Should you live in Lebanon, you are now part owner of what likely is the most palatial residence ever built inside the city limits.
The Mitchell House was built in the first decade of the 20th century by “the boy educator,” David Earle Mitchell. He became president of Cumberland University at the age of 26, on or near the same day he graduated from the school in June 1902 and who partnered with I.W.P. Buchanan to open Castle Heights Training School in September the same year.
How magnificent was the appearance of the two-story, eight-bay Neo-Classical Revival mansion when its doors were thrown open to prominent local citizens for a first good gander during a gala event?
The headline of a review of that big night in the Aug. 4, 1913, edition of The Tennessean proclaimed “City of Cedars Site of One of the Country’s Most Beautiful and Unique Residences.”
If that was not enough to pique readers’ curiosity, a second headline read “Home of David E. Mitchell, Popular President of Cumberland University, Cost $100,000 — Stately in Appearance and Gorgeous in All Its Appointments.”
Another headline rhapsodized “Built of Monterey Stone — Its Interior a Veritable Vision of Fairyland —Located in Grove of Forest Trees and Is Reached by Pretty Drive.”
The cost to build in 1910 dollars was approximately a whopping 100 grand, the equivalent of more than $2.7 million today.
Mansion changes hands four times
Hard to believe then or now, but about 10 years after the Mitchell family took possession, they abandoned their dream house, and it remained empty for the most part until 1936 when it would become home of the Castle Heights Junior School for the next 50 years.
Also known as Macfadden Hall and the “goober school,” it housed boys from the ages of 6 to 12 until they moved up to the senior school. The downstairs of the mansion also would serve as the administrative offices and reception hall for Heights.
With the demise of the military academy in 1986, the house found itself deserted once more for another 10 years until Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, under the hand of Heights alumnus Danny Evins, bought the site. The restaurant chain restored the mansion, and it served as the office for Evins and his assistant, Evalena Bennett, and was also used by the director of Cracker Barrel’s Charitable Foundation.
In November 2013, Cracker Barrel sold the 10,600 square-foot house to the national Sigma Pi Fraternity, which used it as its executive office. Three-and-a-half months ago the city of Lebanon purchased the house from Sigma Pi for $1.15 million. Plans are to spend about $250,000 for improvements.
“The city has been looking for space because we’ve run out of space here,” Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash, announced in mid-May, adding the engineering and planning departments were packed in City Hall “like sardines.”
More recently he shared, “The purchase of the Mitchell House was such a great opportunity for the city of Lebanon. The city has been looking to expand City Hall for several years. When this opportunity presented itself, we saw a chance to solve our overcrowding at City Hall and save at least $1.4 million over other planned solutions. Above all we will be able to preserve the historic Mitchell House as a part of our heritage.
“After we all sorted through the details, the Council and I agreed this was a good financial move for the City and the opportunity to preserve and utilize this amazing structure will benefit the City for many years.”
Mayor moves in November
As for what offices will be located in historic manor, Mayoral Assistant Debbie Jessen said, “The first floor of the Mitchell House will hold the mayor’s office, the receptionist, economic development and my office. Upstairs we will have our human resources and legal departments.
“Depending upon weather and contractor schedules, we hope to be moved into the building by the first part of November,” she added. “It is exciting to play a part in preserving Lebanon’s crown jewel, and we are anxious to show off this piece of Lebanon’s history. The holidays will be a great time to invite the public to stop by for a tour.”
More than 100 years after the house was designed and erected by the Nashville architectural firm of George W. Thompson, Henry Gibel and Christian Asmus, it manifests itself as an impressive fusion of brick, mortar, timber and stone. The trio also designed what became the Main Building of Castle Heights School, today’s City Hall.
Mitchell bought 450 acres of land from A.W. Hooker and work began on the house in 1906. Early in the process the businessman hired four stonemasons from his home state of Pennsylvania to cut and lay who knows how many tons of sandstone and limestone. One of the stonecutters, Robert Wolfenden, later opened a monument company in Lebanon and would craft many a handsome grave marker.
The house was constructed of Monterey stone and trimmed with Bowling Green stone, which cover two layers of brick, and sits on a rusticated limestone foundation. A century earlier a two-story log cabin believed to have been built by the Seawell family stood on this site at the bottom of the gently sloping Seawell Hill.
