Wednesday, December 3, 2014

My Personal Favorite

People often ask me if I have a favorite house. Answer: Yes, I do. It's called Belcourt, an 1894 essay on the French Renaissance designed by Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895) for Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (1858-1908). In 1956, during an era when Newport mansions seemed an endangered species, a man named Harold Tinney, his wife, son and a spinster aunt bought Belcourt for $25,000. They renamed it Belcourt Castle and turned it into a combination extended family home and ersatz museum of unrelated decorative objects that seemed, by some lights, to relate either to the Gilded Age, or to European culture, or something in between. The showy gate on Bellevue Avenue is a 1980s Tinney addition, a pastiche of architectural elements rescued from fallen estates elsewhere. The Tinney family was a soap opera, a reality show ahead of its time, but had they not come along when they did, it's even money Belcourt would be a parking lot today.

Hunt's eastern elevation, visible beyond the Tinney gate, is really a side wall, the off-center arch opening onto a central courtyard. Belcourt's front door is on the other side of the building, facing a relatively unknown 2-block street called Ledge Road. Belcourt (the "Castle" nonsense has happily been dropped) is in the midst of a massive restoration that would enchant the mot hopeful house lover's heart. The second image below shows the house in the 1950s, just before the Tinneys came along. The one below that is of the courtyard arch in palmier days.




Admittedly, in the image below, Oliver Belmont looks a little vapid. In reality, he was cultured, educated and devastatingly charming, particularly to women. In 1896 he married Alva Vanderbilt, divorced former wife of his friend and Newport neighbor, William Kissam Vanderbilt. The new Mrs. Belmont had, a month before the ceremony, succeeded in marrying her weeping 18-year-old daughter to the Duke of Marlborough. Belmont was also divorced, having deserted a society beauty named Sallie Whiting. In Belmont's defense, Sallie expected her manipulative mother and a pair of clinging sisters to be a live-in part of the marriage. No clergyman would marry Alva and Oliver in a church, not that either of them cared, so they married in Alva's East 72nd Street house. But, I digress.

Belcourt's north facade, overlooking Lakeview Avenue, explains what the house is really all about. The twin arched openings were carriage entrances leading to an enormous carriage room. A courtyard in the middle of the house is bounded on the south by a stable. Oliver Belmont was an expert at the sport of four-in-hand driving, a fashionable pastime of the uber-rich that required participants to single-handedly drive a team of four (usually gorgeous) horses harnessed to a swanky coach, the larger variety being called a drag. Coaching clubs still exist, although like fox hunts, they're mostly under the public radar. Not so in the 1890s, however, when coaching parades down Bellevue Avenue in Newport, or Main Street in Lenox, or Central Park in New York were highly visible features of American high society.

Alva made numerous changes to her new husband's house, notably the conversion of his carriage room into an enormous banquet hall. In the vintage images below, for which I am indebted to Charles Von Hamm, the twin carriage drives and entrances have been closed off for the new banquet room.

Here's "before-and-after-Alva" from a slightly different angle.


And the same angle again, with a century-plus of tree growth. Hunt designed the second floor of Belcourt as a sumptuous 1-bedroom summer place, complete with ballroom, drawing room, small oval dining room, no guest rooms, quarters for 30 servants, and a kitchen on the other side of Ledge Road. Unfortunately, the 33-year-old Belmont missed the 1894 opening, as he'd been mugged in New York and subsequently confined to hospital. The house was used to some extent in the summer of 1895, however, after marrying Alva in January of '96, Belcourt arguably became more her house than his.

The arch on the right in the image below is the front door, and the pavement in front of it is Ledge Road. This modest front entrance - as opposed to Harold Tinney's fantasy gate on Bellevue Avenue - supposedly speaks to Belmont's horror of arriviste excess. How anyone would interpret construction of what was essentially a glorified horse stable (but a stable, still and all) for half a million 1894 dollars (according to Federal Reserve conversion tables, that would be $13,655,000 today) as a protest against extravagance is unclear, at least to me.


The west, or entry, facade is seen below. The front door is out of sight to the left, hidden by the projecting bay of the entrance hall. Horse stalls were in the wing on the right, grooms billeted under the mansard above. Unseen is the central courtyard separating Belmont and his carriage room on the north, from his horses and help on the south. Major reconstruction is underway, both inside and out.



The east facade of the house originally gazed across lawns and gardens toward distant Bellevue Avenue. Later it overlooked the Tinneys' Belcourt Castle parking lot. The open arch in the middle leads to the central courtyard. Since the front door is currently barricaded, we're heading for the arch.


