In the grand living room and parlor of the East Nashville mansion now known as “Disgraceland,” Patton James plops down at his well-worn baby grand piano with enthusiasm. “I’ve got to give you an Elvis moment,” he says, right before tearing into a rousing rendition of the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller composition, “Love Me.”
It’s the perfect theme song for the grand and kitschy grounds of Disgraceland. Written as a parody of country songs, the young Elvis Presley transformed it into a sincere, emotionally packed ballad. That same mix of tongue-in-cheek humor and sincere devotion is obvious when Patton James talks about his campy castle on the Cumberland.
For years, the imposing palace just west of Cornelia Fort Airpark has been an Easter egg tucked away in its Rose Park Drive neighborhood. Surrounded by mid-century ranch houses, its imposing masonry and iron fence with a black metal guitar and musical notes, grand driveway dominated by a stone lion fountain, and the tall, white, Roman columns that flank the front entrance have inspired exclamations of surprise from casual passersby and wild speculations from neighbors.
“I’ve heard drug dealers lived here, Ronnie Milsap lived here, and one of the Titans owned it,” Patton James says, running through just a few of the most popular fictional tales the house has inspired. The myths are likely to continue with a boost from the house’s appearance as a pivotal location in the recently released stoner-comedy/mockumentary “East Nashville Tonight.”
In the film, James portrays a Vegas-slick drug dealer who sends Todd Snider spiraling down a rabbit hole of unease while waiting for his requested pharmaceuticals. In real life, James and his wife, Tracy Herron James, are gregarious hosts with an open enthusiasm for the home they’ve poured the last five years of their lives into restoring.
Patton James, a longtime East Nashville resident and singer-songwriter who heads the pop vocal/lounge music combo Patton James & the Synchromatics, joyfully points out the majestic features of the house and the quirky and eccentric additions. A recreation of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” fills the ceiling of an upstairs bathroom. “I had all these Michelangelo art books that nobody would read so I thought I would do my own ‘Sistine Chapel,’” James says. From such tongue-in-cheek additions to faithful restorations like the original fireplace mantel that frames a Roman-inspired cameo, James has taken the original Italianate style of the house as inspiration.
“The house is built perfectly east-west,” James says. “We wake every morning and see the sun coming through the back windows, and the sun sets every evening directly in front of us. It’s a magical house.” Looking out from a second-floor balcony, Patton points out features in the back yard, including the in-ground pool and surrounding buildings. “For the longest time there was a switch I would flip and then look around to see if anything happened,” he says. “After I finally got the pool cleaned, I hit the switch and the pool lit up like Vegas. I was yelling for Tracy to look out the window. I didn’t even know there was a light in the pool.
“When Cornelia Fort was still open we would watch the blimp land whenever it was in town,” James says. “We had an inflatable love doll someone gave us floating in the pool for a long time until the air leaked out. She was our ‘mascot,’ but I did wonder if someone flying over might think it was a body and call the cops.”
Indicating a small, covered stage at one end of the pool, James says, “I built that grandstand for our wedding. My band played at what I call our ‘Big, Fat Mullet Wedding’ — business in the front, party in the back.”
As James continues with the tour, the moments of appreciative wonder and playful humor continue. Those contrasts apply equally to the history of the house. For every confirmed fact there are a legion of offbeat legends and rumors. The twisting and often mysterious story of the house that became Disgraceland began in the midst of the Great Depression.
Augustus Poteet, a road construction engineer and contractor, built the two-story Italian provincial-style home in the late 1930s. Under the name Oakland Farms, the accompanying land was used for cattle grazing and growing feed crops—corn, wheat and other grains. The 150 acres ran to the Cumberland River in the east, south to nearby Fortland Farms and north to the Wild Acres farm—land that is occupied today by homes on Rose Park Drive and the northern most section of the Shelby Bottoms Greenway. In 1943, prominent Nashville jeweler Dick Barrick bought the farm and house. Under Barrick’s ownership the farm and house continued as a showplace for Nashville’s society set. Olive Barrick, Dick Barrick’s wife, became one of Nashville’s most prominent society matrons.
Changing times and the growth of East Nashville brought an end to the grand farms on the Cumberland River. As Nashville boomed after World War II, the farmland became valuable real estate for middle-class housing developments. The Fortland Farms house burned to the ground in 1942 and by the late ’50s the land had been subdivided for new homes. The same followed for the Wild Acres estate, and in 1963, the Barricks sold their property to developers and relocated to Green Hills. Legend has it that leaving the house broke Dick Barrick’s heart, and he passed away the following year. The Oakland Farms house was one of the few grand houses to survive the mid-century redevelopment of East Nashville. As the memory of the country estates faded, the legends grew about the unusual mansion on Rose Park Drive. Through the ’70s and into the ’80s, the house passed through several owners, including Canadian-born country music star Ronnie Prophet, who owned the house for a brief period. It slowly declined in grandeur as the surrounding ranch houses saw their own heyday and then gradual decline.
