Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Big Old Houses: Out of the Frying Pan ... Maybe

Out of the Frying Pan ... Maybe
by John Foreman


During my not-so-long-ago economic salad days, I used to sit in a window on Fifth Avenue and gaze across the road at a mens' clothing boutique called Bijan. Photo blowups of the eponymous proprietor, now dead, bespoke the "ne plus ultra" of a privileged man in a permanent state of shreiking happiness. Besides the place on Fifth Avenue, Bijan operated a Rodeo Drive branch reputed to have been the most expensive store in the world. Here, besides clothing, elite shoppers could buy his personally designed gold plated Colt revolver (signed, natch) that came in a mink pouch. He actually sold two hundred of the things. But, I digress.

A different type of privileged folk is seen in the photo above, taken around 1910 outside the Lenox, MA country house of Mr. & Mrs. W.D. Sloane. The graceful unidentified creature on the left could have been Lily Bart herself. How charmingly she wears her ridiculous hat. The fat man on the right is Joseph Choate, American ambassador to the UK under McKinley. Choate once said of King George V, "He does not reign, he only sprinkles." I wish I could come up with lines like that.

The second lady from the left (next to the hat) is Emily Thorn Vanderbilt Sloane (1852-1946), the lady of the house. Her husband, William Douglas Sloane (1844-1915) — "WD" to the family — is the gentleman in wing collar and white mustaches, standing third from right. The "Newport of the Hills," as Lenox once was called, was essentially about big house parties, but I'm guessing this was just a group of neighbors over for lunch.
Elm Court, the Sloane estate on the Old Stockbridge Road, was designed by Peabody and Stearns, a Boston firm not so well known today, but once as famous as McKim Mead and White. The Sloanes took possession in time for the 1887 season, and continued to relentlessly enlarge the house until it reached its gigantic peak in 1900. Like other big places in fashionable Lenox, Elm Court was in effect a private hotel, designed as much for the comfort and amusement of its guests as for the owners who paid for it.

In high season, a daily schedule of activities would have been posted in the main hall. Meals would be available in the house, or as picnic lunches. Horses, local excursions, and evening entertainments were all arranged carefully and well in advance. Dare we compare it to a Carnival cruise? Well, maybe not quite. P.S. How about those potted palms by the porte cochere? Elm Court's greenhouses supposedly covered two entire acres. The head gardener was a highly qualified full time professional, probably with a dozen in staff.

