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Before and After: True Blue Grand Dame Victorian Hits The Stage

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By Lee Rennick

When William Reed Bell, Sr. built his home on East Main Street in 1896, Murfreesboro was well on its way back from the ravages of the Civil War and Reconstruction. New businesses were opening, Mary Noailles Murfree was publishing her stories, and in 1890 Jim Perry had opened the first power plant in the county. On Saturdays, cotton farmers would bring their produce to town piled high on wagons, and the streets were congested with horse drawn buggies and even one or two of the new-fangled contraptions called cars. Soon, Middle Tennessee State University would be opening its doors to the education of teachers.


Bell was one of those new entrepreneurs, opening William R. Bell & Son as a combination jewelry and optical shop in 1879. He built his business based on a reputation for quality workmanship and honest dealing. It was not until many years later that it became Bell Jewelers. With his success came a new home for his wife, Nettie Frost Bell and his six children: Lizzie Mae, William Reed, Jr., Lyda Frost, Clifton Frost, James Graves and Mattie Frost.

In 1937, with the death of William, Sr., his son James took over the business and the home, where he lived with his wife, Ruth, and son, James. The Victorian design was typical of this period with its steep, gabled roof, turrets, dormers, rounded angles and windows, stained glass and decorative wood work.

The style is named after British Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 until 1901. Her reign was the longest of any monarch until Queen Elizabeth II, the current queen of the United Kingdom. Because of the length of Victoria’s reign and the power of the British empire over many parts of the world, she had much influence on architecture, decorative arts and even ways of living all around the world, including North America, New Zealand and Australia.

Victorian is an eclectic blend of many architectural movements, including Romanesque and Medieval Gothic, blended with world elements from France, Italy, Egypt, Africa and Asia. Over time, the style saw variation, but it has always kept its doll house appeal.

The movement began in 1830 with Gothic Revival, inspired by Medieval churches. It was followed by Italianate in 1840, which heavily influenced the building of the Women’s Club on Lytle Street. Next came Second Empire in 1852, taking its name from the reign of Napoleon III of France, followed by Stick-Eastlake in 1860. Folk Victorian was used for smaller homes for everyman beginning in 1870, and the movement finished up with Queen Anne in 1875, which influenced the creation of Bell House. The Queen Anne home has heavy ornamentation, rounded towers, large windows and balances form and function.

The Bell family owned the home for almost 100 years, and Ruth Cunningham Bell was known to have beautiful gardens in the back and front, which she tended well into her 90s. In 1999, Gail Henry purchased the home from Debbie Bell Miller, daughter of Ruth and James. According to the book, Those East Main Street People and Their Homes by C. B. Arnette, Henry brought in Nashville preservation architect Michael Emerick to restore and update the home.

“I redid the plumbing, electric and gas,” said Gail Henry, who now lives in New York. “I tore off the poorly constructed rotting rear additions, updated the kitchen and bathrooms. I added two powder rooms downstairs, a handicap ramp and back porch. I also stripped and restored all the front porch mill work and replaced the front porch floor boards and ceiling. The list goes on and on.”

Bill Jakes, the local realtor and historian, refinished the original hardwood floors in the early 2000s for Henry. She also kept the original Vermont Green slate roof. And she used maps from the turn of the century from Sandborne Fire insurance to determine what was the original house and what was an add-on. She had the home added to the historic register, and there is a sign out front denoting it as the Bell-Henry House.

“A family did buy it after [Henry] sold it,” said Jakes, “and I know they rebuilt the porch but I’m not sure what else they did.” Henry used the home as an event space, renting the lower floors out for weddings, receptions and business and community events. It has also been used as a rooming house and an Airbnb. One owner even wanted to turn it into an antique store.

“All I know is that my Mama rented an apartment on the second floor overlooking East Main when I was 12,” said Vicky Johns Shapcott via Facebook, “now I am 62, and she is gone. It was also in the Christmas Parade of homes one year; we went there, but couldn’t go upstairs.”