By the mid-’90s the house was a neighborhood eyesore. Local contractor Donald Sullens acquired the property in 1996, and it became his passion. Over the next two years, Sullens poured a tremendous amount of money and work into the house. He renovated the interior, added the Roman columns and front porch, constructed the pool, gazebo and pool house in the backyard, installed a stamped, stained concrete driveway, and built an imposing fence around the property.
Sullens’ passion to restore the house couldn’t stand in the face of the 1998 Nashville tornado. The storm that left a trail of destruction across the city tore off the original clay tile roof and broke all but one of the original stained glass windows on the back of the house. Sullens installed a new roof, but his goals for the house became harder to achieve. “It was too much to keep up with the house,” Patton James says. “His widow said it broke his heart to sell it.
“It was then sold to a car salesman,” James says. “There would be three Hummers parked outside, and I think that’s where the rumor started of it being a drug lord’s house. He lost it in foreclosure in 2005, and it sat empty until 2008. I remembered driving by the house one time by chance and almost wrecking my car. It was like, ‘What the heck?’ but then I never could find it again, it’s so tucked away back here. When I saw a listing on the Internet, ‘Large mansion in East Nashville, swimming pool, needs work.’ I said to myself, ‘I bet that’s the house.’”
James’ path to the future Disgraceland was far more than just a matter of satisfying a long-held curiosity. His past was a twisted path littered with as much happenstance and passion as that of the “mystery mansion.” A native of Johnstown, Pa., the music bug bit him early in life. “From when I was 6 years old and I started taking piano lessons, that was it,” James says. “I played drums, and I studied guitar. I didn’t go to college; my mother cried. I went to New York City; my mother cried. I went to L.A.; my mother cried. I sacrificed everything for my music.”
In 1988, James’ search for a music career led to Nashville. “I came to Nashville and fell in love with the whole music scene,” he says. “I got a job for about six months at Gibson Guitars, the only ‘real’ job I’ve ever had. I also started playing gigs—3 to 5 p.m. at one club, 7 to 10 p.m. at another club. I was playing as much as I could, but I also would hear great guitar players at Gibson, and they would be the janitor. So I knew it was going to be a long haul to ‘make it’ in Nashville.”
Looking around for a source of income that would also accommodate his work as a musician, he soon discovered the fledgling home renovation movement in East Nashville. “My supervisor at Gibson was renovating a house on Woodland,” James says. “I fell in love with the old houses in East Nashville, and I felt I needed to set some roots down here. So I bought a house on Ordway. It was abandoned and very distressed. My mother cried when I bought it. I didn’t know what I was doing. My dad never let me use power tools growing up because I was a guitar player. He was so worried about me losing a finger, but I went to Home Depot and took classes to learn how to tile floors or whatever. And there were so many people working on houses over here you could ask friends for advice. I’d work on the house all day, jump in the shower at 5 o’clock, and then go play music for six hours.”
After five years of work, James not only had a place to live and viable rental property, he also found out that his sweat equity paid off in other ways. “I got so tired of playing in all these smoky bars I decided to buy another house,” he says. “I had paid $50,000 for the house on Ordway, and it appraised for $150,000. With that equity I was able to buy a triplex on South 17th. I was really getting into renovation. Two years later I bought a duplex on Forrest.”
Step-by-step James built a small real-estate empire on the fly, using the same hardscrabble strategy he’d learned from building a career as a working musician: taking advantage of every opportunity, but always keeping an eye focused on the long view. “I’m a scrounger,” he says. “I would find a door in an alley, bring it home and sand it down. Everything was done on a shoestring budget. Everything was recycled. I still didn’t have any money. I was playing guitar at night for tips, but at least I had a little income going. For the next eight to 10 years I bought a house every two years over here, but I wasn’t flipping them. I would renovate them and rent them. Once I got three or four houses under my belt, I was able to concentrate more on just my music.”
By 2008, he was ready to take a break from the constant parade of renovation, or at least he thought he was. It was then that he stumbled upon the listing for the “Large mansion in East Nashville.”
“When I did the first walk through, I had worked on enough houses to know what’s what,” James says. “The foundation was solid. The doors had been kicked in and people had been in the house. The copper [water lines] and furnace had been stolen, but it hadn’t really been vandalized. It could have been a lot worse. It was like a church. It had a certain presence about it, and once people got in I think they just wanted to look at it, not harm it.”
