe
  • Their daughter – Ellen Louise Smith
Travellers Rest – Nashville, TN

John Overton’s Nashville home, Travellers Rest was built in 1799 and is the oldest historic house open to the public in Tennessee. The home is now owned and run by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. Ellen’s family married into the Thompson family. 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 Ellen’s great-great-great grandfather, John Thompson, for his fourth wife, Mary Hamilton House Thompson, the mother of his two sons, John and Joe. In the 1880s, the house underwent a renovation that was attributed to Hugh Cathcart Thompson, who designed the Watson House. Located on the corner of Franklin Road and Thompson Lane, the farm was left to The Land Trust of Tennessee by Ellen’s relative, Susan West.

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

Ellen serves on the Board of Directors for the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County, Travellers Rest, and Belmont Mansion. She also serves on the advisory committee for Studio Tenn and is on the Parent Association board for Battle Ground Academy (BGA)

Enter Award-Winning Architect and Historic Preservationist Ridley Wills

Nashville architect, Ridley Wills, did all the renovations on the home for Ellen once she moved in. He is an expert in historic architecture. His great grandfather, William Ridley Wills, founded the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in Nashville. In 1925, the company launched radio station WSM on the fifth floor of its building at 7th and Union and created the country music broadcast, the Grand Ole Opry, almost two decades prior to its move to the Ryman. Just another example of fate or serendipity in the Watson House’s magical story.

William Ridley Wills is also well-known for building what is now the Governor’s mansion in 1931 as his family’s private residence. The state of Tennessee bought it after his death in 1949 to use as the Governor’s residence. Interestingly, Henry and Sarah Cannon lived next to this home in their later years.

His grandson and Ridley’s father, William Ridley Wills II, is a famous Nashville historian. He has authored 27 historical and biographical books including, The History of Belle Meade: Mansion, Plantation, and Stud, and The Hermitage at 100: Nashville’s First Million Dollar Hotel. 

It seems so appropriate that his great grandson, Ridley Wills, completed the renovations on the Watson House. Ridley has also restored and won numerous awards for such important homes as Franklin’s Meeting of the Waters located at 3200 Del Rio Pike and Old Town on the Natchez Trace, which he restored for Jimmy Buffet. 

Ridley says, “Our design aesthetic and sensitivity to the integrity of Meeting of the Waters led to our being selected to restore Old Town. That project was extremely challenging as we were also working around numerous Native American burial sites.

“Ellen has been a long-time client. She and her home, the historic Watson House, made the project an ideal match for our skill set!” 

Impeccable Taste Meets Historical Significance

“Because Ellen has an impeccable eye for aesthetics, she has been a perfect client and excellent steward of the Watson House, bringing it joyfully and beautifully to life for her and her boys,” shared Ridley. 

One fascinating fact about the house as it relates to Ellen’s family and her art background is that the Watson House looks very similar to the Woodruff Fontaine House in Memphis. This French Victorian home was built in 1871, along “Millionaires Row,” and owned by two prominent Memphis families. Amos Woodruff, a successful carriage maker and politician, and Noland Fontaine, a trader at the Memphis Cotton Exchange.

Woodruff Fontaine House in Memphis – Rob + Deanna Photography

In 1930, the house was sold to Rosa Lee who lived next door and wanted to expand her art school, the James Lee Memorial Art Academy. The school was later moved in 1959 to John Overton Park to establish itself as the Memphis College of Art. The Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities took over the house in 1961 and restored it as a museum, event center, and wedding venue.

The Watson-Pointer Family

Letitia Watson Pointer

The Watson House stayed in the family for over a century. It was passed on to Henry Pointer, Sr. in 1894 who was married to Kitty’s daughter, Letitia. Henry worked for the Williamson County Banking and Trust Company. They had three children, Henry Jr., Thomas, and Kitty. 

