Built on a small hill near Richland Creek, the original red brick Federal-style house was built in the 1820s by John Harding. The entrance façade featured a two-story five-bay block, constructed on a limestone foundation, flanked with symmetrical one-story wings. Chimneys flanked the central block as well as the two wings.
In 1853, the house was altered and enlarged into a Greek-Revival style mansion by General William Giles Harding to reflect the success of the plantation. Stucco was applied to cover the red bricks and a two-story verandah was created on the central block with six solid limestone pillars of the Doric order, that were quarried on the plantation. A solid limestone pedimented entablature is set above the columns. The left wing was removed and the right wing was raised to two stories. A two-story kitchen extension was also attached to the house via a two level breezeway that was enclosed at the first of the 20th century.
The 14-foot high central entrance hall runs the full length of the house from east to west, following the seasonal wind directions for natural cooling. The walls display Thoroughbred paintings by 19th-century painters Edward Troye, Harry Hall, and Henry Stull, depicting the plantation's most famous horses. On the north end of the hall, double parlors feature poplar wood, Tennessee's state tree. The library and dining rooms are found to the south. These rooms feature portraits of the Harding family and chandeliers that once were lit with methane gas made with manure.
The central hall configuration is found on the second and third floors as well, and are accessed by the winding cantilevered, Second Empire-style staircase carved from cherry. The second floor contains two connected bedrooms to the north and a guest bedroom and master bedroom to the south. William Hicks Jackson, son-in-law of William Giles Harding, modernized the interior of the house in 1883, adding three full bathrooms, including one on the second floor, that included a deep soaking tub and a shower, complete with hot and cold running water, believed to help circulation and those suffering from arthritis. The third level has single rooms flanking the central hall with 8-foot high ceilings.
The mansion also has a basement which was uncommon at the time and housed the wine.
The plantation grounds cover 30 acres (120,000 m2) and has 10 outbuildings scattered throughout the estate, including the original 1790s log cabin purchased by Harding in 1807, a reconstructed two-room slave cabin, a tiny 1870s children’s playhouse that was used by the Harding children, the 1884 dairy that supplied fresh milk, cream, cheese and produced up to 240 pounds of butter each week, and the 1826 smokehouse, the largest in the South, where as much as 20,000 pounds of pork were smoked in a year. The large carriage house and stables, built in 1892, showcase the Harding and Jackson family's carriage collection that include light carriages for picnics on the grounds, a surrey with fringe on top for trips to town, luxury Victorian carriages for high-end social events, and a 16-passenger double-decker carriage.
In 2009, the plantation opened a winery featuring Tennessee red and white wines made from the native southern grape, the muscadine, and blackberry fruit.
In 1807, Virginian John Harding bought Dunham's Station log cabin and 250 acres (100 ha) on the Natchez Trace. The plantation, that he named “Belle Meade,” French for beautiful meadow, and known as the "Queen of Southern Plantations", was not used for farming, but rather various service enterprises such as a blacksmith shop, cotton gin, and a grist and saw mill. By 1816, Harding was boarding horses for neighbors such as Andrew Jackson, and breeding Thoroughbreds for which the plantation became renowned throughout the world. John registered his own racing silks with the Nashville Jockey Club in 1823 and was training horses on the track at his McSpadden’s Bend Farm. William Giles Harding inherited Belle Meade Plantation in 1839 and enlarged the mansion and the estate into a 5,400-acre (22 km2) plantation with 136 enslaved people. Racing and breeding operations came to a halt in the South with the onset of the Civil War in 1861.
William Giles Harding was a staunch proponent of the Confederate States of America and donated $500,000 to the Confederate States Army. He was arrested by Union authorities in 1862, and imprisoned in Fort Mackinac in Michigan for six months before being released. Confederate General James Chalmers occupied Belle Meade as his headquarters during the Battle of Nashville, though Harding was able to keep all of his Thoroughbred horses, even while other farms were having their horses requisitioned by both armies. Early on December 15, 1864, Union and Confederate forces skirmished in the front yard outside of the mansion. Damage from bullets is still visible on the stone columns of the house.
After the Civil War, Harding resumed his successful horse operations, though as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 there was a reduced workforce. Of the 136 slaves living on the plantation prior to the war, only 72 workers chose to take employment with William Harding, though most lived off the property. Those who remained in the slave cabins, as part of their compensation, had to sign a contract of "18 Rules & Regulations" that reduced compensation for breaking those rules.
In 1868, his daughter Selene Harding married Confederate States Army General William Hicks Jackson on the one condition that the couple stay at Belle Meade following their marriage, as Harding's wife Elizabeth, daughter of former Nashville mayor Randal McGavock of Carnton Plantation, had died the previous year. Selene managed the household affairs and Jackson co-managed the farm with him. In 1875, Harding and Jackson decided to retire their racing silks and focus exclusively on breeding, turning the plantation into an internationally renowned Thoroughbred farm and showplace. The farm sold breeding stock of ponies, Alderney cattle, Cotswold sheep, and Cashmere goats. The estate also featured a 600-acre deer park.
Belle Meade had many successful studs, including Bonnie Scotland and Enquirer, whose bloodlines still dominate modern racing. Jackson brought Belle Meade international fame by purchasing Iroquois in 1886 to stand at stud, becoming the leading sire of 1892. In 1881, Iroquois had been the first American-bred Thoroughbred race horse to win the prestigious Epsom Derby.
The Jacksons were avid entertainers and many notable guests visited the plantation during the latter part of the 19th century. Guests included President Grover Cleveland and his wife Frances, Robert Todd Lincoln, President Ulysses S. Grant, General William T. Sherman, General Winfield Scott Hancock, and Vice President Adlai E. Stevenson. The guests enjoyed country pursuits in the fenced deer park, barbeques, and tours of the Thoroughbred paddocks.
Following William Jackson's death in 1903, and that of his son later the same year, it was decided to sell the plantation as a result of years of adverse financial conditions. A business syndicate called The Belle Meade Land Company purchased the plantation and developed the residential neighborhood of Belle Meade. The company also released the deer from the fenced park upon receipt of private donations. In 1938, the former plantation lands were incorporated into the independent city of Belle Meade, Tennessee. The mansion had a series of successive owners, and remained a private residence until 1953, when the State of Tennessee purchased the mansion and eight outbuildings on 30 acres (120,000 m2). The state in turn deeded the property to the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities.