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Funeral home site tied to local odd couple

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The Tennessean

Funeral home site tied to local odd couple

How did a funeral home become located on a corner of the Centennial Park tract?

June 30, 2004

Ron Sanders, Nashville.

Funeral Home The landmark that is Marshall-Donnelly-Combs at the busy intersection of Elliston Place and 25th Avenue North just feet off West End wasn't always a funeral home.

Its twisted history involves spirits and seances, but not on that site, and a midnight funeral, but not there and far from a satanic one.

And a widow wealthy, outgoing, older than her eccentric husband and eager to leave his downtown mansion that Nashvillians of the day were sure was haunted.

When the Centennial Park site was developed in years leading up to the 1897 Centennial Exposition marking Tennessee's 1796 statehood, that corner next to its main entrance narrowly escaped being included. Several areas near the centennial grounds were described as heavily wooded and considered almost rural.

On the larger original funeral home tract some of it now parkland were four frame buildings, two of them stables or sheds. These show up in an 1889 atlas of the city that lists its owner only as ''Jones.''

In the 1880s, what is now parkland was the site of the state fairgrounds and West Side Park, a horseracing track. A streetcar line linked it to downtown. The street now called 25th was then Fair Grounds Avenue.

Percy Warner and the Nashville Railway and Light Co. bought the initial 72 acres of Centennial Park for $125,000 and gave it to the city's Park Board in 1902. Warner had earlier planned to subdivide it and sell it piecemeal.

Prosperous widow Sue Allen purchased the property where the funeral home sits soon after her husband's 1910 death and built the house it now uses. She moved there from her old home downtown on Eighth Avenue in 1912 and lived in the fashionable residence next to the park until 1923.

That year she sold to the longtime Nashville undertakers M.S. Combs & Co. whose business began in Nashville in 1872 and moved to her family's home, ''Edmiston Place'' on Franklin Road near Brentwood.

Allen and her husband had been colorful characters in Nashville.

Mason Couple Benjamin Bentley Allen, for whom the current Ben Allen Road in Inglewood is named, was once described as ''a well-bred, artistic gentleman of leisure.'' Son of a wealthy banker, he had developed a reputation as a jewelry-making hobbyist, a Freemason, a hypnotist, a palmist and a supernaturalist.

He held seances about twice weekly at his brick residence at 125 Eighth Ave. S. The spirit conjured up, ''The Thing,'' would rub legs like a cat, unbutton shoes, remove stockings and rattle silver and china. Allen also gave his wife the ''medium'' for the seances and eight years his senior elaborate birthday parties there.

His prized treasure was a gilded Buddha figurine, given to him by a traveling Persian mystic and magician while on a visit to Nashville.

Allen, born July 5, 1855, died at age 55 on July 13, 1910, of what was called at the time ''brain fever.''

''Some thought he brought it on by trying to fathom too many deep mysteries,'' retired Tennessean writer Margaret Warden, now 100, recount- ed in a 1951 profile in the newspaper's magazine section.

Warden described his funeral as the first ''Kadosh,'' or midnight Masonic service, held in this part of the South. It was at McKendree Methodist Church on Church Street, its sanctuary lighted by only nine candles on the altar.

Sue Allen's house at 201 25th Ave. N., now the funeral home, still has many of its original features, including elaborate marble parlor mantels. The outside looks remarkably the same, down to a stained-glass window on the West End side.

An attic dormer in the front is gone, but the stable building with its wooden doors remains in the rear.

Marshall-Donnelly-Combs is a Nashville success story in itself. It remained locally owned until 1997 when bought by the Florida-based funeral home chain the Keystone Group. Its current manager, James M. Brewer, has been with the local business for 43 years.

M.S. Combs, its 1872 founder, was followed by his son, Micah S. Combs, as sole owner and manager starting in 1910. Micah's son, Joe C. Combs, took over later but died in 1951.

Gilbert Marshall, who entered the business with another Nashville funeral home in 1934, teamed up with Thomas J. Donnelly to purchase the Combs firm in 1952 from Joe C. Combs' estate. Marshall died in 1957.

Tom Donnelly (who died in 1993) retired in 1977, selling to his brother, Charles L. Donnelly, who sold to Keystone in 1997.

Further Reading:

In Focus (Bro. Tom Hanks, etc.)