How a century-old deed might scuttle Metro’s $3M land deal with state

Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 10:05pm
041913 Ben West Library topper.jpg

Ben West Library (Eric England/SouthComm)


On the first page of book 274 in the Register of Deeds office, written in the perfect, slanted longhand of the age, is recorded a land transfer.

On July 9, 1902, in a deal some six months in the making, J. Craig McLanahan and his wife, Katherine, gave to the Carnegie Library of Nashville a tract on Union Street between Polk and Spruce.

It was a gift from a man who did not live in the city, but whose mining company did considerable business in the state. McLanahan’s only other notable appearances in the state’s news, in fact, came five years earlier when an ore mine he owned down in Lawrence County collapsed, killing “ten white men and boys,” according to contemporaneous accounts.

McLanahan spent most of his time in his home state of Pennsylvania, in and around Altoona, where he was enough of a well-known figure that his social calls and the births of his children made the society column. 

When Andrew Carnegie — a Pennsylvanian and a man with interest in mining himself — started his project to erect free public libraries throughout the U.S., perhaps he went to McLanahan and hinted that giving Tennessee’s capital its first free lending library would be good PR. 

That’s just speculation, of course, but here’s a fact: The transfer included a paragraph that very well could collapse a pending deal between Nashville and the state.

The deed reads, in part: “But this conveyance is made with the express reservation that the right and title of the said Carnegie Library of Nashville in and to said property shall cease and determine and the property shall at once revert to the said J. Craig McLanahan or his heirs in the event … that the said Carnegie Library of Nashville or its successors in the ownership or control of said property shall thereafter fail to maintain perpetually upon said property a free public library for the use of the people of Nashville.” That’s a bunch of legalese and antiquated language, but in effect it says if the property the McLanahans gave for the library stops being a library, the McLanahans can take the property back.

In the ensuing 111 years, lots of things have changed. For one thing, Spruce is now Eighth Avenue. The neoclassical Carnegie Library — built on the McLanahan site and with the benefit of Carnegie’s largesse — is no longer there. It was replaced by the mid-century modernism of the Ben West Library, and when the new downtown branch of the public library opened a few blocks away, the Ben West building ceased acting as the main branch for the public library system.

For a while, it was used as Metro offices. The council met there in 2006 while the courthouse was being renovated. But somebody knew about this old deed restriction, and there was, in fact, a small closet with a few dozen books, available to be checked out. Maybe it wasn’t in the spirit of McLanahan’s gift, but certainly it followed the letter. And through all of that, the language of the deed remained intact.

Late in the summer of 2006, the council returned to the Metro Courthouse. At some point, the notion of a library there, like the rest of the building, was abandoned. And now Metro has negotiated a deal with the state to swap the property with the former home of the Tennessee Preparatory School. After demolition, the state plans a parking lot. 

What they don’t plan is a library — closet-sized or otherwise.

J. Craig and Katherine McLanahan had two daughters. One died when she was 2. The second lived until 1944, when she died, unmarried and without children. Which isn’t to say there are no McLanahans to be found. In fact, they still own the eponymous mining company, and they still operate a gravel facility in Gallatin.

The company’s CEO is still a McLanahan, and his email is on the company’s website, hinting at the close-knit, familial nature of the company. Told of the pending land swap, the CEO, Mike, was caught by surprise.

“We have heard about this property for several years now, but were not aware of current plans for it,” he wrote April 2. “In fact, I think there was a plaque put in the old building attesting to its history.”

At the April 16 meeting of the Metro Council, Councilman Bo Mitchell pulled the land swap from the consent agenda, concerned that the city was giving away a valuable piece of downtown property — it’s appraised at more than $3 million. But Councilman Jason Holleman wondered if, in fact, it was the city’s to give away.

He asked Metro Law Director Saul Solomon if there were deed restrictions on the property — alluding to the paragraph in the original 1902 transfer. Solomon indicated the city and state were aware, but didn’t think it would be a problem.

