The history and design of a Newport mansion.
657 Bellevue Avenue, Newport
Newport is a city known for many things: its colonial architecture, its seafood cuisine, the Newport Jazz Festival, America's Cup, and the Tall Ships regatta. But Newport stands out also for its collection of mansions, relics of a previous era of lavish parties and conspicuous consumption. Among these fabled mansions is Belcourt Castle, both famous and infamous for its past and present history. It's been called such things as the "pinnacle of the age of enlightenment" and "the Metropolitan Museum of Newport." Here is one attempt to condense the history of the beautiful and enigmatic Belcourt Castle.
Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont was born on November 12th, 1858, in New York City to a world of immense privilege. His father, August Belmont, a convert from Judaism to the Episcopalian faith, was a Democratic banker of German ancestry and one of the richest men in the world, having arrived to the United States in 1837 as the American representative for the House of Rothschild. His mother, Caroline Slidell Perry, the daughter of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (who opened trade with Japan in the 1850s), was a member of one of Rhode Island's most esteemed families.
Educated at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, Oliver Belmont later attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, from which he graduated on June 10th, 1880. Commissioned as a midshipman, he resigned his commission less than a year later on June 1st, 1881.
On December 27th, 1882, he married Sara "Sallie" Swan Whiting at her family's Newport house "Swanhurst." The marriage was troubled from the start; his complaint was that his new mother-in-law and sisters-in-law followed the couple on their European honeymoon tour; she alleged that her husband was addicted to absinth. Mr. Belmont didn't accompany his wife to Swanhurst upon their return. He stayed on in New York and later went to his father's Newport house, Bythesea, and later moved permanently to the Belmont farm "Oakland," in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
Midway through 1883, the Belmonts were divorced. The former Mrs. Belmont was with child. A daughter, Natica Caroline Belmont, was born on September 5th, 1883. Seldom allowed to see her, Mr. Belmont consented to Natica's eventual adoption by Sallie's second husband and her name was changed from Belmont to Rives.
August Belmont died on November 24th, 1890. Mr. Belmont, along with his brothers August II and Perry, split the bulk of the Belmont fortune. Oliver's share today would have made him a billionaire. August's widow Caroline died on November 22nd, 1892.
Oliver Belmont, as a bachelor, desired a home of his own in Newport, the summer social capital of New York society. After purchasing a lot at Ledge Road and Lakeview Avenue, he engaged architect Richard Morris Hunt to design an enormous Louis XIII-style château (based roughly on the cour d'honneur at Versailles) for his sole personal use. Construction on the structure was underway by 1891 and Newport and New York were abuzz with gossip over the building as it rose over its foundations. Constructed by the George A. Fuller Company, work was complete by 1894 and at a now uncertain cost. Today, the original building costs of most Newport mansions are lost to time or are enormously exaggerated, but it is likely that Belcourt cost upwards of $500,000 to build, an astonishing and princely sum of money in those times. During construction, Mr. Belmont purchased additional lands, including a lot connecting Belcourt to Bellevue Avenue.
Mr. Belmont had the architect incorporate his love of horses into the structure by dedicating most of the first floor to their use. The symmetrical north façade was bookended by two bays, each having an enormous entry portal fitted with glass and iron gates set at the head of each twin carriage ramp connecting to Lakeview Avenue. Behind these gates were parallel carriageways which ran along either side of the north wing's carriage hall and the central courtyard to the south wing's stables.
The stables had stalls for thirty horses, each with a nameplate for Mr. Belmont's favorite horses for when they were brought to the house.
The courtyard was designed in an elaborate brick and half-timbered Elizabeth style, with numerous narrow compound windows set between the timbers. On the second level of the north side was an arcaded loggia.
The vast carriage room had a rose marble mosaic floor below a generously beamed ceiling. Oak wainscoting was fitted between pilasters framing high windows protected from the exterior by elaborate grillwork. On the east and west ends of the carriage room were enormous sliding partitions fitted with glass which opened to the respective carriageways.
