Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Big Old Houses: My Personal Favorite

Big Old Houses: My Personal Favorite
by John Foreman

People often ask me if I have a favorite house. Answer: Yes, I do. It's called Belcourt, an 1894 essay on the French Renaissance designed by Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895) for Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (1858-1908). In 1956, during an era when Newport mansions seemed an endangered species, a man named Harold Tinney bought Belcourt for $25,000. He renamed it Belcourt Castle and turned it into a combination extended family home and ersatz museum of unrelated decorative objects that seemed, by some lights, to relate either to the Gilded Age, or to European culture, or to some intermediate theme in between. The showy gate on Bellevue Avenue is a 1980s Tinney addition, rescued from the subdivision of a big place in nearby Portsmouth. The Tinney family was a soap opera, a reality show ahead of its time, but had they not come along when they did, it's even money Belcourt would be a parking lot today.

Hunt's eastern elevation, visible beyond the Tinney gate, is really a side wall. Belcourt's front door is on the other side of the building, facing a relatively unknown 2-block street called Ledge Road. Belcourt (the "Castle" nonsense has happily been dropped) is in the midst of a massive restoration that would enchant the mot hopeful house lover's heart.
Admittedly, in the image below, Oliver Belmont looks a little vapid. In reality, he was cultured, educated and devastatingly charming, particularly to women. In 1896 he married Alva Vanderbilt, divorced former wife of his friend and Newport neighbor, William Kissam Vanderbilt. The new Mrs. Belmont had, a month before the ceremony, succeeded in marrying her weeping 18-year-old daughter to the Duke of Marlborough.

Oliver Belmont.
Belmont was also divorced, having deserted a society beauty named Sallie Whiting. In Belmont's defense, Sallie expected her manipulative mother and a pair of clinging sisters to be a live-in part of the marriage. No clergyman would marry Alva and Oliver in a church, not that either of them cared, so they married in Alva's East 72nd Street house. But, I digress.

Belcourt's north facade, overlooking Lakeview Avenue, explains what the house is really all about. The twin arched openings were carriage entrances leading to an enormous carriage room. A courtyard in the middle of the house is bounded on the south by a stable.

