A Hairbreadth Escape

Big Old Houses - A Hairbreadth Escape
by John Foreman


About 20 years ago, during a very fluid period in my career, a girl I knew suggested we rent a mansion together in Stockbridge, Mass. Either a single or a double homicide — depending on whether or which of us escaped — would surely have ensued, so it was a lucky thing we dropped the plan.

One of the places we looked at was a fantastically decrepit pile in nearby Lenox called Ventfort Hall. Where I live now didn't look a lot different than Ventfort when I moved in. However, Ventfort is about 14,000 square feet bigger.
Ventfort Hall was constructed between 1891 and 1893 for a man named George Hale Morgan and his wife Sarah Spencer Morgan. Like FDR and Eleanor, the Morgans were distant cousins with the same last name. Nowadays we rarely think of carriage accidents as potentially fatal — I mean, how fast could they be going? However, they killed our forebears with depressing regularity. Morgan's prosperous father-in-law, Junius Spencer Morgan, died in a crash outside Monte Carlo in 1890. The accident provided his daughter Sarah with a big inheritance, and her husband with sufficient cash to build Ventfort Hall.

Sarah's brother also prospered in the world; his name was J. Pierpont Morgan. Rotch & Tilden, a Boston firm responsible for five important local houses, designed George and Sarah Morgans' Lenox house in a style that might be called Gilded Age Elizabethan. This was a "look" in Lenox, a resort that came to be called the Newport of the Hills.

You think it looked bad outside? You should have seen it inside, for example the dining room. Why are we looking up in this image? Because the entire floor has collapsed. The whole house wasn't as wrecked as this, although the more intact areas were in the process of being scavenged for architectural fabric.
Here's that same room today, restored to what is very nearly its original condition. Credit for the rescue of Ventfort Hall belongs to a group of local residents called the Ventfort Hall Association. In 1994, with the backing of a few deep pocket individuals, the Association offered to buy Ventfort for $650,000. The owner was a nursing home operator whose demolition plans had been stymied by adjacent property owners. The offer was rejected.

The next year, the Association offered $500,000. Still no deal. In 1996, they offered $350,000 and finally a deal took shape. If the operator would agree to suspend further interior demolition, the Association would raise the price to $400,000. The property closed in 1997, with a $250,000 loan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and $150,000 cash from friends.
Here's Ventfort in 1998, minus the Vietnamese jungle that had formerly engulfed it. What's wrong with this picture, aside from a monstrous house in severe distress? If you compare the gable to the one on the left, you'll note that the original Flemish silhouette has been ham-handedly altered. Probably the bricks were falling off, prompting the kind of cheapjack repair that afflicts many an aristocratic old house.
This is Jeffrey Gulick, the man in charge of stone carving and decorative plaster repair at Ventfort. (Now you'll recognize him when you see him on the street). He's completing work on a brownstone finial that's destined for the uppermost part of the restored gable.
The stone itself was supplied by Portland Brown Stone Quarries of Portland, Connecticut, and reportedly came from a demolished Connecticut prison. Jeff's work is done and ready for mounting.
Champlain Masonry of Pittsfield, Massachusetts did the installation.
Here's the finished product, good as new.
While you contemplate this vintage view of the salon at Ventfort I'll give you a précis on how the place got so run down. Morgan's wife died three years after Ventfort was finished, but he and a second wife continued to use it during the Lenox season until he died in 1911.
During the First World War, Morgan heirs rented Ventfort to Margaret Vanderbilt, wife of Lusitania victim Alfred Vanderbilt, and later to Roscoe Bonsal. The Bonsals eventually bought the house in 1925 for $103,000, and twenty years later, in 1945, their heirs sold it for $22,500 to Arthur Martin. The new owner converted the mansion into a dormitory for Tanglewood students and subdivided the perimeter of the property into small building lots.

Then in 1950, Bruno Aron turned Ventfort into a hotel called Festival House. The Fokine Ballet Camp came along next and continued to kick the old house around, in the manner of dormitories everywhere, until 1976. Then an outfit called The Bible Speaks inflicted yet more dormitory abuse until a spectacular bankruptcy at the end of the 1980s. Enter nursing home operator, intentional neglect, and threatened demolition.

This was the salon in 1997.
Jeff Gulick, the man who did the exterior carving, is also in charge of interior plaster restoration. Pretty amazing.
Ventfort's elaborate ceilings were falling down all over the place. This one is in the corridor to the billiard room. The darker colored original section was used as a model for reproducing missing areas. The light colored work is all new.
The glory of Ventfort's interior is its paneled double-height stair hall. Before the Ventfort Hall Association was able to stop it, someone with a crowbar had done extensive shopping for rails yanking out random pieces of the original paneling.
Fine carpenter Michael Costerisan of neighboring West Stockbridge has been painstakingly replicating missing pieces which, once stained, will be indistinguishable from the original work.
Things were awful upstairs too. Here's the Blue Room, before and after restoration.
Ventfort Hall has been open to the public since 2000, but not many of its rooms are finished AND furnished. This master bedroom is an exception. Tjasa Sprague and Steve Baum took me around last weekend. Tjasa is the Association's treasurer, and the prime mover behind the whole undertaking. She decides on projects and Steve manages them. The closed door behind her goes to one of two master bathrooms.
For me, original bathrooms are among the most interesting parts of old houses. That gizmo on the wall above the tub was part of a vintage burglar alarm system.
Here's the same view today. The new marble replicates the vanished original slabs. Heaven only knows who made off with the tub. A bit of original wall covering hidden behind the alarm box provided a template for the restored walls.
The Morgans supposedly slept in the same room, even though their house had the traditional his and her master bedrooms. Here's the other one, as yet unfurnished. Only the top half of the fireplace mantle was here in 1997; the bottom half represents an educated guess of what the missing section looked like.
This is Tjasa (pronounced tee-AH-sha) and yours truly in the billiard room. Why am I wearing a hat and a down-filled bomber jacket? Because it's February and this is a 28,000-square-foot house.
Whatever else befell Ventfort Hall, the stained glass remained intact.
There is no end of projects, inside and out. Here and below are more before and after views.
Since buying Ventfort in 1997, the Association has spent over $4,500,000 on restoration projects. One of the most ambitious was rebuilding a grand porch that overlooks the sweeping lawns down to Kemble Street.
Here's what the porch looked like during the Gilded Age.
And how it looks today.
Ventfort Hall is short on furniture, only partially open, has scuffed floors, and a lot of missing pieces. For all of that — and quite aside from its value as a cultural artifact — it is a spectacular object. You just want to climb all around this place and marvel at the fact that it still exists.
This was Ventfort then ...
This is Ventfort now. It's open all year long and supported entirely by donations, plus any and everything they can think of to raise money — dances, tours, concerts, lectures, dinners, mystery nights, exhibitions, theatrical presentations, etc., etc.
Here's the link: www.gildedage.org.
Visit John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
 
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