Big Old Houses: Another Rescue Story

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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. The eponymous proprietor operated a Rodeo Drive branch reputed to be the most expensive store in the world. I wonder whether its windows were also filled with photographic blowups of Bijan himself, luxuriously dressed and apparently in a permanent state of shrieking happiness. Besides clothing, Bijan once designed a gold plated Colt revolver (signed, natch) that came in a mink pouch. He actually sold two hundred of the things. But, I digress.

In case you can’t make them out above, here’s a closeup of Elm Court’s original inhabitants and tireless “renovators,” Emily Thorn Vanderbilt Sloane and William Douglas Sloane (in 1914).

A wholly different breed of cat is seen in the photo above, taken around 1910 outside the Lenox, Massachusetts country house of Mr. and Mrs. W.D. Sloane. The graceful unidentified creature on the left could have been Edith Wharton‘s Lily Bart herself. How charmingly she wears her ridiculous hat. The portly 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. During a local debate over whether to erect iron fencing around a graveyard called the Sedgewick Pie, Choate observed that since no one inside could get out, and no one outside wanted in, it made little sense to spend the money.

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 mustache, 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. Choate and his wife — she’s dead center, white poufs of hair, tucked down chin — had their own place in nearby Stockbridge.

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 of Elm Court 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.

A long and twisted road led Elm Court to the sorry state depicted in this 1989 photo.

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 would have been a highly qualified full-time professional, probably with a dozen in staff.

By 1989 Elm Court 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.

Here I am in a photo taken by my friend Robbe, sneaking commando-style onto the property in the summer of 1989. We were working on a book about the Vanderbilts and decided a field trip to Elm Court was a necessity.

You’ll note that I’ve kept my figure, but have somehow misplaced my hair. As you can also see — and if you can’t, I’ll tell you — 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. I remember that day as one of the most enjoyable in my life. It mixed a lifelong passion for old houses with the adventure of discovery, a soupcon of danger, and the undeniable romance of ruins.

Here’s what Elm Court looked like now. Big difference, right? Since this house and I have a history, I determined to find out what happened.

This time around, I didn’t have to search for an unnoticeable spot to stash the car, stroll casually on foot until no one was watching, then dive through the shrubbery onto the estate. Instead I pulled the Big-Old-House-mobile straight to the gate and, after detouring across the street for a quick candid, 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 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 designing firm, was a vocal proponent of this new and uniquely “American” style of architecture, one 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 was the professional buzz of the day.

Certainly the porte cochere is a bravura example of “new and innovative.” It is positively voluptuous.

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 that framed views of a tennis court beyond. The porch is 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, was the Commodore’s eldest son and principal heir. W.H. Vanderbilt 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.

Emily and WD married in 1872 and had five children. Florence, who married James Burden, was the subject of a charming book by Louis Auchincloss titled Maverick in Mauve. Emily, who married John Henry Hammond, was the mother of music promoter John Hammond Jr. The younger Hammond either discovered or furthered the careers of Pete Seeger, Billie Holiday, George Benson, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name only a very few. All this celebrity took place far from the tranquil precincts of Elm Court. 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.

Another of my late Vanderbilt friends, a fellow named Watson Webb, told me the following story about his great aunt Emily. At the end of a quiet evening in the summer of 1946, she rose from her seat in the library at Elm Court, paused at the foot of the stairs, and to no one in particular quietly said, “I think I’ve had it.” The next day, Emily Thorn Vanderbilt Sloane White, twice a widow, last surviving symbol of the old Lenox, failed to wake up in the morning. She was 94 years old. Uncertain what to do with her enormous house, the family decided in 1949 to open it as an inn. Mrs. White may have no longer sat at table, but dinner at the Elm Court Inn during the 1950s was still a formal affair.

The Inn was ahead of its time, unfortunately, and closed in the late ’50s, after which the dark days came. Here’s that gorgeous dining room in 1989.

And here it is today, miraculously restored. There was a fund raiser the day before my visit, but bare tables or no, this is obviously a magnificent space.

Today Elm Court is a full-time country inn. As yet there is no restaurant, but breakfast is served in the former pantry which, this being Elm Court, is as big as most dining rooms.

The grounds were designed by the Olmsted Brothers, a firm responsible for literally hundreds of American estate gardens during the late 19th and early 20th 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.

In recent years, some of the original furnishings and architectural fabric has been returned 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 are twelve hotel rooms at today’s Elm Court Estate. Here’s an evocative “before and after” of the stair that leads up to them.

Elm Court Estate’s genial manager, Les Freeman, is taking me around …

… to see room after room, after room.

Some are 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 for the entire restoration; Sonya directed all interior decoration. The Berles cut their restoration teeth on big old houses in New Orleans’ Garden District. It’s hard to imagine how anything could have prepared them for a project on the scale of Elm Court.

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 restored Elm Court Estate was first opened for guests during the summers of 2004 and 2005. For a few years after that, the Berles used it as a private house, then reopened it to the public in the summer of 2009. Since 2010 it’s been open all year.

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.

This little pavilion overlooked the former tennis court. A replacement is on the Berles’ “to do” list.

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.

I didn’t have to sneak out of Elm Court this time. Here I am, approaching the gate from inside the property, unafraid of persons in hot pursuit shaking their fists.

Ed. Note: Elm Court had been the last of the Berkshire cottages to have remained in the family of its original owners.  In July 2012, the property was sold to a Colorado-based group for $9.8 million, the highest price paid for a residential property in Berkshire County history. A $50 million renovation of the property is due to take place in 2020, preserving the current mansion as main element on property. Let’s hope so.

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