Gothic entry doors on Ledge Road opened onto a small foyer and lower grand hall which both had doors connecting to the west carriageway. Windows fitted with hammered green cathedral glass emblazoned with the Belmont coat of arms illuminated the lower grand hall, which had an elaborately carved oak staircase, based on one at the Musée de Cluny, at the south end. The stained glass and overdoor in the foyer were emblazoned with part of the motto adopted by Mr. Belmont, "Sans crainte qui veut peut"—"without fear he who will can."
Mr. Belmont and his guests would ascend the stairs to the second floor bachelor apartments. The upper grand hall was in the style of Francis I, the French Renaissance style. Surrounding the hall, which had an irregular shape, were all of the principal rooms. The shape of the hall was such that a visitor could glimpse into each room around them no matter where they stood in the hall. The walls were covered with French crimson pure silk damask featuring an "OB" monogram interlaced with flowers which included bachelor's button. The wainscoting was of quarter-sawn oak and the overdoors and ceiling were elaborately molded plaster, grained to look like oak. Horses' heads appeared over all the doors.
The dining room was designed in an Adamesque French Empire style as a large ellipse. Corinthian columns were set about its perimeter and supported a richly detailed plaster cornice below a double dome decorated with birds of paradise, roundels depicting the same woman in different moods, as well as a central medallion of Apollo, the sun god, driving his chariot across the sky. The cornice concealed a ring of carbon filament light bulbs, among the first indirect lighting ever installed in a private residence. Enormous mirrors were set between each of the columns, as well as on the doors and the mirrored shutters which could be pulled down over the windows overlooking Ledge Road, Almy Pond, and Bailey's Beach.
The drawing room was in the French Renaissance style and was handsomely detailed with elaborate wainscoting and pure silk damask wall coverings. The ceiling was molded and sculpted plaster grained to look like oak framing transparent Prussian blue oil paintings on gold leafed canvas. The plaster overmantel and overdoors, sculpted and signed by Perrin, depicted scenes of the hunt at Chambord in high relief. The mantelpiece was elaborately carved of a single piece of carved oak.
The ballroom, or baronial hall, was the most magnificent chamber in the house and was masterfully executed in the French Gothic style utilizing plaster and staff made to look like Caen stone. The ceiling was a magnificent double height gothic vault. Arranged across the length of the room on the north side was an arcade of Gothic arched stained glass windows made for Belcourt in France. Each opened to expose a set of French doors, beyond which was a narrow wrought iron balcony overlooking the Lakeview Avenue forecourt, with a railing featuring the "OB" monogram and scallop shells. Above these windows, set in the lower part of the vaulted ceiling, were thirteenth century Gothic stained glass trefoils which had been collected by Mr. Belmont in France.
The west end of the ballroom was semi-octagonal and apse-like with the third floor's organ loft balcony projecting overheard into the room. The organ, installed in 1895, was the first with an Æolian player attached. Doors set into the "apse" led to the upper grand hall and through to the drawing room.
Cabinets made for the display of small arms from Belmont's magnificent collection of armor were placed on the south wall on either side of doors leading to the gallery. The third floor orchestral gallery overlooked the ballroom along this side of the room through voided trefoil tracery of the same dimensions and configuration as the thirteenth century stained glass.
The east end of the room featured a magnificent fireplace with an overmantel modeled after the châteaux of the Loire Valley. Perched between the parapets were various mediaeval characters, including an old man whose face was based on the architect's. On either side of the fireplace were doors leading to the bathroom and to the master bedroom.
Mr. Belmont's bedroom was actually the only bedroom in the house when it was first built (save for servants' quarters in the south wing and the rooms of his six-and-a-half foot tall North African majordomo Azar on the third floor). The bedroom was handsomely decorated in an early Renaissance style with painted canvas in a similar vein to Louis II of Bavaria's Wagnerian fantasy interiors at Neuschwanstein Castle. The walls were painted to look like gathered fabric below a dado with staggered block above. Large faux Caen stone piers bearing dragon-form wall sconces supported a plaster beamed ceiling grained to look like oak with gold leaf and oil paintings. Grisaille stained glass shutters were fitted over the windows, casting gold and silver light across the room during the morning. The fireplace was fitted with a half-conical chimneypiece skirted with salamanders (Francis I of France's personal emblem) and the full personal motto of Mr. Belmont: "Sans crainte qui veut peut."
