There are few sites in Nashville more worth seeing than Belmont Mansion. This 1853 Italian-villa-style home is a perfect representation of how prosperous Southerners lived and thrived in antebellum days of relative bliss. Superbly restored by the Belmont Mansion Association over the past forty years, the house holds one of the best collections of period pieces to be found in the country, and visitors national and international will tell you the place emanates in an especially remarkable way the legendary charm and hospitality the South is known for.
Perhaps that is because the story of the remarkable Belmont Mansion is predominantly the story of a remarkable woman. Adelicia Hayes was twenty-two when she married fifty-year-old Isaac Franklin, owner of over 60,000 Southern acres—a good slice of that in cotton—as well as 750 slaves. When in 1846 her husband of seven years died unexpectedly of a stomach virus, the subsequent inheritance made her one of the wealthiest women in the South—worth around $1,000,000—and she knew how to put it to good use. When she married Alabama lawyer Joseph Acklen three years later, the two decided their first project together would be the building of Belle Monte on the beautiful heights above Nashville, Tennessee.
House and grounds taking the form of an Italian villa, the mansion was surrounded by exotic gardens and landscape, interspersed with the other buildings, both necessary and extravagant, that completed the Acklens’ domestic vision. A hundred-foot-tall water tower, which serves today as a chapel and carillon, stood irrigating the grounds, while a two-hundred-foot-long greenhouse and conservatory just beneath it housed fruit-bearing, flowering, and proliferating plants year-round. Nearby were the art gallery, bowling alley, bath house, and zoo. Yes, zoo—to which Miss Adelicia magnanimously welcomed any and all Nashvilleans, making public her own family’s private delights and enjoyments, just as the Association seeks to do in her honor today.
Just when you thought it could not get any more spectacular, Adelicia and her husband Joseph hired Prussian-born architect Adolphus Heiman in 1859 to make some “enlargements.” Heiman’s greatest contribution to the mansion was the Grand Salon with its very French barrel-vaulted ceiling. There was nothing like it in antebellum Tennessee and little like it throughout the South. At the end of the day, Belmont Mansion was 10,000 square feet of exquisite living—not counting the 8,400 square feet of service area in the basement—generously accoutered with marble statues, magnificent paintings, and the finer things of a genteel life.
Adelicia certainly knew her griefs as well. In addition to the tragic death of her first husband, all of Adelicia’s children from her first marriage died before they reached the age of eleven, and only one daughter from her second marriage, Pauline, outlived Adelicia herself. Adelicia’s second husband, Joseph, died in the middle of the Civil War as he managed one of her plantations in Louisiana. With his sudden death, nearly a million dollars in cotton was left in storage, vulnerable to seizure or destruction by Federal troops. Adelicia courageously made the journey incognito to Angola to secure personally the prohibited sale of the valuable cotton—which brought $960,000 in gold.
After the War, at age fifty, Adelicia married for a third time, this time to Dr. William Cheatham of Nashville, welcoming thousands of wedding guests to a lavish reception at her beloved Belmont. Just before her death twenty years later, Adelicia sold both mansion and grounds to a land developer and moved to Washington, D.C., with her daughter Pauline. The property was next bought in 1890 by Ida Hood and Susan Heron, who lost no time in converting Belmont into a school for young women. It remained a girl’s academy and junior college until 1952, when the home of the remarkable Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham became Belmont University, one of Nashville’s and Tennessee’s finest—and loveliest—liberal arts institutions. No doubt she would be proud. As an expression of Southern culture at its best, Belmont continues to this day not only displaying impeccably the glories and refinements of the past but in cultivating men and women of accomplishment and character for our society’s future as well.