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Our Rich History: Belle Vue, the beautiful hilltop mansion of James Taylor V, still inspires today

By Russ Thomas
Special to NKyTribune

Part 6 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

I wonder how many people headed south across the I-471 bridge look to the right and notice a huge house sitting behind the Riverfront Place, looking for all the world like a normal person trying to hide in a patch of garden gnomes? How many of those folks will know that this house probably contains the oldest construction still existing in Newport, Kentucky?

In 1795, James Taylor V (see Our Rich History articles: The Taylor Family and First Public School)
chose 1,000 acres of his estate, between Washington Avenue and the present city of Dayton, Kentucky, as his personal home site. It was the highest point on that land, commanding a “beautiful view” or “Belle Vue” in French, as he named it. Today, we know it as the James Taylor Mansion.

“Belle Vue,” the estate of James Taylor in Newport, Kentucky, as it appeared when the east and west wings were still intact in the nineteenth century. (Courtesy of Gerner and Kearns.)

Taylor’s original cabin was added onto over the years until circa 1820, when the old home was removed, and a new home arose in its place. The oldest construction includes some of the cellar walls, which probably date to the original cabin, and show signs of having been worked in the Federal era.

We cannot exactly date the construction of the mansion; all we can do is piece together the clues and come up with a highly educated guess. The first reference we have is an 1817 letter from James Taylor to his cousin James Madison (yes; THAT James Madison) asking for plans of a home in Virginia that Taylor had admired. A second reference is in Taylor’s ledgers from 1819, where he has ordered a lot of dressed stone to be delivered to the dock in Cincinnati. Two more letters exist, one in 1818 from Benjamin Latrobe to Taylor discussing his house plans, and another in 1820 from his nephew in Missouri, alerting Taylor that the lead he had ordered was on the dock, awaiting the next steamer north. Ironically, lead at that time was commonly used in gutters, giving rise to the poisonous water of rain-filled cisterns.

Based on these events, a date of 1820 has been created for the construction of the current Belle Vue. While no blueprints exist, the home has been attributed to Benjamin Latrobe, and is referenced in Patrick Snadon’s book, The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Latrobe. Originally constructed in the Federal style, the exterior of the main block of the home has very little ornamentation.

The interiors are Greek Revival, the original interiors having been lost in an 1842 fire. This fire, while devastating to the decorations, probably strengthened the brick walls. These walls are 18 to 24 inches thick of solid brick, and are both exterior and interior walls on both the first and second floors; the basement walls are 30 inches of stone. It is the correlation of the Federal Style exterior and brick interior walls that allow us to believe the room layout and sizing are from Latrobe’s design.

The interior woodwork of the Taylor Mansion is Greek Revival, including egg-and-dart molding and Corinthian corner pilasters. (Photo by Paul A. Tenkotte)

For all its size—approximately 12,000 square feet over four floors—the main block contains only four rooms and a Central Hall on each of its three lowest floors. The basement held a storage or root cellar on the west side of the hall, a wine cellar at the south end, General Taylor’s office in the northeast corner and a fourth room at the southeast. The main floor holds the Double Parlor on the west, the Drawing Room on the northeast and the Dining Room on the southeast. The second, or Chamber floor, has four bedchambers, one in each corner, and the attic has five rooms, arranged around a shortened central hall; this hall is lit by one of three skylights original to the home.

As designed and built, Belle Vue faced the Ohio River, with two wings, one to the west and one to the east. Both Federal and Greek Revival styles are highly mathematical. The main block of the Taylor Mansion is 60 feet in width, and the original, north-facing façade has a 20-foot central projection topped by a pediment gable. This breaks the façade into thirds. Each wing was also 60 feet in length, breaking the total width into thirds.

Belle Vue was built as the center of a thousand-acre estate and functioned that way until the mid-1880s. Upon General Taylor’s death in 1848, the home became his son’s; Colonel James Taylor, who died in 1883. Colonel Taylor’s estate was in the hands of a trustee, and the trustee created the city of Bellevue on the east portion, between Dayton and Taylor Creek, which now flows under I-471, and started selling off building lots in the balance, still the city of Newport. In this period between 1883 and 1887, the home was used as a boarding house and was slated for demolition so Overton Street could run all the way down to Second Street.

“Ready and Faithful,” the Taylor motto, appears in the stained-glass window above the main entrance. (Photo by Paul A. Tenkotte)

General Taylor’s grandson, Jon Taylor and his wife Betty Washington Taylor, stepped in and saved the building. It meant removing the wings to create more building lots adjacent to the mansion and aesthetically turning the building to face south instead of north. This involved building a new service wing on the old main façade to the north, and enhancing the existing two-story porch on the south face to make it the new main façade. Belle Vue had made a transformation from the seat of a country estate into a town home.

Colonel Jon and Betty lived at Belle Vue from 1887 until their deaths; Jon in 1915 and Betty in 1917. The home again sat vacant until 1919, when it was sold by her estate to the Vonderhaar Stetter Funeral Home. Originally purchased in 1887 for $17,000, it sold in 1919 for $5,000. Too large and antiquated to remain a private residence, Belle Vue made another transition to become a viable commercial property.

The hilltop location of the mansion is exhibited by this spectacular view from the top, looking towards, left to right, the Campbell County Courthouse (Newport) the stone spire of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (Newport), the twin towers of Mother of God Church (Covington), and Newport-on-the-Levee. (Photo by Paul A. Tenkotte)

Vonderhaar Stetter immediately made several capital improvements, updating to electric lights from gas and installing a hot water heating system to replace the convection air heating system, both installed by Colonel James in 1870. The mansion and business were sold to the Pepper family in 1962, and they lovingly maintained Belle Vue until it was sold again in 1992 to another Funeral Home operator. The home sold in 1996 to become a law firm.

In 2003 Bellevue sold once again and became the home of another law firm, Gerner and Kearns. Completely and lovingly restored by Dave and Maureen Gerner over the next six months, all systems were updated for the electronic age.

Rapidly approaching its 200th birthday, Belle Vue has enjoyed a long and varied history. A private home for the first half of its life and a commercial building for the second half, Belle Vue seems to be the embodiment of General James Taylor’s personal motto, inscribed in stained glass over the curved entrance door—“Ready and Faithful.”

Russ Thomas, a former employee of Gerner and Kearns, is the unofficial historian of “Belle Vue,” having researched its history and given many tours.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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