Through a jib door, Mr. Belmont accessed his private bathroom, which was quite spacious for its purpose. The walls were lined with cream colored rectangular tiles. The floor was carved with marble hexagonal tiles.
This bathroom featured the first shower in all of Newport, fitted over the freestanding porcelain tub, which sprayed from the top and sides. The washstand was carved of marble and stood on silver plated legs. French marble slabs with drains sat below each fixture so that any water overflow would not damage the ceilings of the rooms below.
Beyond the bathroom was a small hall with an oak spiral staircase leading to servants' rooms and closets on the third floor. Off of this hall were the private library-study and the gallery, which ran lengthwise between both the loggia and ballroom and to the upper grand hall.
In 1894, many expected Belcourt to be opened with grand festivities; however, that was not to be. Before he could leave New York for Newport, Mr. Belmont was mugged and required hospitalization. Frail health hampered his recovery. It was not until the next summer that Mr. Belmont arrived at Belcourt for the first time. On September 2nd, 1895, he threw open Belcourt's doors to Newport society with a grand ball, issuing party favors at a then cost of $7,000. Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt acted as co-hostess for the occasion. Belcourt was not to remain a bachelor pad for long. Indeed, it only existed as such for that single social season.
In late 1893, Mr. Belmont accompanied the William K. Vanderbilts on a yacht trip to India. William K. Vanderbilt was his best friend and an heir to the Vanderbilt railroad and shipping fortune. Mr. Vanderbilt's wife, the former Alva Erskine Smith, had catapulted the Vanderbilts to the highest echelons of New York and Newport society with her social maneuvering. The Vanderbilts were also great patrons of Richard Morris Hunt, having built Marble House in Newport and the Petit Château at 660 Fifth Avenue in New York City.
The Vanderbilt marriage was in trouble. Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt fought and bickered with one another the entirety of the trip, which broke up in the spring of 1894. In March 1895, the Vanderbilts were divorced. Mrs. Vanderbilt kept Marble House, which had been given to her for her 39th birthday, and received an annuity of $100,000.
Mrs. Vanderbilt, as aforementioned, co-hosted Belcourt's opening ball in September 1895. On January 11th, 1896, Mr. Belmont and Mrs. Vanderbilt were married in a small civil ceremony at her residence conducted by New York City mayor William L. Strong. The honeymoon was spent at Belcourt, which was given to the new Mrs. Belmont as a wedding gift. Renovations commenced almost immediately.
In 1896, Mrs. Belmont had her husband's library-study converted into a bedroom for her in the Louis XV style, slightly reminiscent of her bedroom at Marble House (which was practically shuttered except for use as storage and for its laundry facilities). Since Richard Morris Hunt had died the year previous, she had his son Richard Howland Hunt design a large addition, overlooking the courtyard on the third floor, for her young son Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, who later became a famed yachtsman.
Starting in 1900, Mr. Belmont served in the House of Representatives as a Democrat for a single term. He did not seek re-election. Around this time, he was also the publisher of his own paper called "The Verdict." He advocated for income tax, inheritance tax, public ownership of public works, and the power of the people to veto any law by Congress.
Mr. and Mrs. Belmont summered and entertained lavishly at Belcourt. The New York Times archives recall many extraordinary events such as a dinner party thrown for "Consul," a chimpanzee, in 1907. During their time together, they passionately continued to build, collect, and renovate. In 1907, Mr. Belmont tried unsuccessfully to have the roads separating his Newport estate holdings closed. By the time 1908 rolled around, the Belmonts were planning a renovation of the first floor and had engaged a French architect to turn the former carriage hall, by then used as a banquet hall, into a Louis XIV grand salon. The work was never carried out.