It’s important to note that the restriction doesn’t affect the entire block, just the McLanahan’s original gift — the north 100 feet facing Union, between Polk and Eighth, roughly a quarter-acre. But that’s still 38 percent of a $2.5 million piece of property. 

In fact, the state and city prepared for the eventuality that the heirs might come forward. The contract says should that occur, the state can reclaim the TPS site for $1. 

It’s an eventuality that may prove critical.

The McLanahans are represented locally by Harwell Howard Hyne Gabbert & Manner, and H3GM shareholder Kris Kemp indicated late Wednesday they are looking into the old deed restriction.

“This possible claim just came to our attention. Right now we’re exploring the rider and the validity of any claim the McLanahan family might have to the property,” Kemp said.

Solomon told The City Paper that Metro doesn’t anticipate a problem.

“We believe the restriction should not prevent the transaction from proceeding,” he wrote in an email. Perhaps it won’t stop the transaction from proceeding, but it certainly doesn’t keep the McLanahan heirs from trying to recover the family’s land.

It wouldn’t be the first time Metro lost property because of a decades-old string of legal sentences, either.

Thirteen years ago, having discovered a similar century-old deed restriction, Metro was forced to return the former Turner School on Nolensville Pike to the heirs of the donors.

Depending on the timing, losing the Ben West property could be even more of a misstep by Metro. Part of the agreement with the state requires the city to demolish the existing building — that’s a few hundred thousand dollars. Should the McLanahans get their property back — Metro is out that money (less the $1 returned by the state) plus the downtown property and the TPS property, which the state would be able to reclaim for the peppercorn dollar.

And the McLanahans become laughing heirs, new owners of a quarter-acre downtown in the shadow of the state capitol.

All because of one paragraph, 111 years old.


18 Comments on this post:

By: Trumpet on 4/19/13 at 3:55

Joe/The Collection:

.....and as James Brown said/sang back in 1986, "Living In America" ...decisions
decisions... He must have been thinking of/about You / Us ! !

Happy Motoring!

By: Ask01 on 4/19/13 at 4:13

To borrow a quote from the fictional character, Nelson Muntz, on TV's "The Simpson," "HAA - HAA."

I feel so much better getting that out of my system. If Mayor Dean or any Metro Council member is reading this, that's for you.

Not that I don't doubt for a minute Metro Nashville leadership would not hesitate to ignore the deed's provisions if there were no heirs or they thought they could use double talk legalese to circumvent the details.

Metro may have to rethink this deal or give up the property to the family and end up with nothing.

What a great deal, eh? I wonder if former Mayor Bredesen knew of this proviso when he orchestrated the new library with his name so boldly engraved?

By: JohnGalt on 4/19/13 at 4:49

If Solomon doesn't think the restriction will be a problem he must have failed contract law in school..he did go to law school didn't he?

By: bfra on 4/19/13 at 6:08

Ask01 - I'm with you! Dean thinks "he is Master of all he surveys", but he isn't.

By: Kosh III on 4/19/13 at 6:10

Metro Archives should take over this building instead of crowding into the Library.
I emailed Bo Mitchell about this--not that he bothered to reply.

By: on 4/19/13 at 7:39

Who decides which parts of a contract to honor or ignore?

The land transfer document certainly sounds as if the former owners intended for a library to remain there. There was apparently no clause saying that provision expired when Metro changes its mind.

If the heirs want to waive their rights and let Metro keep it, that would be fine. If not Metro should keep it as a library. If they do not, they should give it back to the rightful heirs.

When they accepted the land, they accepted the conditions.

Metro should set a good example and do what is right and legal.

By: budlight on 4/19/13 at 8:54

You are right on taxpayer. They say antiquated language. Sounds pretty modern to me - just plain English - and even I can understand it. A contract is a contract, metro. Karl Marx Dean needs to get over himself. Did any of you get his Holiday greeting with the 4-fold expensive drawing of his convention center? It was disgusting and probably paid for by your tax dollars.