Tracy James remembers other mysteries from her first look at the inside. “The last owner had a bunch of dogs,” she says. “When they left they filled the bathtub with dog food and left the animals here. We never figured out what happened to the dogs but there were muddy dog prints on every window. We’ve never heard who rescued them. It’s one of the many mysteries of the house. We’ve heard it was fixed up, run down, and fixed up through the years. People would say, ‘Oh yeah, I had a friend that lived there,’ but I never heard any strong, consistent stories.”
“I called my realtor to try and put something together,” Patton James says, “and he said there were already three or four contracts on the house, but none of them could close. This was right after the real estate market crashed in 2008. I found out the banks wouldn’t loan money on the house. That’s why no one had been able to buy it. So I offered cash for the house as is—give me the keys and I’ll give you the cash, and I waived all the inspections. I was able to borrow the money against my second house, which I owned free and clear.”
Even with cash in hand, closing the deal for Disgraceland wasn’t easy. “The realtor even gave up,” Tracy James says. “I told Patton to fire him and get another agent. Patton had to keep telling him it was a cash deal. It took three months to close. The house had been abandoned for over two years, and three days before we closed, somebody tagged the house with spray paint.”
Despite the challenges and frustrations, the deal finally closed, and for Patton James it meant far more than just another piece of real estate. “When I saw this house it was like my whole life changed,” he says. “It was like everything in my life was coming together. I had been in Nashville 20 years. I closed on the house Oct. 14, 2008; it was like I was done searching. We came in here and cleaned it up, a little of paint went on, we planted flowers, started landscaping and cleaning up the pool, and it all just felt right.”
The home’s outward resemblance to the famous home of Elvis Presley inspired the name “Disgraceland.” Patton and Tracy were married in the backyard, one year after closing on the house. In the last four years they have continued to transform it. Patton enjoys pointing out the thrift store pieces that have gone into the renovation—a wardrobe from Goodwill, a chandelier from Habitat for Humanity, rooms that have been transformed through discount “mistake paint.” With old and new, sought after or “found” artifacts, Disgraceland has become an embodiment of the odd mixing pot of style, creativity, talent, and ingenuity that has transformed East Nashville over the last 20 years.
The Jameses’ love of their home extends beyond renovation for their own enjoyment. They’ve hosted many theme parties, neighborhood events, backyard movie screenings, and impromptu jam sessions. The pool house was renovated and used as guest space for visiting friends or friends-of-friends to stay while in Nashville, with the idea of eventually turning it into a full-fledged bed and breakfast.
Although fun and good times may be the first thing that comes to mind when one sees Disgraceland and the transformation the Jameses have brought to the house, there’s also a very serious side to their preservation of the property. Developers are transforming the neighborhoods around Disgraceland at a pace not seen since the development boom of the late 1950s and ’60s. Pointing toward the undeveloped land just south of Disgraceland, Patton James lists some of the changes that are coming: “Thirty-two houses are going in at the bottom, 74 houses are going in up here, that’s another 200 to 250 cars traveling on Eastland every day,” he says. “They told us that if they could get this property, they would raze this house,” Tracy James adds.
“That’s our biggest concern about what’s going on in East Nashville,” Patton says. “They’re just tearing things down. We’re sitting on an acre here, and the developer told me if they had this lot now they would build 12 or 13 houses on it. That’s how close [Nashville] came to losing this place. Along with Riverwood Mansion, it’s one of the few remaining historical farm houses in East Nashville.”
Along with the preservation aspects of saving the house, Patton James’ devotion to the salvation of Disgraceland resonates on a deeper level. “We like to say we’re ‘saving Disgraceland,’” James says, “but it really came down to Disgraceland saving me from myself and that ambition of always wanting more than I had. You have to have that goal to survive in the music business, but after 30 years you don’t want to be in the same place after giving your life to your career. You have to find a balance between success and reality that you can live with, and what I found with the real estate stuff was that the hard work does pay off. You put money and your heart and soul into a property and it’s there. It’s solid. You have a place to call home.”
James points out a large, antique photograph hanging on the front wall of the great room. It shows a panoramic view of an ancient Roman ruin—grand columns, built more than 2,000 years ago, reaching toward an endless sky.
“This came out of great-grandfather’s house,” James says. “I carried it with me for years. When I bought this house with the pillars outside, and the Italian feel, it’s like everything just lined up in the universe. It’s funny that two of the men who owned this house, and really loved it, died shortly after selling it. The message seems to be, I better not sell it.” James laughs at his conclusion, but his love for his odd, Eastside palace is a serious thing. “I really believe this is the place I was supposed to end up,” he says, “and you can just bury me in the backyard when I go.”