Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Big Old Houses: (Almost) Like New

Big Old Houses: (Almost) Like New
by John Foreman

Hearing that his friend Edith Wharton had bought a fancy car with the proceeds of a fat book contract, the eminent author Henry James observed, "With the proceeds of my last novel, I purchased a small go-cart...on which my guests' luggage is wheeled from the station to my house .... With the proceeds of my next novel, I shall have it painted." "Rich," of course, is a relative term, but I think we can safely describe Edith Wharton as relatively rich. The image below shows her at about the time she and her husband Teddy were building their country place in the fashionable summer colony of Lenox, Mass. According to "Lively Week at Lenox," in the New York Times of July 21, 1901, "Mr. and Mrs. Edward Wharton are to erect a summer place on the shores of Laurel Lake .... The place will be a very complete one." Edith called it The Mount.
Edith's husband Teddy (above, right) plays a walk-on role in most accounts of her life. Once her career gained traction, she set her considerable energies to extracting herself from an unhappy marriage to a man with whom, according to most sources, something was profoundly wrong.

The Mount, which originally sat on 113 (now down to about 50) acres and cost well under $100,000, was as much a personal creative act as any of Edith's books. The architects of record were Ogden Codman Jr., who in 1897 was her coauthor on the "The Decoration of Houses," and Francis L.V. Hoppin, of the distinguished architectural firm of Hoppin and Koen. In concept and detail, however, the house — including gatehouse, drive, stable and gardens — was Edith's own.
I hadn't been to the Mount in years and was stunned to discover it in such magnificent condition. (It didn't used to be). The formal garden in particular was transformed.
In a letter to Morton Fullerton, an undependable womanizer on whom Edith had a terrible crush, she wrote of her garden at Lenox, "I am amazed by the success of my efforts. Decidedly, I'm a better landscape gardener than a novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses 'The House of Mirth.'"
From the terrace of the Mount you originally gazed across the garden to distant views of Laurel Lake. Today all you can see is a single swampy cove, the rest of the lake being obscured by trees. A broad terrace with french doors from the major rooms wraps around the east and north sides of the house. Let's climb the garden stair and have a look.
The service court and kitchen entrance are on the south.
The front door opens onto a formal graveled courtyard, the scene of a recent wedding.
Ogden Codman Jr. (1863-1951), right, took the ideas of taste, proportion, and design that he and Edith had codified in "The Decoration of Houses" and came up with the Mount.

It's unclear how much — or when exactly — Hoppin contributed to the project. At one point, Codman became so furious at his former coauthor that he walked off the job. Edith had to beg him to return and finish the interiors.

Let's imagine Edith's new car where the tent is today (with Henry James pining in the back seat) then have a look inside the house.

