Belcourt, Newport, Rhode Island (2)

Belcourt, seen from the west side along Ledge Road in Newport, around 1895. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in more detail in the previous post, Belcourt was completed in 1894 as the summer home of Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a banker from the prominent Belmont family of New York. It was the third-largest mansion ever built in Newport, and like many of the others it was designed by noted architect Richard Morris Hunt. However, its design was unusual in that Belmont – a young, divorced man with a penchant for horses – dedicated the entire first floor to storage space for carriages and luxurious stables for his horses.

The first photo was taken within about a year after Belmont moved into the house, but it would soon undergo significant changes to the interior, after his 1896 marriage to the recently-divorced Alva Vanderbilt. She was much more interested in using the house for entertaining people than for stabling horses, so after moving in she converted much of the ground floor into a banquet hall, among other alterations to the house.

Oliver Belmont died in 1908, and in 1916 Alva sold the house to his brother, Perry Belmont. He owned Belcourt for the next 24 years, before selling it for just $1,000 in 1940. The house would go through several more owners in the mid-20th century, before being purchased by the Tinney family in 1956. By this point, the house had suffered from serious neglect, but the Tinneys worked to restore it, and opened part of the house for public tours. It would remain in their family until 2012, when it was sold to Carolyn Rafaelian, the founder of the Alex and Ani jewelry company.

Today, it is not possible to photograph Belcourt from the exact same spot as the 1895 photo, as the previously-vacant land in the foreground is now occupied by houses. However, the 2018 photo shows a very similar angle of the west side of the house, seen from Ledge Road. The photo also shows some of the major restoration work that Rafaelian has done, including the replacement of the deteriorated roof. As a result, the exterior looks as good as it did when the house was completed some 125 years ago, and the only noticeable difference between these two photos is the garage door in the foreground, which was added sometime in the 20th century.

Belcourt, Newport, Rhode Island

Belcourt, seen from the corner of Lakeview Avenue and Ledge Road in Newport, around 1894-1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2018:

During the second half of the 19th century, Newport became one of the most desirable resort destinations in the country, and many of the wealthiest families in the country built summer homes here. This particular house, named Belcourt, was owned by Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a New York banker and socialite who inherited a significant fortune from his father, the prominent financier August Belmont, Sr. The elder Belmont died in 1890, and the following year the 33-year-old Oliver began construction on this 50,000-square-foot mansion.

The house was designed by noted architect Richard Morris Hunt, who designed many of the Gilded Age homes here in Newport, including The Breakers, Marble House, and Ochre Court. However, Hunt’s design for Belcourt was very different from those of the other houses. Despite its size – it was the third-largest Newport mansion after The Breakers and Ochre Court – it was, in many ways, the antithesis of a typical house here. Belmont disliked the garish houses of the people whom he saw as the nouveau riche, so his house deliberately rejected many features that were customary here in Newport.

One notable example of this is the location of the house. Although its address is on Bellevue Avenue, the main entrances are on these two small side streets, as shown in this scene. It is also on the less-desirable west side of Bellevue Avenue, further away from the ocean, so it does not have a waterfront view. Perhaps its most unusual feature, though, was the ground floor, which originally housed stables for Belmont’s prized horses and storage space for carriages. As a result, the rooms for entertaining guests were all on the second floor. This was the same floor as Belmont’s bedroom, which was seen as another major faux pas within Newport society.

As his house demonstrated, Belmont was not particularly bothered by what others thought of him and his behavior. By the time he moved into this house, he was already divorced after a very short marriage to his first wife, Sara Swan Whiting. However, he caused further controversy in 1896, when he married Alva Vanderbilt, the recently-divorced wife of William K. Vanderbilt. In the divorce, Alva had received the palatial Marble House, located nearby on Bellevue Avenue, and her wedding gift from her new husband was the deed to Belcourt, giving her ownership of two of the largest, most opulent mansions in Newport.

Alva’s arrival here at Belcourt quickly brought changes to the original design. Most significant was the ground floor, where the carriage room was converted into a banquet hall. During this time, she lived here at Belcourt, but she continued to own Marble House, although she only used the $11 million home for its laundry facilities, which were better than the ones at Belcourt. However, Oliver Belmont died of appendicitis in 1908, at the age of 49, and she later moved back to Marble House, eventually selling Belcourt in 1916 to Oliver’s brother Perry Belmont.

Perry owned the property until 1940, but by this point the opulent summer mansions such as Belcourt had fallen out of fashion. Newport was no longer the exclusive resort that it had been at the turn of the century, and these houses were seen as outdated white elephants. As a result, Perry Belmont sold Belcourt for just $1,000, a mere fraction of the $3 million that it had cost his brother to build the house less than 50 years earlier. The new owner, George Waterman, hoped to turn the house into an antique car museum, but he was prevented from doing this by zoning laws. He did, however, perform some restoration work on the house before selling it in 1943.

After changing hands several more times, the house was purchased by the Tinney family in 1956 for $25,000. They performed restoration work, filled the house with antiques, and opened it for public tours, while also maintaining it as a residence. They owned the house until 2012, when it was sold for $3.6 million to Carolyn Rafaelian, the founder of the Rhode Island-based Alex and Ani jewelry company. By this point the house was again in need of significant work, and Rafaelian has spent several million more in order to restore it. The house is still open to the public for tours, but it has also been used for other events, including Jennifer Lawrence’s wedding in the fall of 2019.

Lafayette Statue, Washington, DC

The Major General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette statue in Lafayette Square, opposite the White House in Washington, D.C., around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The statue in 2018:

Lafayette Square has been parkland since Washington, D.C. was laid out in the 1790s, but it did not receive its current name until 1824, when it was dedicated in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette. It is located directly to the north of the White House, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, and during the 19th century the other streets around the square became one of Washington’s most desirable residential areas.

The first statue in the square was, ironically, not of Lafayette. Instead, it was an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, which was dedicated in 1853 in the center of the park. This statue of Lafayette, located in the southeast corner of the square, was not added until 1891. Officially titled Major General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette, the 36-foot statue was the work of French sculptor Alexandre Falguière. Lafayette stands atop the pedestal, but the monument also includes figures of four other French military leaders of the American Revolution: Comte d’Estaing and Comte de Grasse on the right, and Comte de Rochambeau and the Chevalier Duportail on the left side. In the center, looking up at Lafayette, is a female figure representing America.

The first photo was taken within about 10 to 15 years after the Lafayette statue was dedicated. Around this time, it was joined by three more statues, with one on each of the other three corners of the square. Like the Lafayette statue, these all honored prominent foreign leaders of the American Revolution, starting with Rochambeau in 1902 and followed by statues of Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben in 1910.

In more than a century since the first photo was taken, the area surrounding Lafayette Square has undergone significant changes. Many early 19th century townhouses are still standing, but they are no longer used as private residences, and they are now joined by more recent government buildings. However, the square itself is not much different from its early 20th century appearance, and all five statues still stand here, including the Lafayette one that is shown here. These statues are now part of the Lafayette Square Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970.