11 Most Endangered Historic Places

Belmead-on-the-James

Year Listed: 2011
Location: Powhatan County, Virginia
Threat: Deterioration

Significance

Designed in 1845 by renowned American architect Alexander Jackson Davis, this Gothic Revival manor house is an architectural masterpiece and the heart of a 2,000-acre rural landscape. Built by enslaved people for plantation owners, Belmead-on-the-James took on new life when purchased in the 1890s by Katharine Drexel and her sister, who hailed from one of America’s wealthiest families. Katharine would later become one of only two American-born saints in the Roman Catholic Church.

Once a place of enslavement, Belmead became a self-sufficient center for the education of young African American and Native American students when the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, established by Katharine Drexel, transformed the former plantation into two private schools. The boys’ school, St. Emma Agricultural and Industrial Institute, was headquartered in the former mansion, while an 1895 Gothic-towered building became the home of St. Francis de Sales High School for girls. Over the course of seven decades, Belmead-on-the-James has touched many thousands of lives, including 15,000 of America’s most disenfranchised students. Both schools have 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. Without significant and immediate rehabilitation, their days are numbered.