The Mount sits on a slab; there is no basement. The piano nobile is one floor up and the entrance hall plasterwork affects an intentional grotto-esque look.
The main stair is textbook "Decoration of Houses." It sits in a separate room because, in Edith's and Ogden's minds, staircases are not intended as principal features of a house. The notion of a showy flight of stairs leading to private rooms where guests are not welcome doesn't make sense. In the case of the Mount, you have to climb one flight to get to the public rooms, but even here the stairs are housed demurely in a room of their own.
Before we go upstairs, let's explore the kitchen, pantry, a passageway with a vintage ice box, the servants' hall and the laundry room, all of which are here on the first floor. There's been serious water damage on the south end of the house, not all of which has been repaired. In the roped off dumbwaiter pantry new steel structural elements are holding up the roof. The kitchen, like many rooms in the Mount, has chairs for visitors and a screen on which a continuous video tells stories about the house. You can sit and listen or keep moving; your choice.
This hall runs perpendicular to the hall with the ice box. The door to the dumbwaiter pantry is on the left; the servants' hall and laundry are behind me. The latter have been combined into a gift shop. A pair of laundry tubs has been retained for atmosphere, although not in original location.
The beautiful main stairway leads to the principal rooms on the second floor. It does not connect directly with stairs to the bedrooms on three. That latter staircase is located in a separate adjacent room. Dark painted decorative wall panels with vaguely 18th century motifs are survivors from Edith's day.
Aside from the inherently private nature of staircases, "The Decoration of Houses" taught me that proportion is the good breeding of architecture. Boy, do I ever see a lot of rooms in new and often expensive Manhattan apartments with lousy proportions. I also learned that decoration, not being a division of dressmaking, can't depend on curtains, sofas, pictures and bibelots to do more than partially disguise a badly proportioned room. I also learned that walls should be treated as orders, which is to say that just as the shaft of a column rests on a base and is topped with a capital, so a good looking wall has a properly proportioned baseboard and cornice molding. I know we live in an era of plain white walls with a 1 x 3 tacked onto the bottom. Those walls look like crap, however, no matter what modern designers may tell us.
One of the most delicious parts of a visit to the Mount is the fact that you can just wander around it at will. With the exception of the library, there are no ropes or tourist walkways. The original furniture in the drawing room below is long gone, but the room feels very much as it must have in Edith's day. Antique tapestries that once hung on its north and south walls have been replaced by clever wall paintings. The big striped terrace awning is just outside the french doors.
In 2005, Edith Wharton Restoration paid $2.5 million to a British collector named George Ramsden for the original library that was shelved in this room. Here it is, back again, a wonderful thing to have although its acquisition nearly bankrupted EWR. This is the room where Edith wrote "The House of Mirth."
The library connects to a reception room, located at the opposite end of the second floor hall from the stair. Some rooms are beautiful even without furniture.
We're looking south down the second floor hall from the reception room towards the stair. The entry courtyard is outside the windows on the right; the drawing room is behind the mirror on the left; we're headed for the dining room, which is to the left beyond the arch at the end of the hall.
Edith lived in the Mount — which is to say, came there in the summer — for barely ten years before she divorced her husband, sold the house and moved to Paris. In 1911, reportedly for $180,000, New York banker Albert Shattuck and his wife bought the place and renamed it White Lodge. Shattuck reportedly never recovered from the trauma of being locked with wife and servants in the wine cellar of his Manhattan town house by a thieving former butler who made off with the silver. He died three years later in 1925.
After Mrs. Shattuck's death in 1935, White Lodge stood empty until 1938, when Carr Van Anda, managing editor of The New York Times bought it for $25,600. In 1942, by then a widower, Van Anda sold the property for $18,000 to the neighboring Foxhollow School. Foxhollow was a young ladies' finishing school of a sort that hardly exists today. Juniors and seniors lived upstairs and took meals in this room. An annual dance was held in the adjoining drawing room. Cultural changes in the 1970s spelled the end of places like Foxhollow, which closed shop in 1976. A Connecticut developer named Donald Altshuler bought the Mount in 1978 and rented it to a theatre group called Shakespeare and Company.
Shakespeare and Company was a pretty lively presence at the Mount, albeit not a tenant given to easy usage. I remember many years ago driving up to see a dramatization of Wharton's "Custom of the Country" staged creatively in the drawing room. Edith Wharton Restoration, Inc., today's owner, was created by Shakespeare for the purpose of buying the property, which they did in 1980 thanks to an Endangered Properties Fund grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. What seemed a marriage in heaven, between performing arts and preservation, became about as civil as Edith's own marriage to Teddy. In 2001, Shakespeare departed leaving EWR in the house alone.
The serving pantry off the dining room is now a base of operations for the occasional caterer. Out in the hall beyond, the original annunciator is still on the wall. I doubt many people ever rode on that elevator. It was designed for the bulky luggage Gilded Age society people hauled around with them on country house visits.
True to a dictum in "The Decoration of Houses," stairs to the private bedrooms on three are in a separate enclosure. With the exception of Edith's bedroom, the third floor is unfurnished and the bedrooms given over to the print, audio-visual and artifact exhibits.
This is the Henry James Room, it being his billet during visits to the Mount. In addition to another video on a constant loop, you can see his partially collapsed bathroom, a victim of the same leak that undermined the dumbwaiter pantry two floors below.
Teddy's room and bathroom (minus fixtures) are in the middle of the third floor.
Edith's suite is the only series of 3rd floor rooms with furniture.
Indulge me while I obsess on Edith's bathroom. Not really original, it was cobbed together with scavenged fixtures from partially disassembled bathrooms elsewhere in the house.
On the other side of Edith's bathroom is her boudoir, where someone must have had a lot of fun replicating its vintage appearance.
On the right side of the hall, Edith's suite being behind me, is another guestroom suite with bath. Beyond that is a service corridor leading to sewing and linen rooms.
On the fourth floor are servants' rooms and a single servants' bathroom, all filled now with storage.
One of the pleasures that writing this column affords is the opportunity to plumb architectural recesses most visitors never see — in this case, the lantern on top of the Mount.
Time to head downstairs.
After a brush with bankruptcy in 2008, EWR's new director Susan Wissler managed to restructure finances, diversify event programs, and polish the house and grounds to levels they haven't seen in years. Besides touring indoors and out, you can have a light lunch "al fresco" at the Terrace Cafe. The Mount is open daily from May to October; the link is www.edithwharton.org.
Edith Wharton died in August of 1937 at her villa in France. She was 75 years old and had published 38 books.
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