What does a Gilded-Age millionaire have in common with the Newport Jazz Festival? Bear with me …
In 1891, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont was a thirty-two-year-old divorced socialite who wanted to build a summer home in Newport. He hadn’t really accomplished much. He’d attended the United States Naval Academy, resigning after a brief and uneven naval career. He’d rejected the family banking business. His gambling, womanizing, and fondness for absinthe had ended an early marriage to debutante Sara Swan Whiting. But what OHP (as he was known) did have was wealth and connections. His recently deceased father, August Belmont, had been a financier, diplomat, and horse-breeder (he’s the namesake of the Belmont Stakes). His mother, Caroline Slidell Perry, was the daughter of Commodore Matthew C. Perry and great-niece of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. The Belmont family was well-known in both New York and Newport society. Oliver Belmont had little trouble getting what he wanted.
Although Belmont hired Richard Morris Hunt as architect for his “cottage,” he personally designed it. Hunt swallowed down each idea by remembering it was his client’s money he was spending. From 1891 to 1894, Belmont’s mansion, Belcourt, rose on the corner of Lakeview and Bellevue Avenues. By the time it was completed, it had grown to 50,000 square feet and 60 rooms. It was mostly French Renaissance and Gothic decor but also incorporated touches of Italian, German, and English architecture. The entire first floor was designed with Belmont’s prized horses in mind, built so that the coachman could drive the carriage right into the castle, drop Belmont off, and then continue to the stables located on the other side of the house. Aside from the servants’ quarters (there were approximately thirty servants employed at Belcourt), the mansion had only one traditional bedroom and bathroom. It didn’t have a kitchen, either: Belmont was terrified of fire, so Belcourt’s kitchens were located several blocks away, accessible by tunnel. Meals were ferried by carriage to the mansion. Belmont didn’t see any of this as problematic, since he only intended to be in residence at Belcourt for six to eight weeks of the year.
Many times remodeled (no surprise there), Belcourt stayed in the Belmont family until 1940, when Oliver Belmont’s brother, Perry, sold it. For the next fourteen years, the mansion sank into further disrepair as buyers declined to live in it. Finally, in 1954, Belcourt was bought for $22,500 by Elaine and Louis Lorillard, founders of …you guessed it … the Newport Jazz Festival. The Lorillards saw something in this magnificent white elephant of a house. They saw lawns that could accommodate thousands of people. They thought the facades (masonry and stucco) would provide good acoustics. They envisioned concerts in the large central courtyard, workshops in the huge rooms of the mansion itself.
The first Newport Jazz Festival (actually called “The First Annual American Jazz Festival”) was held in 1954 at the Newport Casino on Bellevue Avenue. It was such a success that the Casino declined to host it a second year, claiming that it could not accommodate the crowds. This was Belcourt’s chance …
…except for neighborhood objections and zoning laws. In the end, Belcourt hosted the 1955 festival’s workshops and receptions, but the concerts were held in a sports arena nearby. The Lorillards, unable to use Belcourt as they’d hoped, sold the crumbling mansion to the Tinney family the following year.
There are a few epilogues here:
Belcourt stayed in the Tinney family for over fifty years. They renovated it, lived in it, and even opened it as a museum in 1957. (Belcourt is currently owned by Carolyn Rafaelian, owner of the Rhode Island-based company Alex and Ani.)
In 1896, Oliver Belmont married Alva Vanderbilt, ex-wife of his good friend, William Vanderbilt. He became more politically active, serving in the New York Congress from 1901-1903 and publishing a newspaper called The Verdict, meant to expose corruption in business. In short, OHP grew up.
And the Newport Jazz Festival ? It’s this weekend – July 31-August 2.
Just not at Belcourt.