The Mount moves toward year-round operations, hiking trails

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Photo Gallery | Expansion and continued restoration at The Mount

LENOX — With its financial footing on solid ground since a payoff of all debts last September, The Mount is accelerating plans for eventual year-round operation and development of a network of hiking trails below the mansion extending toward Laurel Lake.

Executive Director Susan Wissler, free of obligations to Berkshire Bank and others totaling nearly $4 million following last year's massive fundraising campaign, outlined the organization's goals during a recent golf-cart tour of the property.

"We are debt-free, totally," she said. "It's a huge relief."

Aside from freeing up creative energy for expansion plans, wiping all debt off the books makes it easier to obtain grants and major foundation support, she said.

"It's a huge boost and a great help," she said.

The Mount, home of the nonprofit Edith Wharton Restoration, notched a small surplus of nearly $12,000 on an operating budget of $1.8 million for its fiscal year ending March 31, 2016. Available cash on hand totals $281,000, more than double the previous year's total.

"But we remain hugely dependent on the generosity of our private donor base," Wissler said, "and that will not change unless and until we have a sizable endowment." Earned revenues from programming and fundraising make up about half of the operating expenses for the institution.

Now, the top priority is completion of exterior and interior improvements to The Stables, home to the popular Monday afternoon summer lecture series and other programs.

Wissler and the board of trustees have secured $350,000 in private donations and foundation grants, as well as $100,000 from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for structural repairs and upgraded utility lines.

In addition, a $100,000 donation is in hand to complete a restoration project that included repainting the trim on the mansion, where the famous author lived for a decade, beginning in 1902.

After the exterior work on The Stables is finished next spring with the installation of new windows, renovations to the interior will proceed with an eye toward expanding the current 140-seat auditorium space while preserving the integrity of architectural features on the building's ground floor.

"It will be a very flexible space, that's the best use for it, most importantly as our principal programming space as well as for wedding after-parties as a good source of revenue," said Wissler, who was appointed executive director in March 2008.

The goal is to transform The Stables into a year-round facility, or close to it, she said.

In advance of that project, maintenance equipment now housed in a portion of The Stables will be moved to a newly constructed shed. Funding for that structure and the interior work still must be secured, Wissler said. Cost estimates remain to be completed based on drawings for the inside, including the necessary addition of an elevator.

"People are now taking 'selfies' in front of The Stables, a new phenomenon, because it is an incredibly handsome structure," Wissler said, adding that Wharton was an enthusiastic photographer "and might have been a 'selfie' kind of girl."

Describing the current season as strong out of the gate, with a 10 percent attendance increase and a 20 percent revenue gain for June, she pointed out that repeat performances of the sold-out Monday afternoon lecture series have been scheduled.

She also reported an "overwhelming response" to the 28-piece Sculpture Now display on the grounds, curated annually by Ann Jon.

"It's been very well-received and the artists are excited to be here," Wissler said. "It's a fixture because the grounds are so well-suited for it."

Total attendance last year for programming and historic house tours topped 42,000, marking a steady year-to-year increase since 2011, when it was 27,500.

All 15 weekend wedding dates for this year's spring and fall seasons have been booked, Wissler said. Weddings are not scheduled in July and August.

The property's newly carved Beaver Pond Trail, a prime attraction for bird-watching with frequent bald eagle sightings, has been completed. It forms the first segment of a potential four-mile loop of walking trails.

With a possible application in the works for funding next year, Wissler plans to invite members of the Lenox Community Preservation Committee for a site visit soon.

The long-term goal is to include Edith Wharton Park on the shores of Laurel Lake, public land that's owned jointly by the towns of Lenox and Lee.

Also on the table is a vision to reunite all the Great Estate acreage originally owned by Wharton and her husband, Teddy, for free, permanent public access to the grounds. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Berkshire Natural Resources Council have expressed preliminary interest as potential partners, Wissler said.

Wissler is convinced that the surge of interest in Wharton's life and her writing "hasn't flat-lined," pointing to a recent TV show that referred to a character " 'Edith Wharton-ing' her way" through Manhattan's Upper East Side.

According to Rebecka McDougall, communications director at The Mount, "so many current, emerging and young writers are either referencing her directly for her work or as someone they admire and read to be inspired by."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

By the numbers . . .

Financial details at The Mount, according to a just-completed independent audit for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2016:

Annual operating budget: $1.8 million

Net operating surplus: $11,975

Cash on hand: $281,101

Total revenue and donated support: $5,979,107

Total liabilities: $147,981

Total net assets: $5,652,083

Source: Lombardi, Clairmont & Keegan, certified public accountants, Pittsfield


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