28 May 2009
Newport’s one-of-a-kind Belcourt Castle is on the market
02:50 PM EDT on Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Harle Tinney, the sole surviving owner of Belcourt Castle, gives a tour of the mansion that was completed in 1894. The Providence Journal / Frieda Squires
NEWPORT— Belcourt Castle, long one of Bellevue Avenue’s oddest mansions, has been put up for sale for $7.2 million by the sole surviving member of the family that has lived in it, owned it and opened it to the public for more than half a century. And while the armor suits are extra, the ghosts are free.
“I was hired as a tour guide in 1960,” Harle Tinney said while leading visitors through the 114-year-old castle one recent day, just as she has for the past 50 years. “I fell in love with Donald Tinney and he fell in love with me … And I moved into a castle.”
Donald Tinney’s family bought the 50,000-square-foot, medieval-style castle — the largest private residence in Newport — in 1956. He died in 2006, leaving to his widow the burden of maintaining the mansion and overseeing the weddings, tours and special events needed to keep it afloat financially.
“It falls upon me,” Tinney, 68, said in an interview. While in the part of the chateau where she lives — “I call it my West Wing; there really are four wings”—she admits to mixed emotions.
“Harle Tinney equals Belcourt Castle and Belcourt Castle equals Harle Tinney. It’s a problem for me because I don’t want to lose some of my identity,” she said. “But I’m ready.”
Belcourt has always stood apart from its staid and better known neighbors. It has not enjoyed ownership under a well-financed, nonprofit organization, such as the Preservation Society of Newport County, the caretaker of The Breakers, Marble House and other mansions.
And while these iconic Newport estates offer traditional tours and feature original furnishings, Belcourt is known for an eclectic mix of antiques from 33 countries and such offbeat offerings as a costumed Halloween party, a New Year’s Eve Ball and ghost tours. At one private party there — not thrown by the Tinneys — guests were encouraged to arrive without underwear and to stand on a mirror for an inspection.
Belcourt garnered other seamy publicity, too. Harle and Donald Tinney fought a protracted battle over his late mother’s estate with their former handyman, who was adopted by Tinney’s aging mother when he was an adult.
Belcourt started out much like its sister mansions, enormous “summer cottages” built during the opulent Gilded Age for super-rich giants of industry. Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a New York congressman who inherited his father’s banking wealth, hired renowned Newport architect Richard Morris Hunt to design the 60-room residence, which was completed in 1894.
Belcourt reflects Belmont’s love of French architecture and horses, with extensive stables and carriage areas on the 3-acre site. It has 10 bedrooms and 7½ bathrooms. Artisans spent three years carving the ornate grand staircase. The great room features 17th-century Italian stained glass and a chandelier with 13,000 prisms.
“We hope we find someone who has a love for history and architecture and understands what an incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this is — to purchase one of the most beautiful homes ever built in Rhode Island and, I would venture to say, a great part of the country,” says Judy Chace, a real estate agent for Residential Properties, which listed the property on May 1. “It’s a bona fide American castle.”
A 2005 deal to sell Belcourt to Peter De Savary, the British developer of Portsmouth’s Carnegie Abbey, fell apart. During the last four years, Tinney has run the castle with a staff of 10 and continued to put buckets under leaky roofs and help lead tours, too.
On the Ghost Tour one recent day, she confided that she, her family and Belcourt guests have seen a strange man in dark robe with a beard and a hat who appears and then vanishes, sometimes through walls. It’s a spirit attached to a sculpture, she says.
“The Monk,” Tinney says, pointing to the artwork.
Monk or no monk, she says she’s “all alone” running the castle and would like to retire immediately or help a new owner through the transition. Area colleges have previously expressed interest in Belcourt for lodging, meeting space and preservation studies. Tinney says she won’t sell until she has met her 2009 commitments.
The furnishings and artwork are not part of the asking price and Tinney says she “will feel very badly” if the collection is broken up. But to any buyer seeking to furnish the enormous castle independently, she says, “Good luck.”
Once retired, Tinney said, she wants to finish a book she is writing. The subject? Belcourt Castle, of course.