The Cottager | Brookside: Home of inventor rebuilt with concrete walls after 1904 fire

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GREAT BARRINGTON, MASS. — During the early hours of Nov. 23, 1904, Brookside, the home of William Stanley, electrical engineer and inventor of the transformer and alternating current circuit, burned to the ground — almost taking the Stanley family with it.

"The fire originated among bundles of kindling wood in the basement and rapidly extended upwards. The Stanley family had not [yet] risen, but were awaken before the smoke overcame them. They had no time to dress or to save a single article, but all were able to leave the burning structure without sustaining injury," the Burlington Free Press would report later that day.

News of Brookside's demise was carried across the wires and was even given its own article in the New York Times, where it was noted the house was built in 1855 by banker David Leavitt, "one of the earlier summer cottagers."

The fire was not the end of Brookside, which like the phoenix of legend, rose from the ashes of the former cottage, on a much grander and more fireproof scale.

The original Brookside was indeed built by one of the first Berkshire Cottagers. Leavitt, who was president of the American Exchange Bank, was a self-made financier and banker who grew up in Connecticut and made a name for himself through a series of risky, but successful investments, including the founding of the Brooklyn White Lead Co., which exists today as Dutch Boy Paint.

In 1853, Leavitt purchased some 300 acres of farm land from Daniel Wilcox and began building Brookside, an estate consisting of a manor house and working farm. It's showpiece was the "cascading barn," which was "built into the ravine," according to an article published in the "Country Gentleman, Vol. VI, July to Jan. 1855."

The barn, which had three above-ground levels and at least another four below ground, was copied across the country. It was considered a model of efficiency, especially because of its mechanical advances, until it "was destroyed in 1855 by a spectacular fire, apparently the work of a disgruntled employee," according to Richard Jackson Jr., coauthor of "Houses of the Berkshires: 1870 to 1930."

Leavitt also housed his growing art collection in a gallery at the estate. The collection included commissioned works, such as "Washington at Monmouth," and "Washington at Valley Forge," by artist Emanuel Leutze, who is best known for the iconic "Washington Crossing the Delaware.

In 1877, two years prior to Leavitt's death, Stanley purchased the estate, which had grown to some 600 acres. Stanley, who would light the main street of Great Barrington as he experimented with AC circuits, would live at the farm without incident until the fateful night of 1904, when the main house burned down.

In the years that followed, two things shaped Stanley's life, the construction of a new Brookside and a series of patent lawsuits involving his former employer, George Westinghouse.

Stanley, who lost all his possessions in the fire — including many valuable and imported pieces — hired the firm of Carrère and Hastings to build a fireproof home. The result was a concrete Tudor-style mansion, that would also be known as Brookside. Unfortunately, Stanley's lawsuits would drain his bank accounts and he would never finish building the concrete mansion. Instead, in 1908, he sold the estate to fellow inventor William H. Walker.

Walker, who invented the pinhole camera and helped make photography available to the masses via his position at Kodak, purchased the estate for upwards $250,000, as reported in the June 3, 1908, edition of The Berkshire Eagle.

"The house the Walkers completed is indeed concrete, but Carrère and Hastings relieved it with angled half-timbered gables and wings, copious fenestration, bays and sinuous Tudor chimneys," Jackson wrote of the mansion, which included a porte cochere entry way, a reception room, a Georgian dining room, a billiard room, a kitchen, service wing and a two-story library / music room on the first floor.

Of the music room, Jackson wrote: "... the house's crowning glory: a two-story music room, oak paneling with gilded highlights, thrusting hammer beams, a musician's gallery, a thundering player pipe organ, and a series of royal Tudor and Elizabethan scenes painted by Edmund Garrett in 1915."

In 1912, the family hired Florentine landscape artist Ferruccio Vitale, who laid out most of the Washington Mall, to design a garden for the estate. He added a marble double staircase and fountain below the house's terrace, as well as a formal and architectural garden that included flower and vegetable gardens, a loggia, marble fountains and numerous marble statues. (The gardens were removed in 1975.) In 1915, Walker added a series of greenhouses at an estimated cost of $100,000.

When Walker died in 1917, he left the estate and $1.5 million for its upkeep, to his wife, Carrie Jones Walker, and his daughter, Gertrude D. Walker. Gertrude, who is said to have suffered from infantile paralysis and used a wheelchair throughout her life, continued to summer at the estate, often sponsoring the "Brookside Cup" at local horse shows, until the time of her death in 1943.

The estate was sold in 1943 to the Altaraz School, which owned it until it was acquired by the Union for Reformed Judaism, which operates 16 camps across the United States, in February 1958 for $250,000. That summer, URJ Eisner Camp opened its gates for the first time and welcomed 173 campers. The private camp celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008.

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Arriving at the 600-acre URJ Eisner Camp, I'm a little overwhelmed by a mass of buildings behind a pond as I make my way over to the main campus. The camp, which has built several of its own spaces over the last 50 years, has repurposed the estate's original buildings, including the Pink House, the Carriage House and the greenhouses, which now serve as administrative offices. The "Manor House," as Brookside is called, serves as housing for staff and can also be rented for retreats, events and weddings.

My tour guide, Lauren Hyde, the camp's business manager, greets me at the main door off the porte cochere entry way, where hand-carved artisans and animals peer down at us.

"Those are supposed to be the artisans who worked on the house," Hyde says as she leads me down a long entry way. "This time of year, we host a lot of adult retreats. During the summer, this is our adult housing for staff members. It's a very awesome place."

Hyde's relationship with the Manor House is unique, as she grew up within its walls — moving in at age 10 when he mother took a year-round position with the camp.

"I lived here as a child, worked at the camp as a teen, went away to college and then came back to work here," she said, later mentioning she was also married at the house. "I distinctly remember polishing the candelabras."

As we enter the music room, Hyde notes that the house's footprint is not that of the original Leavitt House, which burned in 1904.

"Every wall or floor of this house is 12 or 18 inches of concrete," she said. "However, the inside is covered in a variety of materials, including wood and silk wallpaper."

The music room / library features a magnificent, highly detailed stone fireplace and cases of books on one wall, while another hosts the pipe organ and a third is almost completely made up of glass window panes. The pipe organ, while no longer functional, remains in the room with a case of its original music cylinders still intact. Scenes with British royals, including Henry VIII, remain on the walls and chandeliers hang from the ceilings.

We slip through rooms with dark oak wood walls and stone or marble fireplaces, making our way to the second floor via a wide oak stairway. Here a maze of bedrooms are found along numerous hallways. Most of the rooms feature fireplaces and balconies overlooking the long-lost gardens. From other rooms, the camp's other buildings are visible.

"William Ward wanted to bring everything to his daughter," Hyde said. "While others were taking trips to Europe, he brought everything to her. He built the greenhouses in a French style, the gardens were Italian and French, and other buildings have a Spanish-style to them."

A third floor of the house, which isn't used at this time, is said to contain rooms used by the estate staff.

While the gardens were removed, the house still retains its terrace and a circular lawn edged with hydrangea bushes. It's a popular spot for weddings, she says.

"We hope to have the entire building rewired, replumbed and renovated in the near future," Hyde said. "We're in a holding pattern right now, as we raise funds for a renovation. We'd like to do it all at once. Right now, we're doing what we can to maintain it."

While the house has its cosmetic imperfections at the moment, one thing is certain, William Ward's will called for his wife and daughter to do their best to keep the estate in tact and to find some public purpose for it when they no longer needed or wanted the property. URJ Eisner Camp, although private, has managed to fulfill that wish in its own way for over 50 years.


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