Kitty’s great, great, granddaughter, Ruthie Pointer Brown Cherry, has so many fond memories growing up in the home with her mother, Ruth Faw Pointer Brown, daughter of Thomas Pointer. In 1974, Ruthie did an independent study titled, “My Old Home Place” when she was an Art History student at Vanderbilt. In her paper Ruthie says, “The Watson family can be traced back to the Fontaines. I wonder whether there could have been an influence in the plan of my home. Some of the furniture that exists in my home today was once stored in Memphis. Perhaps these are the possible reasons for the similarity in the Victorian style.”

With an appreciation of interior design, Ruthie said of her childhood home, “The furnishings in my house are mostly Victorian pieces, as well as some Empire, Renaissance, and Gothic styles. I personally think it is more beautiful to blend the many styles of furniture; therefore, no room is repetitive.” 

We can only imagine all the amazing stories in this home and all the people, both young and old, who would have climbed its beautiful staircase.

Ruthie Pointer Brown Cherry and Cousin Sarah Colly Cannon (aka Minnie Pearl)

One of Ruthie’s favorite memories was being a cheerleader for BGA and attending Harpeth Hall. Her mother, Ruth Faw Pointer Brown, would roll up the rug in the library and play music on the victrola for dancing with her classmates from Ward Belmont and Vanderbilt. 

Another precious memory was when Ruthie would play piano for her Cousin Sarah Colly Cannon (aka Minnie Pearl) when she would come visit her at the Watson House. Ruthie would play her favorite song, “The Days of Wine and Roses” to Sarah’s delight. Ellen is also a distant cousin of Sarah Cannon, so when Minnie would say, “Cousin Minnie Pearl” in her skits, it was genuine! Read our backstory on Sarah Colly Cannon’s grandparents’ home in Franklin.

Sarah’s husband, Henry Cannon, was from Franklin and the great-grandson of John B. McEwen, the mayor of Franklin during the Civil War. Read all about the Harris-McEwen House here.

Second Empire Style and All Things French Inspired

Designed in Second Empire style, a popular construction during the mid-to-late Victorian era, the Watson House is one-of-a-kind in Franklin. French-style homes like these were built between 1860-1900 and inspired by the redevelopment of Paris under Napoleon III’s Second French Empire. 

Some features of Second Empire design include mansard roofing made from patterned slate, segmental arched openings, bracketed eaves with pavilions, and central towers. The Watson House features a unique urn resting on the small pediment in front of the tower. The magnificent cornice makes the home especially grand. The ornate porch showcases beautiful arches and balustrades.

At one time, the second story had a sleeping porch before air conditioning was invented in 1902. The side porch was added in 1910 and offers a relaxing view of 3rd Avenue.

The Watson House Changes Hands for the First Time in a Century

After being in the family for a century, Ruth Faw Pointer Brown wanted a smaller home and sold the Watson House in 1995 to Dan and Denise Klatt. Ruthie, her only daughter, had gone on to graduate from Vanderbilt and started her own career in banking and wealth management.

Dan is a well-known fine artist and had been the art director for Peabody College and owned a full-service ad agency in Nashville. He and Denise have restored three historic buildings in the Rutledge Hill area including his former office where one of Nashville’s best restaurants, Husk, is located at 37 Rutledge Street. The Klatt’s other Nashville restorations include 28 and 30 Middleton Street. 

After Apple introduced the Macintosh computer in 1985, Dan sold the agency and moved to Franklin to downsize his business. They restored an 1830’s stone house at 101 Riverside Drive in Forrest Crossings, along with 114 Lewisburg Avenue and 911 West Main Street in Franklin. You may be familiar with Dan’s beautiful artwork or one of his most popular designs, the city of Franklin’s logo!

The Downtown Franklin Association Revitalized Main Street and Living in the Historic District

Dan says, “Back in the 1980s, no one wanted to live in downtown Franklin. The City Hall building was a mall with Castner Knott and Sears, and plans were being made for Cool Springs to open.” Rudy Jordan explains, “Downtown was a plethora of pool halls, discount stores, and secondhand shops. It was a mess with broken sidewalks and slipcovered vinyl siding on the second stories so you could not see the windows of the buildings.”

