PHOTO: Kay and J. Roderick “Rod” Heller pose inside their Windermere home on Thursday, April 19, 2018. In the background is a mirror originally from Carnton Plantation / Photo by Brooke Wanser
By BROOKE WANSER
Harpeth Square visionary John Roderick Heller III never intended to live in Franklin, much less to act as a developer to the downtown Franklin project which will soon house apartments, office space and a Hilton hotel.
Raised in Bethesda, Maryland, Heller’s lifelong passion for history and preservation began with childhood summers spent in Columbia, Tennessee, where his mother’s parents lived.
During the summer holidays, which he took each year until age 15, he played baseball, swam, and read books.
“It was just a small town life,” he said, especially for a boy growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., where his father was the director of the National Cancer Institute.
His ancestral ties to Tennessee fascinated him; most notably, his great-great-grandmother was Carrie McGavock, the mistress of Carnton Plantation during the Civil War.
“To me, preservation is important to give a sense of what life was like before our modern industrial age,” Heller said. “I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in the past.”
Career and historic interest
“Years ago, I had a cousin who said, ‘The way to keep your mind supple is to change jobs every ten years,’” Heller, a businessman and lawyer, known as “Rod” to his friends, said.
Though Heller admits to not having followed that rule religiously, his career path has spanned the fields of foreign affairs, law, real estate, internet, manufacturing, private investment, history and writing.
After graduating with a history degree from Princeton University, he pursued his master’s in history at Harvard University, later earning his law degree there as well.
He began his legal career with renowned law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, soon transitioning to serve as a legal advisor in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan with the United States Agency for International Development.
Upon his return to the United States, Heller soon became a partner at the firm, working in corporate finance and foreign investment transactions.
But temperamentally, he found, “I like to be in the cockpit.”
His first turnaround was when he took over as CEO for Bristol Compressors International, an air conditioning compressor manufacturer in Bristol, Virginia, from a legal client.
He took the company from 500 to 2,500 employees, brought in a Middle Eastern group as backers, and sold units throughout the Middle East and the United States, while also meeting people at the manufacturing plant.
“I loved it,” he said, noting, “I’ve loved most things I’ve done.”
A love for history, too, remained with him.
As the vice chairman and trustee for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a founding chairman of the Civil War Trust, Heller was exposed to diverse viewpoints which made him thoughtful about the past.
“One of the questions, I think, for any student of the Civil War, is why the Confederate soldier fought so hard and so well? Most soldiers didn’t own slaves and never would. What was the motivation for that?”
That question led Heller to publish his first of three books of historic nonfiction, “The Confederacy is on Her Way up the Spout.”
His most recent book was “Democracy’s Lawyer: Felix Grundy of the Old Southwest,” and he is working on a fourth.
Purchase of Carnton Country Club
In 2002, Heller and his wife, Kay, were approached by a group of local preservationists, including longtime Heritage Foundation director Mary Pearce, author Robert Hicks, and former health care executive Ernie Bacon.
They wanted him to chip in $100,000 to purchase what was then the Carnton Country Club, to avoid the development of 140 townhomes on the property.
“I said, ‘yes, I’ll be happy to do that, but you’re going to need a white knight, somebody to buy the whole thing,’” Heller said, hoping they would find another investor.
He ended up buying the 110 acres for $5 million, which he then sold to the city and preservation groups for open space and as a historically designated place for the plantation and Confederate cemetery, the largest private one of its kind in the U.S.
Heller also added an easement, or a recorded legal agreement, to ensure the sacred land would never be commercially developed.
The City of Franklin and preservation groups Franklin’s Charge and the Civil War Trust raised money to eventually purchase the land back from the Hellers.
“It was criminal to me to think that that golf course would be developed,” he said. “Carnton, which was important to us because it was my grandmother’s home, family home, the view shed would be destroyed.”
Heller gives full credit to Pearce, Hicks, Bacon and the rest of the committee who sought to protect the property.
“I’m very grateful to the preservation community of Franklin and to Tom Miller and the leadership of Franklin at the time for the decision to acquire half the golf course,” he said, land which he would otherwise have no use for.
