In 1956, the Tinneys paid $25,000 for a piece of real estate located on 675 Bellevue Avenue. Their Belcourt Castle, the third largest mansion in Newport (after The Breakers and Ochre Court) would become a lifelong labor of love. This medieval-style castle has been an ongoing restoration project since they took up residence. Harle Tinney put her home up for sale in May, 2009 beause she found it more and more difficult to maintain the mansion and oversee the weddings, tours and special events needed to keep it afloat financially after her husband Donald’s death in 2006. Therefore, Belcourt Castle remains open to the public. Although we may not afford the asking price of $7.2 million, we certainly afford a $25 admission fee for a 75 minute tour through a museum laden with antiques, rich in architectural splendor, and infused with social history.
Currently the sole owner of the castle, Harle Tinney frequently guides tours through her home and is often present to greet visitors when she is in residence. Having toured Belcourt Castle where I had the privilege to engage both Harle and Donald Tinney in a conversation about the stained glass windows, it gives me great pleasure to elaborate. Of the 60 rooms at Belcourt, over a dozen may be viewed during a tour: English library, banquet hall, chapel, grand halls, music room, Empire-style dining room, French Gothic-style ballroom, two main bedrooms, loggia, and gallery. All of the rooms are finished with pieces from the Tinney family collections which include furnishings along with art and artifacts from Europe, the Orient, and from numerous other Newport mansions. Open to the public since 1957, the Tinneys’ labor of love restored, renovated, and preserved Belcourt Castle while operating the state’s only stained-glass business.
In essence the tale of Belcourt Castle with its abundant suits of armor, vaulted ceilings, and stained glass begins with its first owner- then, eligible bachelor, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, an avid collector of medieval manuscripts, stained glass, and armor.
Inheriting 60 million dollars enabled him to hire renowned Newport architect Richard Morris Hunt to design the 60-room residence which was completed in 1894 at a cost of $3.2 million. Another “summer cottage” built during the opulent Gilded Age sprung up in the elite neighborhood.
This ostentation is reflected in the castle’s distinguishing feature of extensive stables on the ground floor where Belmont’s beloved steeds slept under monogrammed blankets, and carriage areas sprawled on the 3-acre site. Fourteen secret doors and a tunnel to the kitchens were located two blocks away for fear of fire. Artisans spent three years carving an ornate grand staircase. The Great Room features a 17th century Italian stained glass and a chandelier with 13,000 prisms.
However long it took for Belcourt to be built, Oliver Belmont fell for the wife of his best friend and business partner in no time flat– Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt, who happened to hostess Belcourt’s opening ball in 1895. That same year Alva divorced and betrothed Oliver. The Honorable Perry Belmont, the last surviving of Oliver’s brothers, took ownership of the castle and sold it in 1940. Belcourt changed hands several times between 1940 and 1956 when the Tinneys came along.
After plunking down $25,000 for the derelict property, they renamed “Belcourt” to “Belcourt Castle” and opened a museum in 1957. Through a labor of love, the family refurbished the mansion and filled it with a collection of art and antiques, 13th century stained glass, Renaissance armor, and a gold coronation coach. Just as Oliver Belmont fell in love with Alva Vanderbilt when she stepped inside Belmont, while a student at Brown Univesity, Harle Hope Hanson worked as a summer guide at the castle where she met Donald Harold Tinney. The two wed at the castle in 1960. Following Mr. Tinney’s death in 2006, a pending deal to sell the property fell through. Harle Tinney currently runs the castle with a staff of ten or so, places buckets under leaks sprung from roofs, and also leads guided tours.
Besides the splendor of vaulted ceilings, stained glass, and suits of armor, a law suit gathered steam as Harle and Donald Tinney fought a battle over his late mother’s estate with their former handyman who was adopted by Tinney’s aging mother when he was an adult. Though Harle and Donald won, legal wranglings continued over inheritance of the mansion. Never mind. Should you be fortunate enough to have Harle Tinney guide you along your tour, she much prefers to call attention to the coronation carriage which she assisted her late husband in building. As ghost tours and tours by candlelight are offered at the castle, she will also relate to you incidents of paranormal activity, particularly in the ballroom on the second floor-presence of an entity behind your shoulder, objects being flung in the air, furniture being displaced, the sound of footsteps, the drop and rise in temperatures, doors shutting without warning. Some individuals have experienced a wave of nausea and hatred while in the ballroom which disappears as soon as they exit. Two salt chairs in the ballroom purportedly have flung individuals attempting to sit on them. The spectral aspect of Belcourt Castle was featured on an episode of Ghost Hunters.
Not as pristine as the other mansions in the neighborhood, Belcourt Castle stands apart from its staid neighbors. Privately owned, the structure is not under the auspices of a well-financed, nonprofit organization, such as the Preservation Society of Newport County, but constitutes a labor of love to maintain it. One might even go so far as to say it looks as though the maid has had a few days off. Nevertheless, do not let shoddy housekeeping or a leaky roof deter you from accepting an invitation to tour Belcourt Castle where both mistresses of the manor-Alva and Harle, met their knights in shining armor.