The Mount: Writer Edith Wharton's 1902 House

An Elegant Lenox Edwardian Estate

By: - Jul 21, 2008

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          The Mount
Lenox, Massachusetts
Open 10am – 5pm Daily - May through September
Adults: $16; Students:$13
Children under age 6 free.

Guided tours of house and gardens available June 15 - Sept 1 for an additional $2 per person. Tours of the house generally run on the hour, with garden tours on the weekends but please call 413.551.5107 or 413.551.5104 for daily tour schedules.

Edith Wharton is considered by many to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. She was born to a wealthy family named Jones in New York City in 1862. She was raised in a rigidly structured society. Her literary work chronicled and reacted to this society of new vs. old families and nouveau riche vs. old money. She came to this position quite naturally. Supposedly, her family was the family that "keeping up with the Joneses" referred to. Wharton wrote more than 48 books in four decades including such classics as the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth.

Built in 1902, The Mount is a country home and grounds designed by Wharton to be her "first real home." It is the physical reality of her rather educated and sophisticated design philosophy. The Mount's main house was inspired by the 17th-century Belton House in Lincolnshire, England, a Palladian style English Country home with additional influences from classical Italian and French architecture. Wharton used the principles described in her first book, The Decoration of Houses (1897) that she co-authored with MIT-trained architect and interior designer Ogden Codman, Jr., when she designed and decorated The Mount.

A passionate gardener, Edith Wharton was considered an authority on European landscape design. She envisioned her gardens as an elegant series of outdoor rooms and created unique design compositions planned in concert with the house and the surrounding natural landscape. Approximately three acres of formal gardens surround the house. More than $3 million has been invested in the preservation and restoration of  The Mount's gardens and grounds, including restoring the hardscape and replanting approximately 5,000 trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. In June 2005, nearly 3,000 annuals and perennials were planted in Edith Wharton's flower garden.

The Italianate walled garden and its rustic rock pile fountain have been completely restored. The Mount's landscape is considered beautiful at all times of the year. This reflects Ms. Wharton's closely held belief that the garden should possess "a charm independent of the seasons." Completing the pleasing design is a rock garden with grass steps. The garden has also been replanted with flowering shrubs and native ferns that Edith Wharton personally collected around the Berkshires.

Edith Wharton felt that the best architectural expression included clear order, scale, and harmony. The Mount's entry or west elevation is three stories whereas on the garden side it is two stories with an opening out to a large, raised, stone terrace overlooking the palatial grounds. The house exterior is bright white stucco, strongly set off by crisp black shutters, and rises from a somewhat rustic foundation of coarse fieldstone. Several gables and white chimneys rise up on its roof. The roof is capped with a balustrade and cupola.

The Mount's main house is amplified by a Georgian Revival gatehouse and stable as well as a greenhouse with a potting shed. Codman assisted Edith with the architectural considerations while Wharton's niece, Beatrix Jones Farrand, designed the kitchen garden and the extensive driveway. Interestingly, a landscape architecture pioneer, Farrand was the only woman of the eleven founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Wharton had planned to live there with her husband Edward (Teddy) but discovered that the old boy had over the years taken some $60,000 of Edith's money to pay for a mistress in Boston. Wharton was not pleased. Edith and her husband lived in the Mount only from 1902 to 1911. 

After she divorced her husband, she left The Mount for good. She took off for France since a divorced woman from a proper upper class family like hers could not live in the United States. She lived there the rest of her life only returning briefly to accept an honorary degree from Yale University. Following her departure, the house became a private residence, then a girls' dormitory for the Foxhollow School, and eventually the site of the theatre company Shakespeare & Company.

Decades of lack of maintenance and physical neglect resulted in much damage. Eventually, it was bought by The Edith Wharton Restoration Foundation, which restored much of the property to its original condition. There is much restoration work still remaining to be completed. What rooms are finished are fine examples of upper class Edwardian taste. However, there needs to be a lot more tender loving care showed to The Mount. 

The house itself feels very European. Wharton's early travels abroad are clearly illustrated by the house's exterior rather French detailing and interior formal furnishings. One enters it through an enclosed courtyard. The courtyard has two stone benches set in the middle and two very Italianate matching sculptures of a man and a woman each holding a basket of fruit. Stepping into a portico or entrance hall, the visitor walks up the stairs to a brightly windowed formal hallway. From this point, the visitor can enter rooms that were used for entertaining, conversation or reading. A particular favorite room of mine is the beautifully wooden-detailed butler's pantry.

On higher floors are bedrooms and servants quarters. From the windows, there are wonderful views of stately gardens and the beautiful grounds surrounding the house. The house has a special quality to it. It is a formal house with rather intimate well-scaled rooms. It is grand without being ostentatious, deliberately restrained yet well-appointed.

The house is situated at the high end of the grounds. The original site was 113 acres of farmland, with another 15 acres later added. The current estate size is 49.5 acres. Restored gardens now include an Italian walled garden, formal flower garden, alpine rock garden, lime walk, and extensive grass terraces. The Mount is the only U.S. monument to author Edith Wharton. It is also one of only 5% of National Historic Landmarks that are dedicated to women.

The Mount is a major Berkshire and National landmark. Over the last few months, articles in many publications including the New York Times and others have been telling the Wharton house story. Recently Boston University's NPR station WBUR did a whole story on the problem. Apparently, Shakespeare & Co's artistic Director Tina Packer feels that The Mount should be used for a creative function just as Edith Wharton had built it to be. The Mount's board members seem to be wringing their hands a bit. This is a problem caused by an earlier board that had visions of a good economy going on forever with little regard to high interest rates.

In recent years, The Mount has fallen into financial troubles, defaulting in February 2008 on payment of a $4.3 million bank loan as well as still owing money to various private lenders. Apparently the interest rates that the Foundation obtained to do the restoration work were egregious and the interest rate is the great burden. Foreclosure proceedings had been threatened and the former head of the Edith Wharton Restoration group resigned last winter. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities has helped to allow an extension on the bank loan and extensive fund raising efforts have been initiated. Now the due date is October 2008. Still, the situation is certainly bad.

It would be a real shame to lose such a unique piece of early 20th Century American architecture. Clearly, the board needs to expand itself financially and creatively. Thoughtful and timely approaches need to be addressed and taken as soon as possible. Architectural historians should be very sensitive to this situation. We cannot afford as a civilized region or nation to lose such a significant and beautiful structure. 

Perhaps, a university might even take The Mount over as a center for architectural restoration research and study? Here, students could learn to save our architectural heritage through research and study. Skills of handcraft and artisanship could be taught and applied. I think Edith Wharton would have approved. She appreciated creative entrepreneurship. She appreciated beauty and finely developed craft. Just read some of her books. The Mount needs a happy ending.