Here's Oliver Belmont (center, with cap) and his wife Alva (second from left, with feathered chapeau) watching the Vanderbilt Cup Race of 1905 from a bleacher outside Mineola. In pedigree-starved America, Belmont's self image had some justification. His father, August Belmont (1813-1890), the German-Jewish representative of the Rothschilds in America, introduced New York to fine wines, high finance, European culture, private ballrooms, racing stables and a sophisticated cosmopolitanism that soon eclipsed - culturally, anyway - the Manhattan Knickerbocracy. His mother, nee Caroline Perry, was the niece of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the War of 1812's "Hero of Lake Erie." Belmont Sr.'s death in 1890 (with no bequests to charity) presumably enabled son Oliver to plan Belcourt. The natural choice for architect was Richard Morris Hunt, first American graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, a famous Francophile, and architect of the Vanderbilt's Marble House on the other side of Bellevue Avenue. Marble House was not quite finished when planning started for Belcourt.

Alva and Oliver by all accounts had a very happy marriage. After the wedding, she closed Marble House (except for the laundry), moved to Belcourt with Oliver, and went to work on her new house. Richard Hunt having died in 1895, she turned to his son, Richard Howland Hunt (1862-1931) for a series of alterations made over a succession of years. The aforementioned carriage room/banquet hall conversion is behind the arches on the right, a paneled library is at the far end of the courtyard, her French paneled bedroom suite is on the second floor, and there was a now demolished 3rd floor addition overlooking the courtyard for her son Mike.





A long gallery separates the courtyard from the banquet hall.



The westernmost of the twin carriage entrances is currently covered with construction paper.

The first view below looks into the carriage room/banquet hall from the carriage lobby on the west. The over-scaled chandelier, described by the Tinneys as a czarist artifact, in fact came from an American hotel lobby. With luck, it'll be gone the next time I visit. There are, in fact, a lot of suspicious looking chandeliers in this house, many of which would look better...someplace else.



Here's the main entrance hall, looking west toward Ledge Road. The front door, now barricaded, is located in a small anteroom behind that arch on the right.



Guests at Belcourt entered the anteroom, made a sharp right into the entrance hall, then took the main stair on the south wall to the entertaining rooms on the second floor.





Let's bypass the stairway for now and have a look at Hunt's linenfold paneled English library of 1910, added, interestingly, after Oliver Belmont's death.





The view from the library has also changed.


There are no plans to reconstruct the horse stalls in the stable wing, but tiled walls, brick floors, horse troughs, harness hangers, tie-back hooks, etc. will all be saved.





Let's leave the stable, recross the library, and climb part way up the main stair for a look at the second floor above the library, and re-purposed grooms' quarters over the stable.




The door on the right leads to the floor above the library and stable wings. A lot of construction activity here - walls moved or removed, a few old rooms intact, former grooms' cubicles renovated for future meeting purposes, etc.






Now we're back in the niftiest part of the second floor where, as far as I can tell, everything is pure Richard Morris Hunt, untouched by subsequent alterations. The first view below looks east on the landing; the stairs from below are on the other side of the balustrade; the french window opens onto a loggia overlooking the courtyard.

The open doors across the hall lead to a Gothic ballroom above the original carriage room. The gallery to the right ends at a secondary stairway to the third floor.


My guide, Sam Hardy, is doing what we all do, all day, any or everywhere we happen to be, namely, checking messages. Behind him, to the left of the Gothic ballroom, is the door to the drawing room.

Immediately to the left of the drawing room, a pair of doors leads to a beautiful oval dining room facing west over Ledge Road. The original kitchen, as you will remember, was in a separate building across the street.









Between the dining room and the ballroom, also overlooking Ledge Road, is a drawing room which, in another house would seem quite grand.




The Gothic room, which I'm glad I won't be heating this winter, faces north. The view below looks east towards Bellevue Avenue. Alva was famous for her huge collection of armor. In the vintage view below, a pair of warriors flanks the fireplace, complete with armored horses.


These views look west towards Ledge Road. The drawing room is through the door to the right of the piano; the second floor hall is outside the door on the left. The armor's in a pile at the moment, but in Alva's day more was on horseback. We'll visit the organ loft above the armor when we get to the third floor.






