LENOX, MASS. — It is said that the last of the Gilded Age gentlemen did not leave the Berkshires until 1945.
On Sept. 22, 1945, Giraud Foster, 94, died from a heart attack at his beloved estate Bellefontaine.
For 50 years, he had called the Berkshires home, beginning in 1896 as a summer cottager and later making it his legal residence.
Just prior to his death, he was elected to his 30th term as president of the Lenox Club and was still active on many boards. He also was president of the Mahkeenac Boat Club at the Stockbridge Bowl, a senior warden of Trinity Church, and a director of the Lenox Library.
According to his obituary in the Berkshire Eagle, his demise was unexpected, as a week prior he had been seen making the three-mile walk from his estate to Trinity Church, with only the assistance of two canes.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that Foster had already planned his birthday celebration — an annual event that had become a prominent feature of the social season.
But by January 1946, his son, Giraud Van Nest Foster, had sold the 35-room mansion with all its furnishings, along with 182 acres, four brick buildings and its greenhouses to Tobias-Fischer Inc., New York auctioneers from a mere $80,000.
Giraud Foster and his wife, Jane Van Nest, built the mansion for a reported $2.5 million in 1896.
The mansion made of brick and marble, quarried in Lee, was designed by architects Carrere and Hastings in the style of Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon at Versailles. However, as noted in "Houses of the Berkshires, 1870 - 1930," by Richard S. Jackson Jr. and Cornelia Brooke Gilder, "a second look reveals a wholly original confection of 18th-century elements and strict axial planning of facades, driveways and formal training of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts."
Foster, who had inherited his wealth from his shipping family, and his wife, who inherited hers from a family that grew wealthy making harnesses, filled their beloved estate with items that were hand-crafted and imported from France.
An extensive library contained 5,000 volumes. Statues in the gardens were imported from Italy.
In 1946, the estate was sold to the William B. Cooke Holding Co. for $100,000. Cooke, a prominent funeral director from New York, said he intended to make Bellefontaine his home, but over the next two years carved up the property, selling off parcels individually.
He also sold off most of the furnishings and statues before selling the mansion and 96 acres to the Society of the Fathers of Mercy in Brooklyn in for $45,000.
The order opened the Our Lady of Mercy Preparatory School at the mansion in 1948. On Feb. 13, 1949, 22 individuals fled the mansion as it went up in flames. All but a rotunda and the library, containing the 5,000 volumes, were destroyed. The order rebuilt the inside of the mansion and reopened the seminary in December 1949.
By 1975, the seminary and preparatory school, known as Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary, run by the Roman Catholic Order of the Sacred Heart, had begun to see its enrollment figures decline.
In 1981, the property again changed hands, this time being sold for $1 million to Boston developer Martin Isenberg. He invested another $500,000 in the property, opening it as a resort in 1983. It was closed after a season. In 1987, Bellefontaine was sold for $6 million to Mel and Enid Zuckerman, founders of Canyon Ranch, which at the time had a single location in Tuscon, Ariz.
On Oct. 1, 1989, Canyon Ranch in Lenox opened its doors. A two-story inn, with 126 guest rooms, and a 100,000-square-foot spa connect to the mansion, which hosts a solarium, dining rooms, guest lounges and the library.
On a recent visit to Canyon Ranch, I was astounded by the beauty of the Bellefontaine mansion, which outwardly appears unchanged, as it presides over open lawns and views that reach as far as the eye can see.
Inside, as expected, the opulence of the Fosters is found only in the rotunda and library that were spared by flames. But upon passing through the rotunda, into the sumptuous warmth of the library, the former grandeur of the rest of the estate can only be imagined, as one soaks in the carved walnut bookcase trims and the beauty of the Italian-rose marble fireplace. It is also here that it is clear, that despite what very little of this once-grand estate remains unchanged, it is with great thanks to the Zuckermans — who chose to keep it intact — we are lucky to have this tiny glimpse into its past.
AT A GLANCE ...
Canyon Ranch in Lenox: 165 Kemble St., Lenox, Mass.
The Inn, Spa and Bellefontaine Mansion are all connected by climate-controlled, glass-enclosed walkways and arranged around the reflecting pool and formal gardens. The Canyon Ranch Residences at Bellefontaine, 19 private residences with access to the resort and spa, are expected to open in 2017.
The Inn can accommodate 200 guests within its 126 newly remodeled guest rooms and suites. The two-story building includes registration, guest services, a meditation room, meeting rooms, a computer center and a demonstration kitchen.
The 100,000-square-foot spa complex includes exercise, weight training and cycling gyms, yoga and Pilates studios, indoor tennis, racquetball, basketball and squash courts, indoor swimming pool, indoor running track, massage and bodywork rooms, and skin care and beauty salons. Outdoor facilities include a 50-foot swimming pool, tennis courts and a ropes challenge course, as well as hiking, walking, biking and skiing trails.
For more information, visit www.canyonranchdestinations.com