Belmead-on-the-James Is Not Doomed!

Posted on: January 18th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Erica Stewart

In 2012, the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation celebrates its 25th anniversary. Since 1988, the Trust has used this list as a powerful alarm to raise awareness of the serious threats facing the nation's greatest treasures. With 2012 now underway, we are beginning a series of blog posts to cast a look back at previously listed places and provide an update on their present and future prospects.

(Image: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Our first story focuses on Belmead-on-the-James, a grand Gothic Revival manor house in Powhatan, Virginia, built in 1854 by enslaved people for plantation owners. The mansion was purchased in 1893 by Katharine Drexel and her sister, who hailed from one of America’s wealthiest families. Under their ownership, this former place of enslavement was transformed into a center for the education of young African American and Native American students. Over the course of seven decades, Belmead-on-the-James touched the lives of thousands of students, and produced an impressive list of distinguished alumni whose ranks include members of the elite Tuskegee Airmen and Civil Rights leaders.

After financial setbacks, the schools were shut down in the 1970s. Most of the school buildings were demolished shortly thereafter, and the few historic structures that remain standing today are underutilized and deteriorating. On a campus that once contained more than 40 buildings, only three major historic structures survive: Belmead Mansion, an 1841 stone granary, and the 1895 St. Francis de Sales High School. In March, 2010, St. Francis’ four-story bell tower collapsed, shearing off part of the brick façade and leaving the interior open to the elements. The nearby manor house requires emergency roof work to halt ongoing structural damage, and both monumental buildings are threatened with serious deterioration.  These conditions prompted the listing of the Belmead Mansion to the 2011 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.

A recent online news report from Forbes Magazine gave the misleading impression that Belmead Mansion in Powhatan County is “doomed.” A later iteration of the same article went so far as to say that the mansion is slated for demolition. [Editor's note: the Forbes Magazine has since removed any mention of Belmead from the article.]

In fact, Belmead is going strong. Thanks to the renewed attention it received after the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Belmead one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in June of 2011, Belmead’s future is brighter than at any time in recent memory. Under the leadership of FrancisEmma, Inc., an independent nonprofit whose mission is the restoration of the Belmead Mansion, developments at Belmead since being named to the National Trust’s list include:

  • Completion of a business plan and fundraising plan to rehabilitate the mansion as a site for environmental education and events.
  • Over 2,000 visitors since June, larger than the entire visitation in 2010.
  • A 43% increase in donations compared to the same period last year.
  • Launch of a major gifts campaign and an aggressive push to attract foundation and corporate support.

The increased pace of fundraising will allow FrancisEmma, Inc. to complete emergency stabilization on the roof before the onset of severe winter weather.

In short, things are looking very bright at this vital historic site, and to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Belmead’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Public Affairs department.

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