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Belcourt Castle

Newport, Rhode Island

Completed in 1894, for Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (1858-1908). After The Breakers and Ochre Court, Belcourt Castle is the 3rd largest of Newport's Gilded Age Cottages, but only one of its 52 rooms was a bedroom and its entire first floor was given over to luxury accommodation for Belmont's beloved horses! In 1899, it hosted the first automobile parade and race in the United States and by 1955 it nearly became the permanent venue of the Newport Jazz Festival. After an extensive renovation project, Belcourt of Newport has been brought back to its former glory and is open to the public as a tour house, art gallery and event space.
Oliver Belmont was a man at odds with himself and Belcourt was in many ways an expression of his sardonic character. His father, August Belmont (1813-1890), was a Hessian-Jew who started life sweeping the floors of the Rothschild Bank in Frankfurt. By 1837, August was in New York, having anglicized his surname from "Schönberg" to "Belmont". He amassed a multi-million dollar fortune as the agent for the Rothschild's interests in the U.S. and it is for him that the Belmont Stakes are named.

Oliver's mother on the other hand, Caroline Slidell Perry (1829-1892), was from an old Rhode Island family, but it was his father's fortune that allowed him to lead his extravagant lifestyle. Oliver maintained a very one dimensional view towards his ancestry, going so far as to hold an open contempt for the lifestyles of "the nouveau-riche" at Newport and their ostentatious homes, when in fact there were few who typified these traits greater than he!

Since Oliver was two years old, he had summered at By-the-Sea, his father's 14-acre property at Newport. On his father's death in 1890, he and his brothers inherited a fortune and Oliver claimed three acres of his father's land on Bellevue Avenue upon which he determined to build his own summer home.

After one failed relationship, Oliver was again a bachelor in 1891 and he commissioned Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895) - to his own specifications - to build him something French (the Belmonts were always careful to follow the tastes set by the Rothschilds) and the inspiration for his mansion was drawn from the original hunting lodge of Louis XIII that had been incorporated into the Palace of Versailles.

Three years later, at a staggering cost of $3.2 million, Belmont's bachelor-pad of 52 rooms spread over 40,000 square feet was complete and named Belcourt. 300 artisans had been brought over from Europe to fit the interior: Oak and chestnut is on display in abundance and some of the panelling in various rooms was imported. Ceilings were sculpted with plaster-mouldings; floors laid in mosaic marble; and, the gates and wrought iron balconies are marked intermittently with shell motifs bearing the monogram "OB". The exterior is made of a combination of brick and stucco-covered granite, while the roof is finished in Pennsylvania slate.

At first glance, it may appear that this mansion followed the lines of many like it, but far from it: There was just one bedroom, no kitchen (Belmont had his meals delivered to him from town) and the first floor was not designed for the comfort of people, but horses!

Entered via two arched carriage entrances on either side of the north façade, the ground floor was given over to one of the most elaborate stables in the country, and his extensive collection of carriages. Cleveland Amory (1917-1998) wrote of Belmont's pampered steeds in The Last Resorts (1973)
The Belmont horses had a change of equipment morning, afternoon and evening. For the night, they were bedded down on pure white sheets with the Belmont crest (which was in fact the Perry crest adopted as the Belmont crest) emblazoned (in gold thread) on them. A barracks for a battery of grooms also occupied the first floor. Above the stables, in the salon of Belcourt Castle, Belmont kept two stuffed horses, old favorites of his, which were mounted by stuffed riders in chain armor
This unusual arrangement drew the ire of visitors and the press alike. An unidentified contributor to the Newport Mercury remonstrated, "horses deserve shelter and care-taking (but not) satin beds, 10-course meals and other luxuries that most of us can only dream to one day know". 

In 1895, the influential social activist Julia Ward (1819-1910), widow of Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876), was invited for a seemingly typical lunch party at Belcourt with among others Owen Wister (1860-1938), Royal Phelps Carroll (1863-1922) and Carroll's wife Marion Dorothea Langdon (1864-1949). Afterwards, with a hint of mockery, Julia conveyed her impressions of the afternoon in a letter to one of her daughters:
It is a most singular house. The first floor is all stable, with stalls (each marked by a gold name plate) for some thirteen or more horses, all filled, and everything elaborate and elegant. Oh, to lodge horses so and be content that men and women should lodge in sheds and cellars! The residential part of the house is on the next storey, designed by Hunt, and palatial in its character. The lunch was, of course, very fine. The host took me in, and did his best to entertain me. The table servants wore red plush breeches and silk stockings with powdered heads! The coffee, café turque, was served by a black in oriental costume. After lunch, we visited the stable, and Belmont had three of his best horses harnessed and driven out for us to admire.
The exterior of the house is primarily in the Renaissance style of Louis XIII, incorporating a predominantly Gothic interior. Laid out in a quadrangle, Belcourt encloses a central courtyard measuring 80 by 40 feet with timber arched galleries and exposed beams in the Norman style. The north and south wings (the main blocks) are of three-stories and are connected by a pair of two-story wings. The mansard roof is studded with oval dormer windows framed with copper and a wrought iron balcony spans 70 feet across the second floor. A domestic staff of thirty liveried servants maintained the house.

General consensus pertains that Belcourt was built with it's back turned to Bellevue Avenue in an open display of Belmont's contempt for Newport society. Though this may have been the case, it could also make sense that Belmont wanted to make the most of the sea views rather than opening the house on the front to a street view. As such, visitors who were used to grand approaches to Newport's most opulent mansions (of which Belcourt was most certainly one) tended to be sorely disappointed when they arrived only to be ushered through an unspectacular entrance at the rear of the house.

