When you’re sitting in a traffic jam on the Mass Pike or the Taconic Parkway it’s instructive to reflect that one hundred and fifty years ago, it often took less time to get to the Berkshires from Boston or New York City than it does today. The Berkshires were then a major summer destination for the rich; trains brought them, their guests and servants directly to the towns of Lenox and Stockbridge.
Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, this social elite was responsible for the construction of some 75 Berkshire Cottages (actually large country houses). Of these, 35 survive, some thanks to the tireless efforts of local preservationists. Two — rescued from years of neglect — are the projects of women. Both offer exhibits, lectures, plays, small gift-and-bookshops and the opportunity to have high tea or lunch on spacious verandas where luminaries of another era once contemplated the view. Both are still works-in-the-process-of-restoration and they make an interesting contrast for anyone interested in woman, architecture, and history, particularly the era known as the Gilded Age.
The more famous Cottage is The Mount, built on the 113-acre property that author Edith Wharton bought in 1902 in part with money from her book royalties. I first visited The Mount back in 1981 — when Shakespeare & Company was both inhabiting the premises and using the property as a theater — after I bought my own small and real Berkshire cottage. Like many other women writers and artists in the Berkshires, I was curious about Wharton’s decision to leave the city and curious about the place where she wrote “The House of Mirth.” In 1897, she had published the non-fiction book “The Decoration of Houses” with architect Ogden Codman and it was Codman whom she chose to design the Mount.
Wharton wrote “The House of Mirth” in her bedroom, looking out at the Berkshire hills. She had expended a great deal of time and thought on creating the perfect environment for her writing as well as for her private and social needs. Unlike the party-loving socialites who inhabited the majority of other Berkshire Cottages for the summer season, she used her elegant white stucco house year-round between 1902 and 1911. She liked to have her friends visit one at a time and housed them in her one guest bedroom. Her dining room was relatively small; the table seated six.
The Mount, by Berkshire Cottage standards, is modest, graceful, thought-through, set far back from the main road, surrounded by woods and gardens, an elegant memorial to its owner.
Ventfort Hall, on the other hand, is a huge, rambling hodgepodge of a structure in the center of Lenox that film buffs will remember as the orphanage in “The Cider House Rules.” It was built by Sarah Morgan (sister of financier J.P. Morgan; wife of George Morgan) after her father Junius Morgan died in 1891 and left her three million dollars. There was already a large house named Vent Fort (Strong Wind) on the 26-acre property but Sarah wanted an English Manor House so in lieu of what today would be called a tear-down she simply had it moved across the road for her kids and spent another $900,000 on the new Ventfort Hall. Completed in 1893 and used only in the summers, it was the most expensive Cottage in the Berkshires.
I learned most of this from the energetic and enthusiastic volunteer guides who have, since 1999, watched Ventfort Hall morph from a wreck with “a slab of ice you could skate on in its Great Hall” to a superbly-restored, darkly satisfying Museum of the Gilded Age. It was — after a history of decay and use as a dormitory, B & B, and summer camp — slated for demolition by a developer interested in building a nursing home on the property and rescued at the last moment by two women for $500,000.
Unlike The Mount, Ventfort Hall was intended to be a party house. There are fifteen guest bedrooms and 10 servant’s rooms, comfortable enough to be used to house male guests in a pinch. The stained glass windows overlooking the entry, according to my guide, depict the Morgan Coat of Arms and the motto aptly reads “She Who Perseveres Wins.”
Sarah’s Great Hall with a rarely-used (it was a summer house after all) but an imposing fireplace served as a ballroom, with a balcony large enough to house a small orchestra. Guests can amble, two or three abreast, easily between the Library, the Cuban mahogany dining room (Sarah’s dinner table could seat 40), and the equally large Billiards Room. And because there are no original furnishings in the house, you can actually sit down pretty much anywhere you like.
At the moment the exhibit on view is “Les Petites Dames de Mode” — the extraordinary private collection of John R. Burbridge, former dress designer for Priscilla of Boston — that traces the evolution of fashionable women’s clothing from 1855 to 1914.
Best of all was the Victorian Tea and Picnic on the Porch. I sat with my guests up from New York and Boston, gazing out over the Berkshire Hills, delighted that both these houses had been saved from the wrecker’s ball — at least for the time being.
Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp and Where She Came From.