Oliver Belmont was an expert at the sport of four-in-hand driving, a fashionable pastime of the uber-rich that required participants to single-handedly drive a team of four (usually gorgeous) horses harnessed to a swanky coach, the larger variety being called a drag. Coaching clubs still exist, although like fox hunts, they're mostly under the public radar. Not so in the 1890s, however, when coaching parades down Bellevue Avenue in Newport, or Main Street in Lenox, or Central Park in New York were highly visible features of American high society.
Hunt designed the second floor of Belcourt as a sumptuous 1-bedroom summer place, complete with ballroom, drawing room, small oval dining room, no guest rooms, quarters for 30 servants, and a kitchen on the other side of Ledge Road. Unfortunately, the 33-year-old Belmont missed the 1894 opening, as he'd been mugged in New York and subsequently confined to hospital. The house was used to some extent in the summer of 1895, however, after marrying Alva in January of '96, Belcourt arguably became more her house than his.
The arch on the right in the image below is the front door, and the pavement in front of it is Ledge Road. This modest front entrance — as opposed to Harold Tinney's fantasy gate on Bellevue Avenue — supposedly speaks to Belmont's horror of arriviste excess. How anyone would interpret construction of what was essentially $3.2 million dollar stable (not much on the sunny side of $100 million today) as a protest against extravagance is unclear, at least to me.
The west, or entry, facade is seen below. The front door is out of sight to the left, hidden by the projecting bay of the entrance hall. Horse stalls were in the wing on the right, grooms billeted under the mansard above. Unseen is the central courtyard separating Belmont and his carriage room on the north, from his horses and help on the south. Major reconstruction is underway, both inside and out.
The east facade of the house originally gazed across lawns and gardens toward distant Bellevue Avenue. Later it overlooked the Tinneys' Belcourt Castle parking lot. The open arch in the middle leads to the central courtyard. Since the front door is currently barricaded, we're heading for the arch.
Here's Oliver Belmont (center, with cap) and his wife Alva (second from left, with feathered chapeau) watching the Vanderbilt Cup Race of 1905 from a bleacher outside Mineola. In pedigree-starved America, Belmont's self image had some justification. His father, August Belmont (1813-1890), the German-Jewish representative of the Rothschilds in America, introduced New York to fine wines, high finance, European culture, private ballrooms, racing stables and a sophisticated cosmopolitanism that soon eclipsed — culturally, anyway — the Manhattan Knickerbocracy. His mother, nee Caroline Perry, was the niece of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the War of 1812's "Hero of Lake Erie." Belmont Sr.'s death in 1890 (with no bequests to charity) presumably enabled son Oliver to plan Belcourt. The natural choice for architect was Richard Morris Hunt, first American graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, a famous Francophile, and architect of the Vanderbilt's Marble House on the other side of Bellevue Avenue. Marble House was not quite finished when planning started for Belcourt.
Alva and Oliver by all accounts had a very happy marriage. After the wedding, she closed Marble House (except for the laundry), moved to Belcourt with Oliver, and soon set to work on plans to improve the place. Richard Hunt having died in 1895, she turned to John Russel Pope (1874-1937), famous for his mansions and clubs, although perhaps more so for Washington's Lincoln Memorial and National Gallery. The carriage room behind the arches on the right was converted into a banquet room, a paneled library was installed on the far side of the courtyard, and a boudoir ornamented with imported French paneling built adjacent to what had been intended as the bachelor's bedroom.
A long gallery separates the courtyard from the original carriage room which, under Alva, was converted into a banquet hall.
The westernmost of the twin carriage entrances is currently covered with construction paper.
The first view below looks into the carriage room/banquet hall from the carriage lobby on the west. The over-scaled chandelier, described by the Tinneys as a czarist artifact, in fact came from an American hotel lobby. With luck, it'll be gone the next time I visit. There are, in fact, a lot of suspicious looking chandeliers in this house, many of which would look better ... someplace else.
Here's the main entrance hall, looking west toward Ledge Road. The front door, now barricaded, is located in a small anteroom behind that arch on the right.
Guests at Belcourt entered this small anteroom, made a sharp right into the entrance hall, then took the main stair on the south wall to the entertaining rooms on the second floor.
Let's bypass the stairway for now and have a look at Pope's linenfold paneled English library of 1910, added, interestingly, after Oliver Belmont's death.
There are no plans to reconstruct the horse stalls in the stable wing, but tiled walls, brick floors, horse troughs, harness hangers, tie-back hooks, etc. will all be saved.
Let's leave the stable, recross the library, and climb part way up the main stair for a look at Pope alterations over the library, and re-purposed grooms' quarters above the stable.
The door on the right leads to the floor above the library and stable wings. A lot of construction activity here — walls moved or removed, a few old rooms intact, former grooms' cubicles renovated for future meeting purposes, etc.
Now we're back in the niftiest part of the second floor where, as far as I can tell, everything is pure Richard Morris Hunt, untouched by subsequent alterations. The first view below looks east on the landing; the stairs from below are on the other side of the balustrade; the french window opens onto a balcony overlooking the courtyard.