While the exterior dazzles the eye, the inside ain’t too shabby itself. The ground floor boasts a handsome reception area with hardwood floors, a double winding staircase, high ceilings, multiple chandeliers and six sets of pocket doors. The library at right features mahogany paneling, leaded-glass cabinets and a marvelous white marble fireplace. A center hallway, which runs the width of the house, calls attention to its tiger-eye oak wainscoting and numerous fluted columns.
A dining room-training center and a commercial kitchen take up the back right side, and the upstairs, which originally had seven bedrooms, provides ample space for offices.
‘Tennessean’ brags on new home
Some histories state the Mitchell family moved into the house in 1910, but Nashville Tennessean articles from late 1912 and early 1913 seem to point to a later date.
The June 3, 1913, Tennessean review of the house read “This evening between 8 and 11 o’clock the handsome new home of Mr. and Mrs. David E. Mitchell on West Main boulevard was the scene of a brilliant assemblage on the occasion of the annual reception by the faculty and trustees of Cumberland University to the graduates of the various departments of the university.
“An Italian stringed orchestra from Nashville behind a screen of palms furnished delightful music during the evening. Additional pleasure and interest was lent to the occasion by the fact of this being the first time that the doors of the handsome new Mitchell home, which has just been completed at a cost of over $100,000 had been thrown open to the public. It is one of the handsomest and most artistically designed private homes in Tennessee.”
Two months later the Aug. 3, 1913, Tennessean, which presented the bodacious headlines near the beginning of this story, gave kudos to prominent Lebanon contractor and designer Robert L. White, who was in charge of the interior designing, woodwork and interior finishing.
In further describing the house, the Tennessean reporter wrote, “This handsome residence stands in all its colonial beauty and grandeur in the center of a large blue grass lawn of some 30 odd acres surrounded by the towering forest trees about a mile from the city on the terminus of the West Main boulevard and is approached in front by a circular driveway of macadam and on the east side by concreted walks leading from the Castle Heights driveway.
“The building is two-story and is colonial in design and is built out of Monterey cut-stone. As one views it from in front with four large massive colonial columns, its only ornamentation, one is impressed with its extreme simplicity, but grandeur of architecture and what is true of the architecture as regards the exterior of the dwelling is also carried out on in the interior. (Note: At some time, the front of the house was fortified with six columns.)
As one enters the large reception hall, 40X50 feet, on the first floor, one’s attention is immediately drawn to the winding staircase with two approaches, which end in a landing on the second floor. The entire stairway, together with all of the woodwork of the main hall, is made out of quartered oak, paneled, with all of the brackets hand-carved and with the beam effect ceiling.
The main hall is lighted with a handsome hand-wrought brass chandelier combined with genuine cut glass and containing nearly a hundred lights. This electric fixture, together with those through the entire house, were designed especially from original blue print designs for Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell and made according to designs in one of the largest factories in the north.
To the right of the main reception hall and opening into it is the library, which is done in genuine Philippine mahogany, imported especially for this job, all of which is hand-carved. The walls of the entire room are made solid with the hand-carved mahogany and the library table and chairs to match are of the same material, and mission in design. The mantel in the east end of the library occupies almost that entire end, and is of white Georgia marble, hand carved.
To the left of the main reception hall as one enters, and opening into it, is the drawing room, which is a dream of exquisite beauty and daintiness of architecture. The room is done in solid white and old rose, with the heavy pilasters in the four corners. All the woodwork in the drawing room is paneled and all of the panels are done in handsome white embroidered silk in the daintiest of designs. The frescoing of the ceiling is of an exquisite and dainty design, harmonizing beautifully with the architecture and color scheme of the old rose and white, which is carried out in the carpets, tapestries and furniture.
The dining room, which is to the right of the circling stairway, and opening into the main hall, which is 80 feet long, is done in cathedral finish oak, and is wainscoted to a height of eight feet. The dining room furniture is of the same wood. The kitchen, the glass-enclosed breakfast room, and rear hall to the left of the main hall, are all done in natural pine. All of the floors on the first floor are of first quality quarter-sawed oak.
There are seven bedrooms on the second floor, three bathrooms and a main and rear hall. The entire second floor is in the eggshell white color and finish, and the floors are all of hardwood.
All of the carpets and rugs throughout the entire house are imported from the old country, and among them are to be found the very finest of the Persian makes. All of the tapestries are also imported and of very rich design.
Where did wealth come from?
This opulence begs the questions how 30-year-old educator Mitchell could afford such a splendiferous palace and what brought him from the Keystone State to Cumberland University?
