By Margie Thessin
The Williamson County real estate market is on fire right now. But who doesn’t remember just a few years ago after the collapse of the housing bubble, when property values dropped and the supply of buyers dried up? Although now it’s a seller’s market, five years ago it was a buyer’s market. It is ever thus. One just has to look back at the history of Williamson County to realize that the market is sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes quite volatile and usually unpredictable. All for the simple reason that no one knows what’s coming down the pike.
A look back at 216 years of Franklin’s history reveals a number of events that affected real estate values, some negatively and some positively. Obviously the Civil War had the greatest negative effect, followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Panic of 1893 led to a four-year depression. Banks failed all over the country, businesses went bankrupt, and property values plummeted. Franklin was certainly not immune, as Franklin lawyer John Henderson wrote in his diary, “…the financial outlook of the Country is worse than I ever saw it. Banks all over the country are closing, the people seem to have lost confidence in each other and in everything.”
Local business failures affected even those not involved in the business. An example of this is the late-19th century failures of sugar and flour mills that put a huge dent in everybody’s pocket. The collapse of the National Bank of Franklin in 1925 ushered in the Depression four years earlier in Franklin than elsewhere.
On the positive side of the equation, the 1985 announcement that the General Motors’ Saturn manufacturing plant was coming to Spring Hill caused the market to heat up to boiling. Now Nashville’s the “It” City and Franklin its country cousin. With a few fits and starts since then, values have continued to climb.
Abram Maury, the founder of Franklin and Williamson County, laid out Franklin in the distinct and orderly 15-block grid pattern we see today. The town lots measured about ½ acre and are quite deep; unlike today they needed to accommodate not just a house but also outbuildings: a small barn for the milk cow and chickens, the kitchen, a carriage house and, out in the farthest corner of the yard, the outhouse. Maury set the price at $10 per lot, and sold 68 of the original 192 by the end of 1800.
As time passed, land values shot up. By 1840 an unimproved town lot sold for $800. In 1867, however, a similar-sized lot sold for just $200. What was the intervening factor that caused the slump? Undoubtedly the recently-ended Civil War, which devastated the South’s economy. Two hundred dollars was a bargain for freedman A.N.C. Williams, who purchased the lot on the corner of 2nd Avenue and Church Street.
Jumping forward to 2012, an unimproved town lot sold for $250,000. Abram Maury and A.N.C. Williams would be amazed. For house prices, take as an example a house on 3rd Avenue North. Built in 1901, this house sold for $3,200 in 1911. In 1935 (deep in the Depression) it had appreciated very little, selling for $3,225. In 1937, the economy appearing to have improved a bit, it sold for $4,500. When the owner of the house committed suicide four months later leaving a widow and 7 children, the sellers forgave quite the remaining indebtedness and allowed the widow and family to remain rent-free for 6 months.
The house didn’t sell again until 1941, but again, the price was $4,500. The next time it sold was 1987, and the price had skyrocketed to $140,000. In 1999 it sold for $404,000 and more than doubled in 2004, garnering $900,000. That’s the story of Franklin’s desirable downtown.
In the course of walking and biking tours, I have observed something about historic Franklin’s housing stock. It appears to me that the wealthy Franklin people in the 19th century were wealthier than the wealthy Franklin people of the 20th century, at least until about 1980 and only judging by the houses they built.
Early 19th century designs incorporated ancient styles, such as Greek Revival with classic column styles, triangular pediments and elegant symmetry. Franklin’s late 19th century houses were grand affairs. Queen Anne and General Grant gave their names to several of Franklin’s most decorated dwellings, where cone, mansard, slate and fish scale roofs cover these fanciful dwellings.
By the 20th century, Franklin’s houses had scaled down. Cottage and bungalow styles predominated early in the century, sometimes using local stone for the exterior. The mid-century brought the ubiquitous ranch house. In other words, with a few exceptions, you weren’t seeing such big houses anymore. It’s pretty clear Franklin’s 20th century economy paled in comparison to the 19th century’s.
That all changed around 1980. Just look around Williamson County, particularly Brentwood. The ginormous house had arrived. Williamson County’s founders would be proud.