Historic Structures

Belle Meade Plantation Mansion , Nashville Tennessee

Date added: July 2, 2021 Categories: Tennessee House Mansion Plantations & Farms

Belle Meade mansion, the plantation house of theseveral thousand acre plantation that once existed along with the mansion, was owned and built by the Harding family. John Harding founded the plantation in 1807 and gradually added land to what was to become one of the finest farms, especially thoroughbred, in the country. The original deed included one of middle Tennessee's first permanent structures, Dunham's Station. The Harding family occupied the property from 1807 until 1904. General W. G. Harding built the present mansion and his daughter Selene who married William Hicks Jackson, a confederate general, continued to live at Belle Meade. Other families owned the mansion as a private home in the twentieth century, but the farm Was soon divided for residential and park use. In 1953, the State of Tennessee bought the mansion and 24 acres for restoration as a state historic site. The Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities has done the restoration since.

The Belle Meade stud was one of the most famous nurseries of Thoroughbred horses. In addition, the farm sold breeding stock of ponies, Alclerney cattle, Cotswold sheeg, and Cashmere goats. General Harding and his son-in-law, General Jackson^were pioneers in the science of animal husbandry. After the death of Gen. Jackson and his son, William Harding Jackson, the mansion, land, and livestock were sold in 1904. At that time Belle Meade was America's oldest and largest Thoroughbred Farm.

The date of the construction by John Harding ( -1866) of his brick home is not documented. Structural evidence in the present Belle Meade Mansion indicates a date earlier than 1840. Such evidence includes the water table, arrangement of the four main chimneys, Flemish bond brickwork (now covered with stucco except in attic over the nursery) , hewn rafters (and floor joints under one room in the kitchen wing), plaster and pane composition.

Speer's Sketches of Prominent Tennesseans, published just after the death of William Giles Harding (1808-1886) contains the statement that he built the house in 1853. This is now considered (for the reasons above) to be either a misprint of the date, or an inaccuracy which should perhaps read "remodeled his father's house." However, William Harding took over the estate in 1839 and is known to have entertained important out-of-town visitors throughout the 1840's (see Nashville City Directory: 1859, Pen and Sword: The Life and Journals of Randal W. McGavock) . The date of John Harding's smaller "Belair" mansion, built for a daughter, would seem to indicate that he was already living in something finer than Belair by 1835. The date may be pushed back to the 1820's if we believe the 1950 statement of Henry Green that his father (the head groom at Belle Meade) , Bob Green (1824-1906) was town in the same cabin in which William G. Harding had been born in 1808. This would indicate that by 1824 the Hardings were out of the cabin, but not necessarily into the present mansion.

No evidence (structural from contemporary documents) has been found to support the family legend of a fire destroying the home in 1851, nor to support the frequently published claim that William Strickland was the architect for its alleged 1853 reconstruction.

Measurement: of the distance between the four existing brick; structures in the Belle Meade complex indicates that there was at one time a three-story central block with four chimneys, flanked by two-story wings (one of which is conjectural) , each having a central chimney, and behind each wing a somewhat smaller dependency now called the garden house and smokehouse. These buildings were not stuccoed; they were laid in common bond except for the central block in Flemish bond with grapevine jointing. Whether the stone columns were on this block originally, or were added later when the dark gold stucco was applied (1853?) is not known. The earliest known picture of the house is an engraving in Clayton's History of Davidson County in which the house appeared virtually as it does today although from one angle the third story is not shown, through the artist's error. There is documentation that the mansion had gold stucco in 1895; subsequently it has been painted light gray, olive green, and dark gray. It is at present light gray.