By: slzy on 4/19/13 at 8:58

sounds good to me kosh iii

By: Vuenbelvue on 4/19/13 at 6:48

I think the same thing happened with Croft Elementary by the Nashville Zoo. The Croft sisters willed the land to the city for a zoo and then Metro legal took the back property and the school was built with one room on the lower level designated for animal studies. I think the Mayor was Purcell.
900 days or less til a new mayor is sworn in.

By: taxedtotheMAX on 4/19/13 at 11:24

Same with Old General Hospital the Property was donated
and REQUIRED to be a Medical Facility if not it was to be returned to the Family

Now there overpriced Aprtments there wonder what happened to the restrictions ?

I worked for metro for many years theres a lot of skeletons in the closets lol

By: fair_minded on 4/20/13 at 1:29

And sorta like how the state law and the metro charter specify that the fairgrounds must be used as a fairgrounds and must have a fair of at least 10 days duration on it annually.

Metro Legal told Dean he didn't have to abide by the Charter back when he tried to close the fairgrounds either, but they had to back off when threatened with a law suit..... of course now they are going to try again with this "master plan" idea with city council.... but the charter cannot be changed by city council alone... it still would require a referendum to *legally* re-purpose the fairgrounds and recall what happened the last fairgrounds referendum? Dean got stomped on.

By: Ask01 on 4/20/13 at 5:35

Government skullduggery is nothing new. All through history, politicians and leaders have slithered through the slime to outflank public opinion, other politicians and even the law.

For most practitioners of the dark art of politics, the thinnest veneer of legality is all that is required. The term, 'plausible deniability' pretty well sums up the situation. So long as they can cling to some shred of respectability, even if only in their own minds, they are satisfied.

I have no doubt Mayor Dean and Metro Council's legal ghouls are tirelessly scanning through dusty laws and past successful land grabs ignoring the wishes of donors and legal terms to sidestep the deed conditions.

I'm personally on the side of Mr. McLanahan and his family. If Metro sees fit to violate the terms set forth in what seems a valid and legally binding deed, they can hand over the keys to a very valuable parcel of land in downtown Nashville to the family.

Mayor Dean and Metro Council can bear the burden of responsibility.

I still wonder if former Mayor Bredesen knew or had any concern about the condition surrounding the McLanahan library stipulations, or if, so determined to put his mark on the city (beyond the football team he helped burden us with), he opted to let future mayors deal with the problems?

By: bfra on 4/20/13 at 6:32

Vuenbelvue - I knew the Croft sisters. Their property was to be used for a wild life sanctuary for "native" Tennesssee animals. Their words, I heard so many times. NO industrial park, NO school & they didn't call it a "zoo". But let Metro get 1 finger on something & they will screw it to their advantage. Especially since Dean & puppets have been in control.

By: on 4/22/13 at 8:08

Are metro shenanigans getting worse year after year?

By: BenDover on 4/22/13 at 12:19

The tone of the article seems to let on that it's ridiculous for the Heirs to believe they have a claim. Of course they have a claim... it was a conditional use contract.

The government can either maintain the property as a proper library; or take the property through eminent domain paying the owners the fair market value of the property.

By: BigPapa on 4/22/13 at 1:27

Lesson: dont leave your property to a city.

By: 4gold on 4/22/13 at 8:15

Case closed. Who needs a lawyer? It is not a library now anymore now than it was when keeping a closet of books. Property goes back to the owners. Why should metro get it only to turn it over to the monopoly that is Central Parking. My bet is Central Parking has their finger in this already.

Go Dores, Preds, Titans! Go Nashville a great place to live!

By: 4gold on 4/22/13 at 8:20

P. S. Is this not also the original site of the home of James K. Polk? If not it is across the street. That was another mistep of letting a former Predsident of the US's home be demolished instead of preserving it. Ahhh, Nashville.

Go Dores, Preds, Titans! Go Nashville a great place to live!