The Harris McEwen House – The Grandest and Best Preserved Historic Home in Downtown Franklin

Ann Bodnar Harris McEwen House Lovely Franklin TN Italianate Battle of Franklin

Imagine a home so historically significant that Tennessee and US history enthusiasts would give anything to see inside its brick walls. The Harris McEwen House at 612 Fair Street in Franklin is indeed that home. 

This grand beauty is owned by Mike and Ann Bodnar. He is the founding partner of Fresh Hospitality with 175 restaurants in their portfolio. This outstanding company helps restaurateurs do what they do best, serving great food and running the business, while Fresh Hospitality provides the financial and intellectual capital to help them succeed. Some of the Bodnar’s incredible local brands include Biscuit Love, Tazikis, Martin’s Bar-B-Que, The Grilled Cheeserie, 55 South, and Hugh Baby’s. 

Two Centuries of Tennessee History on this Corner

Thanks to the lovely Ann Bodnar we got to tour this extraordinary home. Originally from Memphis, Ann has always had a love for old homes and antiques. This is her fourth historic home she and her husband have lived in, two in Birmingham and two in Franklin. Interestingly, the Bodnars lived in the Watson House for ten years at 214 3rd Avenue South, presently owned by the lovely Ellen Smith. 

We want to bring you, our readers, along with us. You’re about to meet one of the grandest dames of historic homes in Franklin. The four-year painstaking restoration by Mel and Cheryl Thompson have brought this Southern belle back to her former glory while making a comfortable home for the family to enjoy. You will love its rich history along with Ann’s exquisite taste and the photographs taken by our own Trent Wallace of Trenton Lee Photography

It Takes Special People to Restore Old Houses

The Heritage Foundation named the Harris McEwen house the 2014 Preservation Award winner for residential rehabilitation. Incredible antiques are also on display in the Bodnar home including this beautiful 250 year-old Finnish painted tapestry (above photo) on display in the foyer from Mel’s collection. Think about all the fascinating people who entered through these front doors.

Williamson County Historian Rick Warwick says about Mel’s restoration, “It takes special people to restore old houses. Passion, money and a good eye are key ingredients. Mel Thompson has all three. His project at the McEwen House is the proof.”

Important Tennesseans at the Harris McEwen Home

You will learn about the home’s original builder Cary Harris, who was married to Franklin’s founder Abram Maury’s daughter, Martha. The most significant fact about the home is that John B. McEwen was the second owner, and the mayor of Franklin during the Civil War. What you might not know is that McEwen was the great grandfather of Henry Cannon, the husband of Sarah Cannon, aka Minnie Pearl! Henry’s grandmother was Virginia, one of the McEwen daughters. 

The original house was just a small one-story home built in the 1830s by Carey Harris. At age 15, the ambitious Harris started the Franklin weekly newspaper, The Independent Gazette. Later, in 1824, he and his future brother-in-law, Abram P. Maury, Jr., began the Nashville Clarion, followed by the Nashville Republican newspapers. 

He also published “The Western Harmony”, a book of hymns and instructions for singing, which was the beginning of music publishing in Nashville. There is even a historical marker honoring Carey Harris at 3rd Street North and James Robertson Parkway in Nashville. 

Harris married Martha Fontaine Maury in 1829. She was the daughter of Franklin’s founder, Abram Maury. In 1830, Harris purchased lots 41 & 42 in the Hincheyville neighborhood and built the rear portion of the house which still stands. The couple went on to have four children. 

The Harris family left Franklin for Washington DC when President Andrew Jackson asked him to serve as chief clerk in the War Department at age 28. He then served as the acting Secretary of War for just 21 days, and later commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1836. The Harris family eventually returned to Franklin where he died at the age of 36 in 1842.

Meet John B. McEwen – Mayor of Franklin

This wonderful painting of John B. McEwen in the living room is on loan from Rick Warwick.

The home was later purchased by John B. McEwen including lots, 54 and 55, which joined lots 41 and 42. McEwen is best known for being the mayor of Franklin for the four war years, 1861-1865. He was also a prominent lawyer, director of the Franklin National Bank and Williamson County Banking and Trust. Along with being a successful businessman, McEwen was an agriculturist, hotel and resort owner. 

In addition, McEwen was one of the organizers and chief director of several county fairs that made Williamson County stock and products famous. Interestingly, Fair Street gets its name from the fact that the fair used to be located on this street. 

