by Charles von Hamm

The history of a Newport mansion.

657 Bellevue Avenue, Newport
(401) 846-0669
www.belcourtcastle.com

Update by Editor: Belcourt Castle was purchased in November 2012 by Carolyn Rafaelian, founder of Alex and Ani, for $3.6 million. Rafaelian stated at the time that she intended to restore the property, renamed Belcourt of Newport, and use it as an entertainment venue. As of June 2013, posts on Belcourt of Newport's Facebook page indicated that restoration was proceeding apace.

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 "cottages," 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.

The Belmonts

Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont was born on November 12, 1858, in New York City to August and Caroline Belmont. Oliver's father, a banker of Prussian ancestry, was one of the richest men in the world. In 1882, young Oliver married Sara Swan Whiting in Newport, but he divorced her the very same year, never to see his daughter, Natica, who died in her 20s. When the elder Belmont died in 1890, his son received a share of his estate equivalent to billions of dollars today.

A palace built for a bachelor

OHP, as Oliver was frequently referred to, was a bachelor at the time of his father's death and decided to make good use of his newly inherited fortune. He set his heart on building a summer home in Newport, backing onto the fashionable Bellevue Avenue. Belmont chose his architect very carefully; it was none other than the extremely talented and respected Richard Morris Hunt, who had designed the base of the Statue of Liberty, many of the best Newport and New York mansions, and Biltmore, George W. Vanderbilt's country château in Asheville, North Carolina. The design underwent many revisions until Belmont was satisfied with the final draft, a sixty-room, French Renaissance-style castle from the Louis XIII era surrounding a Norman-timbered courtyard, all topped with elegant mansard roofs.

Construction on the grand summer cottage, Belcourt, commenced in 1891. Three hundred imported artisans spent three years carving wood, cutting glass, gilding, plastering, and fitting together the elements required to create a grand residence. Belcourt was completed in 1894 at a final cost of $3,000,000 ($74,614,478 in 2010 dollars).

The mansion's front entrance opened on Ledge Road to the west, while the back prominently faced Bellevue Avenue to the east. This alignment was purposeful. Belmont abhorred the splashy shows of extensive wealth by the nouveau riche. (Even though he lived that lifestyle himself, he felt he was of the old money). Bellevue Avenue, the address for the rich and powerful in Newport, was his back entrance, the area where his horses roamed. (In fact, Belcourt is so far back on the lot from Bellevue Avenue that the front entrance is only ten feet from Ledge Road). In later years, Belmont would fight (unsuccessfully) to have Lakeview Avenue and Ledge Road closed to accommodate his privacy.

The huge double entrance doors can only be opened from the inside. Guests were expected to arrive promptly at a specified time, for the doors would be closed and not opened for the remainder of the evening. Desperately afraid of fire, Belmont established his kitchens several blocks away, accessed by tunnels. In grand style, each meal would arrive at Belcourt in its own carriage.

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, Oliver Belmont was mugged and required hospitalization. His ever-frail health hampered his recovery. It wasn't until the next year, on July 4, 1895, that Belmont finally arrived at Belcourt to open it for the full summer season.

Accompanied by his thirty servants, Belmont arrived at Belcourt to inspect his estate, which boasted 160 feet of stables for thirty horses along the south façade. His fine racing and show horses were bedded on linens from Ireland and each had a gold nameplate on its stall door. Belmont's equestrian interests are evident throughout Belcourt; thirty hand-carved images of horses appear above various doors.

Along the third floor mansard roof, copper oval dormers were installed. The smooth stone walls were lined with brick tracery. Inside, Belcourt was a synthesis of French Renaissance styling, opulent interiors, and oddly enough, carriage space. Almost the entire first floor in the main north wing was devoted to Belmont's carriages. Two large carriage doors fitted with glass opened onto Lakeview Avenue. This formed Belcourt's only symmetrical side.

Just off the carriage barn was Belmont's Grand Hall. It was built with an elegant bay, facing Ledge Road, that contained green stained-glass windows with Belmont's coat of arms. The walls of this chamber were at the time lined with blood-red silk damask all the way up to the very high ceilings. On the Grand Staircase, a huge green stained-glass window overlooked the landing, washing it in pale light. At the top of the stairs was a second Grand Hall. Constructed of the same materials as its partner hall below, it is of an irregular shape. Beyond the doors of this dim hallway, Belcourt concealed some of the most beautiful rooms in Newport.

Directly to the left of the top of the Grand Staircase is Belcourt's Versailles dining room. Richard Hunt designed this room over the Grand Hall with another bay overlooking Ledge Road. The oval-shaped room boasts the first indirect lighting in the United States, installed by one of Belmont's friends (Thomas Edison). The concealed fittings hold sixty carbon filament bulbs, all of which can be removed and repaired. The room's curved dome ceiling is suspended from thick iron rods.

