My Space: Vadis Turner's Family Home on Old Hickory Lake

Vadis Turner poolside at the Old Hickory Lake home built by architect Braxton Dixon for her grandparents in 1968. All photos by Caroline Allison.

Vadis Turner poolside at the Old Hickory Lake home built by architect Braxton Dixon for her grandparents in 1968. All photos by Caroline Allison.

For someone who loves clothes as much as I do, I’m not a huge fan of costume parties. Not sure why, exactly, but I think it has something to do with not liking to be pressured into dressing up. I like to arrive there on my own, I guess.

Despite this, I was truly excited over the summer to be invited to a 1978 themed party hosted by my friends Vadis Turner and Sarah Gavigan. I mean, hello: that’s half my closet. (Does an outfit even count as a costume if you’d wear it to the grocery store?)

Alas, I had an irrevocable conflict and couldn’t be there. This bummed me out to no end, as I was dying to see my pals decked out in the late disco-era garb of our parents, set against the period backdrop of the home that Vadie’s grandparents built on Old Hickory Lake in 1968.

Floor-to-ceiling windows dominate the front of the house, which is ringed with a wide deck that overlooks a pool and, at the bottom of a deep grassy hill, the lake beyond. Inside, it’s a shag carpet and marble wonderland, with a built-in spiral staircase connecting three sprawling stories.

The bright yellow dining room features an ornate metal and crystal light fixture hanging over the table. There are bathrooms seemingly every two steps, each one a little more OTT than the last (dragon-shaped hardware, anyone?). The master bedroom is regal, with tall ceilings, a wall of mirrors and the original custom draperies. Period wallpaper and architectural flourishes abound. It’s marvelous.

God bless them, “Daddy Don” and Vadis “Mama V” Pierce (Vadie is her namesake) had some really maximalist tastes. Perhaps it was the show biz influence.

Don Pierce ran Starday Records, a popular label circa the ’50s and ’60s that specialized in country and rockabilly. He was tight with a lot of the shining stars of the era, particularly Johnny Cash, who lived down the lake in another house designed by famed local architect Braxton Dixon. (There are many brilliant Cash stories associated with the house. For instance, Vadie says the home’s intercom system was installed “because Mama V grew tired of trying to find Johnny when June would call telling him to come home.”)

And then there’s Vadie.

You know that old saw about someone’s personality lighting up a room? Well, it’s really true in her case. Radiating warmth, kindness and inclusion, Vadie Turner damn near sparkles. She’s a treasure.

Not only that, her personal style is off the charts – unconventional and fun, but totally beautiful as well. Vadie’s a big fan of color and a sucker for a good floral print, whether it’s on a vintage dress or a pair of her beloved Vans.

And she accessorizes like a boss. The first time I met her, Vadie was wearing a bright red plastic heart bracelet and carrying a giant round baby pink purse with a smiley face on either side. Once, days after I uploaded a photo of a room covered in snake printed wallpaper to Instagram, she showed up for our dinner date wearing snake earrings in honor of the post. The next time I saw her, apropos of nothing but good fun, it was tiny metal foxes. Love.

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Based on this description, it will come as no big surprise when I tell you that Vadie’s an artist. Her preferred media: textiles; her pet theme: a woman’s place in the world. Some of my favorite pieces of her work involve large wall panels covered in gorgeous, twisted mounds of pastel ribbons and strips of cloth. Other pieces in her current show at Geary Contemporary in New York are made from breast milk captured in resin and studded with charred sticks from a burn pile kept on the Old Hickory Lake property.

Vadie, her husband Clay, and their young sons Gray and Vreeland have been camped out at the Old Hickory home since moving to Nashville from Brooklyn two years ago. It was a homecoming for the couple, both Nashville natives. They’re currently renovating an 1880’s home downtown. Until move-in time, they’re enjoying lake living.

Even though I missed the 1978 party – and because I couldn’t relive the scene secondhand because, in a stroke of analog genius, the hosts outlawed cell phones and therefore “photographic proof” of the fun — I figured out a way to get in on the action. To honor the era of her grandparent’s house, I asked Vadie to wear some of her favorite vintage pieces for a shoot with Caroline Allison, a frequent TCR contributor who photographs  each installment of My Space, an occasional feature celebrating Nashvillians and the rooms that inspire them. The gorgeous results are accompanied by our chat, which, like many of these conversations, took place in my living room.

 

TCR: Your grandparents built the house in the late ’60s. Tell me the origin story.

VADIE: I guess it really backs up to my grandfather coming to Nashville in 1957 from La Cañada, California, where my mom was born. Neither of my grandparents are from California, but my grandfather was there slowly immersing himself in the music industry in the mid 1940s. He was specifically interested in country, which no one was really that into at the time. He was coming to Nashville a lot — so much so that my mom and my grandmother were like, well, if we want to see you then we should just move there.

My grandfather came to California with, like, $300 in his pocket. He and his partner started Starday Records. He made all this happen out of nothing. He was a self-made man who did well for his family and had a really hell of a good time doing it.

TCR: Where was he born?

