A Legacy Linked To The Ryman & Elvis Presley
By Katie Shands
About sixteen years before esteemed architect Hugh Cathcart Thompson designed the Ryman in Nashville, he was hard at work on a different project: the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee. Like the Ryman, this little church would go on to build a remarkable musical legacy with ties to many renowned artists, including Elvis Presley.
A MASTERPIECE TAKES SHAPE IN FRANKLIN
Hugh Cathcart was an elder at Nashville’s much larger Edgefield Cumberland Presbyterian Church (another structure he designed), so this architectural job in Franklin was likely near and dear to his heart. The tiny congregation of Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church had been worshiping at temporary locations around town, and the seventeen or eighteen members were more than ready to have a place of their own. Cathcart made sure to deliver–and then some.
When the project began in early 1876, Cathcart had been an architect for less than a year, having previously made a name for himself as one of the most highly regarded finish carpenters in Nashville. Perhaps this explains his impeccable attention to detail as an architect. The resulting Gothic Revival brick church was small but elegant with a coved ceiling and exposed rafters in the sanctuary, arched windows, and a square bell tower, all of which would become signatures of Cathcart’s designs. In September 1876, a finishing touch was added to the top of the tower–a steeple that the Daily American described as “one of the most graceful fingers imaginable.” (In the early 20th century, a tornado blew down the original steeple, and a replacement was added in 2006.) As clearly evidenced by the Ryman, Cathcart also had a knack for designing spaces with excellent acoustics. Above the sanctuary of the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church, he created a soaring, curved ceiling that allowed the songs of worshipers to disperse and resonate without much distortion. Not only that, Cathcart incorporated materials that would reflect sound and enhance its clarity, such as the oak wainscoting and pews that remain in the church today.
AN INCREDIBLE MUSICAL LEGACY
In the years to come, these impressive acoustics would be put to good use. The Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church attracted a wealth of musical talent, including the Stephens Quartet, a gospel group composed of members from the esteemed Stephens family. In 1925, the father and lead singer, W.T. Stephens, became the church’s music director. His twelve-year-old daughter, Fannie, served as the pianist and organist.
Four days before her sixteenth birthday, Fannie married Leo Lynch, and the couple eventually had three daughters together. Their eldest, Mary, went on to achieve a thirty-four-year career in the music industry. Her resume boasted such positions as the executive assistant of RCA Victor and Chet Atkins. Mary also served as the church’s longtime pianist.
In 1969, Mary wed Felton Jarvis, who was Elvis’s record producer at the time. They tied the knot in a former hunting lodge on their property along Lewisburg Pike. That building was later moved and repurposed into a rear addition to the church. It remains there today.
Throughout their marriage, the Jarvises remained devoted members of the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church. When Felton died from complications of a stroke in 1981, his funeral was held in the sanctuary. Many well-known names paid their respects, including Roy Orbison, Colonel Tom Parker, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. In Felton’s memory, a stained-glass window depicting Christ was installed behind the choir. When Mary died in 1995, she left a sizable trust to the church. Part of this donation paid for the other stained-glass windows that now adorn the building.
A CALL FOR SUPPORT
Fast forward to today, and the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church still proudly stands at 615 West Main Street. Among the fifty-six buildings Cathcart designed, this church is one of only nine that have survived the years. Though still breathtaking, the historic structure now needs some sprucing up. The church and a small group of volunteers are currently fundraising to help cover the costs of exterior work, which will be done by Lee Restoration. This project includes repairs to the bell tower, steeple, front entrance, soffits, and plumbing. Donations can be sent via Venmo @FranklinCumberlandPresbyterian. Use 9500 for the last four digits. Donors of $100 or more will become inaugural members of the Bell Ringing Society.
Many thanks to church historian Judith Policastro whose thorough research proved invaluable while writing this column.