The moving spirit behind Belmont Mansion is Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham. She was born on March 15, 1817, into a prominent Nashville family. At the age of 22, Adelicia married her first husband, Isaac Franklin, a wealthy businessman and plantation owner who was 28 years her senior. Isaac Franklin and Adelicia had four children together, all of whom died before the age of 11. After seven years of marriage, Isaac Franklin died unexpectedly of a stomach virus while visiting one of his plantations in Louisiana. As a result of his death, Adelicia inherited a huge estate including: 8,700 acres of cotton plantations in Louisiana; Fairvue, a 2,000-acre farm in Tennessee; more than 50,000 acres of undeveloped land in Texas; stocks and bonds; and 750 slaves. In 1846, at the age of 29, Adelicia Franklin was independently wealthy, worth about $1 million. On May 8, 1849, Adelicia remarried, to Joseph Alexander Smith Acklen, a Mexican War hero and a lawyer from Huntsville, Alabama. Together they built Belmont Mansion (originally named Belle Monte), completing construction in 1853.
Belmont Mansion was built in the style of an Italian villa and was set amidst elaborate gardens. There were numerous outbuildings, including the water tower, which still stands, that provided irrigation for the gardens and supplied water for the fountains. In front of the water tower stood a two-hundred-foot long greenhouse and a conservatory. Also on the grounds were an art gallery, gazebos (still standing today), a bowling alley, a bear house, and a zoo. Adelicia Acklen opened the estate to the citizens of Nashville to enjoy the zoo, as no public zoos existed at the time.
In 1859, the Acklens hired Adolphus Heiman, a Prussian born architect working in Nashville, to enlarge and remodel Belmont Mansion. Heiman enclosed the back porch to create the Grand Salon, a very large room containing a French-style, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Architectural historians described the grand salon as “the most elaborate domestic space built in antebellum Tennessee.” With this new addition, Belmont Mansion contained 36 rooms and approximately 10,000 square feet of living space. An additional 8,400 square feet of service area was located in the basement. The house was filled with fine furniture, paintings, and marble statues.
Adelicia’s husband Joseph died on September 11, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War while managing Adelicia’s land holding of Angola plantation in Louisiana. At the time of his death, there were 2,800 bales of Acklen cotton—worth literally a fortune—in storage. Refusing to risk losing her fortune to theft or destruction, Adelicia undertook a very risky trip to Louisiana with a female cousin to “negotiate” the illegal sale of her cotton to a broker in Liverpool, England, for $960,000 in gold.
In 1867, Adelicia married Dr. William Cheatham, a prominent Nashville physician. Their wedding reception took place at Belmont, with about 2,000 guests in attendance. By the 1880s, Adelicia began spending more time in Washington, D.C., often with her only surviving daughter, Pauline. In 1887, Adelicia sold Belmont Mansion to a land development company after she moved to Washington, D.C., permanently. Later that year, she contracted pneumonia while on a shopping trip to New York City, and died in a Fifth Avenue hotel. Her body was returned to Nashville to be buried in the family mausoleum at Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Two women from Philadelphia purchased Belmont Mansion and, in 1890, opened a girl’s school. Later merging with Nashville’s Ward Seminary, the school was renamed Ward-Belmont, and became an academy and junior college for women. In 1952, the school again changed ownership, becoming present-day Belmont University. Today, Belmont University is a coeducational, liberal arts school offering bachelor and graduate degrees.
Belmont Mansion was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Belmont Mansion Association, a private nonprofit restoration and preservation organization, was formed in 1972 with the purpose of caring for and maintaining this historic site.
Belmont Mansion is the largest house museum in Tennessee and one of the few nineteenth century homes whose history revolves around the life of a woman. Today, restoration and operation of Belmont Mansion is completely administered by the Association and is funded by admissions, membership, fundraising events, corporate and private donations, and venue rental services.