Wilson County’s connection with President Andrew Jackson and The Hermitage runs strong due to the craftsmanship of brothers and extraordinary carpenters Henry and Joseph Rieff. Henry likely built The Hermitage in 1819, while Joseph definitely restored the mansion in the mid-1830s.
There also are solid clues that point to Joseph as the master builder of Robert L. Caruthers’ house on Lebanon’s West Main Street, which was completed in 1828 and has served as the setting of Ligon & Bobo Funeral for 100 years.
Joseph, 19 years younger than Henry, and his associate William Hume were building Tulip Grove mansion for the president’s nephew, Andrew Jackson Donelson, across Lebanon Pike from The Hermitage when a fire broke out at The Hermitage in October 1834. It consumed most of the house except for the dining wing on the west side, leaving the walls of the structure largely intact. Andrew Jackson Jr. then contracted Rieff and Hume on Jan. 1, 1835, to rebuild The Hermitage.
Going back 16 years earlier, while detailed and accurate documentary information about the actual construction of the original Hermitage is scarce, it seems probable that Henry Rieff constructed the 1819 version of The Hermitage.
Henry Buck Rieff was the first of 12 children born to Christopher and Maria Magdalena (Welschhans) Rieff (sometimes spelled Reiff) in Chesterfield County, Va., in 1770. Three of his brothers (John, Jacob and Joseph) served under Gen. Jackson in the War of 1812 and the Creek War in 1813-1814.
Henry and his wife, Catherine, who had 15 children, moved to Nashville in 1796, probably along with his parents and siblings, and settled in Wilson County after purchasing property from the son of Col. John Donelson, the co-founder of Fort Nashborough, in 1801. The land was approximately five miles south of the Cumberland River on Spencer’s Creek where some of his descendants still live on what was a part of his farm.
In his 1982 book “Architecture of Tennessee 1768-1897” author James Patrick discusses similarities between The Hermitage, Tulip Grove Mansion and the Caruthers house. Addressing Tulip Grove, he writes: “It is not surprising that the work was given to Joseph Rieff and William Hume, the former probably the son of nephew of Henry Rieff, who had built The Hermitage of 1819. Although one of the Donelsons may have brought the design for Tulip Grove’s Doric porch back from Washington or Philadelphia, the house carpenters Reiff and Hume are also the likely sources.
“An apparent model for the Tulip Grove portico had perhaps already been built for a few miles away in Lebanon, where the house of Judge Robert. L. Caruthers, which should perhaps be dated as early as 1830, bears a stylistically identical porch.
“The Caruthers House bears the scars of several remodelings, one of which gave it Eastlake millwork in the eaves and pediments and heavy caps above the windows; before these additions and changes were made, however, the similarities between the two buildings were obvious. This architectural relationship is perhaps to be explained by the proximity of the Reiffs, who had settled on Spencer’s Creek in Wilson County, out halfway between Tulip Grove and Lebanon. It might also be explained by the circumstance that Sarah Saunders, Robert Caruthers’ wife, was Andrew Jackson Donelson’s half-sister. Caruthers had won the plot on which his house was built in a lottery late in 1826. The next year he married Sarah Saunders, and his house was probably built soon afterward.”
Connections to The Hermitage
While early 20th-century newspaper and book accounts imply that Henry built the 1819 Hermitage, it is a fact that his brother, Joseph, and his associate Hume did the redesign of The Hermitage after the 1834 fire. It is also a fact that Joseph was witness to that fire and climbed on to the dining room roof and extinguished the flames. It is possible that Hume and Joseph Rieff were living in The Hermitage at the time as they were working on Tulip Grove, which was just across Lebanon Pike, while Jackson was residing in the White House.
Joseph Rieff and William Hume also built Cleveland Hall for the grandson of John Donelson in Old Hickory, which was completed in 1839, and some historians believe that Joseph built Clouston Hall in Franklin. While Henry Rieff is credited in numerous stories for building Caruthers’s mansion, he died in 1824, several years before the house went up. So, there are signs that it, indeed, could have been shaped by the hands of his younger brother, Joseph.
Part of Henry’s original farm has been in Gena Sloan’s family since 1801.
“I’m not sure what exact property Henry Rieff owned. A portion of it starting with my great-great grandfather Edmund Conn Burton, and those going forward lived in this exact spot on Cook’s Road,” said Sloan, the seventh generation of her family to make this the place where she hangs her hat.
The second-oldest farm in Wilson County, it has been a century farm since 1976 and features a two-storied, two-winged 5,000-square-foot structure that was erected around a log structure that dates back to the early 1800s. Her mother, Lora Burton Haney, who grew up here, christened the place Rieff Land in 1976.
Sloan believes that Henry is more than likely buried on property that he or one of his brothers owned in Wilson County but time and the elements have left his final resting place unmarked. Since his father, Christopher, possibly was buried in a cemetery off of Gwynn Lane and Smith Road nearby on property that John Rieff owned, she suspects Henry also might have been interred there.
As for Joseph, he moved to northwest Arkansas in 1836, and his brother, John, followed in 1838. John and his family settled near Fayetteville, Ark., where his son, also named Henry Rieff, built an antebellum home in 1857 that was one of the finest mansions in Fayetteville.
It was constructed on land that had been granted to Washington County by an Act of Congress “An Act for the Relief of Fayetteville, in the Territory of Arkansas,” and the act had been signed June 26, 1834, by none other than President Andrew Jackson.
Similar to Caruthers’s House in Lebanon, which became Ligon & Bobo Funeral Home, the Rieff House in Fayetteville, Ark., today is the site of Moore’s Chapel Funeral Home.
Joseph Rieff died in Fayetteville, Washington County, Ark., in 1856, at the age of 66 or 67.