Once entered, visitors were brought out into the Gothic Grand Hall that led to a series of other rooms in similar grandiose style, with a profusion of blood-red damask curtains, since replaced in gold. The grand staircase is a replica of those found at the Musée de Cluny in Paris, and conveys visitors to the upper floors, where Hunt opened each room to the next by use of framed vistas. 

Belmont's en-suite bathroom next to his Louis XVI bedroom featured murals depicting the daily routines of a medieval country squire. His bathroom was also fitted with the first standing shower in Newport and Belcourt's electrical system was the work of none other than Thomas Edison (1847-1931) himself. To his own design, Belmont's bedroom opened directly on to the arched Gothic ballroom in stone, dominated by a pipe organ. Within the house, there are fourteen secret doors and stained glass windows depict medieval equestrian tournaments.

Notable among it's other rooms were the chapel, three grand halls, a music room, the dining room, loggia and gallery. At this period, the furnishings and artwork at Belcourt included a notable collection of armor and manuscripts. In an ill-disguised bid by Belmont to press his ancestry on his guests - albeit just one side of it - one can hardly turn without being confronted by a family crest and the motto "Sans Crainte" (French for "Without Fear"), both of which belonged to his mother's family but were conveniently adopted by him as those of the Belmonts.

In 1896, Belmont married Alva Erskine Smith (1853-1933), who in the previous year had rocked society by divorcing her first husband, William Kissam Vanderbilt (1849-1920). Prior to this union, Belmont and Vanderbilt had been good friends.

Oliver and Alva were certainly a good match when it came to their love/hate relationship with society. Rather fortuitously for Alva, in her divorce settlement she received Marble House, at the same time as being given Belcourt as a wedding gift. Adding to her impressive property portfolio, she later built Beacon Towers on Long Island from where she single-handedly directed operations for the women's liberation movement in the United States.

Alva wasted no time in transforming Belcourt from an excessively large bachelor's pad-cum-stables into a home suitable for receiving Newport's finest, that started with adding her own bedroom and boudoir. The first floor was reclaimed for human use with a banquet hall replacing the carriage room and among others a study was turned into another boudoir with 18th century French panelling. She incorporated elements of German, Italian and English design. In reference to the latter, she commissioned John Russell Pope (1874-1937) to design and fit The English Library (completed in 1910), the ceiling of which is a replica of that found in the Long Gallery at the 12th century English manor, Haddon Hall.

After Belmont's death in 1908, Alva reverted to spending her summers at Marble House, during which time Belcourt stood empty. In 1925, she sold Beacon Towers and removed to France, where she lived at the Château d'Augerville to be closer to her daughter, Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964). On her death in 1933, Alva left Belcourt to her brother-in-law, the retired diplomat, Perry Belmont (1851-1947).

Perry used Belcourt sparingly up until the Second World War, preferring the less ostentatious By-the-Sea. When Newport became a Naval base, he moved the majority of Belcourt's treasures to his other houses. Rumor has it that Perry had never been overly-enamoured with Alva and rather than keep her furniture, he auctioned it off. 

Seeing no practical use for Belcourt, in 1940 Perry sold Belcourt for a mere $1,000 to George Hall Waterman, Jr. (1912-1986). As a further snub to Alva, the condition of the sale stated that the house should be restored to Hunt/Oliver's original design. Waterman started work on the third floor in the hope of being able to use the house as a museum for his collection of antique cars, but zoning restrictions and disapproving neighbours cut short his aspirations.

In 1943, Waterman sold Belcourt to Edward J. Dunn, Jr., who six years later would also be the owner of another of Newport's five largest mansions, Seaview Terrace. None of the room were then habitable and Dunn never lived there: The house stood empty, except for the stables that were rented out to the military and became workshops. In 1954, Dunn sold Belcourt for $22,500 to Louis Livingston Lorillard (1919-1986) and his wife Elaine Guthrie (1914-2007), the wealthy organizers of the newly created Newport Jazz Festival

Belcourt's lawns could comfortably hold 10,000 guests and it's courtyard and loggias provided excellent acoustics; and, as such the Lorillards had intended to establish Belcourt as the permanent venue for their annual festival but like Waterman before them, they ran into the same civic disputes. The opening party for the 2nd Newport Jazz festival was held at Belcourt, but the event itself took place at Freebody Park.

In 1956, the castle was purchased for $25,000 by the Tinney family, made up of Donald Harold Tinney (1934-2006), his parents, and great-aunt, Nellie Ruth Fuller (1881-1972). Refurnishing the house with their own collection of antiques (which included many pieces from Northfield Chateau, notably the mirrors which now are in the banquet hall), reproductions and Donald's stained glass pieces, they renamed the place Belcourt Castle and it opened to the public as a house-museum in 1957.

In 1961, Donald married Harle Hope Hanson at Belcourt. Together, they co-founded the Royal Arts Foundation that operated the house as a museum; offering tours, afternoon tea, murder mystery nights, medieval banquets and even a ghost tour - it was featured in an episode of Ghost Hunters. They continued to add to the furnishings at Belcourt until the objects within amounted to over 2,000 pieces from 33 different countries around the world.

As many of Newport's mansions were being demolished from the 1960s onwards, the Tinneys salvaged much of their original features and retrofitted them into Belcourt - such as the panelling rescued from Whiteholme in 1963.

After Donald's death in 2006, his widow, Harle, continued to run the operations of Belcourt until it funds became a problem and it was too much for her alone. In 2009, she placed Belcourt on the market $7.2 million. It was eventually sold in 2012 for $3.2 million to Carolyn Rafaelian, the founder of Alex and Ani. According to The New York Times, she spent a reported $5 million on restoration work, including repairing the roof at a cost of $3 million. Restored to its former glory, Belcourt of Newport is now open to the public as a tour house, art gallery and event space. 




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