To answer the second question first, Mitchell, a strong Cumberland Presbyterian, came to the Presbyterian-affiliated school with the notion of entering the ministry. Perhaps more noteworthy, he already had made a fortune buying and selling iron and oil interests in his home state.
David Earle Mitchell was born the son of Dr. Gibson P. Mitchell and Annie Scott Mitchell on Feb. 7, 1876, in Monongahela, Pa. When he was 12, his father died of tuberculosis, leaving the boy, his sister, Nelle, and mother practically destitute.
The lad immediately began doing everything he could to take care of their needs. At 14 he went to Southwestern State Normal School at California, Penn., where he graduated with honors three years later and promptly was elected principal of Roscoe Public Schools where four teachers served under him.
In 1895, he became editor of The Peoples Tribune, the leading prohibition paper in the western part of the state, in Uniontown, Pa. It was there he became a broker in coal and iron properties and handled transactions over thousands of acres of land. It was said he made a profit of $5,000 on one farm in three days and by the age of 24 he reportedly had amassed a small fortune of $200,000.
On Aug. 15, 1900, he married Elizabeth Smith, a native of Derbyshire, England, in Coal Centre, Pa., where the ceremony was performed by the bride’s father, Rev. Arthur Smith, pastor of the local Methodist Episcopal Church. That same night the newlyweds departed for Lebanon, Tenn.
While a student at Cumberland, the entrepreneur donated $3,000 for a heating plant in Memorial Hall and gave $3,000 worth of new books and furnishings to the Reference Library of the College of Arts, which then carried the name Mitchell Library for nine decades. The well-heeled student also was said to own the first automobile in Lebanon, an Oldsmobile.
Mitchell steers Cumberland
He became the fifth head of the university in June 1902 on or near the day he was awarded his bachelor’s degree as he succeeded Chancellor Nathan Green Jr. It was believed at the time that the 5-foot-1 Mitchell was the youngest college president in the U.S.
In “A History of Cumberland University 1842-1935”, Winstead Paine Bone, the sixth president of Cumberland, wrote that Mitchell gave $3,000 to help pay for the interior of the unfinished College Chapel in 1903 and the same year donated $8,000 of $50,000 needed to erect the Men’s Dormitory.
Bone reckoned that Mitchell contributed about $50,000 to the school. While declining his own salary, for several years he furnished the salary of the Dean of the Theological School, the principal part of the salary of a professor in the College of Arts and the salary of Registrar Paris Marion Simms.
He helped bring aboard new professors to the Theological School, led the charge to establish a School of Music, and during his tenure Cumberland produced its most famous football team. (The 1903 Bulldogs defeated Vanderbilt, Alabama, LSU and Tulane.) He also taught the men’s Bible class at Lebanon Presbyterian Church and was involved in daily college chapel services.
Were that not enough, H. Rogers Thomson, who wrote “Guardian of the Legacy: The Mitchell House”, reported that Mitchell was the man primarily responsible for shutting down nine taverns on the Lebanon Public Square.
Due to business obligations that took him away from Lebanon much of the time, he resigned as university president in June 1906.
As for family life, David and Elizabeth Mitchell produced a daughter, also named Elizabeth, in 1901, and a son, David Earle Mitchell Jr., was born in their mansion on Sept. 18, 1916.
The couple’s opulent residence served as a beehive of activity for children in the neighborhood and the youth of the Presbyterian Church. And after taking a trip the Isle of Jersey in the British Isles in 1912, Mitchell fancied the Jersey milk cows and bought 300 cows and several bulls and had them shipped to Lebanon where some of the lucky ones munched the bluegrass on the Mitchell House front lawn. The entrepreneur also gave some of the cattle to local farmers, allowing them to start their own dairy herds.
NEXT WEEK: Tragedy strikes Mitchell family
Sources for this story include: “A History of Cumberland University 1842-1935” by Winstead Paine Bone, 1935; “Guardian of the Legacy: The Mitchell House Story,” by H. Rogers Thomson; “Phoenix Rising! Cumberland University 150 Years, 1842-1992,” by G. Frank Burns; “The Tennessean” (June 4, 1902; Dec. 18, 1912; June 4, 1913; Aug. 3, 1913; March 4, 1980); “The Lebanon Democrat” (Oct. 6, 1960; July 28, 1960); “The (Monongahela, Pa.) Daily Republican” (Aug. 1, 1945); “The (Connellsville, Pa.) Courier” (July 11, 1902); “New York Daily News” (April 29, 1930); “The Wilson Post.”