Clarence Fanto: Gilded Age-era properties need help to survive
LENOX -- Three Gilded Age-era properties hereabouts are endangered -- but each can be saved with the help of local governments and voters.
It's been roughly 30 years since I first visited the Elm Court Estate in Stockbridge, the famous 1886 mansion on 90 acres that had been used for six decades as a seasonal getaway by the moneyed Sloane and Vanderbilt families of New York. Sadly, I found the 106-room estate so neglected and vandalized that it would have been ideal for a Hollywood horror flick.
Having been operated by Marjorie Field Wilde, a descendant of William Vanderbilt, and her husband, Col. H. George Wilde, as an inn for a decade, it had been shut down and locked up in 1957 because it was too expensive to maintain. But salvation followed in 1998 when Col. Wilde's daughter, Lila Wilde Berle, inherited the property and then sold it to her son, Robert Berle, himself a descendant of the Sloanes and Vanderbilts, and his wife, Sonya.
They restored it to its original grandeur, briefly operating it as an inn specializing in weddings before selling it last July to the Travaasa Experiential Resorts company in Denver for just under $10 million -- less than half the original asking price back when it first went on the market in 2005. The property has a permit from Stockbridge for an 18-room inn, but the new owners say they need 96 rooms (including 16 in the mansion) in order to turn a profit. A proposed six-story annex was vetoed by town voters in February when a bylaw revision failed to muster a two-thirds majority.
So, Travaasa worked with Town Hall on a new plan that would allow up to four stories on a connected building virtually hidden from sight. On May 20, Town Meeting will weigh in on the revised proposal, heartily endorsed by the Select Board.
If it fails, the resort company would design a less aesthetically pleasing series of low-slung buildings to house the 80 additional rooms. At a recent open house, most of the local visitors I spoke with leaned in favor of the proposal.
If it wins the two-thirds supermajority, approvals will still be needed from two town boards in Stockbridge, as well as the Lenox Zoning Board, since the frontage and main entrance on Old Stockbridge Road are in that town. If all approvals are granted, Elm Court could open as a year-round boutique resort by the end of 2014, boosting the region's tourism trade.
In Lenox, Ventfort Hall has found new life as a year-round Gilded Age museum. It was built in 1893 for members of the Morgan family and later passed through a series of owners, eventually hosting Tanglewood music students, a ballet summer camp and the The Bible Speaks religious order.
To avoid proposed demolition by a nursing-home developer, the Ventfort Hall Association purchased the property in 1997 after it had suffered severe damage. In 1998, scenes from the film "The Cider House Rules" were shot there.
Though it still needs major improvements, such as an elevator for public access to the second floor, the association is scrambling to resolve code issues in order to renew its certificate of inspection from the town when it expires on June 30. I've been assured that the prospects are good for meeting the deadline since necessary work is in progress.
The travails of The Mount, home of the Edith Wharton Restoration, include a June 2016 deadline to pay back nearly $4 million in debts, mostly to Berkshire Bank. With prospects dim to raise that amount of money, the far-sighted Executive Director Susan Wissler has floated the idea of a property purchase by the town that would create an extensive open-space retreat for the public while the mansion would operate as an historic-house museum and present literary events for paying
Eventually, Lenox residents would have vote on this plan, if and when it's formally presented. This will be a tough row to hoe.
Each of these three estates are valued remnants of South Berkshire's storied history as the inland Newport, R.I., getaway for the rich and famous. As their futures hang in the balance, attention must be paid.
Clarence Fanto, a regular Eagle
contributor, can be contacted
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