The House that Frist Built

For most of his career as a leader of the nation’s investor-owned hospital industry, Tommy Frist lived in a not-too-showy but attractive ranch-style house at 508 Belle Meade Boulevard. But from 1993 onward, grand plans were afoot.

For most of his career as a leader of the nation’s investor-owned hospital industry, Tommy Frist lived in a not-too-showy but attractive ranch-style house at 508 Belle Meade Boulevard.

In early 1993, however, the HCA co-founder began purchasing large tracts of land two and a half miles away, near the edge of the Belle Meade city limits. Frist was planning something big and secluded, but he didn’t appear to be in any real hurry to start or complete the project.

At 1304 Chickering Road, the former surgeon-turned-health care-magnate quietly built a sprawling 38,000-square-foot home valued at $18 million, according to public information available at the Metro Division of Assessments. He and wife Patricia moved into the traditional southern-style mansion around the end of 2001—nearly nine years after purchasing the initial parcel of what would become their 59-acre estate.

From the road, all that presents itself is a sweeping, velvety green hill flanked by black wrought-iron gates and newly planted trees. The house itself, except for the apex of a steeple-like structure, is not visible from the road. Apparently, Frist wants it that way. He turned down repeated interview requests from Nashville Post regarding his new home, referring to the estate as an extremely private part of his life. And on that note, he said this was one interview he’d have to decline, "for sure."

Few people, other than family members and workers, have been inside the house. The former group remains loyally silent, while confidentiality agreements keep the latter group from talking. Even so, the buzz surrounding one of the largest and most expensive homes ever built in Nashville is as abundant as Saturday joggers on Belle Meade Boulevard.

The city’s upper echelon is brimming with curiosity. So much so that many took advantage of leafless winter months to catch a glimpse of the Frist estate from nearby Crater Hill Road. Guards reportedly had to ask a prominent local man and his daughter, who climbed the hill for a better vantage point, to leave the property. Another story surrounding the mansion’s construction has it that Frist bought up the property of neighbors after they became irritated by the racket of early morning construction.

Metro property records show that the Frists purchased the land and home of Gil Fuqua in May 2001 (about seven months before their new home was completed) for $2.87 million. The neighboring property, located at 1230 Chickering Road, had been appraised for $1.63 million just months earlier. Fuqua, a principal with Nashville-based Corporate Communications, did not return calls to his home and office regarding the sale.

Perhaps the most interesting story circulating about the Frist’s grand new home was that the pair was crafting a plan to transform the estate into some sort of not-for-profit entity after their deaths—a process somewhat akin to that followed by the Cheek family with Cheekwood Mansion. This theory seems plausible, considering the family spent decades in a much smaller home. And now, with their children long since out of the nest and the couple reaching the age when many think about downsizing, the Frists build a 38,000-square-foot home (roughly half of which is counted as actual living space) with at least nine bathrooms and an 1,100-square-foot pool house. What’s more, one does not need to acquire 60 acres in Belle Meade to find a little privacy. Such a vast in-town estate would lend itself quite nicely to a museum of sorts. By comparison, the grounds of Cheekwood total 55 acres.

As plausible as this theory may be, Nashville Post found no reliable information confirming it. If the Frist estate were a not-for-profit, then no taxes would have to be paid on it. Information from the city’s Property Tax Collection office show Frist paid $112,254 in taxes on the property in 2001. For 2002, he’ll pay $172,800. Officials there said the home is taxable and would continue to be, unless or until it is transformed into a not-for-profit entity.

In the meantime, the silent army of vendors who completed work on the home earned a pretty penny. Nashville-based Herndon & Merry Inc., an architectural metal design firm, supplied fencing and other ironwork to the home estimated to cost upwards of $500,000. Nashville-based Ben Page & Associates designed landscaping at the home, while Orion Building Corp. served as the builder.

To design the home, Frist tapped a prominent New York architecture firm that specializes exclusively in traditional design. Ferguson Shamamian & Rattner is well-known for upscale residential projects, but the firm recently has made a name for itself in town and resort planning. It designed the Ford Plantation, an 1,800-acre resort community outside of Savannah, Ga., that served as the home of industrialist Henry Ford.

Calls to Ferguson Shamamian were not returned, but the firm displays a tightly focused picture of a portion of a Nashville residence on its Web site. The picture reveals finely crafted scroll-like woodwork along the upper portions of a large column similar to the ones on the front of the Frist home.

In assembling his Belle Meade estate, Frist exercised great patience. He bought the first parcel, which formerly included a home as well, from Carolyn Jones Boyd for $2.2 million in January 1993. At that time, the lot contained only 29 acres. Some six years later, in December 1999, he purchased an additional 8.36 acres at 1240 Chickering for roughly $1.9 million and merged the two properties.

Actual construction of the new home probably did not begin until 1998 or 1999. In a 1997 countywide appraisal, the land value, not including Boyd’s to-be-demolished home, was about $2.4 million. Three years later, the assessor’s office valued the new home, which was still under construction, at $4.3 million. By 2001, the house was still under construction and valued at $8.7 million. In 2002, after the home had been completed, the house and the 38 acres on which it sits were valued at $18 million.

So what about the other 21 acres? Obviously, Frist made additional purchases along the way. In the summer of 1995, he purchased an adjoining 11.96 acres on Chickering for $1.35 million. Records show there is no home on the property. And as mentioned earlier, he purchased the Fuqua home last spring. When coupled with the others, these purchases place the value of Frist’s Chickering Road holdings at more than $22 million.

As for the house at 503 Belle Meade Boulevard, Frist’s daughter Trisha and her husband Chuck Elcan, chief executive of MedCap Properties, are temporarily living there while work is being completed on their $1.6 million home on Chancery Lane, also in Belle Meade.

Frist’s sweeping estate is somewhat of a fairy tale ending to the business career of a man who pulled himself out of retirement five years ago to revive a company on the brink of disaster. In 1997, Frist witnessed his fortune in company stock being jeopardized by a massive federal investigation of predecessor Columbia/HCA, complete with hundreds of investigators from the U.S. Justice Department raiding company facilities. Frist suited up, recalled an earlier experienced management team, and succeeded stunningly in putting back together the company he, his father, and businessman Jack Massey built.

With the company on firm footing, a since-retired Frist now has a peaceful and roomy place to relax and reflect on his legacy. Perhaps the risk-taking entrepreneur will find tranquility atop his hill on Chickering Road.