A door to the left of the fireplace leads to what was formerly the only bedroom in the house. The Belmonts shared it for 12 summers, until Oliver's sudden death in June, 1908, from septic poisoning stemming from an otherwise routine appendectomy. He was 50 years old. According to his "New York Times" obit he had graduated from Annapolis in 1880, spent 2 years in the navy, and published (in his idealistic youth) a weekly magazine called "The Verdict," which railed against "trusts, monopolies and the money power on behalf of the common people." In his middle years - well, actually his last years - Belmont was a clubman, socialite and a figure in the coaching world. He also served two terms (1901 and 1903) in the United States House of Representatives.






Adjoining the bedroom is the sort of vintage bathroom of which big old house dreams are made. I'm told that's the oldest standing shower in Newport.



This spiral staircase, which we glimpsed from the opposite end of the hall, separates the bathroom from Alva's antique French paneled boudoir - or maybe it was her bedroom (I really don't know). A second bathroom, presumably hers, sits at the foot of a short picturesque flight of steps.






Glass doors at the west end of the boudoir open onto the loggia overlooking the courtyard.



The spiral stair leads to a 3rd floor gallery overlooking the Gothic room below.





At the eastern end of the gallery, a suite of rooms is being renovated into modern live-in quarters, I'm not sure for whom.


Alva's son, Harold Stirling (Mike) Vanderbilt (1884-1970), spent sufficient time at Belcourt for his mother to build him a now demolished third floor suite. Built of stucco and half timbers, you can see it in the image below, perched on 3 above the second floor loggia, and overlooking the central court below.

Alva's other children weren't such regular visitors. Speaking of other children, daughter Consuelo's forced marriage - there's no other way to put it - to the Duke of Marlborough is a tale usually told to illustrate the cruelties of a social climbing mother. Like many archetypal tales, this isn't really the case. How happy would you be if your 18-year old daughter, like Alva's, had secretly arranged to marry an unemployed 31-year-old society layabout? Not very, I'll bet. The Duke of Marlborough seemed a better choice. As for social climbing, if there was one thing Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont cared very little about, it was impressing other people. She supported the eventual annulment of her daughter's marriage to the duke, and in the years after Belmont's death the two of them became quite close.

Here's the organ loft, located at the west end of the 3rd floor hall. Not very interesting, but I include it anyway.


Alva was devastated by Belmont's death, in the wake of which she plunged into the cause of women's suffrage. In 1909 she was a delegate to the International Women's Suffrage Association in London; in 1912 she marched down 5th Avenue in the famous Women's Vote Parade; she even opened Marble House in 1914 for a Conference of Great Women that thoroughly jangled her Bellevue Avenue neighbors. After ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the vote, she spent less time in Newport and more on Long Island. In 1924 she moved to France and both Belcourt and Marble House were boarded up.

Alva's 1933 funeral at New York's St. Thomas Episcopal was attended by thousands. An honor guard from the National Women' Party surrounded the casket, an all-women's choir sang a funeral hymn composed by Alva herself, a flying wedge of motorcycles accompanied the casket to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. "There is not a woman living today," said Womens' Party Advisory Council member Doris Stevens, "who is not nearer to the benefits and beauties of freedom because of Mrs. Belmont."

Alva left Belcourt to Oliver's nephew, August Belmont, who didn't really want it. He sold it to his Uncle Perry in 1937, but Perry Belmont didn't really want it either. He off-loaded it in 1940 (according to one source, for $1000) to George Waterman, whose plans for an auto museum were derailed by local zoning. Then Edward Dunn bought it in 1943, never lived there, and rented it instead to the army for use as an equipment repair facility. In 1954, for $22,500, Louis Lorillard bought it as a venue for the 2nd annual Newport Jazz Festival, which had worn out its welcome at the Newport Casino. There weren't any more festivals at Belcourt, however, and the place mouldered for another two years until the Tinneys arrived in 1956.



In 2009, Harle Tinney put Belcourt on the market for $7.2 million and in 2012, Carolyn Rafaelian bought it for $3.6 million. Why is Belcourt my favorite house? Because it has heft and scale, combines grandeur with originality, and weds erudite design to sumptuous detail. Would that the world had more people like Ms. Rafaelian, a self-made Rhode Island businesswoman who supervises a $200 million dollar empire of home goods and furnishings called Alex and Ani, operates a string of cafes called Tea and Java, owns a winery in nearby Little Compton, and still has time - not to mention sufficient cash - to rescue this worthy old house.

