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Land to Lodge: Building the Bellingrath Home

By Tom McGehee, Museum Director of the Bellingrath Home

The elegant Bellingrath Home was created from very humble beginnings: A former fishing camp on Fowl River, built in the early 1890s.

The 10,500-square-foot Home was completed in 1936. As we begin our year-long celebration of the Home’s 80th anniversary, here’s a look back at how a rustic pair of cabins was eventually converted into a comfy retreat for the Bellingraths and their relatives.

After Walter Bellingrath purchased the property in 1917, he and his father-in-law worked to make the dilapidated buildings livable again. The north cabin, which held the kitchen and dining porch, was enlarged to include two bedrooms. This building survived until 1935, when its site was used for the Bellingrath Home.

The interior of the kitchen cabin, with its Jewel wood stove.
The interior of the kitchen cabin, with its Jewel wood stove.

To the south of the kitchen cabin was the “Lodge.” This building held a living room and bedrooms, and was rebuilt and enlarged about 1922. This was the heart of “Belle Camp,” which the Bellingraths had named their Fowl River retreat.

Inside the Lodge was a large living room with a beamed ceiling and a brick fireplace. Above the mantel was an inset of tile produced by the National Mosaic Tile Company of Mobile, purchased by Mr. Bellingrath about the time the Lodge was constructed.

The original cabins at Belle Camp as they appeared in the 1920s. The cabin on the left, known as “the Lodge,” had a living area and bedrooms. The cabin on the right held the kitchen and dining porch.

The room was furnished with heavy wicker rockers and armchairs, bookcases and a billiard table. Mrs. Bellingrath’s porcelain collection was well-represented in this room, with several pairs of French vases dressing up this otherwise rustic “camp house.”

There was a hall and screened gallery overlooking the river. The gallery contained rockers, a glider and a pair of settees. The hall had antique card tables and side chairs.

The Living Room of the Lodge at Bellingrath Gardens in the 1930s. When the Bellingrath Home was completed, this became a guest house.

The Lodge had three bedrooms. The largest bedroom was dubbed “the dormitory,” according to Ernest Edgar Jr., Mrs. Bellingrath’s nephew. According to the 1947 inventory, this room contained three large antique four-poster beds. It was perfect for young nieces and nephews when they visited, Mr. Edgar remembered.

Mr. Bellingrath’s nieces from Montgomery used the Lodge when they visited their uncle in the late 1940s and early 1950s. After Mr. Bellingrath’s death in 1955, part of the building was converted into a gift shop, with a few of the antiques being placed within the Bellingrath Home.

When the new Entrance Building, which included an expanded gift shop, was constructed in the early 1960s, the contents of the Lodge were auctioned off before it was demolished to make way for the South Terrace. This space is now in use for special events throughout the year, taking full advantage of the river views that the Bellingraths long enjoyed.

In 1934, when Walter and Bessie Bellingrath decided to open their Gardens to the public year-round, they also realized that they would be spending far more time on Fowl River and that the old Lodge was inadequate for their needs. Working with architect George B. Rogers, they began putting plans in place to build a new Home, on the highest part of the river bluff, just north of the Lodge.

The building contract was signed on June 18, 1935, and construction began that summer.

A view from Fowl River of the Bellingrath Home in its early days.

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  1. Thank you – we are glad you enjoyed the story! There is definitely more to come, so stay tuned 🙂

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