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.

Northfield Chateau, Northfield, Mass (2)

Another view of the Northfield Chateau, at the end of Highland Avenue in Northfield, in 1963. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The scene in 2017:

As mentioned in the previous post, this mansion was built in 1903 as the summer residence of Francis Robert Schell, a wealthy New York businessman. He and his wife Mary had begun visiting Northfield in 1890, and originally came here because of evangelist D. L. Moody, who lived in the town and ran the nearby Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies. After the death of his father in 1900, Francis inherited a considerable fortune, and used it to build this 99-room mansion. He hired noted architect Bruce Price, who designed the house in a Châteauesque style that gave it the appearance of a French castle, complete with plenty of turrets, arches, and other embellishments.

The house was part of a 125-acre estate that Schell owned here in Northfield, and the family regularly visited here for the next 25 summers, until Francis’s death in 1928. Mary outlived him by more than a decade, but she reportedly refused to stay in the house after his death, instead choosing to spend summers at the adjacent Northfield Hotel. The house was eventually acquired by the Northfield School, and was used as an annex for the hotel, as well as a venue for the school’s prom and other events. Along with this, the basement, which had previously been the servants’ quarters, was converted into a youth hostel. It was still owned by the school when the first photo was taken in 1963, but by this point the 60-year-old mansion was in poor condition, and was too costly for the school to maintain. It was demolished later in 1963, and today the site is an open field next to the Northfield Golf Club.

Northfield Chateau, Northfield, Mass

The Northfield Chateau at the end of Highland Avenue in Northfield, in 1963. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The scene in 2017:

Unlike many other parts of New England, the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts was never a major summer resort destination during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a result, the area saw few of the grand hotels and Gilded Age “cottages” that were built in places like Bar Harbor, the Berkshires, Newport, the North Shore, and the White Mountains. However, one of the exceptions was this 99-room Châteauesque mansion in Northfield, which was completed in 1903 as the summer residence of Francis Robert Schell, a wealthy New York businessman.

Francis Schell and his wife Mary first came to Northfield in the summer of 1890, and stayed at the nearby Northfield Hotel. They originally came because of prominent evangelist D. L. Moody, who lived in the town and ran the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies, but the Schells soon fell in love with the town itself. They continued to return each summer, eventually purchasing a summer house. However, Francis’s father, Robert Schell, died in 1900, leaving him with a substantial fortune, and that same year the Schells began planning a massive house here in Northfield.

The house was designed by noted architect Bruce Price, and featured a style similar to his most famous work, the iconic Château Frontenac in Quebec. It would have blended in well in places like Lenox or Newport, but here in Northfield it stood out as garish and ostentatious, in the midst of a small farming community with otherwise modest houses. The house’s size and style did little to endear Schell to the town, nor did the fact that he enclosed his 125-acre estate with a fence to prevent locals from trespassing on the property. Schell did make at least one major contribution to the town, donating the nearby Schell Bridge over the Connecticut River, although even this was rather self-serving, since it gave him direct access from his house to the railroad station across the river.

The Schells spent many summers here in the house, from its completion in 1903 until Francis’s death in 1928. Mary would continue to visit Northfield after his death, although she reportedly stayed at the Northfield Hotel, being unwilling to return to the mansion without Francis. By this point, though, the house had little resale value, despite the extravagance that went in to its design and construction. The grand summer houses of the Gilded Age were falling out of fashion, a trend that was accelerated by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

The house was eventually purchased by the Northfield School, and for many years it was used as the venue for the school’s prom, which became known as “The Chat,” after the chateau. It was also used as an annex for the Northfield Hotel, and at one point the basement was converted into a youth hostel. However, it steadily fell into disrepair, and by the 1960s it was becoming too expensive for the school to maintain. The first photo was taken in 1963, as part of a Historic American Buildings Survey study of the building, and it was demolished later in the year, just 60 years after its completion. Today, the site of the house is an open field adjacent to the Northfield Golf Club, which is located on the former site of the Northfield Hotel.

Daniel B. Wesson House, Springfield, Mass

Daniel B. Wesson’s house on Maple Street, as it appeared between 1900 and 1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The site today:

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The building in the early 20th century was the home of Daniel B. Wesson, who was the co-founder of Smith and Wesson.  Located at 50 Maple Street, at the present-day intersection of Maple and Dwight, it was built in 1898, and was Wesson’s home until he died in 1906.  The house was purchased by a social club, the Colony Club, in 1915, and was used until February 20, 1966, when the building burned and was replaced by the bland, nondescript building that now stands on the lot.