Don’t Look Back. Look Up.

Grace Washam Abernethy M ’11 has mastered a unique craft, one that puts her at  the heart of 18th- and 19th-century restoration work — including the ongoing restoration of a prominent  pre-Civil War mansion.

By Sara Ann Hutto ’17
Photography by Josh Wilson

Leave the past behind. There’s no use dwelling on ancient history. It’s time to let go.

We’ve heard it all before, and for most of us, it’s good advice: Don’t call your ex. Don’t worry about that extra slice of cake. Forget about that time you dropped your phone in the toilet.

But for Grace Abernethy, the advice won’t take. As a historic preservationist, she spends her days stuck in the past. It’s OK. She likes it there.

Armed with degrees in history and historic preservation and a rare talent for decorative painting, Abernethy has played a part in the restoration of historic properties all over the Southeast, most recently at the Belmont Mansion in Nashville, Tennessee.

Belmont Mansion is the largest house built in Tennessee pre-Civil War, and it once belonged to the wealthy Acklen family. Today, it sits on the campus of Belmont University and is operated by a separate nonprofit, the Belmont Mansion Association. The association has committed to a massive undertaking: restoring the mansion one room at a time. And Abernethy is instrumental to its success. She’s spent the past few years meticulously restoring surfaces of the house using an antiquated technique: faux graining — her specialty.

Last year, she pulled off her most impressive project to date: restoring the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the mansion’s Grand Salon.

The final construction phase of Belmont Mansion was completed in 1860.

This Is It

“I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next,” Abernethy says, remembering her time as an undergraduate student at Erskine College.

It was the mid-2000s, and she was majoring in history and minoring in art at the liberal arts college in Due West, South Carolina — just an hour away from her hometown of Clinton. Graduation was approaching, and Abernethy was considering pursuing a Ph.D. or teaching. But a meeting with her adviser changed her mind.

“My adviser sent me over to meet a woman who lived in a little historic house next door to a retirement home near our school,” Abernethy says. “Her name was Dawn Maddox. I don’t know exactly how early she began listing places on the National Register, but she was doing it by 1971. And she got tons of buildings added to the register.”

When Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, preservation finally became formalized and protected by federal, state, tribal and local governments. From the policy sprang the National Register of Historic Places, the designation of National Historic Landmarks, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and state historic preservation offices.

“It basically said, ‘Preservation is so important that the U.S. government and all state governments should have a hand in it.’” Abernethy explains.

Maddox, an early contributor to the National Register, told Abernethy stories of exploring old houses and buildings, researching and documenting their histories. After their conversation, Abernethy’s mind was made up: “I just thought, ‘Yes. This is it.’”

After graduating from Erskine in 2009, she began looking for historic preservation programs around the country and was seriously considering three: one in Vermont, one in Maryland and one in South Carolina — specifically Clemson’s Master of Science in historic preservation in Charleston.

Thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of the program and its proximity to home, Abernethy enrolled at Clemson.

“It was a conservation-oriented program,” she says. “It was more hands-on and documentation heavy. We used a lot of scientific tools and techniques to figure out things about buildings.”

For her thesis, Abernethy performed a historic structures report on the Burt-Stark Mansion in Abbeville, South Carolina, which entailed documenting its history, measuring and drawing the house in AutoCAD, and also conducting paint analyses. A paint analysis is achieved by chipping a minuscule sample off an architectural element and setting it in resin.

“You take a cross-section [of the resin] and then look at that under a microscope to figure out the original paint colors or what generation of paint you’re looking at based on the stratigraphy,” Abernethy says.

When Abernethy graduated from Clemson, “it was not a very good job market.” Cue moving back in with parents and scoring an unpaid internship. But that internship would prove to be the beginning of her career and something more — the beginning of her craft.

Faux graining and other decorative painting can be found on surfaces throughout Belmont Mansion.

Just Practice

Growing up, Abernethy loved to draw. She says her earliest memories are of her mother handing her packets of paper and pencil. So, when she was asked to take a stab at faux graining in the parlor of the Rose Hill Plantation house in Union, South Carolina, she was stepping out of her comfort zone with paints and glazes.

Rose Hill offered the unpaid internship in question. During Abernethy’s time there, the small state historic site included a staff of only two people: a park manager and a park ranger. When they received funding to restore the parlor of the plantation house, the park ranger, who knew how to faux grain, was going to tackle the project.

“He up and left one day and never came back,” Abernethy remembers. “The manager was like, ‘We have all this money. You have a background in art. I can pay you to do this.’”

Skeptical, Abernethy asked him if he was sure about handing over the reins to a recent graduate with zero restoration experience. His reply: “Just practice, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Research came first. Abernethy bought a modern book on faux graining, and she scoured the internet for historical manuals and painters guides that could tell her about base coats, wood pigments, materials and more:

“I read everything I could and went from there.”

Faux graining was a popular technique used in the 18th and 19th centuries and can be found in many of the nation’s historic properties. Think Monticello and Mount Vernon. Trim, mantles, furniture, doors and even shutters were first painted an opaque base color and then glazed by skilled craftsmen. Next came the graining layer, which was manipulated with tools to produce the wood-like effect. Finally, the pieces were overglazed and varnished.

