A relatively young country, the USA doesn't have the ancient homes revered by other countries, but that's all the more reason to treasure the historical homes that do exist. Were it not for the enthusiasm and investment of a few owners, priceless homes such as Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee's gorgeous Rattle and Snap plantation would be lost forever, and so would a little piece of what makes us who we are as Americans.
Like any other country, America has had its moments of glory and shame. Few would argue that one of America's low points was it's early reliance on slavery to generate prosperity. And that makes the plantation homes of the south among the more controversial historical edifices of the past. The owning of human beings and use of slave labor was part of the culture and economic strength of the agricultural south, while the northern states relied on manufacturing and industry. It was largely this division that drove the secession of the southern states from the Union, and sparked the Civil War of 1860-1865.
But before that conflict changed the moral values and the economic balance of power in the U.S. forever, there was a brief period of burgeoning wealth for land and slave owners.
Imagine a young America, where land was so plentiful and cheap that thousands of acres could be waged and lost in a game of chance called Rattle and Snap. Although the "rules" of the game have long since been lost, it was believed that the governor of Tennessee lost a substantial parcel of land to Colonel William Polk, who became one of the largest, wealthiest landowners in Tennessee. Later, four sons inherited the land and built a church at the four corners where each parcel met.
George Washington Polk decided to build a glorious antebellum mansion on his parcel and he named it Rattle and Snap after his father's good fortune.
One of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture, Rattle and Snap was completed in 1845. Built of slave labor, it is an imposing limestone and brick residence two-and-a-half stories tall. Acres of grounds and a mile-long carriage road leads to the main gate of the property and a neck-bending view of Rattle and Snap's front entrance. Broad steps lead to a porch held up by no less than 10 Corinthian columns, cast in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and brought by riverboat to Nashville and then by oxen to the building site. Inside, soaring fifteen-foot ceilings are crowned by genuine Waterford chandeliers. Hand-crafted plaster ceiling medallions, crown moldings and cornices embellish the interior. Two dining rooms separated by pocket doors were opened for large dinner parties. Corinthian columns are used as room dividers throughout the vast living areas. Fireplaces were fashioned of marble.
Porches are on every side of Rattle and Snap, but the most interesting is the western Temple of the Winds porch with four columns that overlook the gardens and beyond to the family cemetery.
The Polk family lived in the house for 15 years before the Civil War began, and it was the undoing of the family's fortunes. The house itself was barely saved from being torched by marauding Union soldiers when the leader noticed a Masonic ring on the finger of George Polk in one of the home's paintings and decided against burning the home.
After the war, the Polks could no longer afford the home and farmland, and sold it to J.J. Granberry in 1867. By 1919, the farm was sold again to other Maury County farmers and before long, tenants occupied the main house.
Rattle and Snap hit its lowest point in the 1940s and 1950s, when the main house was used as a barn to store hay and chickens roamed the halls. Seeing the tragic beauty in the home, Mr. and Mrs. Oliver M. Babcock Jr. purchased and restored Rattle and Snap in 1953, but it wasn't until Amon Carter Evans, former publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, acquired Rattle and Snap in 1979 that the mansion was restored to its original splendor.
It's rumored that Evans spent over six million dollars on renovations in exacting detail. "That is a conservative estimate," Evans was reported to have said.
Evans' fortunes changed, too, and he lost the home to the bank in 2002. By 2003, there were no takers for the historical home. One of the reasons was the cost of renovations could not be recouped in the sales price. Evans all but bankrupted himself saving Rattle and Snap.
But one California couple fell as hard for Rattle and Snap as Evans had. Dr. Michael Kaslow and his wife Bobbi bought the property from the bank for a significant sum but far less than what Evans put into renovations alone.
The Kaslows started a new round of renovations in the living areas and are slowly working their way back through the home to the kitchen and family areas.
They've found that renovating a historical home of the magnitude of Rattle and Snap is far from a ... snap. With most of the features built on a massive scale, repairs are larger than life, too. For example, the shutters around the Temple of the Winds needed replacing. The living area shutters, about six feet long and two feet wide, have been replaced, but Dr. Kaslow says he'll have to rent special equipment to hang the shutters on the second story.
Interior features pose similar problems. While the house is rock solid on its limestone foundation, some settling has occurred, causing a small piece of plaster to pop off one of the living room ceilings. That's going to require a modern-day artisan to duplicate the plaster molding and seamlessly integrate it into the existing plaster.
Those kinds of craftsmen don't grow on trees, so repairs aren't immediate nor are they cheap, but that doesn't slow the Kaslows down.
Avid collectors of American antiques, particularly Victorian, the Kaslows have had a grand time decorating the home and the nearby "Carriage House" with to-the-period furnishings and collectibles that show the progression of the home throughout the decades. The east porch columns are done in New Orleans-style iron filigree with a gazebo-like roof. That's not exactly antebellum, but it's fine with the Kaslows.
"Homes change over the years with their owners," explained Dr. Kaslow to Realty Times. "It's okay to leave what others have contributed."
Each room has a personality, including George's parlor , a cozy room that has been taken over by the Kaslow's cat. If you're fortunate enough to be invited this deeply into the house, you'll see some of Bobbi's most imaginative work -- two colorful stained glass panels that have replaced transom windows between George's parlor and the kitchen. If you're really lucky, George himself will jump in your lap for a backscratch.
Restoring a landmark home is a tremendous responsibility, so Bobbi is working with a designer who specializes in historic homes. Originally, he met some of her ideas with bursts of resistance, "No! You can't do that! You'll ruin the house!" But once he saw that her stained glass panels worked beautifully, he was more open to her contributions. The next big project is to renovate the 1970s-style kitchen. Although the cabinets are solid maple and the room spacious, the kitchen is designed for a catering staff, not a family. Bobbi Kaslow would like to redesign it to be warmer, friendlier, and better functioning, but that's a project that could be years in the works.
Overall, the biggest challenge for the Kaslows is how to allow the public to enjoy Rattle and Snap while keeping their home private.
"This is our home," Bobbi said. "We have the privilege of living here every day. This magnificent home is too much of a joy not to share with others."
The Kaslows are going to try opening the house to groups only by appointment. But the three-bedroom, two-bath Carriage House, set about half a mile from the main house and overlooking a scenic lake, is available for rentals any time. For information, visit RattleandSnapPlantation.com .
Rattle and Snap has stood defiantly through, war, weather and waste to stand as one of the nation's most important treasures. It is listed as a National Historic Landmark , but at its heart, the mansion is still a home. Real people appreciate it, live there, and are willing to put up with the frustrating costs and inconvenience of keeping the home in a constant state of repair and restoration.
That's how most of us feel about our homes and why it's easy to relate to the Kaslows. We're willing to do what it takes to protect the home we've chosen, too.
And there's nothing more American than that.