He and his wife Cynthia Graham McEwen lived in the home with their five children, Richard Samuel, Mary Alice, Sarah Florence, Francis Adelicia, and Virginia “Jennie” Brown. They were members of Franklin’s downtown Presbyterian Church, and the family never owned slaves. 

Cynthia Graham McEwen
Cynthia Graham McEwen

Richard Samuel, the oldest child and only son died at age 15. After this event, the McEwen’s took into their home several orphan boys over the years to share their love, provide housing, and an education. A couple of the boys later became attorneys because of their help.

In 1853, Mary McGavock Southall, sister of the Carnton’s John McGavock, sold McEwen eleven acres of land north of the four lots he had purchased four years earlier. 

A Beautiful Example of Italianate Style Architecture

John McEwen expanded the home to create the stunning Italianate style features it has today. During the height of the Victorian era, around the mid 1800s, the romantic Italianate style began in Britain and soon spread throughout the United States. It originally became popular because of Queen Victoria’s country estate on the Isle of Wright off the southern coast of England. This style reflected the medieval villas and farmhouses of Italy.

These stunning features are what make the Harris McEwen house so remarkable. The low hipped roofs, wide eaves, and stunning porches make these homes reminiscent of the romantic villas of Renaissance Italy. 

See the deep overhang eaves with decorative corbel brackets on the home. The tall narrow windows with curved window caps and pairings make it both elaborate yet charming. Cast iron had become popular in the mid-19th century because of new methods making it easier to produce. Notice this pretty detail along the mansard roof. This and the lovely bay window and sunroom were part of McEwen’s expansion of the home. 

One-of-a-Kind Franklin Beauty

The original slate mansard roof, Italianate architecture, and elegant wrought iron fence make the home a one-of-a-kind in downtown Franklin. The home has seven fireplaces, five with marble mantels downstairs and the other two with slate upstairs. Intricate ceiling medallions created by Italian artists McEwen were brought in to please his wife, Cynthia. She saw similar ones at her brother’s antebellum home in Dickson and wanted them in hers. 

You can see the original poplar wood floors in the 1830s section, and then the original heart pine and walnut floors in the 1850s section. The exterior walls are 13 inches thick. 

Italianate remained popular in the US from the 1840s until the 1880s, when the Civil War slowed construction. The later Victorian styles became Queen Anne and Second Empire designs, like the Bodnar’s former home, the beautiful Watson House. It was designed by Hugh Cathcart Thompson, the architect who designed the Ryman. 

The Battle of Franklin Changed This Home Forever

Prior to the Battle of Franklin, as mayor, John McEwen had no choice but to surrender the city to the Union Army. He entertained both Union and Confederate officers in his home while it was in Union control. 

But once the Battle of Franklin took place on November 30, 1964, the family took shelter in the cellar for safety under the house according to this letter written by the McEwen’s daughter, Adelicia.  

Daughter Adelicia McEwen Shares Her Personal Account of November 30, 1864

Historian Rick Warwick in his book, Williamson County: The Civil War as Seen through the Female Experience tells the story of McEwen daughter, Francis Adelicia. This was her account at age 16 years old on the day of the battle. 

Adelicia McEwen explains, “I was a pupil in the old Franklin Female Institute. The pupils numbered about 175, and as wide-awake a set of Southern girls as could be found. On an ever memorable day, the 30th of November, we assembled at school as usual. Our teachers’ faces looked unusually serious that morning. The Federal couriers were dashing hither and thither. The officers were gathering in squads and the Cavalry, with swords and sabers clanking, were driving their spurs into their horses’ flanks and galloping out to first one picket post and then another on the roads leading south and southwest of town. 

“The bell called us in the chapel. We were told to take our books and go home, as there was every indication that we would be in the midst of a battle that day. 

“At four o’clock that afternoon I stood in our front door and heard musketry in the neighborhood of Colonel Carter’s on the Columbia Pike. To this day, I can recall the feeling of sickening dread that came over me. As the evening wore on, the firing became more frequent and nearer and louder; then the cannon began to roar from the fort. 

“My father [John B. McEwen] realizing that we were in range of the guns from both armies, told us to run down into the cellar. We hastily threw a change of clothing into a bundle and obeyed at once. My mother [Cynthia Graham McEwen], who never knew what fear meant in her life, was a little reluctant to go and leave the upper part of the house to the tender mercies of soldiers, but she finally joined us in the basement. 

