Adelicia Hayes was born March 15, 1817, to an affluent Nashville family. She triumphed over personal tragedies to become one of the wealthiest women in the United States.
At age 17, Adelicia was engaged to marry Harvard Law School graduate, Alphonso Gibbs. The first of her tragedies struck when her fiance died of typhoid fever at the age of 23. Five years later, Adelicia married 50-year-old Isaac Franklin, a wealthy landowner. By all accounts, the couple was devoted to each other. They had four children – Victoria, Adelicia, Julius Caesar (who lived less than a day), and Emma. After only seven years of marriage, Isaac Franklin died following a short illness. Two months after she lost her husband, Adelicia’s two oldest daughters died within three days of each other of croup and bronchitis.
She was a widow before she was 30—a very wealthy widow. And she was shrewd and educated. Adelicia took control of her fortune, managing both her money and her estates, which included plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. At a ball given by the wife of a Tennessee senator, she met Joseph Acklen, a handsome soldier from Alabama. When they married in May of 1849, Joseph signed a prenuptial agreement stating that Adelicia would retain full control of her fortune. Joseph became her manager. It was an astute move; within ten years, her fortune was more than tripled.
The same year they were married, Adelicia and Joseph began construction of an Italianate-style summer home so they could escape the oppressive heat of Louisiana summers. Belmont was built on one of the highest hills in Nashville. The exterior and interior walls are solid brick, from foundation to rafters. Originally, the estate was known as Bellemonte, Italian for “beautiful mountain.” The Acklens spared no expense in its construction.
Joseph and Adelicia had six children. Tragedy struck again in 1855 when twins Laura and Corinne died of scarlet fever 17 days apart when they were two years old. Later that same year, Emma, the youngest child of Adelicia and her first husband, Isaac, would die at age 11 of diphtheria.
In 1859, Joseph and Adelicia remodeled and enlarged Belmont. One of he most elaborate antebellum homes in the South, Belmont grew to 19,000 square feet and 36 rooms that included a 58-foot-long grand salon, two parlors, billiards room, a library and bedrooms for residents and guests. On the estate grounds were an art gallery, an aviary, a lake, a zoo, conservatories, stables, a bowling alley and lavish gardens, which Adelicia opened to the public. The estate operated its own refinery to provided gas for lighting.
Adelicia was widowed again on Sept. 11, 1863 when Joseph died in Louisiana. She was forced to travel there to protect her property holdings, including nearly 3,000 bales of cotton in jeopardy of being burned by the Confederate army. By shrewd negotiation with both the Union and Confederate authorities she was able to transport the bales out of the country and sell then to buyers in London. She made $960,000.
Immediately after the war, Adelicia and her children traveled to Europe, where she continued amassing her large art collection, including five marble statues by America’s most important sculptors who were working in Rome. Four of these pieces remain in the mansion today.
Adelicia married one more time, at age 50. In 1867 she wed William A. Cheatham, a widower three years younger than she. Cheatham also signed a prenuptial agreement relinquishing control of any of Adelicia’s holdings. Cheatham was a doctor, specializing in mental disorders. In 1885, she left Belmont and, for reasons unknown, separated from Dr. Cheatham. In 1887, she sold Belmont Mansion and surrounding 78 acres for $54,000 and moved to Washington, D.C.
In 1887, during a visit to New York City she became ill and died of pneumonia at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. She was 70 years old. She is interred at the Acklen family mausoleum, with her first two husbands, five of her six children, and one grandchild. The mausoleum is located at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Nashville and contains a marble statue from the Grand Salon. Today, nine of her ten children are interred at the mausoleum.
Belmont became the main building for the Belmont Junior College for Girls, which eventually evolved into Belmont University, a coed institution. Special college and community events are held there, as well as private weddings and special occasions. Belmont Mansion was named a National Historic Place in 1971 and opened to the public in 1976. Located today in the center of the Belmont University campus, Belmont Mansion is open for guided tours.
A Nashville Treasure Celebrates New Look
A Nashville treasure is celebrating a fresh, new look befitting the grand dame that once lived there.
In September of 2006, Belmont Mansion completed a seven-month exterior restoration that returned the ornate historic home to the grandeur it enjoyed as Adelicia Acklen’s 19th century summer home. In fact, this was the first time since 1859 that stucco work has been done, using a unique scoring technique that is rarely preserved or restored in Nashville.
The detailed restoration work also included 2,552 running feet of egg-and-dart molding in four different sizes; 223 running feet of cast iron balcony railing; 502 decorative brackets with as many as 3 pieces of cast iron each; 300 running feet of large cornice and 338 feet of medium cornice.
The restoration revealed information that the shell of an earlier home on the property, damaged by fire, was probably used in the construction of Belmont Mansion. Steve Brown, of Republic Construction, was in charge of the exterior restoration. Republic Construction specializes in historic preservation, having worked on the Ryman Auditorium and the Tennessee State Capitol. Brown says that it is not unusual for a restoration to reveal new information about a home’s evolution.
The recent completion of the exterior restoration of Belmont Mansion, financed by Belmont University and individual contributors, is the culmination of a fruitful year for the museum and the Belmont Mansion Association.
Mark Brown marked his 20th year as Executive Director of the Belmont Mansion Association in the summer of 2006. He is pleased that they have acquired a couple of very significant items for the museum’s collection, including an original piece he had pursued for over 12 years. The association also made strides in planning future upgrades in the mansion’s HVAC systems and some interior restoration projects. Of all of these advancements, he is most proud of the completion of the exterior restoration.
“We always have long-range goals. It’s so nice to see one completed. The exterior has so much visual impact,” Mark Brown said.
The Belmont Mansion has long been a fixture in Nashville history. Initially built in 1853 by Joseph and Adelicia Acklen, later additions include the Grand Salon, now considered to be the most elaborate domestic interior built in antebellum Tennessee. Today, Belmont Mansion is Tennessee’s largest house museum and is one of the few nineteenth century homes where the story revolves around a woman. The house museum is located on the campus of Belmont University and is open for tours seven days a week. See www.belmontmansion.com for more information.