On the ground floor, in the former west carriageway, an English library was installed, with linen-fold oak paneling and molded plaster ceiling copied after the one in the long gallery at Haddon Hall. It is uncertain exactly when or for whom this room was created.
On June 10th, 1908, at the age of 49, Mr. Belmont died at Brookholt, his house in Hempstead on Long Island, following complications from a delayed appendectomy. Bereft, Mrs. Belmont closed Belcourt and placed it on the market. Belcourt did not sell and instead passed within the Belmont family. Marble House was reopened and Mrs. Belmont took on the mantle of the women's suffrage movement, championing the efforts to gain the right to vote for women everywhere. She later moved to France, where she died aged 80. The Belmonts are interred together in a magnificent neo-Renaissance funerary chapel and mausoleum at Woodlawn, in the Bronx.
The last Belmonts at Belcourt
Perry Belmont, the late Oliver Belmont's brother, a congressman and diplomat, bought Belcourt from Alva Belmont in 1916. He and his wife, Jessie, whom he married five hours after her divorce from Henry T. Sloane in 1899, summered there for a few years and made some changes to the house. Further research will yield answers but it is presently uncertain whether the Oliver Belmonts or the Perry Belmonts were responsible for the changes to the staircase, the enlarging of the lower grand hall into the adjoining carriage way, or the construction of the ground floor library. The house passed back to Alva Belmont at one point and she owned it at her death, whereupon she willed it to her grandnephew-in-law, August Belmont IV.
Barely in his twenties, August IV found Belcourt to be a financial burden and sold it back to his granduncle, Perry Belmont, the last Belmont to own Belcourt. Perry Belmont sold the estate in 1940 to George Waterman and partners, describing the estate as a "white elephant." The estate was sold on the condition that as many of Alva Belmont's changes as possible were undone. This included the removal of the addition built for her son, Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, on the third floor facing the courtyard and also the auctioning of most of her furnishings. For this, Waterman paid $1,000 for Belcourt, which he planned to turn into a museum for automobiles. Indeed, it existed for a short time as the "Belcourt Museum" before closing down. Perry Belmont died aged 95 in 1947.
Belcourt sold approximately three years later to Edward Dunn. Unoccupied for years, the navy used the stables for truck repairs. It was then again sold in 1954 for $22,500 to Louis and Elaine Lorillard, who used it as a venue for events of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955. Zoning would not allow the Lorillards to continue the activities at Belcourt. The house was slated for demolition and narrowly escaped destruction on November 25th, 1956, when the Harold B. Tinney family purchased the estate and seven of its original acres.
The Tinneys, of Cumberland, Rhode Island, made their fortune in real estate and the restoration and dealing of antiques and art. Harold B. Tinney was a skilled carpenter and craftsman. His wife, the former Ruth Betzer, was an adept painter. Their son, Donald, began collecting antiques at the age of nine with the purchase of an English chair. Eventually, their entire colonial house and barn were filled floor to ceiling with European art and antiques. The Tinneys, along with Mrs. Tinney's maiden aunt Nellie Fuller, looked toward Newport for a larger house and purchased Seaverge, past Belcourt on the turn of Bellevue Avenue, which they restored and furnished. Requiring still even more space, they purchased Belcourt from the Lorillards for $25,000 and sold Seaverge, which was demolished soon after. Belcourt became their repository for seventeen moving vans and over a hundred station wagon loads full of antiques. Visiting for the first time, a building inspector said, "You know, Mr. Tinney, you can't make a storage warehouse out of this place."
The Tinneys, after receiving requests from friends and the City of Newport, opened Belcourt to the public in 1957 for guided tours and gave most of the tours themselves. In 1960, nineteen-year-old Harle Hanson, of Providence, was hired as a guide. In December of that year, she married Donald Tinney. Donald and Harle Tinney had a formal wedding ceremony and reception in the ballroom of Belcourt in August 1961.