All of this changed, and families began moving to downtown and shopping Main Street once again thanks to the efforts of the Downtown Franklin Association. Founded in 1984, the DFA spearheaded the revitalization of Franklin’s downtown core under Rudy Jordan. It’s parent organization, the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County with Mary Pearce, helped create a Main Street success story with its partnerships with property owners, preservationists, local government, businesses and merchants.  

In 1995, the Klatt’s purchased the Watson House to live and work in downtown Franklin. They liked the Watson House because the area had been zoned OR (Office Residential District). There was room to add on to the back of the house for Dan’s graphic design business. He continued working with his daughter in his newly formed Klatt2Design until 2012. From 2001-2009, Dan served as Alderman for the 4th Ward, and was a founding member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association to offer a voice for the residents of Franklin. 

Dan served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the O’More School of Design in 2003-2005. He helped spearhead the purchase of the O’More property from the heirs after Eloise Pitts O’More’s death in 2002. After O’More College moved to Belmont University in Nashville, the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County purchased the property for its new Franklin Grove Estate and Gardens project, set to open in 2023.

Carefully Preserving and Expanding the Watson House

Dan and Denise said the process to restore the Watson House took them five years. The home went from 4,800 to 7,300 sq ft. All of the brick had to be repointed. It was a six-month process to remove and replace the deteriorated mortar to bring stability to the home. They removed the additions to the home to make room for the back offices and garage space. When you look at the side of the house, the work that was done is seamless and looks original to the home. 

After one year of renovations, the Klatt’s were able to move into the home and continue its preservation along with their decorating efforts from wallpaper to period curtains. All of the electrical, plumbing, central heat and air, furnace, and bathrooms had to be replaced or restored. 

The Watson House has many stunning interior features including its long continuous hall from the front door to the back door. Long corridors like these in Southern homes were to allow for a cool breeze to blow through during the summer heat. 

In 2007, the Klatt’s sold the Watson House to another prominent Franklin family, Mike and Ann Bodnar. They too have a love affair with old homes and enjoyed their time in the Watson House for nearly a decade. In 2016, the Bodnar’s moved to another one of Franklin’s most significant historic homes. Read their wonderful story about moving to the Harris McEwen House here. 

Gracious Southern Living at its Finest

Ellen Smith purchased the Watson House in 2016. It reminds her of a Victorian dollhouse. Notice the beautiful welcome mat with the custom Watson House monogram Ellen commissioned. This beautiful work of art can be seen throughout the home.

At every turn, you’ll discover something compelling. Ellen has the gift of combining the sophisticated with the whimsical to make it an enjoyable home for her boys. The original skeleton keys even fabulously grace the front door!

The double parlor as you enter on the left is divided by enormously grand pocket doors to separate the living room from the dining room and their fabulous 13’ ceilings. These were discovered when Ridley Wills worked on the house. All the floors and doors are original to the home. 

Ridley says, “The pocket doors between the left side parlor and the dining room were abandoned inside the wall. We opened the wall up, salvaged these massive doors and brought them back to working order. We often see this abandonment in homes; so, buyers of historic homes should always investigate this wonderful possibility.”

So Much Unique History in One Glorious Home

The library boasts gorgeous bookcases that Ridley redesigned where Ellen houses her beautiful grand piano and dozens of interior design and travel books, along with personal photos and mementos.

The front window has an adorable little etching of “HP” by the mischievous young Henry Pointer Jr. All the front windows are original and open as doors to the front porch. 

Look how cute this picture cutout of young Henry and Thomas Pointer is that we received from Tom’s granddaughter Ruthie. She said this photo was always displayed in the library when she was growing up in the home.

A Lesson in Historic Preservation for Us All

When touring the Watson House, you are reminded of the importance of protecting so many of the home’s original features from the gorgeous newel post to the seven marble fireplaces that are immaculately preserved in the front parlors and bedrooms.

The stunning parlor features graceful antiques mixed with complementary modern pieces. Ellen kept Ann Bodnar’s elegant handmade draperies that were fashioned after the Victorian era.

Architect Ridley Wills shared the Watson House preservation experience, “We have had the pleasure of working with Ellen for many years in three houses.

