The Cottager | Beckwithshaw: A look behind the walls

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STOCKBRIDGE — On Oct. 20, 1893, Leonard Forbes Beckwith — who built a 31-room mansion name Beckwithshaw overlooking the Stockbridge Bowl — went insane at the World's Fair in Chicago.

At least that's what a majority of papers, including the New York Times, reported. Beckwith was forcibly removed from the World's Colombian Exposition of 1893 after he became a "raving maniac." Later reports say he suffered from bouts of nervous prostration (anxiety), which caused his removal.

Two days after the event, his wife and one of his daughters would petition the court to have him declared insane. His physician of 15 years, Dr. Charles Knight, would testify that although Mr. Beckwith knew who he was and that he was wealthy, he was prone to hallucinations and had "homicidal tendencies."

Friends said Beckwith's hallucinations included plans to use his funds to build an aircraft, which he would pilot to Brazil to drop torpedoes on the revolutionaries in Rio de Janeiro. Colleagues testified that he had begun to dictate odd business communications and had spoken in the past of plans to build a three-story elevated railway with balloons furnishing the motive power.

At one point, he decided he needed to be part of the Manhattan Day Committee at the World's Fair and sent a telegram asking Acting New York City Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. McClellan did not, saying only the mayor, who was at the World's Fair, could appoint him. A telegram was sent to Mayor Gillroy, who did not answer prior to the Beckwith's departure for Chicago.

The onset of Beckwith's mental illness seemed quick to many, but had probably happened slowly over several years. A dispatch from summer colonists in the Berkshires to the New York Times in 1893, shortly after the events at the World's Fair, described concern for the man. Over the two previous years, they reported, he had purchased some 1,800 acres near Stockbridge, known as Curtisville, including a pulp mill and had set about to revitalize the little village on his own. It was there he had built, with his wife Margaretta Pierrepont Beckwith, a $100,000 mansion. At the time the house was built, Beckwith claimed to be its architect, but the credit should have gone to H. Neil Wilson, the Pittsfield architect who designed Shadow Brook.

Unfortunately, Beckwith, a consulting engineer with the Empire City Subway Co. at the time of his breakdown, was not the only member of his family to suffer from mental illness. His older brother, Arthur, committed himself to an asylum a year after the siblings' father, Nelson M. Beckwith, a former minister to France, died and left them each $500,000. (The brothers were put in charge of their sister Helen's share.)

Arthur, an artist, had already suffered bouts of mental instability while in Europe, where according to what his friends told The Evening World in 1903, he had fallen in love with a French woman and disappeared. He resurfaced in time to receive his inheritance in 1889, but committed himself to an asylum in 1890 in Litchfield, Conn. It was reported Arthur believed someone was trying to steal his money and to lock him in a dungeon. He would refuse to eat, fearing someone had poisoned the meal, and would wear a low brim hat and a scarf to hide his identity.

He escaped from the asylum in 1892, but was found six months later, according to reports, living as a "wildman," partially naked and covered in dirt, in the hills of Cuba. He was returned to the states, where a court decreed him insane and placed in another asylum, this time in Flushing, N.Y. He again escaped in 1895 and was never seen again.

In some accounts, a wealthy French woman sought employment at the Flushing asylum and helped him escape. In other reports, Beckwith returned to his "wildman" ways, living in the woods and scaring women and children for sport. It was not unusual for newspapers of the day to report sightings of Arthur Beckwith.

Helen did not suffer the same fate as her brothers, but their mental health issues forced her legal assistance to secure her own inheritance. (Leonard's death in 1895 and Arthur's subsequent disappearance the same year left her without access to her own money.). Helen, as well as Leonard's four children, were heir to Arthur's estate, which was valued at $1.2 million. In 1903, she successfully convinced a judge to declare Arthur dead, releasing her funds and allowing for the disbursement of Arthur's estate.