“A few minutes later there was a crash and down came a deluge of dust and gravel. A cannon ball had torn a hole in the side of the meat house and broken the wash kettle to pieces. The patter of bullets on the blinds was anything but soothing. The incessant booming of cannon and the rattle of the guns continued until midnight, then the firing gradually ceased; we, of course, were in ignorance of who was in possession of the place, but all the while hoping and praying that it might be our boys.”

During the Battle of Franklin, like many Franklin residences, the McEwen home became a field hospital for the Confederate soldiers. 

On the morning after the battle, Francis Adelicia also wrote, “About four o’clock we heard the tramping of feet and the sound of voices. Our hearts jumped into our mouths and what joy when we learned that our own soldiers were in possession of the town! Our doors were thrown wide open, and in a few minutes a big fire was burning in the parlor. The first man to enter was General William Bate, all bespattered with mud and blackened with powder and had been a lifelong friend of my father’s. Next came General Thomas Benton Smith.” (General Bate later became governor of Tennessee in 1883-1887.)

“In the afternoon, December 1, some of us went to the battlefield, to give water and wine to the wounded. All of us carried cups from which to refresh the thirsty. Horrors! What sights that met our girlish eyes! The dead and wounded lined the Columbia Pike for the distance of a mile. 

“In Mrs. Syke’s yard, General Hood sat talking with some of his staff officers. I did not look upon him as a hero, because nothing had been accomplished that could benefit us. As we approached Colonel Carter’s house, we could scarcely walk without stepping on dead or dying men. We could hear the cries of the wounded, of which Colonel Carter’s house was full to overflowing. 

“Ambulances were being filled with the wounded as fast as possible, and the whole town was turned into a hospital. Instead of saying lessons at school the day after the battle, I watched the wounded men being carried in. Our house was full as could be; from morning until night we made bandages and scraped linen lint with which to dress the wounds, besides making jellies and soups which would nourish them.”  

The McEwen Home was Transformed into a Field Hospital

It is believed that two soldiers died in the house, one of which was Dr. Fielding Pope Sloan. He was part of the brigade attacked after nightfall that plowed through the Carter locust grove. Dr. Sloan while tending to the wounded soldiers was wounded himself in the right wrist and left lung. He was brought to the McEwen house and cared for by the family until his death on June 19, 1865, and later buried at Rest Haven. 

Mel Thompson shared another interesting story the day of the battle. Two Union officers were in the home, and the McEwen daughters were singing a song to them when they heard gunfire. The officers quickly got up and left. One of the officers was badly wounded from the fighting and in the hospital for four months. After he recovered, he came back to the house and asked McEwen if the girls could finish the song for him since it got interrupted. What a sweet story.

The McEwen Family Grew and Prospered After the War

Ann’s grandmother’s wedding dress hangs in the girl’s bedroom. 

It was customary to give each of their children a home as they married. When Frances Adelicia married Dr. Daniel German on January 14, 1869, their bridal gift to her was a new home. Originally, the house looked similar to her parents Italianate style, but over time, some of those features were taken down and different front porches were added. The home was built on the east side and connected to her parents’ home by a walk bordered with flowers and shrubs. The garden filled with magnolias and boxwoods filled the air of this sacred ground.

The three oldest daughters had homes on the property. The McEwen German House still stands today and is located at 123 5th Avenue North and is the current home of the law offices of Hartzog and Silva attorneys. 

A stone wall was later added around the back of the home probably in the 1970s. Mel said the builders of the wall even found a cannonball out back on the property. One of two Confederate soldiers who died of wounds after the Battle of Franklin in the McEwen house was buried there under a Mayapple tree.

Unlike many Southerners, John McEwen prospered after the war. He was a real estate mogul including owning 23 acres where Harlinsdale Farm stands. McEwen operated Fernvale Springs Resort in Williamson County for several years. He even boldly turned down the Federal government’s efforts to save an important part of Franklin’s battlefield and create a battlefield park. McEwen thought a better idea was to subdivide the land into building lots and name the streets after the Battle of Franklin’s fallen Confederate generals. Thankfully, The Battle of Franklin Trust, spearheaded by Robert Hicks, has helped reclaim some of this land. 

