The home was built by Col. Michael C. Dunn and was completed around 1810, making it the second oldest residence in Davidson County that is open to the public. It was built in the Federal style, or without the ornate front and back porches it has now. Michael Dunn's son-in-law, Lee Shute, purchased the farm for $10,000 in 1846. Several years later, Lee sold the 346-acre property to his son, William Dickson Shute, for the sum of $5, as "a loving gift" to William and his new bride, Lavinia.
William and Lavinia renovated the home after the Civil War, changing the style from Federal to Italianate and adding the porches between 1876 and 1881. Also added at this time were the smokehouse, kitchen and three-tiered garden. Primary crops were sweet potatoes, corn, wheat and hay. Swine and cattle were raised, and flowers and apples from the gardens were sold. The farm prospered late in the 1800's.
William and Lavinia had four surviving adult daughters: Leila, Maggie, Venie and Kate. Kate married her husband, William Croft, at Grassmere in 1888 and had two daughters, Margaret, born in 1889, and Elise, born in 1894. William Croft moved his family to Cuba in 1902 for business, but Margaret and Elise returned to Grassmere every summer to stay with their grandfather and aunts. In 1931, Margaret and Elise returned to Grassmere and stayed until their deaths: Margaret in 1974, Elise in 1985.
In 1964, the Croft sisters entered into an agreement with the Children's Museum of Nashville (now the Adventure Science Center). The agreement stated the museum would pay property taxes and assist with the upkeep of the home while the sisters lived the remainder of their lives at Grassmere. After their deaths, the museum would become owners of the property and buildings. The sisters placed one stipulation in their agreement with the museum - their property would be maintained as a "nature study center," preserved to educate Nashvillians about animals and the environment.
In 1990, the museum opened Grassmere Wildlife Park, displaying primarily North American animals, offering educational programs, and providing nature trails for hiking. The park was closed in 1995 for financial reasons, and the property became Nashville Metro property by default. The city of Nashville was bound by the will of the sisters to preserve the property as a nature center, and the Nashville Zoo was invited to relocate to the Grassmere site.
Nashville Zoo began management of the Grassmere property in December 1996. In 1998, the Zoo partnered with the Metro Historical Commission and the Metro Parks Department to restore the house. The Grassmere Historic Home opened to visitors for the first time in spring 1998. In 1999, the Grassmere Historic Farm opened, including a livestock barn, pastures, chicken coop and machine shed.
Nashville Zoo is now offering a cookbook that gives a glimpse of middle Tennessee life in the 1800's through food and cooking - Attic Heirlooms: Recipes from Grassmere, which is available for purchase in the Zoo's gift shop for $15. The cookbook includes photos of past Grassmere residents, helpful cooking tips, and more. Revenue from your purchase will go to help support the Grassmere Historic Home and Farm.
To look at historic archives found in the home visit Tennessee State Library and Archives online to see a more in depth history of the Croft sisters.