The Tinneys renamed the house "Belcourt Castle" and continued to add to their collections, which soon grew to encompass pieces from over thirty countries and with furniture dating back to the tenth century. Belcourt Castle soon earned a reputation as one of the finest historic museum houses in the country. In addition to offering tours, the Tinneys also lent the house out for municipal and charitable events, even hosting the Eisenhowers on a trip to Newport, which was reciprocated with an invitation to the White House and led to a correspondence between Ruth Tinney and Mamie Eisenhower.
They were not only restorers and collectors but also artisans. Among their numerous creations were a golden coronation coach (based off of an eighteenth century Portuguese original) as well as the stone balustrade and entry gates to Belcourt Castle on Bellevue Avenue. For many years, the Tinneys ran St. Luke's Studio out of the former stable and produced magnificent stained glass which can be found throughout Rhode Island and the rest of New England.
Nellie "Aunt Nell" Fuller died aged 90 in 1972, having gifted her share of Belcourt Castle to her grandniece-in-law, Harle Tinney. Harold B. Tinney, the patriarch of the family, died aged 89 in 1989 after a battle with Alzheimer's disease. With his death, the Tinney family faced the problem of an uncertain future for Belcourt, with only three members of the family remaining. In 1990, Ruth Tinney adopted 38-year-old Kevin Koellisch, the long-time live-in general manager.
When the elder Mrs. Tinney died aged 89 in 1995, Kevin initiated legal proceedings to have Belcourt Castle sold and the proceeds divided among himself, Donald Tinney, and Harle Tinney. After many court hearings over several years, and coverage on 48 Hours, Dateline, and City Confidential, his claims were dismissed as he was found to have unduly influenced Ruth into adopting him. Kevin was ordered to vacate Belcourt and the deed granting him a share of the estate was invalidated.
Donald and Harle Tinney continued to live at Belcourt Castle, celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary there in December 2005. Donald, who was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease himself, unexpectedly died aged 71 on January 16th, 2006. Aged 64 and a widow, Mrs. Tinney resolved to carry on her family's work, alone, continuing the effort to conserve Belcourt for future generations. Although she listed the house for sale in May 2009, Mrs. Tinney remained at Belcourt Castle for nearly seven years following her husband's death.
In November 2012, it was announced that Belcourt Castle had been sold to Carolyn Rafaelian, the founder of Rhode Island-based jewelry company Alex and Ani. Since then and as of this writing, Ms. Rafaelian has been conducting a careful and thorough restoration of the house, now again simply called "Belcourt." Retained are Tinney additions such as the courtyard gates (salvaged from a demolished house called "Whiteholme"), the gates and balustrade on Bellevue Avenue, the Seaverge sea dragon weathervane atop the south wing cupola and clock, as well as the enormous imperial crystal chandelier hanging in the banquet hall.
Built for the horses, standing witness to a shocking divorce and remarriage in the late nineteenth century, enduring a brief stint as a car museum and jazz festival site, and then again serving as a home and museum for an entrepreneurial family with a passion for the arts, Belcourt is a renegade among the houses of Newport, the "anti-mansion mansion" of Bellevue Avenue. It is fitting that its latest custodian is a self-made business mogul with a passion for Rhode Island and its heritage.
Tours: Belcourt of Newport is open for tours. Check their website for times and tickets.
Directions: From Route 195 in Massachusetts take exit 8 to Route 24 west; follow Route 24 to Route 138; follow Route 138 to Route 138A (Aquidneck Avenue); Aquidneck Avenue becomes Memorial Boulevard; turn left onto Bellevue Avenue; Belcourt Castle is toward the end, on the right, at the corner of Bellevue and Lakeview Avenues.
Charles von Hamm is an architectural designer, restoration consultant, and historian presently based in Ottawa. He has a keen interest in the American Gilded Age, its social history, as well as its contributing influences from European architecture, antiques, and art, having made a study of these wide-ranging subjects from an early age.