The mansion’s forgotten past
As big and beautiful new buildings keep popping up left and right on Belmont’s campus, it can be easy to forget about the only part of the property that has watched all this incredible growth occur.
Sitting at the head of Belmont University’s gazebo and rose-adorned quad is an Italianate mansion. The mansion is the first of its kind in the antebellum South. It has stood for over a century and a half and has not only witnessed unimaginable history, but is history in itself.
The story of this property began in the late 1840s when Adelicia Acklen purchased barren farmland from a relative. The property would go through remarkable transformations during her time on the estate.
“The property was pretty much a wide open space,” said executive director and chief curator of the Belmont Mansion Mark Brown. “There had been a house on the site before that her aunt lived in, that house burned down but not completely. Adelicia chose that house’s site to build this mansion, basically within the burnt down walls of her aunt’s house”.
Acklen’s estate would grow to be much larger than just her 10,000-square-foot home.
“There was a bowling alley and billiards room, an art gallery, a bathhouse, a gardener’s cottage, a carriage house, horse stables, five slave quarters. And before the war there was a mule barn, and poultry house,” said Brown.
The property not only had many luxuries, but was quite sustainable as well. Modest farming took place on the estate during Acklen’s time here to support the property and her Louisiana estate as well.
“This was a pretty big farm,” said historian Dr. Jackson-Abernathy. “She was producing crops not only for this property, but also for the Louisiana property. She grew food here and she raised animals here, like poultry and pigs. This was agriculture; the city was far enough away.”
Animals were a big part of the estate: Adelicia not only had a few farm animals, but the property was once home to a small zoo.
“Joseph Acklen, her second husband, he seems to be the one that was so interested in animals and that type of thing. There was an aviary. We know that there was a bear here as well, and there’s a couple accounts of alligators, as well as a mountain lion,” said Brown.
The animals, of course, got to live the life of luxury as well.
“She had a bear house, which was modeled after the House of Versailles. If there was a bear there, it wasn’t there very long,” said Jackson.
The estate became a spectacle to the public and received many visitors thanks to the Acklens’ hospitality.
“People used to come in Adelicia’s day just to walk the property. She had gorgeous gardens and greenhouses growing all the kinds of exotic plants. It was a very large property,” said Jackson.
The Civil War, however, specifically the Battle of Nashville in late 1864, began to uproot the estate from what it originally was.
“The mansion was occupied by the fourth corps of the Union Army for the first two weeks of December,” said Belmont Mansion Curator Jerry Trescott. “They were coming back from Franklin and saw the copula of the mansion sticking out above the treetops, and they knew that the Confederate Army was fast on their heels. They also knew that there were only two roads that led from Franklin to Nashville, and the mansion sat in the center of those two turnpikes, so what better place to come to?”
The mansion, as well as the other more established buildings on the estate at the time of the war, were unharmed. The same could not be said for many of the smaller establishments.
“It was December when the Union troops were here, one of the coldest Decembers on record and a lot of the farm property ended up being dismantled for firewood,” said Jackson.
The war would eventually come to an end, leaving the estate to carry on.
“I think the most unknown era of this mansion is the Battle of Nashville, and the fact that it was occupied for those two weeks and what happens here during the war, I think it’s the most poignant story,” said Trescott.
Acklen’s other original buildings would be removed from the estate at the turn of the century, when the first of a few schools would occupy campus.
“The belltower is the only one of her buildings that is still standing,” said Brown. “The statues around campus are reproductions of hers. The originals have been placed in the lobbies of buildings all over campus because of acid rain. The cast iron gazebos were all hers as well; all of the cast iron animals outside were either hers or reproductions of what she had.”
One of the many original statues can be found on the first floor of McWhorter. The history of the estate surrounds students every day, and yet many are unaware of what an incredible story the campus has.
“I think that most people that don’t have an interest in history think ‘Oh yeah, there’s an old house up there at the end of the quad,’ and they’re more familiar with walking by it than coming into it and exploring the history of the site,” said Trescott.
Belmont University, however, continually tries to recognize its rich and interesting history.
“Every new hire that they have comes through the mansion and a lot of new students this year have come through,” said Trescott. “They’ll arrive in groups, and I’m sure their professors have required them to come, but that’s ok. As long as they come and they get an idea of what we do here and why we do it, and they all take the tour. Even if they never come back at least they get an awareness of what happened on this site”.
This article was written by Kristen Moore.
Photo courtesy of the Belmont Mansion