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.