A few weeks ago, Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence’s star-studded wedding had tabloids like TMZ planted in every corner of Rhode Island’s historic Newport, thrusting the coastline community’s majestic mansions into pop culture news. Locals lined the famed Bellevue Avenue for a chance to watch limousines and giant SUVs chauffeur members of the celebrity guest list to Belcourt of Newport — a 19th Century Châteauesque mansion owned by Carolyn Rafalian, the founder and CEO of the wildly successful jewelry company Alex and Ani . . . and who also happens to be my cousin.
In November of 2012, Carolyn purchased the long-neglected property and began to pour a remarkable amount of time, attention, and money into the restoration of this American “castle.”
Belcourt was built in 1891 by horse enthusiast Oliver Belmont, who hired well-respected architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a mansion that would be a “summer cottage” for Mr. Belmont and his horses.
The ground floor of the mansion was designed around a huge carriage room and stables. The mansion only had one bedroom in it, so Mr. Belmont could live with his horses.
But in 1896, bachelor Belmont fell in love with his divorced neighbor Alva Vanderbilt, whom he soon married and welcomed into his mansion. Socialite Alva began making the home less horse-centered and more appealing to guests.
The mansion stayed in the Belmont family until 1940 when it was sold to George Waterman, who then sold it in 1954. Another family purchased the property in 1956 and owned it until my cousin Carolyn bought it in 2012 with the hopes of turning it into a tour house which celebrates its history and sheds light on the fascinating lives of the Belmonts.
With building neglect, drainage problems, and mold throughout the house, Carolyn was faced with the tremendous task of restoring Belcourt to its former glory. The house and its artifacts are continuously being repaired and restored for guests to enjoy.
Carolyn’s purchase and commitment to restoration of Belcourt was featured in many major publications, including The New York Times and Forbes magazine.
I was lucky to have my own inside tour of Belcourt when we attended a family party held at the estate. It was a snowy New England evening and the castle was decorated beautifully for the holidays.
So yes, before the likes of Adele and Kris Jenner were dancing the night away at Jennifer Lawrence’s Belcourt wedding, I was chasing my toddler down the grand staircase and whisper-shouting, “Don’t touch!” at every original suit of armor that he scurried by.
Carolyn’s determination to take on a project as formidable as the Belcourt mansion stems from her appreciation of history and fearless approach to new endeavors, which is fitting since the phrase “Sans crainte” — which translates to “without fear — can be found etched throughout the mansion.
Renovations continue to take place at Belcourt, whose historic artifacts and furniture — like this piano and suit or armor seen below — also require restoration.
One of the most elaborate areas in the mansion is the grand staircase, with stunning details and incredible craftsmanship.
The ballroom — perhaps the most castle-like space in Belcourt — is adorned with stained glass windows, swords and suits of armor, and a majestic pipe organ which sits in the loft above the grand room.
What a treat it was watching my little one roaming around and exploring the ins and outs of this incredible castle!
An ornate and regal fireplace is the focal point at one end of the ballroom.
A bust of Carolyn Rafalian was made when she became Belcourt’s new owner. It is displayed upstairs near the oval dining room.
Carolyn’s dedication to Belcourt has turned it into a true American castle which celebrates the rich history of Newport. Tickets for tours of this magnificent estate can be purchased on Belcourt’s website. Undoubtedly, the mansion will continue to grow more beautiful as Carolyn continues to shower it with love, and tackles each of its projects in true Belcourt fashion — sans crainte.