LENOX -- The Mount, home of the Edith Wharton Restoration, still faces major financial hurdles as it launches its prime season with an expanded schedule of exhibits, special events and programming designed to further heighten its profile, raise its visibility and boost attendance.
The non-profit that tends the author's historic 1902 mansion and gardens still owes $3.5 million to Berkshire Bank and another $350,000 to a private investor, slight reductions from last year. Both payments are due in full in June 2016.
The organization pays $17,000 in monthly interest to the bank and reduces the total amount owed by $60,000 to $100,000 annually.
The debt stems from $14 million spent during a decade-long restoration of the mansion and its gardens that started in 1997 and attracted support and personal visits from two first ladies -- Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. The massive project was undertaken by former Executive Director Stephanie Copeland. In 2006, The Mount also paid $2.5 million to a British collector to acquire Wharton's 2,600-volume library.
The 150-acre property narrowly escaped foreclosure five years ago before renegotiating its payment schedules with Berkshire Bank and other creditors at a time when it had amassed total debt of $8.5 million.
Executive Director Susan Wissler, appointed in August 2008 a few months after Copeland's forced resignation, acknowledged that there's no immediate solution on the horizon, but voiced optimism that funding can be secured through an academic affiliation or an arrangement with a larger cultural organization.
"It's not bad news, we're making steady progress every year, every month," she declared during a conversation on Thursday in the cafe of the National Historic Landmark, where Wharton lived until 1911. "Our auditors say our financial statements are now quite boring, there's no scandalous footnote, it's very clean, straightforward and generally positive."
The $1,733,000 budget for the just-ended fiscal year yielded a $64,362 operating surplus.
Wissler acknowledged the debt to Berkshire Bank is a "scary" figure -- "it's not as lethal as a figure twice that much, which is what it used to be. But we've got time, our relationship with the bank is good and I think they're rooting for us. I make sure I keep them informed of every avenue we pursue and I think they're 100 percent supportive. We're still out looking for public and private partners and supporters."
According to Wissler, if she could come up with a significant portion of the $3.5 million debt, Berkshire Bank would probably extend the deadline beyond June 2016. "Those discussions are ongoing," she noted. "I think they understand the importance of The Mount to the community and we've been in good standing for the past five years. I think they'd feel as great a reluctance to foreclose as they did in 2008."
However, an informal proposal she floated early last year for the town to take over the property as public space through the Community Preser-
vation Act is off the table.
"There was town interest, and there still is some," said Wissler. "The notion of using The Mount as open space for the Berkshire community is still very much an exciting idea, but it may be an idea whose time hasn't come. It was a theoretical discussion and I think it still makes a lot of sense, but we have to address the debt first."
The Mount is at 2 Plunkett Street, Lenox. For info and schedules: www.edithwharton.org or (413) 551-5100.
Season Highlights ...
Backstairs Tours: Sundays and Thursdays, starting May 25.
‘Upstairs, Downstairs': Special event for members of The Mount and Clark Art Institute -- tour, lecture, reception, 4 p.m., Thursday, May 29.
‘Edith Wharton: The Sense of Harmony': Documentary screening and talkback with filmmaker Elizabeth Lennard, 3 p.m., Sunday, June 1.
Community Garden Party: Family day with tours and activities, Sunday, June 29, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
'Edith: Images of a Lifetime': Biographical photo montage, now on display.
Sculpture Now: New outdoor exhibit of 25 sculptures curated by Ann Jon. Opens June 15, continues through October.
More events, details: edithwharton.org or (413) 551-5100