The house was sold by Henry in 2005, and then it was sold again at auction in 2016 to a group of investors and put on the market by the newly formed Raider Realty, which is tied to the realtor program at Middle Tennessee State University.


Raider Reality was created by Dr. Phillip A. Seagraves, an Associate Professor of Finance and Real Estate at the Jennings A. Jones College of Business, in late 2015 to give students a chance to get a jump forward in the business. Soon after the brokerage was formed, Kathy Jones of Parks Realty took the lead as the Principal Broker. “It was great when Kathy was running it,” said Seagraves. “She has retired as broker and I’m now interim broker.”

The vision is to remain a channel for a select group of students who are self-motivated and determined to put in the work to graduate already licensed and headed into a brokerage career. According to Seagraves, there is a constant “flow” with roles mostly as agents. The number of agents goes up and down, with the peak hitting five agents.

“Now,” said Seagraves, “we have one undergrad active, one grad student, a few alumni and two under grads in the pipeline. Melanie Hall is our current undergrad agent. We have another agent, Chad Hamby, who is in MTSU’s Master of Finance program. He moonlights as Operations Manager for the brokerage while working full time at a mortgage company.”

The program is supported by scholarships for licensing costs and ongoing fees to be an agent, with a continuing goal to have the brokerage run day-to-day by a full time real estate broker and students. Past listings have come from student contacts, networking and Middle Tennessee State University professors. Student-brokers can help buyers and sellers and complete all necessary processes tied to a sale. Currently, the program is mostly focused on their relationship with new home builder Ole South Properties, with student-agents serving as relief in their model homes, helping visitors to their neighborhoods and generally learning the business.

“While this is great,” said Seagraves, “and we appreciate our relationship with Ole South, we’d really like to get a local broker back at the helm. I’m keeping the ship afloat, but we need a true pro to take it forward!”

Seagraves wants to grow Raider Realty to provide more students with firm foundations and marketable skills. It has been formed as an LLC, and he wants to recruit a board and possibly get some help forming a non-profit so it can be placed into the hands of the local real estate community!

Raider Realty took on the selling of the Bell-Henry House because Seagraves is a partner in the company that owns the property, Bell Mansion, LLC. They are the group that purchased it at auction.

Profits from past sales have paid for student-agent licensing costs, been donated to local nonprofits and held on to for future student-realtor expenses in the MTSU Foundation for Blue Raider Realty scholarships.

Because it is student run, they are relying on owners to stage their own home. Bell House is currently filled with a hodge-podge of furniture and accessories borrowed from various friends and left from past owners. They were randomly scattered with no rhyme or reason until placed with the help of Iron Wolf Moving. 


Using the on-site furnishings and borrowed accessories, the BellHenry House was staged for this month’s photo shoot using advice from Karianne Beasley, owner of Four Lovely Walls. Beasley does staging and interior design.

“Staging a home allows for potential buyers to envision themselves in the home,” said Beasley. “It is important for the individual interested in the property to easily be able to see themselves walking through the doors each day and having the feeling as if it is their own. Creating these feelings and emotional connections helps the buyer get more excited about the potential of living in the home, which in return will make them more likely to submit an offer quickly and at top dollar.”

One of the most important things to do when staging, adds Beasley, is enhance architectural details, like doors, windows, floors and other special details that give a home its unique character.

According to, “Staging a home to sell is a somewhat different animal when you are dealing with a historic or period home. While you want to make it appeal to the widest audience possible, you have to realize that most of the people interested in buying that type of home are attracted to historically decorated interiors. Most historic homes sell to a specific kind of buyer who is looking for character and architectural details that will make them fall head over heels.”

Buyers also want a modern touch. According to, today’s Victorian home owners are looking for a 21st Century feel while retaining what they love about it being an historic home. suggests embracing the light and dark nature of the home and to “dress them too well” using a mix of traditional and contemporary pieces.

