Capitol Commission: Not so fast on Polk move

Gov. Bill Haslam attends a ceremony at the James K. Polk tomb in Nashville on Nov. 2, 2012. (Image credit: Gov. Bill Haslam’s office)

(A report from on our James K. Polk correspondent J.R. Lind)

The Capitol Commission, the obscure hodgepodge body charged with maintenance of the state Capitol grounds, will wait just a bit longer to decide whether to give its imprimatur to the effort to relocate the tomb of President James K. Polk and his wife, Sarah.

The commission heard arguments from both sides Friday, but opted to delay a vote to some unspecified future date on the advice of chairman Larry Martin, the commissioner of Finance and Administration.

Spearheaded by Maury County legislators led by Republican Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, the movement to exhume the Polks from their tomb on the Capitol grounds and move them to the Polk Ancestral Home in Columbia has wound through the legislature for nearly two years.

Polk is the only president buried on the grounds of a state Capitol and a 1981 law — passed to flummox an effort from Nashville to move the tomb to Centennial Park — required the legislature to approve the removal of his tomb. Though it took two votes in the House, the necessary resolution passed in April, despite opposition from numerous legislators of both parties (several of whom changed their positions on successive votes), preservationists, and historians.

The 2016 Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, however, makes things more complicated, requiring the consent of the Capitol Commission, the State Building Commission and a two-thirds vote of the Tennessee Historical Commission. Even if both of those bodies give the OK, a chancery court challenge is likely, as Polk’s numerous collateral descendants — James and Sarah had no children — are split on the matter. To further complicate things, the state attorney general opined in 1980 that the remains of the Polks are not state property and thus cannot be conveyed by the state.

The Tennessee Historical Commission’s executive director, Patrick McIntyre, called the proposal “inappropriate” and “ahistorical” in a 2017 letter to the James K. Polk Memorial Association, saying “our agency will continue to oppose it.” Dan Brown, THC’s historic sites director, reiterated organization’s opposition Friday, saying that altering a historic site risks its federal designation, putting the designation of both the state Capitol and the Polk Ancestral Home in danger.

Brown also noted that Sarah Polk had “plenty of time” to change her will to be buried where she wished if it wasn’t in Nashville.

“This is considered a tragedy” by preservationists and historians across the country, Brown said.

The President and Mrs. Polk never lived at the home in Columbia, which was built by the president’s father while James was in law school in North Carolina. John Summers, an Historic Nashville board member, did note Polk did live there “intermittently” while serving as clerk to the Tennessee House, at the time meeting in Murfreesboro, and as a legal assistant to Felix Grundy in Nashville.

Polk’s will specifically said he and his wife wished to be buried in Nashville at Polk Place, which was razed in 1893, two years after Sarah’s death, at which time the Polks were relocated to Capitol Hill.

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