Two Rivers Park

“Experimental Mechanical Laboratory”

One of the things that’s been kind of frustrating about researching the Allens is that, while their inlaws–the Baxters–have been very easy to find throughout Nashville’s history, other than the Tennessean article about The Thing and the subsequent stuff that builds off it, there’s not much about the Allens in the public record. I know Itta Reno’s story about The Thing is a story about the Allens only because I already know the Allens were the ones who had The Thing. No names in it. Otherwise, what I’ve found is Benny Allen in the city directory one year, Ben in the census records, and a contemporary mention of Ben Allen sending some sporting magazine some fishing lures he’d invented. I didn’t even know for sure if 125 South Spruce really was in the same spot as 125 8th Avenue South (it is).

I thought trying to find other houses in town that at least kind of looked like their house would give me something tangible other than their graves. But still, you know, you hope to see something that says “Yes, they lived. Yes, they were not like their neighbors.”

Bridgett, yesterday, told me about the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. And it turns out that, through work, I have access to some of Tennessee’s. The 1880 map was a bust because the Allen house fell into a weird dead zone (which is nicely creepy when I think about it). Only the front of the lot is visible on the map the house should be on and the plates that should show the whole lot mysteriously don’t. That block–Spruce, Demonbreun, Vauxhall, and McGavock–is just not fully portrayed.

But the 1897 map? Which is better than the 1880 map (they married in ’83, so the ’80 map would have been useful only to show the layout before they got it)? There’s the Allen lot, plain as day.

This blows my mind. And I’m not even sure what all we can learn from it. First thing’s first. It looks to me clear that the house is set up very similarly to the houses on 5th Avenue North that I went to see yesterday, probably most like the one on the left, with the Allen house being one window wider on the left side of the door and balustrades instead of a porch. And look how it’s set up along the side here. That’s exactly what’s going on with the Allen house. In other words, these houses were set up on that same L-shaped footprint of so many antebellum homes here in Tennessee. And see where, on the Allen diagram, there’s that perforated rectangle in the inside of the back of the L? Look at what’s going on in the same spot on the back of the 5th Avenue North house. Porches.

I’m not sure what the perforated square off the back of the house would be. Another porch? Perhaps a wooden entrance way?

The square building could have been a kitchen, but I think it’s much more likely that it’s the carriage house, just based on how deep it is. I think a more likely candidate for the kitchen is the building also along the alley marked “servants,” if the kitchen wasn’t in the house. I’ve seen that set-up before–kitchen downstairs, servants (at least the cook) living upstairs. They wouldn’t necessarily need someone living in the house, since they didn’t have kids. But the house is big enough that you can see how Sue and Ben could live there quite comfortably with Sue’s mom and half-sister Lizzie by 1900 (they had one servant living there in that census–Matilda Merritt. By 1910, they had five, but Ben’s health was so bad at that point, that it doesn’t surprise me. Lizzie was still living with them. Never married.)

My argument for the kitchen being in the house is that that was becoming the fashion and I know from my research that other houses in the neighborhood did. Still, man, I’d be curious to know if the 5th Avenue North houses have always had internal kitchens.

The only outbuilding I feel like I have any indication what I’m looking at is that “experimental mechanical laboratory.” Finally! Finally something that fits with my knowledge of the Allens. There is the workshop I’ve read about. That’s where Ben made his fishing lures and his jewelry. That’s a physical detail that matches the stories. I assume that’s also where he would have constructed his Frankenstein monsters, or tried to turn base metals into gold.

Whew, it tickles me.