Our theme, as always, is Rhode Island. Is Rhode Island an island? Well, it was, when the name referred to just our island (Aquidneck), and Newport was the commercial center — and later the social capital of the country. And now? It seems to have a new cachet, with summer homes being sold north of $20 million and the buzz of Hollywood on Bellevue Avenue.
Thankfully, there are those that love and invest in Newport and Rhode Island regardless of how popular it is at the given moment. Take Carolyn Rafaelian, the self-made millionaire jewelry designer who bought and restored the infamous villa-stable, Belcourt, on storied Bellevue Avenue. Rafaelian, a lifelong Rhode Islander, who has fond memories of visiting the Gilded Age mansions in Newport as a little girl, bought Belcourt with one goal in mind: to share it with the world. Thank you, Carolyn Rafaelian!
“The house spoke to me. It was beautiful. It was historic,” she once told a reporter. “It had so much meaning. And there was a story to tell.”
In order to tell that story, she brought along local documentary filmmaker David Bettencourt, who has been not only documenting the restoration process but has also been researching the rich history of the house. Bettencourt is no stranger to Newport. His 2011 film, Behind the Hedgerow, featured another prominent figure along Bellevue Avenue in Eileen Slocum — considered by many to be the last grand dame of Newport society. Yes, darling.
At Belcourt this spring and summer, you can learn about the sway that society held and so much more on guided tours led by Bettencourt and his team.
“We’re excited to share the stories of this magnificent house,” he tells us. “This house was completely changed around by Alva Belmont and she entertained lavishly here for many years. Adele sang here at a celebrity wedding. It’s a magical, amazing place with stained glass, suits of armor and architecture that’s not like anything else in Newport.”
History is always alive in Newport, Rhode Island. We commend these two for their part in keeping it so!
In 1874 (twenty years before Belcourt was initially completed) Alexander Agassiz chose Newport because he believed it to be a perfect location for a marine laboratory. In addition, acquiring Castle Hill for a summer home with ample room for gardens and stables (and unparalleled views) was certainly a blessing – he spent every summer here from 1875 until his death in 1910. Castle Hill’s off the beaten track location would have suited him just fine as he was not too much of a society figure.
If you are interested in what high society of the time was up to, you will enjoy The Gilded Age, currently airing on HBO, with scenes filmed in several iconic mansions in Newport’s Bellevue Avenue, Ochre Point, and Ocean Drive Historic Districts.
If you are more interested in the quieter things, take a stroll out to the Castle Hill Lighthouse, where the scenery hasn’t changed all that considerably since those first European ships sailed into Narragansett Bay.
Shea C Nelson with David Bettencourt