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Cheekwood Estate & Gardens

Historical homes and gardens: Then and now

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postedMarch 3, 2020

History is always present in a destination—whether it’s a town square, a battlefield, a site of an important event, or a unique homestead that once housed a prominent figure. These are highly sought-after attractions for travelers who long to understand how a place came to be by taking a peek back in time.

And while historical homes and gardens are structured to be accessible for the public today, they’ve undergone many changes over the course of their existences, from ownership to hefty restorations. Here is a look at four NTA members and what makes them historical, beautiful, and enjoyable.

Hearst Castle (San Simeon, California)

Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle (Photo by Hearst Castle - California State Parks -  All rights reserved)


The first 40,000 acres of the Hearst Castle ranchland property was acquired by George Hearst in 1865, a purchase that laid the foundation for the exquisite hilltop estate on the central California coast. George’s son, William Randolph Hearst, inherited the ranch in 1919, expanded its grounds another 250,000 acres, and built a retreat called La Cuesta Encantada—Spanish for “The Enchanted Hill”—with the help of architect Julia Morgan.

“Hearst and Morgan originally discussed it as being a modest country home built on the site where his parents took him camping as a child, but plans rapidly changed to create a sumptuous, extraordinary estate with breathtaking gardens and architecture, and an impressive art collection,” says Marketing and Communications Director Jim Allen.

The estate, soaring 1,600 feet over the Pacific coastline and surrounded by the Santa Lucia Mountains, has 165 rooms; many acres of lush gardens; and terraces, pools, and walkways. Parts of the house were built specifically to showcase Hearst’s iconic art collection—and the home was quite the gathering place.

La Cuesta Encantada was in a remote locale, though, and as Hearst’s health declined, he had to vacate the unfinished home.

“Hearst was a media genius, and his power and vision allowed him to pursue one of the most ambitious architectural endeavors in American history, the result of which can be seen in the magnificent grounds and structures of Hearst Castle today,” Allen says.


Located in a California state park, the mansion and grounds are a state historic monument that’s open to the public for guided tours.

“In its heyday, only the privileged few could experience the grandeur of Hearst Castle, but today we welcome the public to see, experience, and learn about this fabulous showplace and its extraordinary history,” Allen says. “Mr. Hearst wanted the estate to be a museum of the finest things he could acquire, and for it to become open to the public after his death as a tribute to his mother, Phoebe, who inspired his interests.”

Pool at Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle's Neptune Pool (Photo by CC Flickr/Don DeBold:

Tours of the castle are offered year-round, and visitors can see Hearst’s art collections and antique furniture—more than 20,000 original items, from classical antiquity to Art Deco. One of the most unique pieces is the “Venus Italica,” carved by Antonio Canova in 1802. Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother purchased the sculpture, sold it to an English collector, and later, Hearst grabbed it up at an auction in 1930.

The attraction offers free, ample motorcoach parking, and guests can be dropped off at the visitor center entrance, where they’ll find food services, a large-screen theater, exhibits, and a gift shop. Allen suggests planning about three hours for a visit to Hearst Castle.

For more information, contact Allen.

Cheekwood Estate & Gardens (Nashville, Tennessee)

Cheekwood hall
Cheekwood Estate artwork (Photo by Cheekwood Estate & Gardens)


Swept up in the success of the Industrial Revolution, husband and wife Leslie Cheek and Mabel Wood built Cheekwood Estate & Gardens in 1932. The couple had the travel bug and took their two children on grand adventures all over the world. As they planned their home, they set off for England for several months with architect Bryant Fleming (estate designer for Andrew Carnegie and the like) to study the architecture of English country estates.

They returned to Nashville with antique furnishings and other beautiful things to fill their 36-room house. The family fortune originated partly in the Cheek-Neal Coffee Company, creators and brewers of Maxwell House Coffee & Tea. It is said that President Theodore Roosevelt exclaimed the coffee was “good to the last drop!”

Family lore has it that the concept of the house came from a promise Leslie made to his wife, who owned a gilt mirror that was too tall for their previous home. They would either sell the mirror or build a house to fit it. The latter option won out, and the two combined their family names to make “Cheekwood,” built to reflect affluence with a stately home and botanical gardens surrounded by untouched land. The family enjoyed throwing lavish parties and entertaining celebrities in the home and riding their horses on the grounds.


The Cheeks’ daughter, Huldah, was deeded the estate when Mabel passed away in 1946. She inhabited the home with her husband, Walter, and daughter, Leslie, and in 1957, the family moved to make Cheekwood a public garden and fine arts center. Cheekwood opened its gates to the public on May 31, 1960.

