Moonlight and Ice:
The Story of the Belmont Mansion
To get a sense of the grandeur and the grimness that was the Old South, there's at least one "old house" you need to visit in Nashville. You may have a hard time finding a place to park your car, but The Belmont Mansion is worth a couple of blocks' walking.
Located on the Belmont University campus (a Southern Baptist four-year liberal arts university), the mansion is an 1853 grand house of nearly 11,000 square feet built in the style of an Italian villa. You'll have to ring the doorbell and wait to be admitted for a guided tour. Originally set within an estate of elaborate gardens, with a two-hundred-foot greenhouse, a private zoo of exotic animals, including alligators and monkeys, a bear house, and a private water tower (still standing on the campus), the mansion was home to one of the wealthiest women in the country -- Adelicia Hayes Acklen Cheatham. Her history, as you will hear it from the well-spoken and charming guides who usher you through the mansion, gives you a picture of Nashville in the mid-nineteenth century in details that bring the era to life.
Adelicia would host magnificent parties, scheduled on nights of the full moon and held late (after 11 p.m. and lasting until dawn). The parties were scheduled late not only to take advantage of the moonlight, but so it would be cooler for the guests (remember, there was no air conditioning). Pitchers of water with ice cubes were displayed prominently on the central table for the pleasure of the guests and the honor of the hostess. Ice, you see, was one of the premier signs of wealth.
All was not moonlight and ice slivers, however, even for the wealthy; almost every room in Belmont testifies to one of the harsher realities of life in the 19th century -- the high child mortality rate. Six of Adelicia's ten children died before the age of eleven. Sculptures and portraits memorializing Adelicia's dead children adorn the rooms of the mansion. Yet another grim aspect of the Old South is told in the very architecture of the mansion, where a definite upstair-downstairs class system existed. The resplendent life at Belmont was underwritten by an ugly truth: Adelicia own 750 slaves who labored in her cotton fields. Some of these slaves served as the domestic "help" of the mansion and lived in the 9,400-square-foot "service area" located in the basement area of the house. The domestics did everything from preparing and serving the meals, to carrying out the chamber pots (you'll notice a conspicuous absence of bathrooms in the house.)
The tour does not take you into the basement, but perhaps one day it will. The story "below" is as integral as the story "above." As it is, The Belmont Mansion provides a suggestive glimpse into the dark underside of a grand house designed for light and beauty.