McEwen Remembered as an Honorable Man

John McEwen died in 1903 at the age of 83 after a long illness. He is also buried in Rest Haven Cemetery in Franklin. The many tributes about him after his death spoke of his beloved charities, his generous hospitality, and how he loved to have guests. One person said McEwen was a great believer in home trade and did all of his buying locally. 

In the March 1903 issue of “The Confederate Veteran” magazine, they spoke of John B. McEwen by saying, “The story of his life might be told in a few words. He gave the best part of eighty-two years to teaching by practice the deep and holy meaning of the Golden Rule.” 

The McEwen family lived in the house for almost 90 years, then it was sold. It was later a boarding house, and even divided into apartments in the 1940s and 1950s. Federal judge Gilbert Merritt also lived in the home at one time. The home needed a hero to come save it from years of neglect. 

After Years of Neglect the Home Needed a Hero

Along comes Mel and Cheryl Thompson. Long-time Franklin residents, they spent years traveling throughout the Southeast from Natchez and New Orleans to Charleston and Savannah, along with London. They fell in love with historic homes and antiques through their travels. In 2007, the Thompsons purchased the Harris McEwen house in an effort to preserve this important piece of history because it was in foreclosure and sat empty for a while. 

The original 1830 kitchen from Cary Harris. It was separate to help keep the main house cool.

Mel explains why he chose to restore the Harris McEwen House. “It had to be done, you have to preserve the history, and you have to do it right.”

Restoring the Charm While Preserving the History

The original two-room home built by Cary Harris in 1830 along with the separate building for the kitchen originally faced toward 5th Street. In 1850, McEwen added to the home, and later a renovation in 1860. He possibly added the porches and some of the Italianate, along with the charming 1859 doorbell. Mel was able to find another early mechanical Victorian doorbell exactly like the front doorbell and added it to the side door. There is an outside crank and the inside is mounted on the interior that rings a beautiful loud musical note. 

Mel meticulously brought back the original features after removing additions added after 1867. He brought in experts in historic preservation and craftsmen to restore the rooms to original sizes and functions. Incredibly all the interior walls are solid brick. 

He replaced the handrails and some of the columns that had rotted for added stability. Mel hired a carpenter who stayed on the site every day for two years. He rebuilt some of the columns out of mahogany wood that needed to be replaced. The chamfered edge and the lamb’s tongue detail were all handmade to match the original columns. 

No Detail Was Spared in the Restoration

The balusters were too far gone to restore so Mel gave an original one as a pattern to a custom woodmaker to match. So he was able to replace all of the balusters so they looked like the original design of the home. The home needed over 300 to replace the side and back porches which was too many to do by hand. He ended up using a duplicator to complete the project.

All the exterior doors are original except for one. The restored interior doors are gloriously tall and grand. Each of the seven chimneys were restored in an effort to return every inch of the home back to its original condition. Incredibly, Mel re-mortared the entire exterior to stabilize the home and cleaned all the bricks, and the Italian slate on the roof was taken off, repaired, and put back to replace the underlayment. 

There was a two-story “sleeping” porch on the side of the house at one time. These were essential in the hot summers before air conditioning and electric fans. There was a fire at some point that destroyed part of it, and the porch was later taken off. After Mel took off all the post 1860 additions, he had the porch behind the sunroom rebuilt like it was originally. 

Mel also added a two-car garage to the back. While the Bodnar’s have maintained the lawn and gardens immaculately, the landscaping complements the home along with the magnificent mature magnolias, Japanese maples, and dogwood trees. 

Another fun fact from the 1850 design is that the lower windows go all the way up so you can walk right out to the porches just like Monticello. Mel had all the windows reglazed, caulked, and weights cut out. Then he drilled holes to fill the insulation. All the windows were then sealed shut to get as much insulation benefit since they are single pane glass.

Because the window sashes and casings were painted multiple times over the years, Mel took all the sashes out, stripped all the pieces, and stained the original wood. Each pane of glass was marked and replaced to its original location. Some of the glass had to be replaced, but he made sure it was with old glass. 

They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To

Another favorite feature in the home are the interior pocket window shutters. Part of them are paneled, and part of them are louvered. The paneled ones in the front of the house look like trim when they are closed shut. We’re surprised this clever idea is not used more often in today’s modern homes. 

Mel added 2,500 square feet to the rear of the house that included a new kitchen and bathrooms with an upstairs pub room and laundry. The house now totals 6,500 square feet and includes two garages. He also added four geothermal units for heat and air. 

