Explainer: How the Ben West Library got deed geeked

In today's edition of The City Paper is the 111-year-old story of a paragraph that has the potential to complicate a land swap between Metro and the State.

The existence of the paragraph — which reverts a key parcel of the land on which the former Ben West Library Building on Union Street sits back to the family that gave it for a library back in 1902 — is one of those esoteric things reporters vaguely hear about that seem, most of the time, more interesting than substantive. We'd all heard hardy-har stories about the tiny library Metro maintained when the Ben West building was occupied to satisfy the longstanding requirement. But with the building unused, it wasn't something anybody discussed with any frequency.

But when my colleague Pierce Greenberg came back from a State Building Commission meeting in March with details of the swap that would give the state the property — in exchange, Metro gets the old Tennessee Prep land — it suddenly became substantive.

First, I had to verify that this reversion existed. Metro has two great resources for tracking land transfers — MetroMap and the Register of Deeds site. The first is open to the public; the second requires a nominal fee to use.

Often, we have to cross-reference information from the former — which allows a user to search by street address — to get documents from the latter, which only allows searches by owner or more technical information, like plat numbers.

Unfortunately, the Register of Deeds is equipped only for searches dating back 50 years or so. Still, MetroMap was able to tell us which page and book number that recorded the most recent conveyance — the transfer from the Carnegie Library to the Nashville Library system in the 1950s (page 1 and page 2). With book and page numbers, a more tedious method is needed to view the information on the RoD site, but, again, it is possible.

On page 2, the reversionary rights are restated and notes that it applies to "Tract 3," which, also on Page 2, tells us was given by J. Craig McLanahan and his wife, and gives the book and page number of that transfer. The tract in question is the north 100 feet of the property, roughly a quarter of an acre representing nearly 40 percent of the entire Ben West tract.

So I located the original transfer from J. Craig McLanahan and wife Katherine in 1902, recorded in long-hand here and here, with the reversionary paragraph near the end of the transfer on the second page.

So now I have a name. There were precious few references to the McLanahans in Nashville. Mr. McLanahan was a defendant in a court case related to an election and he owned the Pinkney mine, which collapsed in 1897.  But nearly every reference to him was in Pennsylvania papers. The proliferation of genealogy websites eventually led us to Find-A-Grave. Mr and Mrs McLanahan are buried, together, in Pennsylvania and nearby are their two daughters — Mary Katherine, who died at the age of 2, and Magaret, who died, unmarried and childless in the 1940s.

It's a seeming dead-end in the search for heirs, except that one search for information — looking for information on McLanahan via his mining interests, led me to the McLanahan Corporation, where I was able to find an e-mail address for the company's CEO.

I emailed Mike McLanahan, who confirmed his family's relationship with J. Craig McLanahan and their family's donation. A few days later, I was was contacted by H3GM, the company's local attorneys. (McLanahan has a facility in Gallatin.) And then a few days after that, I was contacted by another family member, closer in the family tree to J. Craig McLanahan. (This person happens to be a descendent of J. Craig's brother, J. King). All confirmed the gift, the relationship and all wanted more information about the Metro/State swap plan.

At this point, the story was more or less paused. The Metro Council had yet to take up the deal, and I knew that both Metro and the state were aware of the potential reversionary rights, because the swap included a plan for Metro to return the TPS property to the state in the event a claim was made on the Ben West property. But I didn't know what, if anything, the family intended to do and I didn't know what, if anything, the Metro Council wanted to do.

Then, Tuesday, Councilman Bo Mitchell pulled the swap deal from the consent agenda, opening the door for Councilman Jason Holleman to ask about "any deed restrictions," the existence of which were then acknowledged by Director of Law Saul Solomon. I then sought comment from the McLanahans — and received a brief statement from H3GM attorney Kris Kemp — and then a follow-up statement from Solomon.

Where this swap goes from here is unclear. Sources tell me it boils down to whether that deed restriction can be enforced, but as Metro learned during the Turner School fiasco, often, even old claims to land can be enforced if someone is willing to do so.

So as the interesting became the substantive, the old has become news.