VADIE: Seattle. So it was Seattle to California to Nashville. When he moved here, he would fake having a country twang, to help relate to his musicians. It was a very little label but he did some interesting work.

TCR: Who recorded on Starday?

VADIE: He worked with a lot of people like George Jones, Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash and Dottie West. He was one of the first music publishers to make themed albums featuring work by various artists. He really had a knack for naming them too. “Diesel Smoke and Dangerous Curves” is my favorite. Starday was the first label to have a mail order record club.

But anyway, their first house – the one before this one – was down the lake, next to Roy Acuff. My grandfather already had the land when he decided to build this house in the late 60's.

Johnny Cash introduced my grandfather to Braxton Dixon. From what I’ve heard, when they were in the planning stages of the house, Brack showed up at the golf course where my grandfather was playing with three drawings of three different houses, laid them out and said, “Pick one.” Like, right now. And my grandfather picked this design. It’s inspired by the nun’s hat that Sally Field wore in — what was the name of that show?

TCR: The Flying Nun?

VADIE: Thank you. That's where the inspiration came from, which is wild.

TCR: Braxton Dixon is a pretty famous architect around these parts. You said he still comes over to visit, which is really cool.

VADIE: I feel so thankful to know Brack and his wife Marianna. I mean, he's 95. They live about 15 minutes from us and we see them frequently. Brack is such a brilliant soul. And to have him visit the house that he built is so special.

TCR: What is your first memory of the house?

VADIE: I went there from the hospital, so my grandmother could help my mom take care of me. It was the first place I ever knew, though this is the first time I've ever really lived there.

And this is the first time children have ever lived in the house. I mean, it's definitely not a house meant for children. It looks like it's meant for swingers. Don't you agree? 

TCR: It totally has that vibe. You can imagine some pretty wild stuff happening here – which apparently it did!

VADIE: When I was growing up, we went out there almost every weekend. And we had parties out there in high school. It’s easy to take things like that for granted. I didn't see the house with the eyes I see it with now, in terms of design and architecture. You know, I really live in a time capsule, which is so cool.

TCR: You do. It's really amazing in there. People kept telling me I had to see your place, and when I did, it honestly defied expectations. Even the elements you added and little things you changed work. They all look really period appropriate even though they’re contemporary.

VADIE: We did make a couple changes as things started to age. Some of them I regret, because I feel like they’re a little bit more of my taste than they were appropriate to the period. So now I'm committed to making fixes that would have fit in within a couple of years around when the house was built. 

TCR: I love your commitment to honoring even the smallest details. Like those cocktail glasses with birds on them – which are totally of that era.

VADIE: Oh, I love those stupid glasses. It is amazing that we live in a time where, late at night, you can find things like that on your computer – to be, like, “I need a new set of tumblers with toucans and parrots on them from the late 60's exactly like my grandmother had.” And then find them.

It’s addictive. It’s been so fun to live in the house and know that I can fix it up with a cheap, adventure-seeking mindset that leads me to old cool stuff that other people might not appreciate.

TCR: What's your favorite room in the house?

VADIE: Well, my grandmother's favorite room is the pimped out bathroom with black potty. I don't think that’s my favorite room, but I feel like because of her I've been brainwashed to have a little black-potty-bathroom worship.

TCR: That’s the one with all the built-ins, right? There are cool built-ins all over the house.

VADIE: They really are. I love how the lifestyle was so different then. You can see it not just in the decor of the house, but the way it was designed. For example, there are only showers downstairs, by the pool. Upstairs it's all bathtubs — people just took baths all the time then.

And my grandfather barely even made it to the shower. I think I told you this, but I remember him swimming naked in broad daylight, with shampoo in his hair, in the pool. [LAUGHS]

And when I'd tell him, “I have friends coming out here to swim, would you mind?” he would say, “It's my goddamn pool.”   And it was his goddamn pool, you know?

Going back to the question, I guess my favorite room is really the porch. I don't think life gets any better than being outside looking out onto that landscape and being with people you care about, talking about something major or something ridiculously nothing. I love being there.

TCR: How do kids react when they walk in? Do they sense that it looks different from most other houses?

VADIE: Well, the first thing their parents notice is that it’s not childproof! I think they walk in with little kids and think, “I don't think I’m going to have a glass of wine, because I need to be all-hands-on-deck.” Because kids could fall through (some of the ledges and woodwork around the wide built-in spiral staircase).

TCR: And then there are people like me, design nuts without kids who don’t notice anything except how extremely fabulous it is.

VADIE: I love and totally appreciate that it's borderline gaudy in a lot of places. There are some pieces of furniture where I'm like, wow: you guys really trusted your instincts on this one.  

TCR: Was your grandmother the force behind the decorating?

VADIE: It was my grandmother and Lanny Neal, who was an old friend of hers. They just went for it. I love that they blew it out with decorating at that particular time, and then never touched it again. There was no insecurity when this look went out of style.

I am so glad I didn't grow up in a house of neutrals. And I’m definitely not that person now. Like, I don't really do shades of white. And their house is not that and it never was.