35 comments:

  1. I haven't been in Belcourt since...2000 maybe? Even then, all of the Tinney "additions" seemed fake and forced, and I was terrified that Belcourt would meet the wrecking ball when it went on the market. I'm so incredibly relieved to see that it's being restored to it's former glory, and I can't WAIT to visit again once the restoration is complete. Thank you so much for posting this!

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  2. John, thank you for this EXCELLENT post! Belcourt and I go way back. And also thanks for clarifying that 3-floor addition. That has been nagging at me for some time! Love all your posts! Thank you!!

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    1. Bobby, sadly, there isn't much more known documentation for the third floor addition. It may survive somewhere and, if it does, it will be found in time. No one currently is aware of what the layout of the interior was.

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  3. Thanks for sharing! I visited just before Mrs. Tinney sold, and it was in really rough shape, but still an amazing house. So glad to see you were able to get a tour during the construction.

    They restored the access ramps to the former carriage entry/ exits. Did Sam tell you how they intend to integrate the carriage gates and areas just inside with the former carriage room that is now a dining room?

    Paul S.
    Atlanta, GA

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    1. Paul, the area behind the left carriage gate (the east passageway) is going to be a commercial-grade kitchen. The Belmonts had a kitchen in the same area after their first round of renovations. The area behind the right carriage gate (the west passageway) is going to remain a reception room, grand hall, etc.

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  4. Thanks John for another fascinating tour. Do you know if Ms. Rafaelian plans to open the house to the public after the work is complete or will she keep it all to herself? :)

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    1. As far as I am aware, Ms. Rafaelian does intend for Belcourt to be publicly accessible. According to a New York Times article from last year, she does not intend on living there.

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  5. Thank you for covering this fascinating house! So happy to see it being restored. I saw it in the '70s when the Tinney family owned it. It's haunted me for years. It had a real Addams Family vibe in those days. The first floor banquet room was STUFFED with colorful junk like an ersatz "Royal Coach" that someone in the family had built. We were shown a smoke blackened portrait of Louis XIV, supposedly rescued from the burning Tuileries Palace. I picked up a prettily painted "Dresden" figurine from a console table (the tos were poorly supervised) only to find it was made of plaster. At the end of the tour, they served you iced tea and gingerbread!

    The oval dining room has indirect lighting concealed in the cornice. That Gothic Room is spectacular, particularly the mantlepiece with the miniature Gothic castle on it. Alva had a thing for the Gothic. Her castle at Sands Point, LI served as F. Scott Fitzgerald's inspiration for Jay Gatzby's mansion (sadly, it was demolished long ago).

    Alva would be a great subject for a movie. She once consoled a weeping young sufferagette "Buck up, dear! Pray to God. SHE will help you!"

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  6. the fireplaces in the gothic room and the bedroom off it are *fabulous.* it's been decades since i've been to newport, but i have a vague recollection of this place for some reason...

    for a pretty good (ghostwritten) biography of Consuelo, pick up "the glitter and the gold."

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  7. The television show AMERICAN PICKERS visited Belcourt recently. The "stars" were given a tour by the contractor and purchased a few of the Tinney's cast offs. (some brackets, light fixtures and a couple sedan chairs) I lived in NEWPORT in the early 70's when my father was in the Navy, and remember riding my bike frequently past this mansion. Thanks for the visit!

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    1. The brackets were, I believe, either originals or casts of originals from Whiteholme, one of the houses in Newport which was pulled down.

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  8. Thank you John. Your blog has become addictive to me and this post has just furthered the effect. I second what Lina said above, I haven't been in years but it was in such a dismal state it was hard to even picture what is should have been. What a remarkable pleasure palace of a home!

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  9. Dear Ms. Rafaelian: Brava. And...please please please let John do this again after your glorious restoration is complete. Sincerely, an admirer.

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  10. Was it the Tinney family who employed the young handyman who, in the best Horatio Alger tradition, rose to become their father-in-law and step-dad? A whiff of bad behavior whets my appetite for social history.

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    1. Thomas, he wasn't all that young and he didn't become a father-in-law or step-father. The widowed Mrs. Harold B. Tinney, an octogenarian, adopted the house's live-in handyman/general manager, who was in his 30s at the time.

      The last of the Tinneys to own Belcourt was Mrs. Donald H. Tinney, who was married to Mrs. Ruth B. Tinney's actual son. I use "actual" to underscore the fact that the adoption was more or less coerced.