Leonard's estate was not as large. Upon his death, several parcels of land in Stockbridge reverted back to their original owners for a lack of payment. The pulp mill , the oldest in the country, closed. Beckwithsaw and 304 acres were sold in 1904 to James J. Hill, who purchased it for his daughter, Mary Hill, of Seattle, who renamed the house Shaughlin. She sold the estate in July 1916, to Dan R. and Molly C. Hanna of Cleveland, who in total purchased 978 acres, 500 of it from the Beckwith estate, for a cattle farm. The farm, Hanna said was a wedding present for Molly, his fourth wife. She would keep the farm, which she named Bonny Brier, after their divorce in 1921. It was later auctioned off in 1926. It would become the first home of the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, spending two summers there before moving to the Westinghouse estate and then to its home at Tanglewood. The property has been sold many times since then, serving as a college, the Stockbridge School and the DeSisto School.

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Dormant since the closure of the DeSisto School in 2004, the now 320-acre property containing the former Beckwithshaw manor was purchased at auction in 2009 for nearly $1.4 million by developer Patrick Sheehan of Dalton. Sheehan, who put the property back on the market in 2012 at an asking price of $9 million has since decided to breathe new life into the property.

Sheehan, along with developer Tony Guthrie, has proposed a plan for 37 Interlaken Road, as the property is now called, calling for a $150 million investment to renovate and expand the 1890s mansion into a 40- to 50-room inn, construct 139 flexible hotel-condominium suites in six buildings and then pursue a single-family development of 34 houses in an agri-hood.

On a warm August afternoon, my small blue car makes its way along the winding driveway that arcs toward a two-story house in the distance, where Sean Ferry will take me for a tour of the once glorious mansion.

The mansion is nothing more than a mere shell of a building. Inside, its bones are literally showing. Stripped away are the old horsehair plaster walls, exposing beams, brick, mortar and stone. Fireplaces of brick remain in tact, the innards licked black with stains of soot, while pocket doors stand attention there are frames without walls. Doors from around the house are stacked in corners, while the original ceiling tiles are stacked neatly on a sun porch and a grand staircase leads up to four floors (two in the attic level) of rooms without walls.

"We've taken down and stored any of the original pieces we can," Ferry says as we enter the house. "We'll reuse the trim, the doors, the mantles, anything that was original to the house. They want to restore it to what it was — make it the centerpiece of the whole place."

Ferry can see the mansion in his minds eye — not the mansion as owned by the Hannas who painted all of its oak walls white, but as it was when it was owned by the Beckwiths.

"That door wasn't originally here," he says, as we step through a side entrance with small portico over it. "The original door was over there, where the sun porch is. The Hannas added it."

Indeed, he is right. Even without the walls, the main door to the house is still evident. The wide, heavy wooden door stands sentinel, still opening into what would be the great hall and grand staircase. To its left, a dining room, breakfast room and kitchen are still present, though stripped bare. To the right, the large living room spreads out, leading to a drawing room and a study, the only room to still have its wood finishings in tact. On the floor above, two large master bedrooms and a handful of smaller bedrooms are marked only by the fireplaces that once warmed them. The floors above, smaller in size, contain extra bedrooms and servants quarters. Even without walls, the mansion exudes elegance.

Upon leaving the manor, I meet with Guthrie, who's quick to share their vision for the property. For the mansion, a restoration and addition with spa and restaurant. A group of condos, built to look like the once famous barn that stood on the property would allow for year-round living. Owners could also lease their condos through the hotel. Then there's the working farm, where families could purchase individual homes.

"It's a flexible design. We've done a lot of research," Guthrie said. "Young people — Millennials, Gen Xers, want to stay in the area, but don't want to take care of a house. This may be the answer they need."

He described the agri-hood as a neighborhood for those who want to raise their families in a farm-like setting without having to run a farm, which will be professionally done.

"We know that people want to live in a hub, a community," Guthrie said. "We don't see this as Stockbridge-centric, but as a community within Stockbridge, as a destination that can help bolster the shoulder seasons and can help build the tax base. We see it as creating ancillary businesses that will grow up around its needs. And it will all be anchored around the really cool, old mansion."

For more information, visit 37interlaken.com/


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