TCR: When did your grandfather die?

VADIE: About 10 years ago.

TCR: And your grandmother moved to a retirement home not long after that?

VADIE: It's been about two years that she hasn't lived at the house.  When we moved to Nashville, I thought we'd be living with my grandmother, but unfortunately, she had a stroke two days before we got to town and now she lives in assisted living.

I'm sorry she's having a hard time, but she’s not in an unhappy state of mind or an unhappy place now. And she really didn't love the house in recent years.

I mean, it's such a happy, wild, jazzy kind of place. But toward the end, something would go wrong there — like there'd be a leak or something would need to be replaced — and she’d be like, “Goddamn it. I hate this fucking house.” And I’d be like, “Oh please don't say that!” Like, this house is so incredible, don't hate it. And now after I've been taking care of it for two years, and something goes wrong, there's definitely a small part of me that says, “Goddamn, fucking house...”

And when I moved in, I didn’t know how to take care of a big house. I’ve lived in tiny rentals my whole adult life. I moved here from an apartment in New York. It’s been wild having so much space.

TCR: It’s a great party house. There are so many couch and chair vignettes that seem made for conversations. It’s a house for gatherings.

VADIE: In New York you don't really spend that much time at home. There's so much activity other places, and usually you don’t have much room in your home. And that’s amazing but I wanted to move back to Nashville and spend more time with my family that is unscheduled. In New York, there are all these quick finishes and pending endings to lunch, to coffee, to a visit. You’re always chasing the minute. And I love being in a home that's just about being together.

We may have talked about this before, but I feel like time is very different in Nashville compared to New York. And that's not specific to this house at all: time is just different here. Quality time spent with people grows in very organic ways in Nashville.

It’s amazing to be in a culture where people spend time at home, together. I mean, we have a lot of people who come over who will spontaneously spend the night. It’s the kind of thing where I don't know what we're going to have for breakfast, but we'll figure it out. You can't do that in New York because there's no space.

TCR: By the way - missing the 1978 party is one of the biggest disappointments of my year.

VADIE: We’ll do it again with another year.

TCR: I so wanted to see people dressed in period clothes running around that house.

VADIE: I love costume, and I appreciate it when people go for it. I don't care what it is: I like when people sink their teeth into something. And that house is supposed to have a lot of people in it. It's supposed to be overflowing. It comes alive.

You know, there were two movies that were shot out there. One was Murder in Music City. I wish I knew more about it, but I try and watch it and I fall asleep every time. It’s fabulous and bad all at once.

I think it was 1979. Sonny Bono and Morgan Fairchild are in it. And then there are a bunch of country music people like Charlie Daniels and Claude Akins playing on the porch.

I just want to say that I didn't build this house and that I feel so lucky that I get to live here as their granddaughter. I mean, the house is insanely fabulous and I don't take it for granted. I want to share it, to fill it with people, and let everyone bring life to it. I don't know what else to do.

TCR: You do that. You entertain a lot.

VADIE: Well, I don't want to leave, so it's very convenient.  [LAUGH] Now I've said it. But another thing I love about the house is just that I see my grandparents all over the place, because I know the house through them.

We take a lot of family walks around the property — that's kind of my and my mom’s meditation ritual, that we do that together. As a matter of fact, my grandfather’s ashes are scattered around the perimeter. As mine will be, and mom's will be, and my grandmother's will be…

But when you’re walking and you find one of Daddy Don’s golf balls, there's a rule that you are not allowed to move it. You can stomp on it, so it stays there. But you can’t move it. The property is littered with these memories of him. It's like an Easter egg hunt every time you take a walk.

TCR: So this is Vadie Turner’s My Space, part 1. TCR is totally going to do a part two on your new house, which is actually an apartment within an old house. Have you used any design elements from your grandparents’ house in the new joint?

VADIE: Going downstairs to the storage in their basement is like treasure hunting. We found this one insane shell-shaped scalloped marble sink that we're going to use. It’s going to be in a small powder room with rad wall tiles made from used skateboards. Like my grandmother, I think my favorite room will be the bathroom in our place.

TCR: Are you a little bummed to be moving to town?

VADIE: There are times living out there, when I question why we would ever want to move into Nashville. But it takes an hour to get Gray to school in the morning. But the reason we're doing an apartment and not a house in Nashville is because we will always be going out there. So we don't really need any grass at our place in town.

TCR: It must be wonderful knowing your children are going to grow up running around in the same grass you did when you were their age.

VADIE: Yeah, and you can run naked there. You can't do that in Brooklyn. I mean, you can but you probably shouldn't.


Our friend Caroline Allison is as talented as she is kind – and damn if she isn’t one of the most nicest folks we know. Lina’s photography has been shown extensively in the U.S. and abroad; this fall, an exhibit of her new work will open at Zeitgeist, the Nashville gallery where she has representation. A contributing photographer for Garden & Gun, Lina also shoots for LonnySouthern Living and, ahem, The Callaway Report.  She has two adorable kids - one of whom took this photo. (Good job, Emmett!)