Obscure Courtyard Pays Quiet Homage to President Polk and Wife Sarah
It’s always fun to find out secret little tidbits about Nashville and I, for one, love history, so I especially love uncovering facts that make the past even more vivid. When family friend, businessman and history-lover Mike Shmerling told me that the office building on 7th Avenue has an obscure courtyard in honor of President James K. Polk and his wife Sarah, I was instantly intrigued.
As I’ve said before, I grew up in Columbia, Tennessee, which always laid claim to James K. Polk. His home is located in the downtown area and is now a well-preserved presidential museum and one of the crown jewels of the town. Polk’s father, Samuel Polk, built the home in 1816 and James K. Polk lived in the house for six years as a young adult. His interests and commitments kept him coming and going from Columbia throughout his life, but this house is the only existing private residence of the 11th President of the United States.
During Polk’s presidency he purchased a large Palladian-style house from Attorney General Felix Grundy on what was then called Vine Street (now 7th Avenue) in Nashville. The home was built sometime around 1818 and Grundy lived there until he passed in 1840. When President Polk purchased the home, he renamed it Polk Place and began renovating it for he and his wife to live in upon completing his term in 1849. When is term commenced in early March 1849, Polk traveled around to visit friends and unfortunately, fell ill and passed away, only having lived in the house for less than 30 days. However, his wife Sarah went on to live there for nearly 42 years until her death in 1891.
The battle that ensued over the home is an interesting one, including the fact that President Polk was buried in the front lawn of Polk Place. (I won’t go into the details here but I highly encourage you to read about it if you’re a history buff!) Polk Place was demolished in 1901 and the Polks’ tombs were relocated to the Tennessee State Capitol.
All that being said, an office building has since been built on what was once the site of Polk Place, with a small courtyard in the area where the Polks tombs were located. Mike Shmerling, the current owner of the building, told me about the small private courtyard that has always been maintained, whether by him or by the previous owners, as a nod to the Polks.
I was struck by this because it felt, to me, to be the very definition of what it means to be a Nashvillian. The home and tomb of the president of our nation has been right here in our backyard and over the years, while the city has marched on, those who have owned the building have paid quiet homage to Sarah and James Polk through the care and upkeep of this special space. They have done it without public laud or acknowledgement; they have done it because it’s just what you do when you come into to ownership of land that has such an important history attached. You treat it with respect and dignity, quietly memorializing those who have gone before you. That is the way of a true Nashvillian.