2015-05-21 / Front Page

Efforts Underway to Restore Belmont Chapel

By James Merolla


2013 The dramatic transformation and early restoration of the Belmont Memorial Chapel was facilitated by a Doris Duke preservation grant earlier this year. The chapel, built by George Champlin Mason, has not been utilized for decades. (Photos by Michael Eudenbach and James L. Yarnall) 2013 The dramatic transformation and early restoration of the Belmont Memorial Chapel was facilitated by a Doris Duke preservation grant earlier this year. The chapel, built by George Champlin Mason, has not been utilized for decades. (Photos by Michael Eudenbach and James L. Yarnall) It is an outdoor museum, a hallowed ground of the famous interred within their once-social now-marble circle, filled with the works of the best artists of the day.

Island Cemetery has been a resting place for America’s elite for two centuries; it contains the remains of the mavens who made headlines along Fifth Avenue and Bellevue Avenue since Queen Victoria was a child.

An active cemetery, it stands as a stone-pocked oasis for an army of dog walkers who circumnavigate their canines through historic and famous gravestones, with little notice of where their paws pause.

Yet the large resting enclave maintains an austere, serene atmosphere surrounded by the city’s Common Burial Ground and the North Burial Ground. Founded in 1836, it contains graves from the 1700s; it absorbed two earlier cemeteries and older graves which were relocated in later years.


2015 2015 In 1848, the grounds became part of the newly-formed Island Cemetery Company. It numbers some 12,000 graves with ongoing interments as precious space allows, with an adjunct cemetery space nearby for current overflow.

Its most notable resting place is a succession of brilliantly artistic gravestones, monuments and mausoleums carved for the famous by sculptors of international renown that grace what Salve Regina art professor James L. Yarnall has dubbed “Millionaire’s Row.” The area circles the shadows cast by the Belmont Memorial Chapel, the gothic centerpiece that poplars and weeds nearly choked into oblivion. But a nonprofit group is committed to restoring the chapel to museum-quality glory.


Graves of Tiffany and Perry family members are in the foreground of the stone enclave just outside of Belmont Chapel. (Photo by Kirby Varacalli) Graves of Tiffany and Perry family members are in the foreground of the stone enclave just outside of Belmont Chapel. (Photo by Kirby Varacalli) According to Yarnall, the chapel originated as a commission from wealthy New York financier August Belmont and his wife, Caroline Perry Belmont. During the 1850s, the Belmonts set the trend for elite New Yorkers to summer in Newport. In 1860, they commissioned George Champlin Mason Sr. to build an Italianate summer cottage, By-the-Sea, on the southwest corner of Bellevue and Marine avenues. For the next three decades, the Belmonts and their six children alternated seasonally between Fifth Avenue and Bellevue Avenue.

On Oct. 15, 1875, the Belmonts’ eldest child, Jane Pauline, died at age 19. Her interment in Newport’s Island Cemetery was in the so-called Perry Circle (also called Belmont Circle), several feet from her maternal grandfather, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry. In the spring of 1886, August and Caroline Belmont petitioned the Island Cemetery Company to build a chapel in Jane Pauline’s memory just north of Perry Circle. The architect was George Champlin Mason Sr., with his son and partner, George Jr., designing the furnishings and decorative orna- ments. Soon after its completion in March of 1888, the Belmonts donated the chapel to the cemetery for public use in non-denominational services.


Inside the chapel are the Jane Pauline Belmont memorial altar and window, circa 1889. (Photos by Michael Eudenbach) Inside the chapel are the Jane Pauline Belmont memorial altar and window, circa 1889. (Photos by Michael Eudenbach) The Belmont Memorial Chapel is a small church in the Gothic Revival style. The interior consists of a nave, chancel, and clergy robing room. The focus of the chancel is on a marble altar flanked by life-size sculptures of praying angels, designed by George Champlin Mason Jr. He also designed 10 pews, two for the chancel and eight for the nave. These feature low-relief carving in the then-popular Eastlake style and depict local vegetation, with oak leaves, wild roses, and ivy. Similar carved imagery recurs on the dark sandstone exterior, on buttresses, corbels, and columns.

The floors throughout the building employ ornamental mosaic designs, including a red “alligator tile” pattern, Greek spirals and fretwork, and brightly colored geometric shapes. Minton tiles in a checkerboard pattern cloak the walls of the robing room.

