Ventfort Hall is getting a lift

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LENOX — When Ventfort Hall, a derelict 1893 mansion, was used in the Hollywood film "The Cider House Rules" 18 years ago as a haunted, ominous-looking backdrop for an orphanage, it had just been saved from the wrecking ball by a volunteer association.

This summer, as the Museum of the Gilded Age continues to make steady strides toward raising funds for enhanced public access and necessary maintenance, the living history attraction is so busy with events and tours that it had to turn down a possible mid-summer rental for another big-screen production.

"We would have had to close down for three months," said Executive Director Beverly Rainey, with a hint of regret. But she noted that portions of "The Silver Thief," an episode of the Amazon Prime original series "The New Yorker Presents," were shot recently on location at the mansion built for George and Sarah Morgan, as well as at The Mount.

Even though Ventfort Hall, open year-round, is now fully heated and attracts from 9,000 to 12,000 visitors annually — not including guests for rentals such as weddings, birthdays and business conferences — challenges remain.

A long-awaited elevator project is nearing liftoff, now that the original $500,000 plan to connect all four floors has been eliminated in favor of a simpler, smaller "platform lift" version using the mansion's original elevator shaft.

"It was very fancy for 1893, to have an elevator," said Development Director Rachel Coll. "The cost for the new elevator was out of proportion and unreasonable for us."

Now, the project will come in at about $120,000, limited to taking visitors from the first to the second floor, while still meeting local and state code requirements including universal accessibility, Coll pointed out.

Awaited is a decision from the state's Architectural Access Board in Boston to approve a new variance for the platform lift. The board deals with accessibility for public buildings.

The modified elevator plan was conceived by Rick Ryer of Ventfort's Buildings and Grounds Committee, a member of the board of directors.

A vertical platform lift "is essentially a mini-forklift built into the side wall," he explained. "People get into it, press a button and it lifts them up, lets them out and comes back down, all in half a minute. For people who can't get up the stairs, who have some kind of an issue, we're going to take care of that and it's going to work out great."

The goal is to install the lift and complete the project during the upcoming winter, said Ryer. "It's a good indoor winter-time project" for Michael White Contractors of New Marlborough, a specialist in historical restoration, he noted.

The total cost includes restoration of the second-floor access area adjacent to the elevator shaft, some first-floor carpentry and electrical work and an additional, town-required sprinkler for fire protection.

Recently received grants toward the project include $28,000 from the Jane and Jack Fitzpatrick Trust and $10,000 from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

The museum's ongoing "Give Us a Lift" capital campaign has another $16,000 in private contributions and an estimated $20,000 in proceeds from this weekend's gala fundraiser, including a $10,000 donation from the Claudia and Steven Perles Family Foundation.

The total of $94,000 in the till for the platform lift is within striking distance, "we can see it from here," Coll commented.

Since the five-year capital campaign began in 2013 to save Ventfort Hall from immediate shutdown over code issues, nearly $300,000 has been raised, including $35,000 from the Massachusetts Cultural Council's Facilities Fund and $23,490 in Lenox Community Preservation Act support toward a master plan.

"There has been a lot of crisis management, adhering to the edicts from Town Hall," said Rainey.

She emphasized that support and cooperation from the town's building and fire departments — including outgoing Building Commissioner Don Fitzgerald, his successor, BJ Church, and Fire Chief Dan Clifford — has been "terrific" over the past two years.

"Step-by-step, we're becoming code-compliant," she declared. "They're on board with us for all of this."

But, inevitably for a 123-year-old mansion, there's much more work ahead. "We're never going to get done," said Ryer cheerfully.

For next year, as the capital campaign wraps up, a water line will have to be connected from Walker Street to the back of Ventfort Hall to activate the fire-suppression sprinkler system, Rainey noted, "a huge expense. Right now, it's done with a pumper truck that comes in and pressurizes it."

At the same time, the museum has an active schedule of talks, tours, special events and profitable private rentals such as weddings, "which have grown by leaps and bounds," Rainey said.

Financially, she added, "we're in a much better situation than we've been in for years. Crisis management is the nature of the beast, things fall apart."

The annual operating budget is around $300,000, the museum is now breaking even and attendance at guided tours this summer was 30 to 40 percent ahead of 2015.

Priorities identified in the master plan include masonry repairs and major roof work, Coll pointed out. "We're going to walk and chew gum at the same time with our projects, going forward. But we have come a really long way."

Information; www.gildedage.org

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


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