Newport history for sale

Gilded Age castle comes with its stories in tow

The music room of Belcourt Castle is one of the more than 50 rooms in the home. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff) The music room of Belcourt Castle is one of the more than 50 rooms in the home.
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / June 1, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

NEWPORT, R.I. - The listing for 659 Bellevue Ave. advertises 10 bedrooms and 27,000 square feet, but that doesn't tell the half of it. When the owner and her real estate broker walked the house together, they counted more than 50 rooms and 60,000 square feet. Worried the size would scare off buyers, they decided to downplay it.

"It's kind of mind-boggling when you put the numbers down," said Harle Tinney, sitting in her 70-foot long banquet hall, beneath a chandelier fitted with 13,000 crystals. "This is not an overwhelming property. It's a wonderful property."

Tinney is downsizing from Belcourt Castle, the only "summer cottage" in Newport that is both an active residence and a museum open for tours.

Belcourt is neither the most lavish nor the best preserved of Newport's Gilded Age mansions. With an asking price of $7.2 million, it barely cracks the top 10 list of the most ex pensive estates on the market here, and it lacks the 21st-century touches (home theaters, Viking ranges) tucked into the historic frames of the others. And among the mansions that are now museums, it is hardly the best known.

But among Newport's storied homes, Belcourt has long made the case for being the liveliest and most unusual. It was once a sprawling bachelor pad, the host of the nation's first automobile parade (1899), and a birthing ground for the Newport Jazz Festival.

It also has skirted abandonment and served as a backdrop for a domestic drama so messy that a judge called it modern-day Dickens. Then there are the spirits, including a monk-like figure said to float through walls.

There is debate in town about whether Belcourt can sell, given the recession and what most multimillionaire buyers would deem the need for serious updating. But eccentricity could be an asset.

Along with the clock tower, courtyard, and carved-oak doors, the next buyer would assume Belcourt's colorful and sometimes star-crossed history - and get to decide what is next for the castle, which has been cherished by some, scorned by others, but never frozen in time.

"I think Belcourt is still spontaneous," said Tinney, who married into the family, and Belcourt, in 1960. She said the castle, ever evolving, has its own needs and narrative.

"There are so many stories in Belcourt, but all of them full of love," said Tinney, who at 68 has the manner of a beloved, if unconventional, former teacher. She parks her Nissan (license plate: BELCRT) in front of the house, chats with visitors in unassuming fashion, and begins thrice-weekly candlelight tours with a champagne toast to world peace.

During another themed night last week - a ghost tour in which Tinney shared the bill with a psychic - she apologized when her cellphone went off, ringing with haunting organ music.

Modeled on a Versailles hunting lodge and finished in 1894, Belcourt was built for Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a banking heir best known for his bloodline (the Belmont Stakes is named for his father) and his skill as a four-in-hand carriage driver.

Belmont hired famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to meld mansion and carriage house into one, so he could visit his prized possessions downstairs. Upstairs, he commissioned a master bedroom with wall scenes depicting the life of a nobleman and a bathroom with Newport's first standing shower.

Belcourt gained a female touch in 1896, when he wed the newly divorced wife of his neighbor and friend William K. Vanderbilt. Alva Belmont converted the carriage room into a banquet hall and transformed a study into a boudoir, importing 18th-century French paneling. The panels still hang, but the plaster is chipped, and the bedroom ceiling shows old water damage.

After Belmont's death in 1908 and his widow's move to France, Belcourt fell idle until 1940, when the family unloaded it to a group trying to open an automobile museum; it became a maintenance yard instead. At the time, dozens of Newport mansions were decrepit and disappearing, rendered "white elephants" by the establishment of an income tax and a shortage of servants.

In 1954, convention-flouting socialites Louis and Elaine Lorillard bought Belcourt for $22,500, strictly to stage the second Newport Jazz Festival - after upper-crust objections that the first one had overrun Newport's dignified casino with beatniks and hipsters.

The Tinneys arrived in 1956: Mother, father, maiden aunt, and grown son, Donald, a self-taught artist who was the guiding light for the family's stained-glass studio and antiques-restoration firm. Driven by Donald's childhood passion for collecting and desire to live in a castle, they moved through multiple historic homes across New England before acquiring Belcourt for $25,000.

Adding Castle to the name, the Tinneys planned from the start to share it with the public, generate revenue for upkeep, and use Belcourt to house their collection of furniture, art, and artifacts. When the 19-year-old Harle Hanson was hired as a summer tour guide, she and Donald quickly fell in love; within months, she had dropped out of college, married Donald, and moved into Belcourt.

Harle Tinney said things were harmonious until 1983, when robbers attempted a million-dollar heist. Police recovered many artifacts, but not a 14-pound silver reliquary from the third century.

That began a chain of misfortune. Patriarch Harold Tinney fell ill, then died. The tax collector threatened auction for delinquency. A young handyman who talked his way into living at Belcourt - a possible steward for the next century, it seemed - started romancing the aging matriarch, Ruth Tinney, and wormed his way into adoption.

After Ruth died, Donald and Harle waged a decade-and-a-half legal battle with the handyman, Kevin Koellisch, before succeeding in evicting him and relieving his claim. (In one ruling, Rhode Island's Supreme Court called him a "libertine and a bounder of sorts" who preyed on elderly women.)

While the Tinneys were tangled up in court, Newport inspectors cited them for a sewage problem, and officials and neighbors complained about noise from the dozens of annual weddings and rental events. One group brought notoriety when its advertised charity gala turned out instead to be a dissolute ball in which women were given mirrors to prove they were complying with a "no-underwear rule."

And in January 2006, Donald Tinney, his health declining with Alzheimer's, wandered from Belcourt and fell to his death on the rocky coastline at 71.

Through it all, Harle Tinney has kept a cheerful front, entertaining thousands of visitors, diving into the upkeep, busying herself with managing the home and museum staff.

"I live every day saying, 'Thank you, Lord,' for this beautiful day," she said. She maintains Belcourt to keep the Tinney tradition alive: "It's for the people that come in and enjoy it. That's what my great pleasure is, making people happy."

But after the last tour had departed on a recent evening, Tinney acknowledged in the quiet of the castle that she cannot maintain her energy level, or Belcourt, forever, and she cannot properly mourn Donald until she moves away.

Tinney does not envision a swift sale, but she hopes to find a buyer who wants to share Belcourt with the public, or at least open it for occasional functions. She will look for a smaller home and finish a book about the "Nine Lives of Belcourt."

Until then, she will continue hosting, delighting in introducing Belcourt to those who appreciate it. The other day, a friend dropped by with David Amram, the noted composer. Amram, who has collaborated with Jack Kerouac and Leonard Bernstein, marveled at the antiques, admired the Gothic ballroom and climbed to its dusty loft, where he played the pipe organ with gusto.

"At 78 years old, I feel like I'm a 12-year-old going to Versailles or Monticello," Amram said afterward, telling Tinney he hoped to return. "You could feel as good as any multimillionaire without having a cent, just by being here."

Tinney flashed a wide smile.

"It's what my husband always said: We haven't killed Belcourt," she said. "We have resurrected it."

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story Monday about the planned sale of Belcourt Castle in Newport gave the wrong first name for Ruth Tinney, a former owner of the historic residence.