The open doors across the hall lead to a Gothic ballroom above the original carriage room. The gallery to the right ends at a secondary stairway to the third floor.
My guide, Sam Hardy, is doing what we all do, all day, any or everywhere we happen to be, namely, check messages. Behind him, to the left of the Gothic ballroom, is the door to the drawing room.
Immediately to the left of the drawing room, a pair of doors leads to a beautiful oval dining room facing west over Ledge Road. The original kitchen, as you will remember, was in a separate building across the street.
Between the dining room and the ballroom, also overlooking Ledge Road, is a drawing room which, in another house would seem quite grand.
The Gothic room, which I'm glad I won't be heating this winter, faces north. The view below looks east towards Bellevue Avenue.
This view looks west towards Ledge Road. The drawing room is through the door to the right of the piano; the second floor hall is outside the door on the left. We'll visit the organ loft above the armor when we get to the third floor.
A door to the left of the fireplace leads to what was formerly the only bedroom in the house. The Belmonts shared it for 12 summers, until Oliver's sudden death in June, 1908, from septic poisoning stemming from an otherwise routine appendectomy. He was 50 years old. According to his "New York Times" obit he had graduated from Annapolis in 1880, spent 2 years in the navy, and published (in his idealistic youth) a weekly magazine called "The Verdict," which railed against "trusts, monopolies and the money power on behalf of the common people." In his middle years — well, actually his last years — Belmont was a clubman, socialite and a figure in the coaching world. He also served two terms (1901 and 1903) in the United States House of Representatives.
Adjoining the bedroom is the sort of vintage bathroom of which big old house dreams are made. I'm told that's the oldest standing shower in Newport.
This spiral staircase, which we glimpsed from the opposite end of the hall, separates the bathroom from Alva's antique French paneled boudoir. A second bathroom, presumably hers, sits at the foot of a short picturesque flight of steps.
Glass doors at the west end of the boudoir open onto what is technically a loggia overlooking the courtyard.
The spiral stair leads to a 3rd floor gallery overlooking the Gothic room below.
At the eastern end of the gallery, a suite formerly occupied by Alva's daughter is being renovated into modern live-in quarters, I'm not sure for whom. Consuelo Vanderbilt's forced marriage — there's no other way to put it — to the Duke of Marlborough is a tale usually told to illustrate the cruelties of a social climbing mother. Like many archteypal tales, this isn't really the case. How happy would you be if your 18-year-old daughter, like Alva's, had secretly arranged to marry an unemployed 31-year-old society layabout? Not very, I'll bet. The Duke of Marlborough seemed a much better catch. As for social climbing, if there was one thing Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont cared very little about, it was impressing other people. She supported the eventual annulment of her daughter's marriage to the duke, and in the years after Belmont's death the two of them became quite close.
Here's the organ loft, located at the west end of the 3rd floor hall and not very interesting. I include it anyway.
Alva was devastated by Belmont's death, in the wake of which she plunged into the cause of women's suffrage. In 1909 she was a delegate to the International Women's Suffrage Association in London; in 1912 she marched down 5th Avenue in the famous Women's Vote Parade; she even opened Marble House in 1914 for a Conference of Great Women that thoroughly jangled her Bellevue Avenue neighbors. After ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the vote, she spent less time in Newport and more on Long Island. In 1924 she moved to France and both Belcourt and Marble House were boarded up.
Alva's 1933 funeral at New York's St. Thomas Episcopal was attended by thousands. An honor guard from the National Women' Party surrounded the casket, an all-women's choir sang a funeral hymn composed by Alva herself, a flying wedge of motorcycles accompanied the casket to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. "There is not a woman living today," said Womens' Party Advisory Council member Doris Stevens, "who is not nearer to the benefits and beauties of freedom because of Mrs. Belmont."
Alva left Belcourt to Oliver's nephew, August Belmont, who didn't really want it. He sold it to his Uncle Perry in 1937, but Perry Belmont didn't really want it either. He off-loaded it in 1940 (according to one source, for $1000) to George Waterman, whose plans for an auto museum were derailed by local zoning. Then Edwin Dunn bought it in 1943, never lived there, and rented it instead to the army for use as an equipment repair facility. In 1954, for $22,500, Louis Lorillard bought it as a venue for the 2nd annual Newport Jazz Festival, which had worn out its welcome at the Newport Casino. There weren't any more festivals at Belcourt, however, and the place mouldered for another two years until the Tinneys arrived in 1956.
In 2009, Harle Tinney put Belcourt on the market for $7.2 million and in 2012, Carolyn Rafaelian bought it for $3.6 million. Why is Belcourt my favorite house? Because it has heft and scale, combines grandeur with originality, and weds erudite design to sumptuous detail. Would that the world had more people like Ms. Rafaelian, a self-made Rhode Island businesswoman who supervises a $200 million dollar empire of home goods and furnishings called Alex and Ani, operates a string of cafes called Tea and Java, owns a winery in nearby Compton, and still has time — not to mention sufficient cash — to rescue this worthy old house.
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