Tuesday, March 7, 2023

The History Behind Nashville's Cheekwood Estate & Gardens

By Michelle Shocklee

Cheekwood mansion (photo by Cheekwood)


That's what this picture of the Cheekwood mansion speaks to me. Peace. Loveliness. Nature. If you've ever visited the Cheekwood Estate & Gardens in Nashville, you know it is all of that and more. The botanical gardens have become a place where visitors can go year-round to enjoy the extensive grounds and beautiful home. But how did this mansion that was once a home to one of Nashville's most prominent families become what it is today?

Newspaper clipping of Leslie Cheek & family in India;
courtesy Cheekwood
Well, we've got to back in history to find out!

A man by the name of Christopher "C.T." Cheek owned a wholesale grocery business in Nashville in the 1880s. He had a son named Leslie Cheek, who joined his dad in the family business. In 1896, Leslie Cheek and Mabel Wood married in Clarksville, Tennessee. The pair had met only a few years earlier on a train to Nashville from New York, and it has been said Leslie bribed a porter with a box of cigars to find out the name of the beautiful young Mabel. The couple settled into Nashville society, had a son and a daughter, and enjoyed taking trips abroad. 

The Cheeks grocery business did well, but we probably would have never heard of C.T. or his son Leslie if their cousin, Joel Cheek, hadn't moved to town in 1884. I blogged about Joel and how he and a partner developed Maxwell House coffee, so I won't go into the whole story here, but C.T. and Leslie both invested in their cousin's venture. And that proved to be a very good decision! In 1928, the Postum Company, later renamed General Foods, purchased Cheek-Neal Coffee Company for $45 million. As an investor, Leslie became a very wealthy man. 

1928 newspaper article re: Leslie Cheek's new home;
courtesy Cheekwood
It is said that Mabel's fondness for large, expensive furnishings led to the necessity of a new, bigger house that could hold a gilt mirror, too tall for their current home. Cheek allegedly told his wife, “I suppose we will have to either sell the mirror or build a house to fit it in.” And that's exactly what he did. 

In 1931, Leslie hired New York architect Bryant Fleming to build an enormous Georgian-style mansion on the 100-acres he purchased west of Nashville. The limestone home and boxwood gardens were inspired by English manors and gardens, and boasted 36 rooms (plus servants quarters) that included eleven bedrooms, twelve bathrooms, two elevators, a hidden staircase, and a library to hold Leslie's collection of more than two thousand books. Combining the family name with Mabel's maiden name, the estate was officially declared Cheekwood. 

Cheekwood walkway; photo by Cheekwood
Sadly, Leslie Cheek would pass away two short years later, leaving the estate to his wife Mabel, who passed away in 1946. Their son, Leslie Jr., and his family had moved to Virginia, but their daughter, Huldah, and her family enjoyed living at Cheekwood until 1957 when they offered to let the estate become a botanical garden and art museum. Several organizations became involved, and, after much work, fundraising, and redevelopment, the Cheekwood museum opened in 1960. 

Cheekwood gardens; photo by Cheekwood

If you are ever in the Nashville area, I encourage you to take some time to visit Cheekwood. You will not be disappointed!

Your turn: Have you been to Cheekwood? Do you enjoy going to botanical gardens?


Michelle Shocklee
 is the author of several historical novels, including Count the Nights by Stars, winner of the 2023 Christianity Today Book Award, and Under the Tulip Tree, a Christy Awards and Selah Awards finalist. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at www.MichelleShocklee.com


*2023 Christianity Today Book Award Winner*

1961. After a longtime resident at Nashville’s historic Maxwell House Hotel suffers a debilitating stroke, Audrey Whitfield is tasked with cleaning out the reclusive woman’s room. There, she discovers an elaborate scrapbook filled with memorabilia from the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Love notes on the backs of unmailed postcards inside capture Audrey’s imagination with hints of a forbidden romance . . . and troubling revelations about the disappearance of young women at the exposition. Audrey enlists the help of a handsome hotel guest as she tracks down clues and information about the mysterious “Peaches” and her regrets over one fateful day, nearly sixty-five years earlier.



  1. I love visiting botanical gardens, but have not had a chance to visit this one. Looks beautiful.

    1. Linda, if you're ever in Nashville, it's definitely worth seeing! Thanks!

  2. Thank you for posting today! I do enjoy visiting botanical gardens. I have not had the pleasure of visiting any other than the one near my home.

  3. Interesting article, Michelle. The only times I've been in Nashville are when I've been there because of ACFW conferences. I was so busy with that I've not taken time to explore the city. If I do make it there again down the road you can be sure Cheekwood will be on my list of places to see. Interestingly, the Chicago Botanical Gardens is not in the City of Chicago but in a suburb not far from me. I have been there a couple of times, but not in many years.

    1. Pam, looks like you need to come down and we can go together! <3