The Cottager: Visiting The Mount

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"On a slope over-looking the dark waters and densely wooded shore of Laurel Lake we built a spacious and dignified house, to which we gave the name of my great-grandfather's place, the Mount "

So wrote Edith Wharton in her autobiography, "A Backward Glance," some 20 years after she had last seen the house she designed and built in 1902. Situated on nearly 150 acres in Lenox, the 42-room "Berkshire Cottage" would provide literary inspiration for the author of more than 40 works, including "Ethan Frome," "The House of Mirth," and "The Age of Innocence."

Although Wharton and her husband, Teddy, lived at The Mount for only 10 years, she would write that she was happiest at the home, a scaled back version of the British estate Belton House with heavy classical Italian and French influences, where she was able to hone both her writing and gardening skills.

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The Mount is not the oldest of the Berkshire Cottages, nor is it the largest. However, it is one of the best known Gilded Age mansions in the Berkshires, thanks in part to the fact that it's had many lives and many masters.

Edith, who was born into "old money," removed herself to the Berkshires because she wanted to escape the gilded homes of Newport, R.I., and its crop of socialites. So she fled to the Berkshires, an area nicknamed "inland Newport," to set up a writers' retreat of sorts, among the mammoth cottages of the social circles she was fleeing.

"One of the reasons [The Mount] wasn't as large as the other cottages, is that she wasn't as wealthy as some of her neighbors at that point. Her literary fortune doesn't begin until 'House of Mirth.' They sold their house in Newport, 'Land's End,' to pay for this house," Anne Schuyler, visitor services and group tour manager, said.

Although Edith removed herself from Newport, she did not fully remove herself from the social scene. Schuyler points out the Whartons did entertain on a smaller scale and attended many functions of their neighbors, as well.

After the Whartons sold to Mary and Albert Shuttuck, The Mount was known as "White Lodge" until about 1938. In the following years, it would serve as the home of New York Times Managing Editor Carr V. Van Anda and his wife, Louise; as Foxhollow School and Shakespeare & Company's performance space.

With my husband and two children in tow, I arrived at The Mount on Memorial Day — a day after isolated storms pelted Lenox, Mass., and Stockbridge, Mass., with thunder, rain and hail. Large white tents with wooden floors lined with folding chairs, metal lanterns and streams of water — the remnants of a wedding the previous evening — greeted us on the front lawns of the estate. As we walked the quarter-mile to the house on its white gravel driveway, the need for privacy became apparent in the design. Our first brush with history was very close to the house, where hidden on a rise in grove of trees the gravestones for several dogs lie, including Edith's pet Toto.

Nearby, the house waited to greet us, its white facade and black shutters, beckoning us to enter and explore. We opted for a self -guided tour and stepped into a world of light pastels, marble statues, hand-carved wood treatments, barrel-vaulted ceilings, and rooms that flow endlessly into one another. In Teddy's white-walled den, we learned of his slow mental break-down, while the charities created by Edith during Word War I were explored in another suite. In another corridor we learned of her friendships with other literary giants and of the fights that ensued during the building of The Mount.

We ended our tour in the great outdoors, passing other families in the formal gardens, where bubbling fountains once played host to writers and politicians alike.

Although Edith Wharton spent less than a decade at her beloved Mount, one can see why its serene charms stayed with her for decades to come.

Step back in time and enjoy the merriment of what was once considered a must for any Berkshire socialite at the 18th annual Pleasure Carriage Driving Show, hosted by the Colonial Carriage & Driving Society and Orleton Farm. The carriage driving show will feature tests of reinsmanship and more. Carriage drivers from more than seven states, along with their equine partners, drive not for cash prizes, but for coveted ribbons and trophies.

IF YOU GO ...

The Mount, at 2 Plunkett St., Lenox, Mass., is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., May through Oct. 31.

Admission: Tickets are valid for seven days and include guided tours of the house and garden. Tickets are $18 for adults; $17 for seniors, 65 and older; $13 for students with a valid ID; $10 for military with ID; free for children and teens younger than 18.

Tours: Guided house and garden tours are included in the price of admission and offered daily. Backstairs tours are offered on Sundays at 10:30 a.m., July - October. Guided ghost tours, for ages 12 and older, are offered on Wednesdays beginning June 22. Ghost tours are $24, $20 for ages 12 to 18.

More information: edithwharton.org or 413-551-5111

18th Annual Pleasure Carriage Driving Show, June 9 to 12

Where: Orleton Farm, 31 Prospect Hill Road, Stockbridge, Mass.

When: June 9 to 12, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission: Free on Thursday and Friday. Saturday and Sunday admission is $10, children under 12 are free.

More info: ColonialCarriage.org

Jennifer Huberdeau will visit and explore the existing Berkshire Cottages this summer, chronicling her experiences and what readers can expect when they visit these local landmarks, as well. She can be reached by email at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com.


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