Abernethy honed her graining skills at Rose Hill and, with some overlap, spent a year teaching at her alma mater, Erskine, as an adjunct professor. When it was time to look for more work, she and her husband, Brendan — a software programmer whom she married after grad school — moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where she got started at the Battle of Franklin Trust, a nonprofit that manages three Civil War-era homes, including the plantation homes Carnton and Rippavilla.

“The biggest project I worked on [at the Battle of Franklin Trust] was re-roofing a 200-year-old smokehouse,” Abernethy says. “I made about 3,500 wood shingles by hand.”

Roofing the smokehouse drove Abernethy to a realization: If she wanted to specialize her projects and develop her passions (like faux graining and other decorative painting), she would have to work for herself and freelance.

“Like any reasonable person, I had hit my limit on splitting shingles.”

woman sitting on stairs

Belle Monte

It’s hard to believe, but the sprawling Belmont Mansion began as a summer home.

At the age of 29, Adelicia Franklin found herself the widow of one of the South’s wealthiest slave traders, Isaac Franklin. Their union produced four children, all of whom died in childhood, and when Isaac died in 1846, Adelicia acquired — either by inheritance or litigation — almost all his estate, including 8,700 acres of cotton plantations in Louisiana, a 2,000-acre farm in Tennessee, more than 50,000 acres of land in Texas, stocks and bonds, and 750 enslaved people.

Adelicia remarried to Joseph Alexander Smith Acklen, a lawyer from Alabama.

“They actually had something like a prenup that said she kept all of her property; his name didn’t go on it,” Abernethy says. “That is pretty unusual for that time period. [Often,] if you were a woman and you married, all of your property went into his name. You no longer had any claim to it, even if he died — unless he left it to you.”

In 1853, the Acklens finished the first phase of the mansion, originally named Belle Monte, meaning “Beautiful Mountain,” as a summer getaway from the sticky heat of Louisiana. Outfitted with all the state-of-the-art trappings like indoor plumbing, the mansion also boasted a flying staircase, a bowling alley, a greenhouse, a conservatory, gazebos, extensive gardens (irrigated by a water tower that still stands) and even a zoo.

In its prime, the mansion was more than 19,000 square feet, much of which was maintained by enslaved people who lived on the grounds. Several generations of enslaved families lived at Belmont Mansion, including Betsy and her children; the Baker and Snowden families; Brutus and Fanny; and Maria and her children. Records of individuals have been found in Belmont estate inventories as well, such as Frances, the children’s nurse, and others: George, London, Ben, Fred, Rena, Manuela and more.

Slavery at Belmont began in 1850, at the beginning of construction, and lasted until 1862, during the Union occupation. Though the mansion lacks building records, it’s likely enslaved skilled laborers played a part in the construction of the mansion, including its original decorative painting, as this was customary in the antebellum South.

“For the restoration of this house, our cutoff date is 1867,” says Jerry Trescott, curator of Belmont Mansion. “It’s a very fine piece of American architecture, and we have been able to identify work in this house by some of the enslaved population.”

Abernethy says one of the floor blocks of the Grand Salon does exhibit a handprint in paint that Trescott believes belonged to an enslaved painter. “Similar marks are known to have been made in bricks by enslaved brickmakers,” she explains.

Unfortunately, little else is known about Belmont’s enslaved people, especially because contemporary censuses omitted their names and listed them instead by age, gender and color. Through researching firsthand accounts and other documentation, the Belmont Mansion Association continues to piece together an incomplete, imperfect picture of their history.

“When you’re dealing with a house like this in the South, we always need to think about where the money came from,” Trescott says. “You know as well as I do that the money came from the bondage and the labor of the 750 enslaved people the Acklens had on their plantations in Louisiana.”

On September 11, 1863, during the height of the Civil War, Adelicia Acklen’s husband, Joseph, died while managing the family’s Louisiana holdings, attempting to keep their assets out of the hands of the Union and Confederate armies, including 2,800 bales of cotton. According to the Belmont Mansion Association, Adelicia ventured back into Louisiana with a female cousin to retrieve the cotton — a dangerous trip for a widow without an escort. Surprisingly, Acklen managed to convince both armies to assist her in moving the cotton to New Orleans. She signed a loyalty oath to the Union, which allowed her to pass through the federal blockade.

From there, Acklen illegally sold the cotton to a broker in Liverpool, England, for $758,000 in gold.

Today, that amount has an estimated value of $17,900,000.

The ceiling of the Grand Salon (pictured above) was completed by Abernethy in the spring of 2022.

Let’s Go For It

Abernethy’s interview for the job at Belmont Mansion was rather unconventional.

It was 2019, and she had moved on from the Battle of Franklin Trust to work for a startup in a Masonic Hall. But when one of her old colleagues from the trust, Beth Trescott, who worked in collections, commissioned her to faux grain a bed frame for her and her husband, Abernethy couldn’t say no.

Beth’s husband was none other than Jerry Trescott, the curator of Belmont Mansion and a fan of Pennsylvania painted furniture, specifically the work of John Rupp, a 19th-century cabinet maker out of Hanover.

