Ventfort Hall expanding programming, seeking funds


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LENOX -- Ventfort Hall, one of the town's most prominent late 19th-century mansions, is expanding its summer programming of talks, exhibits and performances as it seeks funding for required building upgrades as a time-traveling "Museum of the Gilded Age."

It's also adding a Berkshires-specific film series, a natural for the site that served as an on-location home, representing an orphanage, for the 1999 film "The Cider House Rules," starring Michael Caine and Tobey Maguire.

Open for tours year-round, the imposing Jacobean Revival-style mansion at 104 Walker St. was built in 1883 as a country estate for Sarah Morgan, the sister of financier J.P. Morgan. Sixteen years ago, after decades of abandonment, it was saved from demolition by a group of volunteers led by Tjasa Sprague and was gradually transformed into a museum that now attracts about 10,000 visitors annually.

It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is among the "Save America's Treasures" projects initiated by Hillary Clinton and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Tours are available daily for $20 per person.

Ventfort Hall is among the few surviving "cottages" of the 75 that once gave Lenox its reputation as the "inland Newport," and it requires costly improvements to meet local building codes and federal handicapped-accessible requirements.

The nonprofit has been able to reduce the original $750,000 goal of its capital campaign to perhaps $500,000, said Beverly Rainey, promoted to operations manager early this year. So far, about $280,000 is in the till.

In addition, about $300,000 is budgeted annually for operations, Rainey explained. The museum managed a small surplus of around $10,000 last year.

The capital-campaign reduction came about when the museum learned that instead of installing fire sprinklers in the entire building, "misting" devices may suffice in the portions of the building that have been fully restored. It's possible that the sprinklers would be needed only in areas still to be renovated.

Those "misting" devices would protect the historic exhibits already on display on the main and second floors. Final approval for the "misting" units is pending from the Building Department, said Ventfort Hall board member Kelly Blau. "If it's a normal thing that other museums in the area are using, I see no reason why it wouldn't be OK'd," she added.

Along with installation of an elevator, relocation of an enhanced heating system and cleanup of the mansion's basement, the entire package of improvements needs to be completed by October 2016. A decision from the Massachusetts Cultural Council on a $250,000 grant application is due in September.

Eventually, the basement could be opened to visitors, said Blau, because "we're so ‘Downton Abbey' down there."

After a temporary shutdown, Rainey noted, the town "was very gracious in opening it back up for us last year when we could prove to them we were making attempts to comply with all of these new rules and regulations."

The museum is due for its annual Fire Department and Building Department inspection in June, "with the understanding that we're going forward with these various commitments that we made, however slowly or rapidly," Rainey added. "I think they'll probably hear our plea again."

The building weathered the harsh winter with only an ice-dam buildup that was chiseled away without causing any damage, said Rainey.

Ventfort Hall's annual tea and talk lecture series resumes June 17 and runs through Aug. 26, augmented by a bevy of special events, said Linda Rocke, the recently appointed marketing coordinator.

Area artist Andrew deVries will unveil a new bronze sculpture, "Tango!" as part of a "Some Romantic Evening: Music of the Gilded Age" from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday, June 21. A champagne and chocolate reception will be hosted by Joshua Needleman of Chocolate Springs Cafe. Reservations are $25 per person.

An antiques appraisal day is set for noon to 6 on July 10, allowing the public to bring in items for a professional evaluation.

The film program will focus on movies that have either been shot in or are set in the Berkshires, Rocke said. The Thursday evening at 7 series runs from July 17 through Aug. 28.

Acknowledging the fascination with "Downton Abbey," Ventfort Hall is planning a joint-admission ticket collaboration with The Mount, Edith Wharton's home from 1902-11.

"The two houses are a perfect marriage," Rocke observed. "They represent difficult architectural aspects and they complement each other."

"People ask if Ventfort Hall's servants slept upstairs," Blau commented. "They're intrigued that most of them went home, because of our summer economy -- the families that came here hired local people from the farms to work here, so there aren't that many servants' bedrooms on the third floor."

To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

Special events at Ventfort Hall ...

A partial list from the summer schedule:

June 21: "Some Romantic Evening"; Music of the Gilded Age at the unveiling of "Tango!" a new bronze sculpture by Andrew DeVries. Violist Hillary Herndon and pianist Jennifer Muniz perform works including Astor Piazolla's "Le Grand Tango." 7-9 p.m.

June 24: Tea and Talk. Professor Karen Shepard of Williams College discusses "The Celestials: North Adams Meets the Chinese," a little-known story of immigration, multiculturalism, factory labor, suspicions and misunderstandings. 4-6 p.m.

July 10: Skinner Antiques Appraisal Day, noon to 6.

July 12: Performance and Tea: "Mary Todd Lincoln: An Unconventional Woman." Actress: Sally Mummey. 4-6 p.m.

July 17: Ventfort Films: The Berkshire Series. Debut of Thursday evening screenings, beginning with "Glory." Other titles include "Cider House Rules," "Age of Innocence," "Enslavement," "All This and Heaven Too," "Ethan Frome" and "Alice's Restaurant." 7-9 p.m, weekly through Aug. 28.

July 20: Reception, "Flemish Renaissance Fashion Show: The Splendor of Flemish Renaissance Couture," Jared Aswegan, international costume designer. Inspired by 15th century Flemish and Italian Paintings. 4-6 p.m.

Aug. 12: Tea and Talk. Francis Morrone, architectural historian reveals "The Lenox Five" by society architects Rotch & Tilden: Gilded Age cottages that still exist in the once nicknamed "Inland Newport."

Aug. 19: Tea and Talk. "World War I Breaks Out in Lenox: The Dumba Affair." Speaker: Robert Asplund. Ventfort Hall was rented as the summer embassy for the Ambassador to Austria-Hungary, Constantin Theodor Dumba, who visited Lenox Town Hall to send messages to his government by Morse Code. 4-6 p.m.

Most events carry a $20 admission fee in advance or $25 at the door. Details and more events:


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