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VOL. 42 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 24, 2018

Historic Belair rescue blends old with new Donelson

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Grand opening

Belair Mansion owner Lewis James began a GoFundMe page last year that has raised a little more than $5,000 of the $200,000 goal to offset renovation expenses. A special event will be held for contributors when the B&B opens later this year, James says. Information

It’s a good thing Lewis James’ wife Connie is an optometrist. She could see – envision – what he couldn’t the first time they toured what will soon become one of most unique bed and breakfasts in this part of the country.

The gleaming, white, historic Belair mansion sits on about five acres at the gateway to what locals call “Hip Donelson,” located at 2250 Lebanon Pike where it crosses Briley Parkway.

After years of neglect and disrepair, the 200-year-old Greek Revival mansion is being luxuriously restored to its former glory. It is expected to open by the end of the year.

“I was skeptical, but I think it’s going to work. It’s going to be great,” Lewis James says. “This place, there’s nothing like it in America. You can’t find, five miles from downtown, a place like this where you could come and have a family reunion or corporate event.”

The couple paid $1.55 million for the property in August 2016, and has sunk thousands more capital into renovations, repairs and refurbishment.

“When I first saw this property, I didn’t want to buy it,” he adds. “I thought it was too much – overpriced and needed too much work. But, because my wife loves old mansions and we saw the potential of a bed and breakfast, we were walking on faith because we didn’t really believe, we didn’t know … it was a leap of faith.”

Connie James laughs when contacted at her Music Row office, another old Nashville property the couple renovated.

“I am the mansion lover. And I talked him into it,” she explains. “I really loved the outside porch area, how beautiful it is, and the acreage and locations. I knew we could bring it back to life.”

Their hard work has paid off, and the meticulous attention to detail was obvious on a recent unescorted walk-through, despite much work remaining and furniture still arriving.

When the restoration project is complete, and the B&B is open for business, features in the main mansion and smaller ranch home will include:

-- 15 oversized bedrooms and suites

-- 19 bathrooms, one for each bedroom plus four half-baths

-- 23 chandeliers

-- Four outdoor porch areas

-- Large meeting rooms

-- A huge dining area with catered meals

-- Guided tours

-- A 200-year-old rose garden in the back and 130 trees around the perimeter.

“And we plan to plant a bunch more,” Lewis James points out. “My landscaper wants to make that (rose garden) really special. His statement to me was, ‘I want Cheekwood to say ‘we’re the Belair of Belle Meade instead of us saying we’re the Cheekwood of Donelson.’”

Another selling point they stress is its location, just four miles from Nashville International Airport, 5.5 miles from downtown and four miles to Opry Mills and Opryland Hotel.

“Some mansions are for sale in the middle of nowhere. I like the fact that it’s so close to downtown,” she continues.

“The location is great,” he adds. “You can’t find a 200-year-old house with 15 bedrooms and baths in a downtown area anywhere. They’re all farther out.

“There aren’t any that are closer to the action. So we feel like that’s our advantage – the location. The house is stunning, a place where a group could come and be totally private.”

Two things the mansion will not have are a commercial kitchen to prepare meals and the ability to host outdoor events like weddings. Lewis James says the latter might happen sometime down the road, but right now they are focusing on operating as a bed and breakfast – with emphasis on bed.

“Some of the bedrooms are huge. One’s like 22 by 24. We’ve got four bedrooms that are 400 square feet or larger on the top floor,” Lewis James says. “The ranch house, one bedroom’s 28 feet long. We took it throughout the kitchen and throughout the den and have five bedrooms and five baths over there, and those bedrooms are going to be very luxurious, very nice.”

At some point, Lewis James points out, spelling of the mansion’s name will also be changed from Belair to the original Belle Air of the 1830s. The first part of the mansion was built in 1790, but the main building and wings were constructed from 1832-38.

Construction began in 1790 for surveyor James Mulherin, who was with James Robertson at Fort Nashborough. After being sold to John Harding, who founded Belle Meade, the property was a wedding gift to daughter Elizabeth, who married Joseph Clay. After they died, the family sold it to Nashville Mayor William Nichol. That period from 1832-38 is when most of the renovations and additions occurred, led by architect William Strickland, who designed and in interred in the Tennessee State Capitol.

“I’ve got a lot of research, and Belle Air was the original spelling,” Lewis James notes. “When Nichol owned it, it was called Nichol Hurst. When the Hardings built it, it was called Belle Air. I’ve got a lot of research and documentation on it.”

The mansion changed hands many more times over the next 160 years, and was bought by the Harold Chitwood family in 1948 and was eventually owned by his grandson Gregory Smith, who like Connie James was a Nashville optometrist. Smith died in 2009, and the James bought Belair two years ago from his widow Peggy and her new husband.

Belair’s decline began decades ago, having been put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 following the Briley Parkway construction of the 1960s. In 2014, the mansion made the ‘Nashville Nine’ list of the nine most threatened historic properties in Nashville, chosen annually by Historic Nashville, Inc.

“It was listed on the 2014 Nashville Nine, and that upset me,” Connie James continues. “I said, ‘this place has got to be saved.’ It has been a work of labor and love.”

Donelson resident Elizabeth Gwinn says she’s looking forward to another property opening like Two Rivers Mansion or The Hermitage.

“It’s like we are surrounded by history,” she adds.

And in an era where Airbnb, vacation homes, condos and such rule the property rental scene, this grand old dame of Donelson is ready to show she’s still got life in her.

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