In 1891, Oliver Belmont hired the distinguished architect Richard Morris Hunt to design his dream home: a mansion that would serve as a summer cottage for him and his many horses.
Belmont’s bachelor pad was as much a private getaway (he set it next to a forest of trees) as it was a space to pamper his horses. Hunt thoughtfully designed the ground floor around an enormous carriage room and stables—with cream and maroon tiles lining the walls, yellow brick pavement, and a central marble trough. Belmont could ride his horses from the stables to the grounds and all the way to the ocean. The mansion had a single bedroom in it, so he could live in privacy with his horses.
And Hunt, the first American to study at the renowned École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was no stranger to creating one-of-a-kind masterpieces. He designed the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,and many buildings across the country—including Newport’s illustrious mansions, Marble House and The Breakers, and the Biltmore Mansion in the mountains of North Carolina—between 1867 and 1895.
Everything changed in 1896, when Oliver Belmont fell head-over- heels in love with his recently divorced neighbor, Alva Vanderbilt. After swift romance and nuptials, Alva began adding her own flair to the mansion.
She wanted her “summer cottage” to be a proper venue for elegant soirees and elite social gatherings—so she planned extensive renovations and touched up her new home with Renaissance details.
She took it upon herself to “civilize” the mansion, changing the ground floor into a space more suitable for humans than horses. She had the grand staircase rearranged to be more convenient for guests, and converted the carriage room into a banquet hall. Alva brought style, refinement, and a true socialite aesthetic to Belcourt, transforming the mansion into a place that guests were honored to experience.
After Oliver’s death in 1908, Alva became very active in the Women’s Suffrage movement and spent most of her time in Europe and New York. She helped establish the National Women’s Party and spearheaded the first-ever picketing to take place before the White House in 1917.
The house stayed in the Belmont family until 1940, when it was sold to George Waterman who planned to turn the mansion into a car museum. After paying $1000 for Belcourt, he discovered it was not zoned for an antique automobile museum and sold it to Edward Dunn, who never lived in the house. Dunn rented out the stables for repairing military equipment during World War II.
In 1954, Elaine and Louis Lorillard bought Belcourt for $22,500, with plans to host the Newport Jazz Festival. The house did not last as a performance venue and was sold again in 1956 to the Tinney Family, who filled the mansion with their private collection of antiques.
The Tinneys lived in the house for 56 years until 2012, when Harle Tinney sold Belcourt to Carolyn Rafaelian. Inspired by Alva’s determination, Carolyn is in the process of restoring the brilliant Belcourt of Newport to all of its former glory.
Born in Rhode Island, Carolyn Rafaelian transformed a family tradition of jewelry-making into a worldwide lifestyle brand. She founded ALEX AND ANI in 2004, and is now the company’s CEO and Chief Creative Officer. Carolyn is working to restore Belcourt’s splendor: inspired by Alva’s determination, she is in the process of reviving the mansion’s former glory with a breath of fresh air.