Through the doors in the side of the dining room was Belmont's Francis I music room, purely French Renaissance in style. The walls were lined with red damask in a swag pattern and the fireplace was built of solid lengths of oak. Carved stone inlays above the doors and fireplace depict French kings hunting. A secret door leads to a storage area.

Belmont's largest formal room was his Grand Ballroom, which was French Gothic in style. The area is 35 feet wide and high and 70 feet long. Its vaulted ceiling rises to the third floor area and uses the copper oval dormers of the north side to light Belmont's collection of five stained-glass trefoil windows from the thirteenth century. Opposite these artifacts, gothic trefoils of the same dimensions open onto the third floor orchestral gallery. Dominating the easterly wall is the castle fireplace, depicting a château of the Loire Valley in caenstone (a cream-colored limestone found near Caen, France). It rises thirty feet above the floor. On the side of the ballroom opposite the fireplace is the balcony to the third floor organ loft.

Despite all this, as a bachelor, Belmont did not have the "social resources" to plan the large festivities the room was designed for. He also had no intention of marriage and his château had but one bedroom (not counting the servants' quarters). All of that changed in 1896 when one of society's greatest ladies stepped into his life.

Alva Vanderbilt-Belmont

Alva Erskine Smith was the wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt. Their summer mansion, Marble House, cost more than Belcourt just to furnish. However, all was not well in the Vanderbilt household. In 1895, much to the shock of society, Alva divorced Willie K., and to the further shock of society, in 1896 she married her ex-husband's best friend, Oliver Hazard Belmont.

Marriage and Alva meant many changes at Belcourt, which was barely two years old. Alva required a bedroom, study rooms, apartments for her twelve-year-old son, and a vast hall for entertaining. All of this was created for her with the blessing and support of her new husband.

Alva immediately set about changing the Grand Staircase. She had it moved four times before the craftsman refused to do it again. The craftsman's feelings for the new mistress of Belcourt are evident in one of the details of the staircase design: ascending, one sees a carved wooden cherub, but descending, one sees a sour face sticking out its tongue.

At the east end of the house, Alva had her bedroom created in the area once occupied by Belmont's study. French paneling from a royal palace was installed and as a result, the passage to the two-story portion was closed and a "secret door" was installed. Alva's bath was located there, but unlike her husband's it did not contain a shower (his was the first in Newport and sprayed water from the top and sides). Alva's rococo salon-boudoir was in a prime position; the room has a balcony with views of Bellevue Avenue, a window overlooking the Norman half-timbered courtyard, and doors leading to the former loggia.

Alva was an extraordinary entertainer. As the reigning Queen of Society, it wasn't uncommon to find members of Europe's imperial and royal families at her events. Alva also used her contacts and position in society in support of the women's suffrage movement. After Oliver's death at fifty in 1908 from appendicitis, Belcourt saw fewer social gatherings, although Alva continued to mold and shape the mansion. The west wing now houses an English Library and the carriage barn, with its chestnut-beamed ceilings, became an Imperial Banquet Hall.

After two husbands, seemingly endless remodeling, and forty summer seasons of entertaining, Alva eventually wearied of Newport. She sold Belcourt Castle to her elderly brother-in-law, August Belmont II, and moved to France. Belcourt continued to change hands within the Belmont family even after Alva's death in 1933 at the age of eighty, and was sold out of the family in 1940.

Belcourt began a long and sad decline. One owner wanted to make it into an auto museum; another couple wanted to make it the seat of the Newport Jazz Festival, but zoning would not allow them. The magnificent mansion deteriorated until 1956, when a remarkable family bought it and took up residence.

The Tinneys

One afternoon, Ruth and Harold Tinney, along with their son Donald, decided to drive down Newport's then-bleak Bellevue Avenue. Passing Belcourt's padlocked back gates, they caught glimpses of the mansion behind the trees, truly a diamond in the rough. It was love at first sight. They contacted the owner and purchased the mansion for $25,000 ($161,556 in 2002 dollars—a bargain!).

The Tinney family of Massachusetts was a remarkable group. Along with Ruth's aunt Nellie Fuller, they lived in a forty-room estate, Seaverge, in Newport, but they were interested in a larger residence for their rapidly expanding art collection. The Tinneys sold Seaverge but brought along the gilt front gates to their new residence. Seaverge was razed in 1958 so they weren't missed, and besides, the Tinneys needed an appropriate entrance for their new address (as well as Belcourt's): 657 Bellevue Avenue.

