Visitors who venture up the sidewalk from Falmouth to Belmont find themselves entering our property at the corner of Ingleside Drive and Washington Street, next to the wildlife habitat field in front of the main house. Standing at this vantage point one can understand why someone long ago named the property Belmont. Deriving from the French “belle” – fair, lovely, with “mont” – a hill or mountain, the name indicates a place that is beautifully situated on a hill. The house is certainly a beautiful sight to see, perched on the little “mont” above Falmouth. The first known reference to the estate as “Belmont” was in 1823 when the property was listed in a Virginia Herald advertisement reading in part:
“The healthiness of this beautiful spot, commanding an extensive view of Falmouth, Fredericksburg and the surrounding country; its contiguity to the best society and good schools, makes it a most desirable residence.”
The description is just as valid today as when it was written almost two hundred years ago; we still enjoy a commanding view from our little hill and the property is a beautiful spot to take a healthful walk in our gardens and along our trails.
At the time of the Virginia Herald advertisement, however, the land in front of Belmont along Ingleside Drive was not part of the estate. The house and lot covered just one acre, as the original lot was a narrow strip of land on either side of the house that ran from Washington Street to about mid-way down the current lawn. Joseph B. Ficklen purchased Belmont around 1825 and in 1828 he started expanding his estate by purchasing the land where our visitor center, stable, and smoke house are located today. In 1831 he purchased the lot in front of Belmont, which at that time contained a building identified in an 1874 document as a “Store and Warehouse.”
“…that said Store and Warehouse were for very many years used by the testator (Joseph B. Ficklen) as his place of business, in which he carried on a very large Mercantile business, sometimes on his own account, and again with one or another of his Nephews as a partner…”
The construction date of the “Store and Warehouse” is not known, but photographs dating to the 1960’s reveal the classic form of early stores: long walls with windows only at the back to give light to a heated office space accommodated shelves, and a deep cellar below was used for storage. When built, the road bed was much higher, and the store-front faced what is known today as Washington Street.
The building was already on the property when Ficklen purchased the land in 1831, and he used it as a base to run a “Mercantile” (a general store or some other kind of commercial trade) business with his nephew. He dissolved his partnership with his nephew in 1851, a few years after his 1847 marriage to Anna Eliza Fitzhugh.
That union spurred him to expand his house by adding two rooms downstairs and upstairs on the southern side of his house, and making extensive changes to the garden, also described in the same document quoted above:“…said Warehouse was turned into a carriage house, in which the Testator kept his carriage – and said Store house was used as a general lumber room and store-room for supplies for the use of the Bellmont family …, that said lot is situated immediately in front of the Bellmont house & …– that it is now and has been for many year under the same enclosure with said house and grounds…– that a very large part, if not the whole, of said lot was used by the Testator for family purposes, being cultivated as a garden and planted with fruit trees, …it was also connected with the house.”
The changes to the garden were partly dictated by the expansion of the house. The addition created a center hall plan with porches on either end. On the side towards Falmouth, the porch sits at the top of a terrace with a horse shoe shaped stair that goes down a short “fall”, or slope, to the “Long Walk,” the boxwood lined path that runs along the top of the hill. To create the slope, Ficklen moved the kitchen and smoke house from their original location just south of the house, as seen in this Mutual Assurance drawing dated 1807, to their location today on the west side of the house.
On one end the Long Walk terminates at top of the stairs that lead to Falmouth. They are likely the “connection with the house” mentioned above, and we estimate that the stairs date to circa 1850, the period when the house and gardens were expanded and improved. The stairs are bordered with lilacs and old cedars that could both date to the period before the Civil War. The common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is a long-lived plant that is bothered by the lilac borer in our region. The borer will kill off the larger stems which cause suckering thus creating a cycle of new shoots that mature and bloom, and then face death by the borer. Union General John Gibbon became friends of the Ficklen family during the spring of 1862. He stayed at the house as did his wife and son when they came for a visit and stayed with the Ficklen family. Their time at Belmont was a much cherished memory for Gibbon. He wrote to his wife in July of the same year saying: “I[I] miss you so much when I could no longer walk up the lilac walk at Mr. Ficklen’s with the expectation of meeting you or seeing John’s bright eyes peering out thro’ the bushes, the lookout for his dad.”
Gari and Corinne Melchers renovated and added onto the Store and Warehouse building on the corner of Ingleside Drive and Washington Street, turning it into a studio. They added a stone clad porch on the side towards Belmont as seen in this photograph taken just after completion of the work. At the foot of the stairs they added the gate, walls, and fence.
The cast iron fence and gate were from Smithsonia in downtown Fredericksburg.
The stairs are quite steep, and the Melchers built a rustic cedar hand-rail captured in a photograph taken by famous photographer Frances BenjaminJohnston in the 1920s.
Our grounds crew, Dave Ludeker and Daniel Carter, installed a replica of the handrail this winter. We are pleased that Belmont guests can once again walk these old stairs, enjoying safe passage to our wildlife meadow in front of the house or a stroll to and from the historic village of Falmouth. Come walk the historic steps, smell the lilacs, enjoy our gardens and grounds and tour our historic house and studio.