Typically, Victorian homes are two or three stories with an imposing façade. As it stands, the Bell-Henry House has some outstanding vintage details. Because Victorian architecture is a blend of so many styles, no two homes look the same. A walking tour guide of Murfreesboro describes the Neoclassical front porch, the projected Palladian window on the first floor with a pair of arched egg and dart trimmed windows above and the exquisite oval stained-glass window to the left of the framed glass front door with a matching transom.

The roof is festooned with finials, cresting, an elaborate round window in the attic and towering chimneys for the fireplaces in every room. Two mighty lions stand guard on either side of the front stairs.


 Stepping into the entry hall is a journey back in time. With colored light streaming into the generous space, a marble table and rug found on-site was paired with a luminous, clear true blue vase with pink and white stems to reflect the colors in the period wallpaper and emphasize the elegance of the space. A modern vase from The Marketplace on the Square brings a contemporary feel, but the oldtyme photos of Murfreesboro from Shacklett’s Photography reflects the home’s beginnings. To the right, double doors enter into the living room. Straight ahead a long hallway leads to the back of the home and Oriental rug dressed stairs sweep up to the second floor. In the far-left corner of the room, a bit of the library created from the second parlor can be seen.


Employing bits and pieces of furniture from around the house, the library took shape with a blend of old and new shelving and storage pieces, as storage is always at a premium in older homes. With the fireplace as the focal point, the room plays on the juxtaposition between light and dark. The dark green vintage wingback chair is paired with a Boho modern woven jute foot stool, in keeping with the bohemian theme, which was as current in Victorian times as it is today. A more modern chair is covered in a light green slip-cover and a Flokaty rug is tossed over the back. The dark leather couch was recovered to expose the original arms, but the body lightened with light beige linen fabric, then accented with an assortment of textured pillows from The Marketplace and hand-made ones from refraîchir. Ferns draw the eye to the fireplace and an assortment of books and eclectic brick-a-brack on the shelves show that it is a room for a family to enjoy.

Off the library is the sunroom with its double doors that open out onto a back porch with seating to enjoy dinner on a summer night. Throwing brightly colored bohemian fabric over a pair of old padded chairs and adding a borrowed Indian style chess table makes the sunroom feel light and airy. A perfect place to bring the potted plants in for the winter and enjoy a good book any time of year.


The kitchen and butler’s pantry keep to the black and white tiles patterns of the period of the home. A new set of contemporary canisters from Church Street Gallery made by Eric and Lewis Snyder add an artsy touch to the space. A large wood bowl warms up the kitchen, while a bright yellow table cloth brings some zing to the breakfast area in the pantry.


With plenty of room to stretch out at the vintage dining table with mix-matched chairs, the dining room is a great area for entertaining. Under the original chandelier, the large vintage table can serve plenty of guests a gourmet dinner, with buffet space to offer an assortment of delicious desserts. The table is dressed with a centerpiece created from candle holders and vases made of old books from ReInvintage. Throw in a feature mirror over the buffet and some modern pottery on the mantle to a gain a touch of today.


 The second floor offers three bedrooms, two full baths and two rooms that can be used for bedrooms, or a laundry and upstairs sitting room. The bedrooms are spacious with charming fireplaces and plenty of room for a sitting area and a large armoire to serve as a closet. One bathroom has a large walk-in shower and the other has an inviting claw-foot tub.


From the large stained-glass window in the powder room at the back of the home to the elaborate original electric lighting that hangs in the front hall, the BellHenry House has all the elements of a true Victorian, with plenty of opportunity to give the right buyer a dash of 21st Century update. It is looking for the right family to love it for the next 100 years.

Moving: Iron Wolf Movers
Staging: Lee Rennick and Pat Malone
Accessories: Church Street Gallery, The Marketplace, ReInvintage, Shacklett’s

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