History Repeats Itself at Belle Helene Bess

December 1, 2012 | By More

The grand 110-year old Greek Revival mansion at 214 East Fifth St. in Russellville has been known by several names including “Wilsonia,” the “Wilson-Thurlby” house and most recently “Belle Helene Bess.”

Originally named “Wilsonia” by first owner, Judge Robert Barrett Wilson, the home was considered “one of the finest if not the finest hope in Pope County” according to a short biography of Wilson written by Josiah Shinn in 1908 entitled Pioneers and Makers of Arkansas.

Wilson built the stately 12-room, 5,500 sq. ft. brick home with massive Ionic wood columns to frame the impressive entrance light by gas lights, sweeping two-story, wrap-around verandas, a distinctive widow walk on the top floor, fashionably tall double-hung windows, and inside, 14-ft ceilings and almost unheard of wall-to-wall carpeting. According to several sources, it took almost two years to build the grand structure and mules were used to bring in the massive rock slabs for the front walkway. The estate also has two outbuildings including a one-room coach home known as Maude’s cottage, named after the Wilson’s family cook and caretaker.

When built, the property was ironically considered too far from downtown and too close to a nearby cemetery, but today the home is part of a quiet residential neighborhood in the heart of Russellville. The estate has been listed on the National Historic Register since 1978.

After Judge Wilson died in 1928 and his wife Mary Ann Howell Wilson later passed on, the elegant structure was purchased by Lear and Virginia Kemp but they never gave it a name. Then it was purchased by Dr. Robert Thurlby and his family, so the home became known as the Wilson-Thurlby house. Then last year Todd Sweeden of Sweeden’s Florist purchased and renamed the home and recently opened it for small private catered events.

Sweeden renamed the grand mansion in honor of his late mother, Helen Bess Daniels Sweeden, who passed away last year. The Sweeden family is one of the original cotton plantation families in the River Valley and Sweeden’s Island on the Arkansas River was named for them.

“Bess was my mother’s middle name and Belle Helene is the name of an antebellum plantation home that resembles this home so the name was just right, said Sweeden.

In fact everything about his new home seemed meant to be, said Sweeden. “I am amazed at how well my furniture combined with my parent’s pieces fit in this house. It’s seems that our family had been collecting furnishings for this house all our lives.”

Another eerie coincidence was that the property came on the market just when Sweeden needed a larger home to incorporate the furniture and collections inherited from his family home.

“Dr. Thurlby called me at Christmas last year and within a few weeks it all came about,” said Sweeden. Since then, Sweeden has been busy making the home a welcoming space for entertaining, as it must have been when Wilson, who had five children, originally built it.

Under Sweeden’s artistic touch, the home has been decorated with an eclectic mix of vintage furniture, fine reproductions and an impressive art collection. The wall-to-wall carpeting was removed to uncover beautiful hardwood floors that compliment Sweeden’s collection of Persian rugs. Sweeden also added several gorgeous crystal chandeliers to the downstairs rooms to complete the ambiance of period appropriate opulence and good taste.

For the holidays, the downstairs is lavishly decorated and features three uniquely beautiful Christmas trees. A 12-foot high Christmas tree in the center foyer has a red-green theme embellished with mercury glass ornaments and is offset by hall’s original pillars which match the outside columns. In the front parlor a brilliant red tree features collectible Christopher Radko ornaments and mid-century modern “shiny bright” ornaments.

A third tree in the dining room has a French country theme in gold, burgundy and Wedgwood blue to complement the room’s period appropriate wallpaper, its magnificent new chandelier and Sweeden’s exquisite china and crystal collections.

At the back of the house, what was once the kitchen has been turned into a cozy family room/den area. However, vestiges of the room’s original purpose can still be seen as the kitchen’s centrally located stone water well and hand pump have been converted to a coffee table surrounded by comfortable seating.

For information on booking a small private event at Belle Helene Bess, contact Sweeden at Sweeden’s Florist (479) 968-6688.

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