Meticulous and proud craftsmen, the Tinneys had a dream of opening Belcourt as a museum, among the first in Newport. From a distance, Belcourt looked fine, but up close roof slates were missing, the windows were shattered, and the grand East Gate was boarded over. Inside, dust dominated the cavernous empty halls. Loneliness echoed through its rooms, the electricity was off, the chandeliers askew, and the water didn't run. Belcourt was almost uninhabitable, as only a caretaker had lived there.

It took nine months to repair all of the woodwork, mend the damask wall coverings, hang the chandeliers, and fix the stained glass. The vast Imperial Banquet Hall was initially used as a storage place; a venue once used for dinners and dancing was occupied by boxes, not gentlemen in tuxedos and ladies in ball gowns. Room by room, the three Tinneys restored, renovated, and preserved, all the while operating Rhode Island's only stained-glass business. Once, in 1957, Mrs. August Belmont II visited Belcourt. She was 99 at the time, yet still had a commanding presence. Mrs. Tinney was almost at a loss for words when Mrs. Belmont asked why the Tinneys were putting a small stove in the Grand Hall, since Belcourt would hardly be heated by it. Mrs. Tinney explained that a new heating system was in the planning stages and that the Franklin stove was to allow work to continue through the winter. Following a personal tour of the building, Mrs. Belmont remarked, "It is even more beautiful than it was when I owned it."

On July 28, 1957, Belcourt's doors swung open for the very first guided tours. They were an immense success. In 1960, the family expanded as the son, Donald, took a wife. The young Harle Hanson, Belcourt tour guide, married into the family and quickly grew accustomed to the family business of restoration. The Tinneys also changed Belcourt. The old kitchen off the Banquet Hall was torn out and turned into the coach room. They turned the Renaissance open loggia into a graceful French Salon. The reception room on the first floor became the Tinney's Chapel. Stained glass was hung in front of the glass carriage doors, without removing anything original.

In 1972, Nellie Fuller died. Harold Tinney followed in 1989 and the elder Mrs. Tinney, Ruth, adopted the castle handyman, Kevin Koellisch, as her son. After her death in 1995, a legal battle ensued over who was to inherit the mansion. Harle and Donald Tinney won, but as of this writing (November 2003), legal wranglings continue.

"The Metropolitan Museum of Newport"

Belcourt is not like any other mansion. It gives you a sense of home and belonging; it's a piece of living history. Among the many treasures to be viewed are the Russian Imperial chandelier with 105 lights and 13,000 crystals in the Banquet Hall. Although very beautiful, it can't light the sixty-foot by seventy-foot space alone, so eight smaller chandeliers hang in the room. There is a bed once owned by an Indian royal family, which sits marvelously in Mr. Belmont's mediaeval style bedroom. It is said that the Maharaja had three soldiers sleep under it for his protection. A Louis XIV commode sits in the Grand Hall, similar to those found in Louis XIV's bedchamber at Versailles. Above it hangs his portrait, which hung in the Palace of the Tuileries. It is this copy of the 1703 Hyacinthe Rigaud original that was cut down when the palace was torched. (Mr. Donald Tinney found it hidden in a chaise lounge). On the opposite end of the Grand Hall, under a crystal chandelier, sits the Imperial Chinese rotating table with inlaid woods and ivory.

If one truly wants a fairy tale, a must-see is the Golden Coronation Coach, an exact replica of one from Portugal. The Tinneys spent four years building it in a room created for just that purpose. It has only been out twice; once was for Belcourt's centennial celebration in 1994. This is only slightly odd since it is located only a short distance from the once busy carriage door entrance, now shut until a day when the coach is brought out again.

Please note that Belcourt isn't as finely manicured, tucked, and tweaked as the Preservation Society mansions. However, the house is very much a personal-feeling place, with wonderful tour guides who are enthusiastic and informative. Also note that photography is not allowed inside on tours. However, feel free to take pictures of the exterior.

Today, Belcourt Castle is still owned—and lived in—by the Tinney family, and renovations continue, funded by the proceeds of daily tours, weddings, and various other events. When you visit, be sure to keep your eye out for the many architectural and decorative details left behind by previous owners. They all helped make Belcourt into "the Metropolitan Museum of Newport"!

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Charles von Hamm is a student in Ontario, Canada. He has a deep passion for architecture and history and strives to learn as much as possible about the history of Newport's Gilded Age. At the time of this writing, he was 16 years old.

Information

Tours: Daily tours, evening candlelight and ghost tours. Check the Belcourt Castle website for up-to-date information.

Cost: Check the Belcourt Castle website for up-to-date information.

Time required: allow an hour-and-a-half

Hours: Open year-round (except Thanksgiving and Christmas). Check the Belcourt Castle website for up-to-date information.

Finding it: 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.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to terrain or premenstrual tigers. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited June 11, 2013

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