The Cottager | Holiday Tour: Deck the Gilded Age Halls

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When the first "serious" snowstorm of the winter visited the Berkshires in late December 1894, it did not arrive without an entourage.

According to the society page of the New York Times, it dropped some 50 fresh faces on the doorstep of Shadow Brook, where Helen Phelps Stokes was eagerly awaiting their arrival.

The crowd, described as a mix of college classmates of Anson Phelps Stokes Jr. and "enough young society women to entertain them" would spend the holidays dancing in the music hall and tobogganing on the slopes below the estates greenhouses.

Across town, in his newly built manse, John D. Sloane and his family, were preparing Wyndhurst, now known as Cranwell Resort, for a grand party to ring in the new year. Among his guests that year were his brother, William Sloane and his wife, Emily Thorne Vanderbilt Sloane, who were spending the holidays in their nearby cottage, Elm Court.

"They are sharing in all the winter festivities and are at John Sloane's nearly every day. The family are much enjoying the novelty of the holiday season in the Berkshires and make it an annual event in their Lenox life," the society columnist wrote.

For many Berkshire Cottagers, spending the holidays — Christmas through New Year's Day — became an annual tradition. For them, the rolling hills of the Berkshires were a winter wonderland where they could escape the noise of the city to enjoy sleigh rides and tobogganing before heading off to spend the winter in Paris and other European cities.

Christmas with the Morgans

"We do know that George Morgan and his second wife, Sally, were here, occasionally, in the winter and that the family was here for at least one Christmas. We have a photo of a decorated sleigh in the entry way," said Linda Rocke, marketing coordinator for Ventfort Hall and Gilded Age Museum, during a recent visit to the estate, which is currently decked out in "Gilded Age" era decorations.

The decorations — mantles dressed with swags of garland and flowers and Christmas trees dressed in white lights, ribbons, bulbs and poinsettias — are part of "A Home for the Holidays" and done fully by a staff of volunteers.

"Our decorations are representative of the period, but not antiques," Rocke said. "We know the Morgans would have had Christmas trees, as they had become popular decorations and that they decorated the mantels," Rocke said. "Our volunteers, who are coordinated by Birgit Vetromile, have been decorating for at least the last eight years. Each volunteer is assigned an area and decorates with pieces we have or puts their own spin on the space."

She said the decorations have varied each year and in the past included the table being set for a Victorian dinner party, complete with antique china and glassware.

This year, board member and artist Lucille Landa, of Pittsfield, has loaned the estate a miniature room of her creation, which features a Victorian Christmas scene.

"We put the decorations up the week of Thanksgiving and leave them up through the new year," Rocke said. "This year, we'll have them up through Jan 13, which allows people who are busy or away during the holidays, to stop in and see them. This year, we participated in the Stockbridge Holiday House Tour and had 655 people visit that weekend."

The holiday celebrations continue throughout the month, with a marionette show, a concert and two teas with "Mrs. Morgan."

Tasteful, not gaudy

Although one would expect decorations of the Gilded Age to be ostentatious, history tells us that the decorations, although plentiful, trended more toward elegant than gilded gaudiness.

According to an article published in "This Old House," the curators of Biltmore, the North Carolina mansion of Emily Sloane's brother, George Vanderbilt, allow "no more than three to five decorative holiday elements per room" as "any more would be considered cluttered — even for Gilded Age glamour."

There the decorations are limited to freshly cut Christmas trees decorated with Edison-style lights, along with mantles, stairwell railings and chandeliers draped in fresh garlands and decorative bouquets of winter flowers.

Christmas collection

The decorating philosophy at Blantyre Resort — a Tudor estate styled after original owner Robert Paterson's ancestral family home in Blantyre, Scotland — is similar.

"Our main decorations are our Santa Claus and nutcracker collections," General Manager Annabel Sattler said. "The Santa Claus collection belonged to [owner] Jane Fitzpatrick. She collected them through all of her travels. Some she bought locally, while others came from around New England and from far away as Florida. We know many were given to her by employees."

The collection, which is estimated to include between 300 and 400 pieces and lines the walls and mantles of the main rooms, ranges from the traditional visage of St. Nicholas in his long red robes to the more jovial St. Nick riding on the back of a chicken or on a motorcycle.

A collection of 25 nutcrackers — including Robin Hood, the Cowardly Lion and The Mouse King — line the ledges of the large stained-glass windows of the main staircase. The collection belonged to proprietress Ann Fitzpatrick Brown, who oversaw the luxury inn from the time her parents restored it in the early 1980s until her death last January. A third collection of miniature Christmas village houses line the windowsills of the conservatory.

"Collecting was something Ann and her mother shared," Sattler said. "Displaying the collections is a tradition that is important for us to continue."

Another tradition the luxury lodge is hoping to keep going is Brown's annual creation of a sugar house.

"Ann always made a sugar house. She made one last year too," Sattler said. "She made sugar houses with candy decorations. We wanted to keep that going, to honor her. But we wanted to do something a little different."

The result of that effort is a three-foot long gingerbread replica of Blantyre crafted over two-and-a-half-weeks by pastry chef Kim Watson.

The enterprise, she said, used 21 pounds of flour, 10 1/2 pounds of granulated sugar and 45 eggs.

"The hard part was cutting out the individual pieces," she said. "I created my own templates. I had to measure and make sure each piece was the right proportion and would fit together snuggly."

To complete the work, she used gelatin sheets to create clear windows; ice cream cones and royal icing for trees and sliced almonds, which were toasted, for the roof shingles.

To compliment the subtle, yet elegant indoor decor, the outdoor decorations include over a mile of fresh garland, draped along the main building and its cottages, while a large outdoor Christmas tree keeps watch outside the main house's door.

The Relais et Chateaux and Forbes 5 Star property will ring in the new year with a caviar and champagne reception, followed by the a buffet-style dinner and midnight champagne toast.

Online editor Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached on Twitter at @BE_DigitalJen.


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