In the course of researching an upcoming article, I came across a location that piqued my interest: Belcourt Castle. This Newport, Rhode Island, mansion stands out from its stodgy neighbors by virtue of its rebellious history — and its reputed hauntings. I’d never been to Newport, let alone Belcourt, So I took a little six-hour drive up I-95 to visit the Ocean State — my first time actually stopping and not just driving through on the way to Boston — and checked out the quaint little island burg that was recently named one of America’s Prettiest Towns by ForbesTraveler.com.
Although I had less than a day to spend in town — whose colonial buildings are remarkably well preserved, thanks mainly to the foresight of philanthropist/heiress/scandal queen Doris Duke — I was determined to see the highlights, most notably the castle that had originally drawn me here.
But as I’d arrived less than an hour before Belcourt closed, the castle would have to wait until the next day. First I was off to the Cliff Walk, the three-and-a-half-mile oceanfront path that guides visitors along the lawn perimeters of some of the most magnificent homes ever built on American soil. I managed to arrive about an hour before sunset, and I bragged to a friend on the other end of my phone about the sights I was passing as he sat shackled to his cube on the opposite coast. “Ooh, there’s The Breakers. You should see Chateau-la-Mer!” Sometimes it’s fun to rub a little salt water in the working-man’s wound.
I made it back to the Bowen’s Wharf area just in time for the magic hour, which once again left me pondering, Why is it that sunset photos never look half splendid as they do in real life? At least I got a few decent twilight shots of the darling colonial-era shops and restaurants that line the waterfront. It felt someone like Disneyland, only without the impending air of falsehood or soul-numbing Stepfordness. After a splendid dinner at One Bellevue — featuring the best butternut squash soup I’ve ever had in my entire butternut squash soup-loving life — I got some much-needed shuteye at the Hotel Viking, a historic 1926 hotel whose mission seems to be not to skimp on pillows. (Where the heck are you supposed to put them at night, anyway?)
The next day, I awoke refreshed and ready to tackle the ludicrous eight-hour agenda I’d set forth for myself: sailing, a visit to the Norman Bird Sanctuary and Hanging Rock, and, of course, a firsthand view of the castle that had drawn me to America’s Society Capital (also aka the Queen of the Sea and the Queen of Summer Resorts) in the first place. Surprisingly, I haven’t been able to discover a sailing nickname for Newport, or perhaps they’ve opted not to have one, still smarting from the loss of the America’s Cup back in 1983. My sailing guide from Sail Newport was a wealth of information about the sport, answering every question I had as if he’d studied for an oral exam. He regaled me with tales of the cup, the story behind the naming of the Rose Island Lighthouse (the island is said to resemble a stemmed rose when the water is at low tide), and the remarkable tenacity of Clingstone, the unsheltered “House on the Rocks” that has somehow managed to weather storms that have obliterated more protected landmarks.
After a delightful morning on the water, I realized that if I were going to keep on schedule and leave by sundown, I would have to skip my hike to Hanging Rock and head straight to Belcourt. I didn’t want to be rushed, and I certainly wouldn’t have missed this stop.
Owner Harle Tinney was kind enough to give me a private tour through her home, which, unlike most of Newport’s other mansions, was still a functioning household rather than just a museum. She pointed out where she herself had spotted ghosts and provided her own personal take on some of the artifacts, most notably the coronation carriage, which she had assisted her husband in building. Tinney can point to a carving and recall just how many hours, days, or weeks it had taken to finish it. The carriage itself is quite an artistic achievement, with the sort of craftsmanship and attention to detail usually found only in works of centuries past.
The rest of the house is an eclectic wonderment of treasures that the Tinney family collected from around the globe. Before a stained-glass window sat a hand-carved four-poster bed from India, which Tinney said would have taken four men twenty years to carve. (Imagine the back order on those.) A jewelry box made for royalty stood nearly twice as tall as Tinney herself. Vases, chairs, and paintings originally owned by some of history’s grandest names filled every area of the castle, which at times actually felt medieval due to the abundance of suits of armor, vaulted ceilings, and stained glass.
I won’t go into the details of the home’s history, which is laid out in great detail elsewhere on the web, but suffice it to say that Belcourt’s pedigree is unusual, just the way original owner and maverick Oliver Belmont wanted it. The love the staff feels for the house is evident, especially from Tinney herself. One of her employees even took off a year of school in Canada to work at Belcourt, so obsessed he’s been
since he first learned about the castle as a kid. It seems that most anyone, myself included, who visits Belcourt finds a special attachment to it, and I found myself jumping at Harle Tinney’s offer to use her office to finish the assignment that was due in mere hours.
When I finally, and reluctantly, left Belcourt after sunset, Ms. Tinney was leaving for a birthday extravaganza at one of the other historic manses, and she had just finished wrapping a lovely antique vase for her guest. She was decked out in her finery, evoking images of the social butterfly Alva Belmont, whose presence, if not her spirit, could still be felt throughout the darkened halls of Belcourt. I followed her a few blocks down the road to the party and then, as I rolled off back towards the modern world on I-95 and she down a long white gravel driveway, spotted a last glimpse of Ms. Tinney, a tux-tailed valet, and a bygone era.