Tasked with recreating Rupp’s style on the bed frame, Abernethy was invited to work at the Trescotts’ home.

“Of course, my wife was a bit chagrined,” Trescott laughs. “I spread out blankets in the middle of my library, set the frame up and said, ‘Grace, here it is. Let’s go for it.’”

When Trescott saw the finished project, he was more than impressed.

“I think she could have worked in John Rupp’s shop in the 1840s.”

The bed frame project led to other opportunities at Belmont Mansion; now, Abernethy works at the mansion three days a week, duplicating the finishes of faux grainers and decorative painters from close to 200 years ago.

She has restored Belmont Mansion’s Trunk Room, which once housed Adelicia Acklen’s many outfits and accessories. Most of the room’s original graining was erased by white paint; some remained, which Abernethy was able to match and recreate on the walls and extensive molding. Now, the Trunk Room looks completely made from quartersawn oak, honey-colored and patterned with the wood’s characteristic squiggles of grain.

“I do a specialized tour on the architecture and the collections, and people are always amazed by what they see in the finishes,” he says, “which Grace has contributed a great deal to, as well as the scholarship that’s involved in putting the house back together.”

Trescott says finding a specialist like Abernethy is rare.

“She is by far the best I have ever known as far as interpreting historic finishes and understanding the application of them,” he says. “I think all of this comes from Grace’s deep interest in history and architecture as well as her background in art. She is, first and foremost, a very talented artist.”

The Day the Scaffolding Came Down

“It’s just a really fancy space,” Abernethy says, referring to Belmont Mansion’s Grand Salon.

The room is huge at 2,000 square feet — an addition designed by Adolphus Heiman, a prominent architect of the time, and completed in 1860. Columns, marbleized checkerboard flooring, decorative painting, a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows and a 22-foot-tall barrel-vaulted ceiling make for a dizzying effect. But the salon wasn’t always so.

In 1885, Adelicia Acklen moved to Washington, D.C., and she sold Belmont Mansion in 1887. Soon after, it became Belmont Women’s College, started by Susan Heron and Ida Hood — today’s Belmont University. At some point during its school days, much of the Grand Salon was overpainted, including the ceiling.

Trescott knew restoring the ceiling would be no small feat. Naturally, he turned to Abernethy.

“She never says, ‘No, I can’t do it,’” he says.

The project began with the help of Matthew Mosca, one of the nation’s foremost paint conservators and historic paint analysts. Mosca identified a small corner of the ceiling with traces of its original cloud design, reminiscent of 19th-century scenic wallpapers. His findings determined the shape and style of the clouds as well as the massing and proportions.

Armed with Mosca’s specifications, Abernethy jumped into the drafting process, producing four designs before one was approved by Trescott and Mosca.

The next six weeks were spent like Michelangelo.

“I worked by myself the whole time, which is very different because, normally, there’re visitors hovering around me,” Abernethy says. “The scaffolding covered the whole area, so I was completely closed off from everybody below.”

The day the scaffolding came down, an atmospheric, powder-blue sky was revealed, framed by chunky clouds in buffs, tans and oranges — a far cry from the usual ochres and browns of faux graining. The corners of the ceiling are thick with clouds that thin toward the middle, and the large, ornate ceiling medallion is carefully painted in layers to match the sky colors.

“I will tell you that when it was done, Matthew walked into the room, and his mouth dropped open,” Trescott says. “He said it looks just like it would have the day the house was finished.”

Abernethy just takes it in stride.

“That was the first time I’d done a ceiling,” she laughs.

Things Are Looking Up

Grace Abernethy isn’t stuck in the past. Not really.

Her work at Belmont Mansion and other historic properties isn’t about resurrecting days gone by or wallowing in antiquity. Rather, it’s about finding something that’s lost and returning it in some way, though not exactly the way it was before. At the heart of it, her work is about education.

“When you lose a historic building, you’re also losing inestimable amounts of information encapsulated in its design, framing, wallpaper, paint and floorboards,” she says. “And sometimes, the built environment is the only historical record available, particularly when it comes to the history of marginalized, illiterate or blue-collar groups.”

On their site, the Belmont Mansion Association writes, “Belmont Mansion’s story begins in 1853 and continues to today.” As the restoration work proceeds, the story of Belmont continues to unfold. And Abernethy is glad to be part of it.

“Historic buildings and spaces remind modern people that our lives are a snapshot in time,” she says, “and that we are part of something bigger.”

Restoration and preservation give us a glimpse of that bigger picture, prompting us to reflect: What does the past have to say? How can we learn? How can we grow? How do we want to be remembered?

A walk through the halls of Belmont Mansion may offer us that chance to learn from yesterday — and, in turn, move forward into a new day. Perhaps a day with a powder-blue sky and clouds lit by sunrise. A day that invites us to look up.  

Next up for Abernethy is the Billiard Room, which a visitor of the mansion in 1880 described as a space “devoted to billiards, books, smoking and other amusements,” according to the Belmont Mansion Association.

Sara Ann Hutto Grant ’17 is the associate editor of Clemson World magazine.

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