Past and Present
In the late 1860s, Belmont Mansion’s owner, Adelicia Acklen, hired a local photographer named C. C. Giers to take both exterior and interior photographs of the mansion. Giers printed these images as CDV (carte de visite) and stereoview cards -- copies of which are still owned by Acklen descendants today. In 1887, Adelicia sold the property to a developer who later sold part of the estate to Ida Hood and Susan Heron. In 1890, they opened Belmont College for Young Women in the Belmont Mansion. Photographs taken during the early college years were used for marketing purposes and school yearbooks. The following exhibit matches the historical images to photographs taken today, allowing us to compare the ongoing restoration of the Mansion to its mid 19th century appearance. Using the digital tools presented here, viewers can scroll between the "Past and Present" with the click of a mouse or touch of a finger.
This online exhibit was curated by Belmont University students in the Honors Program in Interdisciplinary Studies and Global Education. Dr. Mary Ellen Pethel taught the Digital Humanities class in the Fall of 2019 wherein the students collaborated with staff at Belmont Mansion to produce this project.
Historic Belmont Mansion is located in Nashville, Tennessee and was home to Adelicia Acklen, one of the wealthiest Southern women of her time. Adelicia was born in 1817 to a prominent Nashville family. At age 22, the then Adelicia Hayes married a wealthy planter and slave trader, Isaac Franklin. When he passed away, Mrs. Franklin was left a large inheritance of money, land, and enslaved people. In 1849, she married Joseph A. S. Acklen, but not before he signed a marriage contract which allowed her to maintain control of her wealth. Belmont, which means beautiful mountain, was constructed as the Acklen’s summer home, and after the Civil War became the family's year-round residence. After Joseph’s death, Adelicia married again, this time taking Nashville physician Dr. William Cheatham as her husband. Their wedding was held at Belmont where the blended family would reside. In 1887, Adelicia sold the property and moved to Washington, D.C. She passed away later that year.
In 1890, two women bought the property and opened Belmont College for Young Women. The school used the Mansion for dormitories and classrooms. It would later merge with Ward Seminary to become Ward-Belmont College. In 1952, the school’s ownership changed again, creating the coeducational college now known as Belmont University. While the University owns the Mansion today, the Belmont Mansion Association operates it as a house museum and continues to preserve and restore the Mansion for future generations.
The Front Entry Hall
The Front Entry Hall
Today, as it was during Adelicia's lifetime, all guests enter the mansion through the Front Entry Hall. During Adelicia's occupancy, the hall exhibited numerous works of art including this painting c. 1853 by renowned artist, Joseph Henry Bush (Kentucky, circa 1800-1865), of Adelicia and her young daughter, Emma. When the Belmont property was sold, an auction was held to disperse of the mansion's art after which time this painting's location has not been documented. Today, a mirror hangs in the place of the painting. Direct your attention to the ornate wallpaper. While the original wallpaper is no longer intact, the walls are covered in a reproduction of the original design, remnants of which were found during restoration work allowing for the paper to be reproduced.
The Acklens were avid art collectors. After the Civil War widowed Adelicia took a Grand Tour of Europe with her children and brought home additional works of art. Statuary in particular flooded the home. In this room alone stood seven statues. Seen in this image is one of the most poignant of all the statuary. William Rinehart's "The Sleeping Children," was purchased in Rome from the artist's studio. Adelicia had the artist inscribe the piece with the names of her twin daughters who had passed away ten years prior. Also evident in this image is the gasolier (gas chandelier) with bohemian glass shades.
The statue Ruth Gleaning greets visitors to Belmont Mansion today as she did in the 19th century. Ruth was one of multiple statues Adelicia purchased in 1866 during her Grand Tour of Europe. Randolf Rogers, a leading American sculptor at the time living in Rome, created the piece which was on display in his studio. It is the only piece of art that has remained in the house. Today it sits only three inches from the spot where it was originally installed.
The Polk Clock
Seen in the back of this historic image, and in the image taken today, is a mantle clock Mrs. Sarah Polk gave to Adelicia Acklen. Mrs. Acklen and Mrs. Polk, the widow of President James K. Polk, were good friends. The Polks had settled in downtown Nashville, not far from Adelicia's home on Cherry Street, after leaving the White House. This French made clock features Romeo and Juliet and is identified by the name J.K. Polk etched on the front of the clock case.
