Carole Owens: Stories from a Lenox homestead

Saturday May 4, 2013


Once there was a house in Lenox, a Berkshire Cottage on Cliffwood Street. It was beautifully designed by one of the premier architects of the day, and it held the promise of love and happiness. The owners named it Homestead.

On Nov. 9, 1883, two sisters from a prominent Boston family, Marion (called Alice) and Julia Appleton, bought two contiguous parcels of land at auction. The first, approximately two acres, was sold by Thankful Cooke and her son John Cooke Jr. to the Appleton sisters for $12,000. It was "bounded on the east by Cliffwood Street, on the west by Yokun Avenue, on the south by the property of G. L. Folsom, and on the north by the property of Ensign Loomis."

The second parcel, approximately 1.4 acres with "a large house, barn, and other outbuildings" was sold by Richard M. Walker, guardian for Ensign Loomis, for $15,000.

Originally both parcels were the property of Elijah Northrop, Lenox businessman and state representative for one year in 1817. Upon his death in 1834, the land was divided in two and willed to two different people. By purchasing both pieces at auction, the Appleton sisters reunited the Northrop after 50 years. The sisters then hired Charles Folsom McKim of the architectural firm, McKim, Mead, and White, to design their cottage.

That was the beginning of our story. In 1830 there was a small piece in the local newspaper about the property. It is foolish to call it prophesy or forewarning, and yet.

A 9-year-old boy fell from a cart in front of the home of Elijah Northrop. He was severely injured. Onlookers carried the child into Northrop’s house. Northrop called his physician but "the physician’s skill was of no avail and the boy died."

In 1884, less than a year after starting work on the Appleton’s house, McKim wrote to Samuel G. Ward (Highwood and Oakswood). "I wanted to have the pleasure of writing to you myself to let you know of an unexpected and great happiness that has come to me. I am engaged to b married to your neighbor Miss Appleton."

The two were married on June 25, 1885. The day was called the highlight of the social season as both sisters were married on the same day. Alice married George Von L. Meyer in Trinity Church at 10:30 a.m. Julia married McKim in the great hall at Homestead with only family present at 11:40. The sisters celebrated jointly with all the cottagers invited to an evening party.

On New Year’s Day, 1886, Alice Appleton Meyer sold her share of the Cliffwood property to Julia Appleton McKim for "one dollar and other considerations." It may have been a wedding present from one sister to the other. Equally McKim may have bought it at market price. It was not unusual to keep the true terms private by employing the phrase "one dollar and other considerations."


The Appleton-McKim ceremony was quieter because it was not McKim’s first marriage. He was married in 1874 and had a daughter Margaret. Just four years later, in 1878, Annie McKim filed for divorce citing "unnatural acts against the bounds of Christian behavior." She won her divorce, full custody of their daughter, and from that date, prevented McKim from ever seeing Margaret.

The startling wording of divorce may have been 19th-century-speak for homosexuality, but it could also have been the 19th-century idea of overzealous heterosexual behavior. We have to be content with not knowing.

Whatever the nature of the accusation, the divorce, and the separation from his daughter left McKim suffering for five years with serious bouts of depression. His friend Ward must have been very relieved and happy to receive his note with the words "great happiness."

The architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White must have been an odd place with the ebullient and combative White, the sober always businesslike Mead, and the often depressed and always gently cajoling McKim. However mixed the personalities, their success was undisputed. McKim had the leisure and money to take his bride to Europe, and to maintain two impressive establishments in New York and Lenox. It did seem that McKim finally had it all. Then Julia died, suddenly, tragically, before their second anniversary.

On Oct. 8, 1889 McKim sold Homestead to Mrs. Anson Phelps Stokes (Helen). Finally, the house that held so much beauty, love, and promise burned to the ground. The architect’s vision destroyed, his depression returned, his wife dead, the promise unfulfilled. Stokes sold the land and built Shadowbrook.

While McKim’s reputation soared and his clients increased, he had small relief from sadness in his private life until 1899. His daughter Margaret was of age and sought out her father. They enjoyed a close relationship for the rest of his life, however in consequence, Margaret’s mother Annie, never spoke to her daughter again.

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle


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