Belcourt Castle – “Richard Morris Hunt ‘Cottage’ as the Stage for Modern Dance”

Newport is filled with wonderful buildings in widely differing styles, created at different times and for different purposes. Some, like the Newport Casino, are associated with summer fun. Others. like Belcourt Castle, have become equally famous for the Halloween season.

Belcourt Castle was originally commissioned by Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont in 1891. The architect was Richard Morris Hunt, designer of many of Newport’s great “cottages,” including Marble House and the Breakers. Belmont was a devoted equestrian, founder of the Belmont Stakes and (at the time of the original construction) a bachelor sportsman.

The house was designed in the style of a French medieval hunting lodge. The ground level of the home, in a brash break with convention, housed the stables and tack room for the estate, with the ballroom and single master bedroom directly above. When Alva Smith Vanderbilt and her first husband William K. Vanderbilt (who had commissioned Marble House as a gift for Alva) divorced, she married Oliver Belmont, who presented Belcourt Castle to her in 1896 as a wedding present. Under Alva’s direction, major changes were undertaken. The stables were relocated out of the main residence and a large area for dining and entertaining was created. Amazingly, she also continued to own and use Marble House for her entertaining and social purposes at the same time!

After the end of the Gilded Age, the house went through a number of owners, slowly becoming more and more derelict. But in 1956, the Tinney family purchased the building and the house became a repository of objects d’art collected by the family from around the world. To help finance the maintenance of the house, it was opened for weddings, for public visitation and for Ghost Tours. The Tinney family continues to own the house to the present time, although it is now on the market for sale.

This year the Island Moving Company, Newport’s resident dance troupe, commissioned a special site-specific work based by Bram Stoker’s great novel, Dracula. The piece was an inspired combination of dance, music, film and architecture as the unfolding action was accompanied by live original music, projected film clips and each successive act took place in a different part of the grand house with the audience following intently along. In one particularly spectacular scene, two female vampires descended down upon an unsuspecting visitor to Dracula’s Castle from the organ station high above the ballroom along long silken curtains. Like performers from Cirque de Soleil, the dancers moved with acrobatic grace, like weightless beings, as they glided upon the white silken streams of fabric.

It is wonderful when art forms like architecture and literature can inspire the creation of music and dance. But it is even more wonderful when all the arts can come together at once to create something truly magical! No one knows how long this quirky and interesting structure will continue to be open to the public but it is well worth a visit, particularly if you have the opportunity to see the house engaged in a work of dramatic art like the series of performances of Dracula that occurred during this past Halloween season!

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, holds degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Columbia and is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, October 7, 2012


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