A long and twisted road led Elm Court to the sorry state depicted in this 1989 photo. By then it had been vacant for thirty years, during which time vandals and "shoppers" had descended upon it like locusts, smashing up or hauling away, depending on individual mood and malevolence. Those same years saw the demise of Lenox as an elite summer colony. Elm Court remained in family hands, but attempts to protect it were clearly inadequate.
This is me, sneaking "commando-style" onto the property in the summer of 1989. At the time I was working on a book on the Vanderbilts and needed material on Elm Court. You'll note that I've kept my figure, but have somehow misplaced my hair. You can also see — and if you can't, I'm tellking you now — that I was ready to dive into the tall grass on a moment's notice should a caretaker or (worse) an officer of the law materialize. Happily, none did.
Here's what Elm Court looked like three years ago. Big difference, right? I came this time as the guest of family members who had bought the house and, against big odds and near universal expectations, restored it.
On this visit, I didn't have to search for an unnoticeable spot to stash the car, stroll innocently on foot until I was sure no one was watching, then dive into the shrubbery and onto the estate. Instead I pulled straight up to the gate, pressed the intercom, watched the electric gates slide noiselessly open, and proceeded toward the house with becoming dignity. Elm Court appeared a moment later, looking gratifyingly grand.
Elm Court was — and actually still is — the largest Shingle Style house in America. Interestingly, when built it would have been called a Modernized Colonial, at least by architectural professionals. Robert Swain Peabody, a principal in the firm of Peabody & Stearns that designed it, was a vocal proponent of this new and uniquely "American" style that combined elements of colonial and Federal traditions in new and innovative ways. It may be a little hard to wrap your head around the idea of "colonial" and "Elm Court" in the same sentence. However, such were the professional labels of the day.
Certainly the voluptuous porte cochere is a bravura example of "new and innovative."
The porte cochere leads to a porch dividing a billiard and secondary guest wing from the main body of the house. In the Sloanes' day there would have been a clutter of wicker, potted palms, and hanging flowers crowded beneath striped awnings framing views of a tennis court beyond. The porch was less inviting on this winter weekend, although the bold lines of its architecture are clearer.
Emily Thorn Vanderbilt was the granddaughter of shipping magnate and railroad king, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Her father, William Henry Vanderbilt, the Commodore's eldest son and principal heir, was the richest man in the world when he died in 1885. Emily's first husband, WD Sloane, together with his brother Henry, were partners in W and J Sloane, the famous home furnishing store founded by their father in 1843. The image below shows the principal feature of the entrance hall, a remarkable fireplace.
A grand corridor branches off the main hall and leads to principal entertaining rooms and the main stair.
Years ago I met one of Mrs. Sloane's grandsons, the late Osgood Field, who told me the following story about the books in the Elm Court library. They had been chosen by an upscale Boston book seller purely for the quality of their bindings, and after being arranged on the library shelves were never touched again. They sat there, unread, in gold embossed splendor for half a century, until vandals carried them off in the 1960s.
Adjacent to the library is a conservatory. It was outside this room that the Sloanes and their guests were posing in the first image above. As you can see, it too has undergone a Cinderella transformation.
Next to the library is a drawing room whose focal point is this elaborate fireplace. You can guess what it looked like in 1989. The restoration of this room required replication of practically all the original plasterwork.
At the end of a quiet evening in the summer of 1952, Emily Vanderbilt Sloane White, twice a widow and the last surviving symbol of the great days of Lenox, rose from her seat in the library, paused at the foot of the stairs and, to no one in particular, quietly said, "I think I've had it." The next morning she didn't wake up; she was ninety-four years old. Uncertain what to do with her enormous house, the family decided to open it as an inn.
The Inn was ahead of its time, unfortunately. It closed in the late '50s, after which the dark days came. Here's that gorgeous dining room in 1989.
This is what it looked like at the time of my visit three years ago. There had been a fund raiser the evening before, but bare tables or no, this is obviously a magnificent space.
At the time of my visit, Elm Court was operating as a combination event venue and curiously gigantic bed and breakfast (breakfast was served in the pantry). The house was so enormous, interestingly, that you didn't quite notice not all of it had been restored. Certain areas, indeed, were still literally in ruins. Elm Court's overall physical resurrection was still thrilling, although its economic future seemed murky. Not so any longer, as we shall shortly see.
The grounds were designed by the Olmsted Brothers, a firm responsible for literally hundreds of American estate gardens during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We're looking west from the garden side of the house, towards Stockbridge Bowl. The pergola behind the ornamental pool was originally covered with wisteria.
The pergola floor is paved with over-sized marble dominoes obtained at a bargain price, we hear, because they are actually grave stones with spelling errors.
When the restoration began to gain real traction, certain original furnishings and architectural fabric started returning to the house. A man in nearby Great Barrington sent back a fireplace mantel he'd stolen at the age of seventeen. The statue in the photo below reappeared in the wake of a letter saying, "I can't tell you how I acquired it, but it's in my backyard in Maine."
There were twelve hotel rooms at the Elm Court B & B when I visited. Here's an evocative "before and after" of the stair that leads up to them.
Yours truly is thoroughly enjoying his tour.
Here's Les Freeman, the genial general manager who took me around ...
... to see room after room, after room.
Some were bigger than others, for example the master bedroom. In 1999, Elm Court was purchased by Mrs. White's great-grandson, Bob Berle, and his wife Sonya. Bob acted as general contractor; Sonya directed the interior decoration. The Berles cut their restoration teeth on big old houses in New Orleans' Garden District.
Mrs. White's bathroom has a small porch overlooking the mountains and Stockbridge Bowl.
Here's more hallway, leading to more rooms.
The original bathroom walls and floors were among the few things that couldn't be stolen, even though somebody probably tried. A few tubs have survived, but original sinks and towel bars are distant memories.
The Berles opened Elm Court Estate to guests during the summers of 2004 and 2005. For a few years after that, they used it as a private house, then reopened it to the public in the summer of 2009.
It seemed to me that the best way to get a proper sense of Elm Court's scale was to take a walk around it. (And I thought my house was big).
This little pavilion overlooked the former tennis court.
The French architect Le Corbusier, whose stripped down aesthetic, it will not surprise you, totally offends me, tried to sell the world on the notion of houses being "machines for living." What a ridiculous idea. The design of Elm Court, by contrast, is rich with imagination and visual interest.
The greenhouses are extant but dilapidated. A fine carriage house and several picturesque cottages survive in better shape.
In July of 2012 the Berles sold Elm Court to Travaasa Experiential Resorts for $9.8 million bucks. It was the largest price ever paid for a house in Berkshire County, which to New Yorkers anyway, says a lot about house prices in Berkshire County. Travaasa, whose suspicious sounding (to me, anyway) name wouldn't seem to resonate particularly with historic preservation, plans to convert Elm Court into a glamorous spa on the order of the nearby Canyon Ranch, ensconced in another Berkshire "cottage" formerly on its uppers, called Bellefontaine.

Travaasa's idea is to build a huge new addition to Elm Court connected to the original service wing, and located on the downslope of the hill behind it. Travaasa argues the new construction will be invisible from the driveway, from the main areas of the house, from the Old Stockbridge Road and from the neighbors' houses which, as far as I can see, is mostly true. In any case, without a world-class spa and 96 new hotel rooms, the project wouldn't fly commercially. After the predictable gauntlet of zoning board battles, the project's been approved. The elevations below give some sense of what's coming; alternately you might also have a look at elmcourt.com/renderings/
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