Purchase of Windermere
The Hellers attended the first Heritage Ball in the 1970s, and had familial ties to Franklin, but even after the purchase of the golf course, never expected to live here.
Davis Carr, a Nashville lawyer, owned the 40-acre historic Windermere home adjacent to the plantation.
“In a flip moment, I said, if you ever sell it, let me know,” Heller said. “I think he decided, ‘hey, there’s a sucker from Washington who will overpay for land.’”
But Heller didn’t think it a bad bargain for the 1880s home; he and his wife purchased in 2006, intending to use it as a summer residence so his children and grandchildren could enjoy the same type of holidays he experienced as a child.
“We came down here expecting to live here part time,” he said. “I was a Washingtonian.”
In 2012, drawn by the charms of the South, the Hellers decided to establish a permanent residence there.
“We love Franklin, we love the people who live here,” he said. “It’s been a warm and welcoming community for us.”
Heller begins assembling lots in downtown Franklin
In September of 2012, the Hellers purchased the first of several lots in downtown Franklin from Landmark Booksellers owner Joel Tomlin.
“I looked at that block where we’re active now, and it interested me: why is nobody developing that?” he questioned. “It’s obviously an important part,” he noted, being the northernmost parcel of the historic 16 blocks in downtown Franklin.
Even then, Heller didn’t have a plan. “I just thought perhaps there was an opportunity there.”
“I’m an investor, not a developer,” he insisted, pointing to his main company, Carnton Capital Associates, where he is the chairman and CEO.
Heller planned to find a development partner to own the apartments and the hotel, but struggled to find someone who shared his vision.
Because most apartments are built with institutional money, Heller said, they are built as cheaply as possible, constructed with wood.
“I insisted that the project be of concrete and have a quality so that 50 years from now, people would say, ‘they built a great project,’” he said, against the advice of others.
The Harpeth Square project has five components: the 597-space parking structure, 119- room Hilton Curio brand hotel with a restaurant and coffee shop, 150 apartment units, and two office buildings, including the bank building where Heller has offices for the project.
Heller owns the entirety of the project, except the hotel, to which he owns 46 percent of economic rights.
“It made this project easier, because I have been the sole manager,” he said. “Decisions are, I talk to myself,” he chuckled.
Heller did praise colleagues Russ Haynes, the chief financial officer, and Steve Bacon, the chief operating officer.
He raised $20 million in equity for the $85 million project, and did find other reliable investors in the Memphis-based Kemmons Wilson family, founders of the Holiday Inn chains.
Euan McGlashan, the managing partner of Valor Hospitality, will manage the hotel.
Heller believes his status as a man with deep ties to the area and an interest in historic preservation helped him leap through the hurdles in getting the project approved.
“Also, I’m good humored and easy enough to deal with, but I’m very determined,” he said. “I was going to make it work.”
Make it work he did. After acquiring ten lots, including where the Winchester Antique Mall is located in the former Review Appeal office across Second Avenue, Heller’s group finally broke ground last October.
At that groundbreaking, Franklin Mayor Ken Moore noted the lengthy approval procedure, but congratulated Heller on the design and scope of the project.
“This is probably one of the most complex projects our city has seen,” he said.
Present: Harpeth Square underway, Heller anticipates future
Shareholders will meet this week to hear reports of the project’s status and timeline, Heller said. He hopes to have the hotel and apartments ready for move in by next summer.
Preliminary designs for 99 East Main, a mixed-use development across Main Street from Harpeth Square with a restaurant and rooftop bar, have been approved by the city’s planning department.
And a project to install sidewalks from the Harpeth River north to Harlinsdale Farm will offer more connectivity to downtown.
If all changes occur, in five years from now, the northern gateway into downtown Franklin will appear markedly different.
Heller said he was “delighted” by Chartwell Hospitality’s East Main project, and looks forward to seeing the full potential of the area unleashed.
To those who equate his project and others with the dissipation of Franklin’s small-town charm, Heller argued that “change is inevitable.”
“That area was going to be developed,” he said. “By doing it in one, holistic project and trying to develop something to the highest long-term standards, we have tried to ensure that the project most conforms to the image we all have of downtown Franklin.”