How Preservation and Faith Keeps History Alive at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
The Andrew Jackson Foundation (AJF) has operated The Hermitage since 1889. As one of the oldest presidential home museums, preservation has been at the core of The Hermitage story for more than 150 years.
After Jackson’s death in 1845, Andrew Jackson Jr. struggled as a farmer and a businessman. Sinking cotton prices and poor crops squeezed Jackson Jr.’s cash, forcing him to seek loans. He tried to diversify his income by purchasing farmland in regions further south; he even purchased a lead mine in an effort to bolster his family’s fortunes. Unfortunately, none of these ventures worked out to his benefit, and he sunk further into debt. By 1856, his creditors were ready to foreclose on The Hermitage, forcing him to sell the land to pay off his debts and move his family to the plantation he owned in Mississippi.
The State of Tennessee purchased 500 acres of the 1,099-acre The Hermitage in 1856 with the intention of offering the property as a site for a Southern West Point. The Tennessee General Assembly authorized this purpose, but the U.S. Congress never accepted the offer. In the following five years, several new uses were proposed for The Hermitage, including a state military school and a model farm for the Tennessee Agricultural Bureau. None came to fruition.
Between 1856 and 1860, Jackson Jr. sold the remaining Hermitage land to several private owners.
In 1860, the Jackson family returned to The Hermitage as its caretakers after their Mississippi venture failed. That same year, Governor Isham Harris became the first political leader to advocate for outright preservation of The Hermitage, but the looming Civil War prevented such action. Although several important battles occurred near Nashville and in the surrounding region, no military action ensued near The Hermitage.
After the death of Andrew Jackson Jr. in 1865, his widow, Sarah, and son, Andrew Jackson III, were left to oversee The Hermitage and its small operating farm. The Hermitage fell into disrepair, and the buildings slowly began to deteriorate. Tennessee politicians continued exploring options regarding the proper use of the state-owned property. In 1888, a year after Sarah Yorke Jackson’s death, the legislature proposed converting the mansion into a Confederate soldiers’ home. A group of prominent Nashville women, whose shared mission was to preserve the mansion as a presidential home, came together and fought to save and preserve The Hermitage. In early 1889, this group of determined women that included some of Andrew Jackson’s descendants, formed the Ladies Hermitage Association (LHA) with this preservation goal. (In 2014, the LHA was renamed the Andrew Jackson Foundation. It is the same corporation but with a new name.)
Several weeks of intense lobbying then took place. On the last day of the session, the Tennessee State Legislature passed Bill No. 461 on April 5, 1889, giving the newly chartered AJF control of the core 25 acres of The Hermitage farm that included the mansion, garden and several historic outbuildings.
One of the very first projects the AJF undertook was the repair of what is now called the First Hermitage farmhouse. This log cabin is where the Jacksons lived from 1804 to 1821. It was the first historic preservation project in Tennessee’s history and one of the very first in American history. In 1896, the AJF restored the original log kitchen at the first Hermitage site and began work on the Hermitage mansion and garden.
In the 1920s, a disastrous fire destroyed six structures on site, including two barns, outbuildings and a restroom built by the foundation. In response, the AJF operated its own private fire department at The Hermitage for many years until city services arrived in this rural section, then outside of Nashville.
In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) donated money and labor for repairs and restoration work at The Hermitage. This included the construction of new support buildings, such as a museum, ticket office, greenhouse, a director’s residence and a reservoir to store water for fighting fires.
The Hermitage Church
One of the most recent preservation projects has been repairs to the Hermitage Church. While Andrew Jackson’s military career often took him from home into war, the constant that steadied him was knowing that his wife Rachel was at home praying. Rachel, a devout Presbyterian, was the moral center of the Jackson family. She used her influence to bring Jackson closer to religion, and he famously promised her that, when free of politics, he too would join the church.
In 1823, Jackson and many of his neighbors donated funds to build a church on Hermitage land. He wanted Rachel and the local community to have a nearby church so they didn’t have to travel into Nashville to worship. Completed in 1824, the Hermitage Church served as a Presbyterian church from 1832 to 1965. In 1965, fire destroyed the structure, leaving only its brick walls standing. The AJF bought the church remains in 1965 and rebuilt it in 1968.
Disaster struck again in April 1998, when a devastating series of tornadoes struck Nashville and The Hermitage, inflicting substantial damage to the city and site. The repairs to the church included a new roof and repairs to the walls.
In the spring and summer of 2018, a generous grant from the State of Tennessee enabled the AJF to replace then deteriorated wood shingle roof with new Alaskan yellow cedar shingles known for their longevity. Masons also repainted the deteriorated mortar joints in the church’s original foundation and walls, while painters applied fresh paint to the interior walls and pews. During the winter of 2019, carpenters will make new doors and thresholds for the church, and in the spring, painters will return to recoat the exterior trim.
Today, the Hermitage Church is rented for weddings and is occasionally open for programs. If you have an opportunity to see the Hermitage Church interior while you are visiting The Hermitage, we encourage you to take advantage. It is where Jackson honored his promise to Rachel to join the church more than 180 years ago.