Inside, Mel preserved important interior features like the 4 foot wide ceiling medallions painted by an Italian artist in 1867 and the crown moldings. New crown molding was added to the foyer that complemented the living room molding using eleven different pieces of trim! All of the new trim pieces added to the 2,500 square foot addition all match the original trim. See Ann’s incredible French trumeau above the fireplace which combines the mirror along with a painting.

Ann as a young girl. Notice the hand stenciled walls.

A local gentleman stenciled designs that are period correct on the wood floors. Wallpaper from the 1970s was taken down, and the plaster repaired and painted. Some of the walls also have hand painted stenciled designs. 

The light fixtures and chandeliers all date back to the late 1800s after electricity was invented. Apparently, after electricity was invented and added to homes, the McEwen’s drilled a hole in the staircase newel post and added a lamp on the top.

The gorgeous staircase was restored along with a new newel post and cap to replace the lamp. It was made of three kinds of wood, poplar, walnut, and mahogany. When they sanded down the poplar, it was bright emerald green because it had never been exposed to light. 

All but one of the fireplaces was restored by a company in Atlanta who are experts in historic fireplace restoration. They poured a new flue, rebuilt the fireboxes, and added dampers and new firebrick cut to the size of the original. The romantic rose colored dining room has a buffet in front of the one fireplace not restored.

The draperies in the home would make even Scarlett O’Hara envious. Mel and his interior designer went on several trips from Atlanta to New York to find beautiful laces and fabrics to make period correct custom made curtains.

Photo by Towne Creek Realty

2,500 Square Feet of Living Space Graciously Added

The new kitchen includes beautiful custom cabinetry made from alder wood. There are two Sub-Zero refrigerators with wood paneling to cover the fronts. Mel found hinges from an old door of a commercial freezer from the late 1800s for the refrigerator doors. He went to a machine shop and had the levered hinges remade to be stationary when the handle is pulled. 

In the kitchen you can see the brick wall that had a porch attached. Mel kept the pockets from the porch joists so people would know the original use of the space. He then added decorative porch beams over the stove to pay tribute to the fact that this area had been a side porch. 

Harris McEwen House Lovely Franklin TN Kitchen Mel Thompson
Photo by Towne Creek Realty

A back staircase was added and Mel creatively incorporated it into the kitchen cabinetry and added smart storage areas for efficient use of the space. The family den is on the other side of the kitchen and adds a comfortable living area for the family. It showcases a gorgeous Italian armoire originally discovered in a church from the Thompson’s collection.

Photo by Towne Creek Realty

The Thompson’s and Bodnar’s Incredible Antique Collection

The Thompson’s shopped for period antiques from all over the world for three years to fill the home. They had friends find specific pieces in France and Italy.

At one time, Ann had an antique shop in Green Hills, and she has collected gorgeous unique pieces over the years. She is particularly fond of French antiques. The home is filled with hundreds of antiques and paintings from the Bodnar’s, along with Ann’s incredible photographs from their world travels.

Ann’s office resides in the original 1830s house built by Harris. Almost all of the furnishings are from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This home could outshine many museums. From the elegant mirrors and rugs to the ornate furniture and paintings, everywhere you turn is magnificent and fit perfectly in this historic home. 

A Beautiful Perseveration Story for Others to Follow

Ann with her adorable dog General.

Chris Thompson, Mel’s son and owner of Towne Creek Realty, said the judge for the Heritage Foundation Award praised the home for rivaling some of the best restorations in South Carolina and New Orleans. Chris was the realtor who sold the Harris McEwen house to the Bodnar’s.

Unfortunately, the home is not zoned in the historic overlay for the Downtown Franklin Historic District for protection. So Mel had perpetual deeded restrictions added to the house that requires it to remain a single-family residential house despite the current zoning. Otherwise, the home could turn into an office and the lots subdivided for additional housing. We’re so grateful for the commitment Mel Thompson had in preserving this distinguished home for future generations and all of Franklin to enjoy.

Thank you Ann Bodnar for sharing the outstanding Harris McEwen House with all of us. You are yet another reason this is Lovely Franklin. 

We are Lovely Franklin,

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One Comment

  1. Wow!!! What a fantastic story to go along with these amazing photos of this beautiful, historic masterpiece!! And that doorbell!! Who knew?? My history loving heart is so in love with all things Franklin. It is such a gift to live here and experience this rich history!! Thank you for sharing with us!!

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