What Is Belle Mont?

C. Mitchell
C. Mitchell
Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Belle Mont is a mansion dating from the early 1800s that sits in the northwest corner of Alabama, a state in the American South. The mansion has both architectural and cultural significance, and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Although once a private residence, the house is today maintained by the Alabama Historical Commission. The commission has restored the mansion, and has furnished it with period pieces appropriate to its heyday in the 19th century. It is open to the public, and tours and exhibitions are offered year-round.

Architectural scholars believe that Belle Mont is one of the only true examples of Palladian-style architecture in the American South. The Palladian style originated in Italy, but became popular in the United States through the innovations of President Thomas Jefferson. Many experts draw distinct parallels between Belle Mont and Monticello, Jefferson’s sprawling home in Charlottesville, Virginia. It has been suggested that architects who worked on Monticello may have contributed to the planning and building of Belle Mont. Some believe that Jefferson himself had a hand in at least drafting the original drawings.

The mansion was built for a Virginian who organized a cotton plantation around the house. He fast became one of the largest slaveholders in the South. The mansion was flanked by a great many slave housing compounds and is believed to have been home to many generations of slave families in the early part of the 19th century.

Belle Mont fell into disrepair and shifted owners numerous times in the years following the Civil War. Part of this owed to its enormous operating expenses, as well as the costs involved in bringing the home up to modern standards. The mansion was ultimately donated to the Alabama Historical Commission in 1983.

Commission staff immediately set to work raising funds for a complete renovation. Modern fixtures like plumbing and electricity were minimized in an effort to recast the house as it would have been in its early days. Most of the slave homes became completely dilapidated and were torn down, but the Commission contracted with archaeologists who were able to excavate the original foundations for many of the structures. These, too, have been re-built to closely approximate how they would have looked and felt long ago.

Renovations and continuing upkeep costs are funded at least in part through admission charges. Belle Mont is open to the public for tours, exhibitions, and special events. It is one of many American museums that seeks to recreate history, allowing visitors to step back in time and imagine that they lived during the period represented by the inside rooms and furnishings. Most of the curators at these types of museums dress in the style of the original residents.

Belle Mont hosts a number of events outside of regular tours. Candlelight dinners, charity events, nature walks, and holiday balls are among the many uses for the space. School tours are also popular. Museums and kids tend to go well together at Belle Mont, where many of the exhibits are interactive. Children are invited to enter into many of the different rooms, and questions are always welcome.

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