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The Gilded Age Makes a Comeback

Saved from the wrecking ball, Ventfort Hall is being restored to its residential—and arts salon—splendor

by Ann Morrow on June 14, 2012

They came from New York City or Boston, taking the train to the Red Lion Inn where they would disembark with their flotillas of luggage and fleets of servants. For a few rarified decades, this late summer ritual transformed the sleepy hill towns of the Berkshires into a Gilded Age resort to rival Newport or Bar Harbor. Drawn by the unspoiled beauty of the place—as well as its frisson of salon society—American blue bloods, captains of industry and titans of Wall Street built enormous mansions (understatedly called “cottages”) on immense tracts of land. Designed with every architectural and horticultural flourish imaginable, the houses competed with each other in ostentation.

These plutocratic palaces ranged from reinvented gothic castles to faux baronial manors, representing “the peaks and turrets of outrageous fortune,” as one chronicler put it. Reportedly the largest private residence in America, Andrew Carnegie’s Shadow Brook had 100 rooms. The nouveau gentry drove up land prices by hundreds-fold, but also put the Berkshires on the map of high society.

As often happens, it was artists and writers—including Hawthorne, Melville, and Longfellow—who first found their way to this bucolic outpost, and the extravagantly rich followed, their materialistic excesses accommodated by an expansion of the Housatonic Railroad (writer Edith Wharton, however, a member of Old New York society, didn’t decamp Newport for Lenox until later, building The Mount in 1902). Even Jenny Jerome, the future Lady Churchhill, summered in the Berkshires.

Ventfort Hall in Lenox was not the largest or the most famous of the Berkshire cottages, but it may have been the most beautiful. Built by heiress Sarah Morgan, sister to J.P. Morgan, and her husband, George Morgan, a distant cousin, the red-brick Jacobean Revival is distinguished by its fanciful, Renaissance-influenced vernacular, with Flemish gables, Tudor windows, and an impressive porte cochere. The interior was enriched by exotic-wood panels, embossed faux leather wallpaper, and striking stained-glass windows, along with incomparable plasterwork decorations.

The Elizabethan-style Great Hall contains a musicians’ gallery—a nice touch for what was in essence a 15-bedroom guesthouse (with 17 uniquely designed fireplaces). A bowling alley was built under the expansive back verandah, which once provided a view of Monument Mountain. Schenectady electricity pioneer George Westinghouse lived nearby in his own summer cottage, Erskine Park, and built a generator by Laurel Lake, allowing Ventfort to be equipped with such cutting-edge amenities as electric lights and an elevator. Its secluded setting within a 26-acre garden encompassed two gatehouses, six greenhouses, and a matching carriage house.

And then the delirious whirl of breeze-cooled dinner parties, extravagant soirees, and indolent outdoor recreation came to a halt. The age of opulence was over, undone by the Federal Income Tax in 1913, and a year later, the outbreak of World War I. Sarah Morgan didn’t live to see the decline of her milieu, dying of a heart attack four years after her summer cottage was completed in 1894. Most of the Berkshire cottages eventually burned down, were torn down, or were pressed into hard service as seminaries and schools. Ventfort Hall spent time as an inn, but as its tour guides will tell you, it’s a miracle the house survived.

After George Morgan died, Ventfort was rented to Margaret Vanderbilt, who lost her husband when he went down with the Lusitania. (She later bought Erskine Park.) During and after the Depression, the cottages became almost impossible to maintain, and in the mid-20th century, a very precarious time for large estates, Ventfort was utilized as a dormitory for a dance school and then as housing for a religious order that neglected it. After years of vacancy, it was bought by a nursing-home developer with the intention of demolishing it.

While the developer was selling off architectural elements, part of the roof collapsed. Local residents and members of the Lenox Historical Society formed the Ventfort Hall Association to rescue it. They saved the property in 1997, just days before its scheduled demolition, and were able to purchase it with a loan from Hillary Clinton’s Save America’s Treasures program.

Merely attempting to stabilize the structure was daunting enough. A hole in the house left an opening from the basement straight up three flights to the sky. The association received another crucial boost when Miramax filmed at Ventfort for The Cider House Rules, using the rear verandah as St. Cloud orphanage. The production spent an additional $8,000 repairing the back door’s window pane.

Miraculously, the three-story winding staircase survived (and can be seen in The Cider House Rules). Most of the exquisite Parisian salon was intact, including an ornate alabaster fireplace with delicate appliqués (applied with rabbit-hide glue). And the magnificent foyer fireplace: Hewn from French limestone, the six-ton hearth thwarted the developer’s attempts to remove it. Vestiges of the gravel path out back remained as a reminder of the voluminous, floor-length gowns that once swept along its length.

As for the fin-de-siecle dining room—Sarah was renowned for her lavish entertaining—once lined and coffered with rare Cuban mahogany, the restoration has successfully approximated its former luxuriousness, filling in missing panels with Honduran mahogany. All the repair work was done by master craftsmen from the Berkshires.

“People were in disbelief that it could be brought back,” says office manager Mark Monette. “If you look at the before and after photos, it’s just amazing.” The mansion—or one room of it—opened to the public in 2001. Since then, the entire first floor and most of the upstairs has been restored. The imposing, Tudor-style carriage house is also undergoing restoration and may someday be used as a performance space.

“It’s important to understand how people lived back then, and how society worked,” Monette says. “And it’s interesting for people to look at.”

Tours of the cottage give a vivid impression of America’s version of Downton Abbey, revealing hidden doorways leading to back staircases that allowed the servants to move about unobtrusively, including a hidden side passage leading to the flower garden—fresh cut flowers being de rigueur. The butler’s pantry alone is the size of a modern kitchen.

As of recently, Ventfort Hall encompasses the Museum of the Gilded Age, serving up an imaginative schedule of lectures, concerts, plays, events and exhibits relating to that dazzling era of seemingly limitless economic expansion.

“We try to interpret the great changes that occurred in American society and industry during the 19th century,” says Monette of the programming. “It’s our mission to educate the public on the Gilded Age and how important the Berkshires were to that era. Most people don’t know that it was ‘the inland Newport.’

“History should be preserved because there is always something to be learned from it,” he adds. One illustration is how Ventfort was going green even before the turn of the 20th century: Methane from the septic system was rerouted to power nightlights in the bathrooms.

Ventfort Hall Mansion and the Museum of the Gilded Age is now part of an exclusive fraternity of buildings—beginning with Tanglewood—that have added considerable might to the region’s economic revival. The Mount, former home of Shakespeare & Company, is now the Edith Wharton Museum. The surviving exterior and palatial grounds of Bellefontaine have been repurposed for Canyon Ranch health spa.

Cottages built for frivolity have given the area an incalculable mystique for tourists, while their picturesque grounds preserved large tracts of land, creating a unique interplay of culture, history, and nature.

And at Ventfort Hall, anyone with the price of a tour ticket can enter the realm of high society. And have tea service, too.