Belle Mont Mansion, built circa 1828, is one of the few examples of Palladian-style houses in Alabama. This design is derived from the neoclassical architectural style of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Although the original architect and builder remain unknown, the style of Belle Mont appears also to have been influenced by past U.S. President and architect Thomas Jefferson.
The house clearly displays traits of this particular brand of Palladian architecture devised by Jefferson. The traits include the following: 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 speculate 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 originally 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. Mitchell was 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. 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 Belle Mont's 1,760 acres which 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. 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 listed him as the owner of 114 enslaved African Americans. Three years later, during the middle of the Civil War, he died at Belle Mont. Winston’s 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 Fennell, Jr. and Carolyn Fennell, and Judy Fennell Vials and her husband Peter Vials, donated the house and 35 surrounding acres to the state of Alabama. The Alabama Historical Commission, the state agency charged with safeguarding our historic buildings and sites, helped save a significant and architecturally rare house. The long-term, phased restoration aims to protect, preserve, and interpret Belle Mont for future generations. Colbert County Historical Landmarks Foundation, Inc. is the support group in charge of operating this historic site.
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