Belmont University looks like many other urban college campuses, with green lawns full of students and institutional architecture. Less typical is what greets you at the top of a small rise in the center of campus: A peach, two-story Antebellum mansion complete with six Corinthian columns. Flanked by eight smaller, Doric columns, Belmont Mansion’s green shutters and period architectural details bring the eye down to fountains decorating the home’s front lawn, which blends into the campus green space.
It’s not something you’d find every day on a college campus, but Belmont Mansion predates the school that shares its name (it was built in 1853). A few things may come to mind when you think of the Belmont Mansion: Immaculate. Opulent. Historical. Home of Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham, the mansion is the largest house museum in Tennessee and one of the few 19th century homes that has a history that revolves around a woman’s life.
But what about the team that makes it all possible? For that we look to the man whose vision has guided the ship for 29 years.
Meet Mark Brown, Executive Director
With an innate passion for decorative arts, Mark Brown has a love of antiques and plenty of fine arts savvy. At the mansion’s helm, he says he really is living his dream.
“We’re very lucky,” he says of the mansion and its collection. “This house has it all — both the fine social and cultural history.”
Always interested in the way people lived, Brown studied art history in college at Belmont University, graduating with a minor in business administration and moving on to work in museum administration before finding his way back to Nashville and the building that literally loomed over his undergrad pursuits.
From Belmont to Belmont
When Brown graduated, the Belmont Mansion Association was just a year old. Even then, he says he hoped to be back one day, and was thrilled when that happened more than two decades ago. And even though many years have passed, the challenges of running the Belmont Mansion keep every day fresh.
The best part of his job? Hard to say, or at least admit to.
“I enjoy doing lots of different things,” Brown says, beaming with excitement. “I would be dissatisfied doing the same thing over and over again. The free research part is the most fun, but you never get finished … or you could say I’m easily distracted.”
And much like the work itself, picking a favorite piece of the collection at the mansion is quite like asking him if he has a favorite child, but he’ll admit to a special affinity for the intricate architecture of the 19th century.
“The incredible artistic ability, the craftsmanship,” he explains. “In the front hallway, for example, they take a piece of wood and create a grape, vine and grape leaf. Now you have this piece of furniture to hold different things. The imagination used, along with craftsmanship, is fascinating.”
Full to-do list awaits
Currently, Brown is managing five major projects: year-end evaluation, budget, long-term plan, finishing the library renovation and the launch of the parlor renovation. With all those things on his plate, one would think that he would need a hiding place, but he undertakes it all in stride. Plus, there’s really no hiding place in the mansion. Imagine that: 20,000 square feet and no secret nook or cranny. “Maybe the collections storage?” Brown says, knowing that even there he’d likely be found out pretty quickly.
Browns most proud accomplishment to date is getting a Queen Victoria portrait.
“It was in another museum in another state, and we couldn’t afford it, but everything fell into place,” he recalls. “It took three years from the first phone call in 1993 until it arrived, and it was our largest single acquisition. The Queen Victoria portrait has been the cornerstone in the Acklen collection and a larger-than-life painting.”
Ambiance sets the scene
The collection, coupled with the building itself, give the visitor a sense of not just seeing, but being wrapped up in, history. That’s why Brown says museums such as this one work so well with classroom lectures, informational websites and books.
“A museum uses objects and settings to tell a story,” he says. “That’s the difference between a school and a museum.” But even as he promotes the immersive experience, his office is stacked with the historical volumes necessary to making the mansion come alive. The “American Glass Book,” “Pottery and Porcelain,” “Porcelain of Paris,” and the “Elegant Plate” are a but a few that peek out from his bookshelves. In fact, Brown has so many books that he’s out of shelf space and he’s looking for more because “in this profession that’s where the knowledge lives.”
It’s that kind of dedication that has made Brown as much a part of the mansion as its central staircase or family portraits. Like the mansion, he has withstood the test of time in what can be a complicated job, and he’s learned more than a few lessons over the last 29 years.
“You take your successes where you can get them,” he says. “Choose your battles carefully because showing up is 80% of the job. You have to have a vision and keep pushing towards that vision no matter how impossible it seems.”