In 2017, the mansion underwent a major restoration to reflect the time period of Leslie Sr. and Mabel’s lives in the 1930s. Because of the conservation efforts established by the parks surrounding Cheekwood, it’s one of few examples of American Country Place-era estates that maintains its original, undisturbed views. 

Front view of Cheekwood
Mansion and gardens (Photo by Cheekwood Estate & Gardens)

Cheekwood is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, and part of the festivities includes the opening of the Bracken Foundation Children’s Garden and re-opening The Ann & Monroe Carell Jr. Family Sculpture Trail as well as Shomu-en, Blevins Japanese Garden after major enhancements. The attraction will also display the colorful “Chihuly at Cheekwood” April 25 through Nov. 1.

For more information, contact Amanda Bjorklund.

The Rowley House (Middleton, Wisconsin)

Rowley House Museum
Rowley House Museum (Photo by Middleton Historical Society)


Dr. Newman C. Rowley built his two-story home in 1868 for a mere $800 on Hubbard Avenue in Middleton, a suburb of Madison, the state capital. Constructed with 30,000 yellow-clay bricks, the house fits a building style common to rural Wisconsin in the 19th century: gabled ell, a residential vernacular form with stone lintels and sills and a mostly plain façade, with the exception of the porch’s ornamental brackets and turned posts.

Rowley House
The early years at Rowley House (Photo by Middleton Historical Society)

Dr. Rowley died in 1871, but he set in motion the Rowley House legacy. It went on to be home to his son, Dr. Antinous A. Rowley, and later his grandson, Dr. Antinous G. “A.G.” Rowley. While the house long served as an abode for physicians in the Middleton area, Dr. A.G. Rowley only lived there a few years while practicing medicine. His sister, Arlene Rowley Morhoff, took up residence in the home until her death in 1988. It was transferred to the Middleton Area Historical Society in 1989 when Arlene’s son, Dan Morhoff, inherited and sold the house.


The Rowley House Museum, a Middleton landmark, was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1999.

“Remembering our history is as important as celebrating it, and the Rowley House Museum allows for both,” says Julie Peterman, director of tourism for the Middleton Tourism Commission. “The museum invites visitors to step through Middleton’s past, not just by viewing old antiques but also by walking through a beautifully preserved home that has been at the center of our charming downtown for more than 150 years.”

When getting the grounds in shape to make the attraction what it is today, the historical society volunteers replaced the front and back porches, built a carriage house, and revamped the kitchen and a bathroom.

The Rowley House is one of the oldest residences in Middletown, and inside its now-museum walls are Native American artifacts, settler antiques and furnishings, and a variety of Depression-era glass wares. The house is open to the public for limited hours on Tuesdays and Saturdays mid-April through mid-October.

For more information, contact Peterman.

Boone Hall Plantation (Mount Pleasant, South Carolina)

Buses on Avenue of Oaks
Avenue of Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation (Photo by Boone Hall Plantation)


Boone Hall’s story began in 1681, when Major John Boone of England founded the plantation and built a two-story wooden farmhouse (typical of Charleston area plantations) on the grounds. His family bore five generations that resided there until the Horlbeck brothers purchased the property in 1817, and five generations of their family were raised there, too.

The Stone family purchased it in 1935, tore down the old farmhouse, and built a 10,000-square-foot Colonial Revival-style mansion. The McRae family acquired it in 1955 and opened it to the public.


Boone Hall is considered one of the oldest farms in the U.S. and remains a working plantation, producing more than 150 acres of fruits and vegetables and colorful gardens. The oldest remaining structure is the smokehouse, built in the 1750s, and visitors can also see a brick structure designed for a cotton gin and nine late-1700s dwellings that housed slaves.

When they come to Boone Hall Plantation, guests enter through the lovely Avenue of Oaks, a nearly mile-long driveway hugged by giant oak trees, which are more than 275 years old and draped with Spanish moss.

Gullah theater performance
Gullah theater performance (Photo by Boone Hall Plantation)

Guided tours of the first floor of the home reveal antique furnishings and stories of the lives of a coastal Carolina planter’s family and his guests, and visitors can also take a 30-minute wagon tour of the property. Adam Morrical says they can expect a diverse experience that is entertaining, educational, and at times emotional.

“A must-see is the ‘Exploring the Gullah Culture’ presentation, where direct descendants of the Gullah people tell their story through a moving performance,” he says. “Many visitors have stated that is one of the best experiences they have encountered on their visit to the Charleston area.”

This performance is seasonal and takes place from mid-February through the fall.

For more information, contact Morrical.

Top photo: Garden lane at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens
Photo by Cheekwood Estate & Gardens


Support for Courier articles provided by:
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Destination Delco
History Colorado
The Huntington Library, Art Museum & Botanical Gardens
Winterthur Museum