Located just outside Tuscumbia, Colbert County, Belle Mont Mansion is one of the few examples of Palladian-style houses in Alabama and the Deep South. This style derives from the neoclassical architectural style of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Built circa 1828, Belle Mont (meaning "lovely mountain"), is currently owned by the Alabama Historical Commission (AHC), which rescued the property from ruin in the 1980s.
Although the original architect and builder remain unknown, the style of Belle Mont appears also to have been influenced by U.S. president and architect Thomas Jefferson. The house clearly displays traits of the particular brand of Palladian architecture devised by Jefferson. These include a commanding hilltop setting, a raised two-story central section flanked by one-story wings, and an emphasis upon high-quality brickwork with contrasting wood trim. Belle Mont's unusual U-shaped floor plan, with the side-wings embracing a courtyard at the rear, also occurs in at least one Jefferson floorplan sketch. On the basis of such evidence, architectural historians have speculated that one of the many craftsmen who worked at Monticello, or on Jefferson's vast building project at the University of Virginia, may also have had a hand in the design and construction of Belle Mont.
Belle Mont was built for Alexander Williams Mitchell, who grew up in Louisa County, Virginia, only 25 miles from Jefferson's home at Monticello. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, he was a physician, planter, and an early elected official of Franklin (present-day Colbert) County, where he settled around 1820. He was also a founding member of a Presbyterian church in Tuscumbia and among the area's largest owners of enslaved African Americans. In the mid-1820s, Mitchell began the construction of Belle Mont as the centerpiece of his large cotton plantation. But in 1832, following the death of his first wife and his subsequent re-marriage, Mitchell put Belle Mont up for sale and eventually moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An advertisement appearing in a Huntsville newspaper described "a brick dwelling house," 76 feet across the front, along with "all the necessary houses." The advertisement also noted that Belle Mont's 1,760 acres were planted in clover, grass, corn, and cotton and included an orchard.
In 1833, Isaac and Catherine Winston acquired the plantation. Like Mitchell, the Winstons had roots in Virginia, and Isaac was the uncle of Alabama's first native-born governor, John Anthony Winston. By an odd coincidence, a Winston cousin–Isaac Coles–had been Thomas Jefferson's private secretary.
Throughout the antebellum period, Isaac Winston operated Belle Mont as a cotton plantation, and the 1860 Census lists him as the owner of 114 enslaved African Americans. Three years later, during the middle of the Civil War, he died at Belle Mont. His widow Catherine resided there until her own death in 1884. While continuing to farm the land, later generations of the Winston family used Belle Mont for a summer retreat and eventually sold it in 1941.
In 1983, owners Ben Fennel Jr. and his wife Carolyn Fennell and Judy Fennell Vials and her husband Peter Vials donated the house and 35 surrounding acres to the state of Alabama. Thus AHC was able to save a significant and architecturally rare house and is now working on a long-term, phased restoration to protect, preserve, and interpret Belle Mont for future generations.
Belle Mont Mansion is being restored and partially furnished to reflect the antebellum, or pre-Civil War, time period. Its two-story north entrance salon is flanked on either side by a formal dining room and parlor. Four bedrooms surround the rear or south courtyard, forming its U-shaped brick exterior. Belle Mont's out-buildings are no longer standing, but several foundations, including that of a slave house, have been located by archeologists.
Belle Mont is located just south of Tuscumbia and west of US Route 43 at 1569 Cook Lane. It has a staff of three: a site director, curator, and tour guide. In addition, volunteers from the Colbert County Historical Landmarks Foundation assist as docents for special events and participate in fund-raising activities. Plantation Christmas at Belle Mont is held annually the first Sunday in December and features period costumed interpreters, decorations, refreshments, and entertainment. The property is also available for tours Thursday through Sunday and for special event rentals. Belle Mont attracts approximately 5,000 visitors each year.
Belle Mont Mansion has been listed under several names through its history. It has been referred to as the Isaac Winston House and is listed as Belmont in the National Register of Historic Places and as the Henry B. Thornton Plantation House in the Historic American Buildings Survey.
Alabama Historical Commission
Published December 2, 2010
Last updated January 5, 2011