The mantle upon which the clock sits today is different than the one documented in the historic image. The mantle currently installed in this room was originally located in the formal dining room. When that room was converted into dorms rooms for students in the early years of Belmont as a school, the dining room mantle was placed in the front hall and the front hall mantle was removed.
The Grand Salon
The majestic stairs leading to Belmont Mansion’s second floor are made of heart pine painted to resemble English oak and are original to the house being installed in 1860 when the Grand Salon was added. These stairs complement the Grand Salon, a classical design with Italianate details. The original gasolier made by Cornelius & Baker remains in front of the staircase; though the fixture now uses electricity instead of gas.
From 2016 to 2017 the Belmont Mansion Association, with support from the University, undertook restoration work to stabilize the structural components of this cantilevered staircase. Once structural work was complete work began to restore the historic finishes on the woodwork and walls of this space. Artisans in England are currently manufacturing a reproduction carpet runner for the stair.
The Grand Salon Room View
The historic image of the Grand Salon presented here was taken after 1890, the year of the founding of Belmont College, as evidenced by the banner hanging from the ceiling. The room embodied a variety of styles, being mainly classical with touches of Greek revival. In 2019, the faux marble floor, which had been covered by years of college-era oak flooring, was recreated bringing back a major design element to the room.
As seen in the historic image the Grand Salon had a door which opened into the billiards room and sat opposite a window in the far wall. When both door and window were opened they allowed for a cross breeze into the Grand Salon in the days prior to air conditioning. This door has since been removed. During the college era, the Grand Salon’s ceiling was painted white. However, recent paint analysis work has revealed the ceiling to have originally been painted with a cloud design which will be replicated.
The Bay Window
This early school-era photo, found in a school year book, documents the movement of Ruth Gleaning. During Adelicia's lifetime, as today, she sat in the Front Entry Hall. The statue was moved to the bay window of the Grand Salon sometime between 1898 and 1900. She would not be placed back at the entrance until 1990, as the process to restore the Mansion began.
The bay window originally contained a large cast iron fountain. Set flush to the floor, this remarkable feature was unusual not only for its presence but for the engineering that allowed for the indoor plumbing necessary for it to function. Indoor plumbing in domestic structures was available as early as 1811 but was still a rarity, and the use of such engineering for an indoor fountains was unusual in a domestic structure.
The Ward-Belmont Years
In the 1950s, Belmont Mansion was still actively used as part of Ward-Belmont College for Young Women, and continued to be as the College transitioned to Belmont University. This photo shows the parlor during the last years of Ward-Belmont College, presumably used as a receiving area for the young women of the school.
Research to undertake a complete restoration of this space has been extensive. Every surface was physically investigated for clues to original finishes. Additionally, staff researched period guides to fabrics, furniture, wallpaper and faux finishes used in 19th century rooms to re-create one of the Acklen's most stunning rooms for entertaining. The reproduction carpet installed today was woven in England and designed by Grosvenor Wilton Company, a carpeting company in business since the 1790s.
Restoring the Central Parlor
The two images here focus on the Central Parlor ceiling before and after restoration. A critical and monumental element in this room, the ceiling is painted using a Trump l'oeil technique (or optical illusion) to fool the viewer into thinking the ceiling is an open air view like one found in a Roman palazzo. The cloud patterns are framed by layers of faux-painted cornice.
In addition to the extensive work on the ceiling and carpeting the restoration here included replicating faux finishes on woodwork, reproduced wallpaper, window treatments, staging original and period furniture into the arrangements favored by Victorians and filling the entire room with artwork and decorative arts objects original to the family or appropriate to the period.
An Intimate Space
The Small Study was a favorite room for the Acklen family serving as an intimate gathering space in the evening. When Susan Heron and Ida Hood purchased the property and opened Belmont College for Young Women, the two used this room as a private apartment. This 1898 photograph includes two of the school’s teachers. The room was later used as a dormitory for Belmont students through the 1970s. The original gas lighting fixture is lost. The current fixture in the Small Study, although original to the mansion, was taken from another room. The mantle is original and is made of Tennessee chocolate marble. The cast iron fireplace surround seen in the 1898 photo was added after Adelicia’s lifetime.