“The design we envisioned and brought to life at the Watson House included rebuilding the front porch to historical standards, along with replacing the ornamental, sheet metal finial on the top of the front façade’s roof and matching the existing flooring materials wherever needed.

“We also renovated the kitchen and pantry area, creating a new custom bar (which serves as a barrier for Ellen’s boys and dog from jumping through the kitchen window). We brought back an original bedroom for one of her son’s which had become a walk-in closet, updated Ellen’s closet, opened up and rebuilt her shower, and updated the guest suite/apartment.

“In addition, we repainted and updated everything from light fixtures to finishes.”

The enormous kitchen windows have stunning views of the magnificent gardens.

Ellen loves artwork that reminds her of the Carolinas. She displays beautiful pieces from Margaret Crawford who lives in Hilton Head, and art from Murray Sease of Bluffton. Just another special touch to make her home more personable.

The Wills Company is currently in the process of creating a new drop zone/rear entry cabinet area for Ellen to store all the things active young boys have, from coats and backpacks to sporting equipment and dog leashes.

Ridley added, “We do work quite a bit in northern Williamson County and for homes of historic significance. We welcome the opportunity to explore larger renovation projects where we can add value with our expertise. Franklin has so many important homes, and we hope there are more for us to restore. For your historic preservation project, contact the Wills Company here.

The downstairs powder room is a perfect example of Ellen’s ability to combine beauty and function with playful Lulie Wallace wallpaper and luxurious finishes full of femininity and charm.

As you climb the 25-step staircase, it gently curves at the top and overlooks the downstairs from its pretty bannister. The upstairs bathroom still has the original clawfoot tub.

Ridley explains, “When it comes to renovation of historic properties, everything is bespoke and special. That’s motivating for our team. Older homes have character and integrity that is often hard to recreate in a newer home. The reward of owning and maintaining one is immense, particularly if you plan to share it with others.

Ellen humbly says, “I live in the home, but the Wills Company has really taken such special care of it for us.”

You will see some of the fireplaces have been closed with a cast iron covering after the invention of the coal furnace. These functional pieces helped seal the fireplace while adding ornamental design.

The Wildewood Group did all the landscaping design and installation five years ago for Ellen so everything is at the peak of maturity. Owner Buck Malone says, “I love taking care of older homes and properties, and the Watson House is our very favorite.” They help maintain the gardens and landscaping on a weekly basis. For historic homes, they focus on native plantings that would have been original to the home like boxwoods.

A new trellis structure and renovation of the fountain area by the Wills Company helped elevate the work done by the Wildewood Group. When the wisteria blooms and cascades across the pergola, its a breathtaking site to behold. The gardens, just like the home, are exceptionally beautiful and are what make the Watson House one of Franklin’s finest.

So, with every family that has lived in the Watson House, there has been a love and respect for this majestic home. There has also been a love by these families for preserving our historic downtown Franklin. We thank every family that has continued to make this home an even greater showpiece and treasure for our city.

A newspaper feature on Ellen’s father Henry Laird Smith, Jr. – one of Nashville’s eligible bachelors dining out (morning, noon, and night!)

One of Ellen’s favorite things to do in Franklin besides enjoying her home is walking to nearby Pinkerton Park with their dog, Ford. She and the boys also love strolling to Mellow Mushroom or Americana Taphouse for a great meal. All the festivals put on by the Downtown Franklin Association are a delight for the family to attend, along with movies and concerts at the Franklin Theatre.

We asked Ellen to describe her beloved Franklin in one word, she said, “Charming!” We totally agree.

So next time you stroll or drive by the glorious Watson House, may you honor the legacies of these prominent families who made this their residence. May we all especially remember the young architect, Hugh Cathcart Thompson, who designed this stunning home, and then a decade later went on to design the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville’s most recognizable piece of country music history. Read our backstory on Hugh Cathcart Thompson here.

Franklin is truly the home where legends are made, and history is preserved.

Many thanks to Trenton Lee Photography for the stunning photos!

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