The plaster walls above the brick wainscoting of the nave and chancel once displayed decorative murals in the Eastlake style. Trace evidence of a Biblical verse surrounded by faint images of growing vines and flowers is all that remains of the murals in their current deteriorated state.

Between 1888 and 1899 the Belmonts commissioned nine memorial stained glass windows. These commemorated Jane Pauline Belmont, her parents, and other family members. The renowned Parisian firm of Eugène Oudinot and his successor Félix Gaudin manufactured eight of the windows from French enameled glass. The designs for several of these were by the most noted artist of the firm, Luc-Olivier Merson. Seven of these windows are now in a state of grave disrepair and one is missing. The ninth memorial was an American opalescent window manufactured by the firm of Louis Comfort Tiffany. This too has disappeared.

August Belmont died in New York in 1890. He was buried on the east side of Perry Circle, and Richard Morris Hunt completed August’s massive classical tomb in 1892. Some 33 members of his immediate and extended family are buried in the circle, including descendants of George Tiffany, whose wife was a daughter of Matthew Calbraith Perry and a sister of Caroline Belmont.

A statue of August Belmont himself, commissioned by his son, August Belmont II, was intended to mark Belmont’s shrine-like tomb, but has greeted Newport tourists at the corner of Narragansett and Bellevue avenues for 20 years (see side story).

If name dropping – the Perrys, Belmonts and Tiffanys are buried in Perry Circle. “Millionaire’s Row itself is outside the circle, mostly to the east and north. That is where you will find some major figures in 19th century Newport history. They include Henry Gurdon Marquand, John Noble Alsop Griswold, Charles Handy Russell, Alfred Smith, George H. Norman, George Peabody Wetmore, Richard Morris Hunt (and his wife, Catherine Clinton Howland), Edward King, and Henry C. Ledyard,” said Yarnall. “There are also some important 20th century figures, such as Janet Lee Auchincloss (mother of Jacqueline Kennedy) and Jane Pickens Hoving (as in the theater).”

The chapel remained in occasional use for funerals and other services through World War II, but by the 1960s, it was in a derelict state. A heavy overgrowth of ivy as early as 1900 gradually combined with masses of wisteria to bury the building under a blanket of foliage. In recent decades, the deteriorating roof, in places open to the sky, allowed rain and snow to wreak havoc on the interior and furnishings.

“The worst case of vandalism occurred a few years ago on Mother’s Day, which was disconcerting,” said Michael J. Henlyshyn, president of the Island Cemetery Company.

In 2013, the incorporation of the nonprofit Belmont Chapel Foundation marked the start of a drive to rescue and restore the chapel. “The foundation has a legal curatorship and occupancy agreement with the Island Cemetery Company, which allows us to care for the chapel," said Harry Eudenbach, president of the foundation. The group recently received brick and mortar funding. During the fall of 2014, the foundation removed the dense foliage surrounding the building and secured the main door. A $2,700 grant in early 2015 from the Doris Duke Fund for Historic Preservation, managed through the Newport Restoration Foundation, provided monies to begin the repair of the roof.

“There was a huge hole in the roof that did a lot of damage,” said Yarnall. “But we have stabilized the building.”

“I gave it a good push,” said Eudenbach, who heads the drive. “I have wanted to see the chapel restored for at least 30 years.”

The Belmont Chapel Foundation has a 99-year lease to maintain the historic building. The board of directors includes Eudenbach, Robert W. Currier and Yarnall. During the past year, Sigourney Faul, who is about to graduate from Salve Regina University, worked to research and write her senior thesis on the chapel, offering a wealth of new documentation and insight for future restoration.

The next phase of the work will involve the development of a complete restoration plan. “There are many phases to go through, both internally and externally,” added Yarnall.

“We have a very singular mission to restore the chapel.”

The hope is that the chapel eventually will become a museum to present the history of the Island Cemetery and perhaps for housing tombstones no longer associated with specific gravesites.

“It would be a lapidary museum. There are a lot of orphaned gravestones from all over the state that are currently stored at URI,” explained Yarnall. "Professor Ronald J. Onorato proposed the idea to relocate them to a place where we could study them and they could be seen.”

Donations to the fund are accepted online at belmontchapelfoundation.org. The Belmont Chapel Foundation is not soliciting volunteers at this time.

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