Updated: Sep 20, 2022
Adelicia Acklen’s artistic flair is returning to the Belmont Mansion in the latest wave of restorations.
Belmont’s modern academic buildings tower over the Acklens’ 19th century home, the largest pre-Civil War house in Tennessee, and the Belmont Mansion Association is hoping the interior restorations will reinstate some of its lost grandeur.
The restorations are part of the Mansion Association’s continued efforts to bring more authenticity to the house, said Emma Wells, a student employee at the mansion.
“We’re very big on historical accuracy,” said Wells.
There are four projects currently underway to expand the experience of mansion visitors, starting with the restoration of the French wallpaper mural floating on the vaulted ceiling of the Grand Salon.
Using original plaster from the ceiling mansion historians analyzed paint samples to see back into history.
“We were fortunate that we have quite a bit of the original plaster still intact up there, so we were able to do a fairly thorough paint analysis of the colors that we’re using,” said Mark Brown, executive director of the Mansion Association.
Researchers concluded the ceiling was a mural of the sky for the majority of the Acklens’ residency, stylized clouds treated with unusual ochre coloration, likely in an attempt to capture the reflection of a sunset. Restoration of the mural should be complete around mid-March, said Brown.
But that’s nowhere near the extent of the changes coming to the mansion. Its service and dish pantry are also being restored, a process that includes reproducing the original floor cloth and wallpaper and installing historically accurate light fixtures.
Slaves and servants worked in the cramped, hot spaces, and the new changes will help capture the reality of their experience, said Brown.
“It gives us a way of interpreting the service staff that was here at Belmont, both the enslaved and, after the war, the freed, white and immigrant labor that was here,” Brown said.
“We just need to crank the heat up in there.”
The largest project on the docket is restoring the mansion’s original billiard room, which was the third-largest room in the house before it was divided into dorms in 1890 and subdivided again in 1923.
Restoring the space will give visitors a better sense of the house’s original scale, said Brown.
“We’ve gone back now and started all of the demolition of non-historic material and we’re now putting back the missing pieces,” he said. “We have a good idea of the wallpaper that was on there, a good sample of the original floor cloth, and one-third of the original billiards table.”
Mansion historians struggle to find other restored billiard rooms from the period anywhere in the South. Although billiards was extremely popular during the 19th century, other rooms either did not survive or the houses didn’t have a room specifically built for the leisure activity, said Brown, meaning the project at the Belmont Mansion will make it unique.
That particularly challenging project will take at least a year, Brown said.
Ongoing work in the Belmont Mansion’s Grand Salon, Jan. 28. Maddie Buchman / Belmont Vision
Also in the works, the mansion’s side gallery, formerly an open porch in 1853, is being restored to as close to its original condition as possible. This space will give access to the service stairs and show how servants traveled to the back rooms of the house
To bring it as close to its original appearance as possible, wainscoting — protective paneling on the bottom quarter of the walls — is being restored using samples in the upstairs gallery.
Trompe-l’œil, an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create a 3D optical illusion, is also being added to the walls in the side gallery to make it feel as if visitors can see further down the hall.
Despite the team’s dedication to historical accuracy, there is one room in the house that will contain something new.
The final project in this wave is the renovation of one of the original bedrooms, which is being turned into an exhibition space
“The space will be used to interpret the enslaved workers here and the immigrant workers here,” said Brown. “There’s no attempt to restore this space to its historical appearance. It’s being renovated for this purpose.
Despite the ongoing renovations, the Mansion is still open to tours and is excited to present a more thorough image of 19th-century life at Belmont following these restorations.
The Belmont Mansion, Jan 28. The mansion received a historically accurate pink paint job in 2021 after sample analysis from the exterior of the house.
PHOTO: Grace Abernethy painting the ceiling of the Grand Salon, Jan. 28. Maddie Buchman / Belmont Vision
This article was written by Anna D’Amico and Allison Fedorchek.