Belcourt is one of Newport's Gilded Age “summer cottages.” It is located on Bellevue Avenue not far from the landmark Marble House.
Visits to a historic mansion are often made more enjoyable if there is a famous or colorful person associated with the house. Belcourt has two such individuals.
Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont was the heir to an investment baking fortune created by his father August Belmont. His mother's family included the American naval heroes Oliver Hazard Perry (victor of the Battle of Lake Eire in the War of 1812) and Commodore Mathew Perry (who led the squadron which opened Japan to U.S. trade). Thus, one might well have expected great things from Oliver.
But such expectations were to be disappointed. Apart from serving one term as a U.S. Congressman, Oliver never pursued a significant occupation. Instead, he spent his time indulging in various pleasures, including drinking and womanizing. He also had a passion for horses and for driving carriages “four in hand.”
Divorced from his first wife, Oliver wanted to build a bachelor pad to stay in when he was in Newport for the social season, which was about six weeks a year. This abode would have only one bedroom but would have space to accommodate his various interests including horses. Therefore, he hired prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt to build a cottage for him. It would be located on Bellevue Avenue, close to his friends Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt's Marble House.
The result was Belecourt. While Belcourt was built with only one bedroom, it was not a studio apartment. Indeed, it had some 60 rooms and was the third largest mansion in Newport. The design was based on King Louis VIII's hunting lodge at Versailles and the interior reflected Oliver's love of medieval pageantry with stained glass windows and Gothic halls. Oliver's horses were not forgotten as the entire first floor of the building was devoted to stables and housing carriages.
When in residence, Oliver would hold elaborate parties during which he would greet his guests sitting on a throne flanked by exotically-costumed servants. During the day, he would do such things as race one of his carriages up Bellevue Avenue to the Newport Casino (now the International Tennis Hall of Fame). While he was inside, his servants would replace his horses so that he would have a fresh team for the trip back to Belcourt.
Over the years, Oliver made a number of journeys with his friends the Vanderbilts on their yacht. During these trips, he and Alva Vanderbilt became increasingly attracted to one another while her husband developed other interests. Consequently, shortly after the Vanderbilts divorced, Alva married Oliver in 1896.
Alva was a formidable woman. She was from a prosperous Southern merchant family that moved to New York City prior to the Civil War. In 1875, she married William K. Vanderbilt who was an heir to a vast railroad fortune. However, the Vanderbilts were considered nouveau riche and were snubbed by the elite of New York society. Alva set out to change that and through building mansions on New York's Fifth Avenue and on Newport's Bellvue Avenue, commissioning the world's largest private yacht and hosting a series of elaborate parties and other ostentatious displays of wealth, she rose to become one of the top socialites of the Gilded Age. To give the family an old-world pedigree, she forced her daughter Conselo into a loveless marriage with England's Duke of Marlbourgh. When she wanted something, Alva did not fool around.
As one would expect, when Alva moved across Bellevue Avenue from the Marble House, she made changes to Belcourt. The horses were moved aside and the interior redesigned so as to give the aura of refinement and grandeur Alva coveted. Belcourt was also modified so as to accommodate parties on the scale and grandeur that Alva had become known for. Of course, she also built a bedroom suite for herself.
After Oliver's death in 1908, Alva left Belcourt and never lived there again. By now, her interest had turned to votes for women and she employed her determination and resources to promoting the Women's Suffrage Movement.
Ownership of Belcourt passed to Oliver's brother Perry when Alva died in 1926. (Oliver never acknowledged his daughter by his first marriage and refused to make her an heir). Perry had most of the contents of Belcourt moved to other Belmont properties or else auctioned off.
Belcourt was sold to George Waterman in 1940, who wanted to make it into a museum for antique automobiles. However, this plan fell through because of zoning regulations.
The next owner was Edward Dunn who rented it to the Navy for use as an equipment repair facility during World War II.
Louis and Elaine Lorillard (of the Lorillard tobacco fortune) bought Belcourt in 1954 to use as a venue for the Newport Jazz Festival. It was estimated that up to 10,000 people could be accommodated on Belcourt's lawns. Some concerts were held there but the plan folded following complaints from the neighbors.
Next, Belcourt became the home of the Tinney family who lived there for 56 years. They made a number of alterations to the house and brought in a number of antiques. They also opened it for public tours. Nonetheless, the house deteriorated during these years.
The current owner is Carolyn Rafaelian. She has undertaken to restore Belcourt to its former glory. This has involved the study of Old photographs were studied to see what Belcourt was like in Oliver's and Alva's days. Bucket loads of dust were removed, plaster and hardwood floors that had suffered water damage were repaired and rooms were repainted. The slate roof was n replaced. In addition, solar and geothermal technology have been employed to make Belcourt more efficient and sustainable. Ms. Rafaeliane has also furnished the rooms with period pieces as well as items from her own collection of art and collectibles.
Guided tours of Belcourt are offered that take visitors through the grand rooms on the first and second floors of the house. When we were there, the tour was given by one of the people involved in restoring the mansion and he was knowledgeable of both its history and the restoration efforts. While the restoration is ongoing, the rooms shown on the tour are fully furnished as if a wealthy family were still in residence.
For more information on visiting, see the Belcourt website.
Above: Belcourt is built around a courtyard.
Below: The Vaulted Room where Oliver would hold parties reflects his interest in pageantry.
Cruise destination - - Newport, Rhode Island - Shore excursion review - - Visiting Rough Point