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  11. John - I wish you had posted a close-up of the entwined-serpent bronze door handles on the Ledge Road, original, entrance doors featured in the thirteenth picture. The new owner plans to use the restored mansion as an entertainment center for her many businesses ~ most likely you'll be given permission to re-photograph Belcourt at a later date. That roof has been recovered in new slate; a project that, alone, took over a year to complete. It should be mentioned that the couple standing in the vintage photo of the courtyard is Oliver H. P. Belmont's brother Perry Belmont, and his wife Jessie ( formerly Sloane ) Belmont, circa 1919. Actually they occupied Belcourt longer than either Alva or her second husband, whom, I might addd, she 'drove' like a Mack truck ! She was a true harridan ! She showed her gentle side only to her children and a few ( she had very few ) close friends !

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    1. Ben, believe it or not, but those door handles were a catalogue item and are still produced today by the same company which made them in the 1890s.

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    2. Mr. von Hamm, What company is that, please ?

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  12. I'll ammend my last comment a bit ~ Alva showed her gently side to her children . . . only in later years. When they were growing she spared not the lash !

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  13. an unemployed 31-year-old society layabout? Really? Since when has employment status mattered with a multi-millionaire?

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  14. I recognized this house from a short, but FANTASTIC video on YouTube, which I had come across some time ago through an article about Belcourt. See the video here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7X7emBHcmxE

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    1. According to this excellent video the reconstruction of the fabric of this home is some serious business.

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  15. It seems odd to me that whilst this home is under massive reconstruction that much of the furniture and bric-a-brac is still in place and covered in thick dust.

    I would think that they would have placed all of this in storage or at least have covered it with tarps and drapery. Maybe my practical sensibilities are easily offended.

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    1. Douglas, Harle Tinney, the daughter-in-law and last of that strange crowd, had been selling off the furniture for years. One would tour the house and see price tags attached to it all. The leftovers were acquired with the house and were horrrid reproductions fit for McMansion owners only. Don't upset yourself with all the migrating wallboard and plaster dust. Personally I consider it like some of the fare offered by so-called chic bistros ~ in other words it looks like the stuff I wrap up and put out to the street !

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    2. Well Steve, at last somebody tells it like it is. These expensive eateries who serve small portions, sprinkled with bits of vegetables and thinly splattered with mystery gravies. Looks exactly like you said - the stuff one wraps up and puts to the street !

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    3. Douglas, it does seem odd that during all the massive reconstruction that none of the objects would be covered. If you look at the website of the new owner, it says that great care will be taken to preserve these objects. Granted many were not as valuable as they were said to be, but no piece of furniture or object should be covered in dust or any debris. It seems that the furniture and the dea of owning such is being thrown out the proverbial window.
      I visited this home many times over the years, never did I see this sort of mistreatment.

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  16. I would have to agree with the quality and condition of the furniture when we toured the place at Christmas time three or four years ago. Upon entering there was only one artificial tree in the entrance lobby, while the ads stated that the "castle" was decorated for the holidays. There was much less furniture at that time than when we visited a dozen or so years before. Yes, I remember the price tags on chairs and such. The place had been rented out for parties which probably accounted for the remaining furniture being quite beat up, and the whole place a bit grimy. I'm glad to know that the estate in now under restoration.

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  17. Hey keep posting such good and meaningful articles.

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  18. Well. I have successfully spent at least 4 hours on this wonderful site and must thank you for words and photos that finally make my heart race! Mesmerizing and cannot wait to read and examine every detail here. Thank you!

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  19. Here is a link to another amazing reconstruction site. It's in France, but still a very lovely chateau transformation http://www.chateaudegudanes.org/

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  20. I had no idea that Belcourt is even more amazing on the inside! I always found it rather intriguing, architecturaly speaking. However the Interior verily blew me away! All the beautiful & provocative stairways, great, wide galleries (they're so much more than corridors) and as you said be incredible, sumptuous detail!

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  21. I had no idea that Belcourt is even more amazing on the inside! I always found it rather intriguing, architecturaly speaking. However the Interior verily blew me away! All the beautiful & provocative stairways, great, wide galleries (they're so much more than corridors) and as you said be incredible, sumptuous detail!

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  22. I had no idea that Belcourt is even more amazing on the inside! I always found it rather intriguing, architecturaly speaking. However the Interior verily blew me away! All the beautiful & provocative stairways, great, wide galleries (they're so much more than corridors) and as you said be incredible, sumptuous detail!

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  23. Are you paying over $5 per pack of cigs? I'm buying my cigarettes over at Duty Free Depot and this saves me over 60% from cigarettes.

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