Friday April 19, 2013

STOCKBRIDGE -- Amazing. Impressive. Miraculous. Fantastic. A crown jewel. A masterpiece.

The rapid-fire descriptions came tumbling out Wednesday evening as more than 300 visitors streamed into the lavishly restored, architecturally splendiferous Elm Court Estate on Old Stockbridge Road, built in 1886 as a Gilded Age summer retreat for the Sloane and Vanderbilt families.

A four-hour open house, complete with wine and hors d'oeuvres, was organized by the resort company that purchased the 90-acre property for $9.8 million last summer. It was designed not only to show off the renovations accomplished by previous owners Robert and Sonya Berle, but also to win support for a crucial bylaw on the warrant requiring two-thirds approval at the May 20 Town Meeting.

Based on interviews with two dozen randomly selected Stock
bridge and Lenox residents, questions remain and more information about the project -- to create a high-end, 96-room resort -- is desired. But many favored the plan that would create an 80-room annex to the 55,000-square-foot, luxuriously appointed mansion that would include a public dining room, library, other gathering places and 16 guest suites.

Travaasa Experiential Resorts hopes to open late next year, but it first must navigate town boards and commissions. Even if the proposed bylaw, which would grant the seven Stockbridge cottage-era estates in town to build an additional building up to 50-feet tall, the town's Select Board and Conservation Commission, as well as the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals, also must OK the Elm Court plan.


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Although all of Elm Court's buildings and most of its acreage is in Stockbridge, all the frontage on Old Stockbridge Road and the main driveway entrance are in Lenox.

"I'm leaning toward voting for it," said longtime Stockbridge resident Joanne Conroy, who termed the resort project an appropriate use for the property.

According to town resident Richard Jackson, "It appears that the proposed design is respectful of the architectural history of Elm Court." He also approved of the location of the proposed Elm Court addition; it would be on a downward slope that would not impede the imposing view of the mansion from the road.

"This could be the answer to saving a wonderful and important house," Jackson said. He is the co-author, with Cornelia Brooke Gilder, of "Houses of the Berkshires, 1870-1930."

However, the verdict was not unanimous. One resident objected to the plan, labeling it "out of character" for a town that bans motels, chain eateries and stop lights and claimed that the proposed annex would be larger than the main building. According to its square footage, the addition would not be larger than the main building.

A few visitors stated that while the bylaw would be appropriate for Elm Court, it might not be for the six other cottage-era estates with the minimum, contiguous 80-acre footprint. They are the former DeSisto Estate, Highwood (on the Tanglewood property), the Marian Fathers, Kripalu, Southmayd (a private residence), and Chesterwood.

But several residents, recalling how the property was vandalized and became decrepit during a 50-year period until the Berles purchased it in 2002, praised its rebirth.

David Hellman, the attorney representing the resort owner, pointed out that while the "gross floor area" of the mansion is 53,000 square feet, the proposed addition would contain 44,000 square feet.

The revised cottage-era estate bylaw requires that for a new structure on a property to be exempt from the town's current 35-foot height limit, it must be smaller than the main building.

"The proposed bylaw does not allow by right a 50-foot high structure," Hellman said. "It merely gives the Selectmen the ability, in the appropriate circumstance after their consideration of all the factors, to grant a waiver from the 35-foot height limitation if they deem it appropriate. This height waiver would only be available for a single new structure or addition on ‘cottage-era estate' properties.

"I know of at least two or three people who just don't want it because ‘it's not Stockbridge,' that kind of mentality," said Hellman, a resident of the town. "It's not that I don't respect that mentality, I just think this is a good project for the town. No one from the road will see it, no one from the neighbors will see it, the people on site will be the only ones who see it."

The property is served by the Lenox town-water system, and the resort owner has proposed a tie-in to that town's sewer lines, Hellman said.

Visitors from Lenox were enthusiastic. Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ralph Petillo noted that it would generate more business for that town and the rest of the Berkshires while creating an estimated 100 jobs.

"I think the investment would be an economic boon for the county," he said.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com,
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto