Ventfort Hall might be able to show upcoming improvements on film, if movie project goes forward

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LENOX — Nearly 20 years after the major film "The Cider House Rules" was shot in part at the then-decrepit, haunted-looking Ventfort Hall Mansion, the now-renovated home to the Gilded Age Museum may have another chance to host a movie project.

Details about the potential film are scant at this point as leaders of the nonprofit Ventfort Hall Association await a decision expected by mid-2018.

"Stay tuned — we're so excited," said board of directors Secretary Kelly Blau during a recent Eagle interview. "We're sworn to secrecy," added Rick Ryer, head of the Buildings and Grounds Committee.

"We're certainly looking toward having filming here more often," Blau pointed out, noting that the site offers maximum flexibility for cinematic projects. As an example, the "Silver Thief" Amazon Video episode from "The New Yorker Presents" series was shot at night several years ago.

"We'll listen to any project," she said, since it would provide not only more funding to complete restoration work at Ventfort Hall but also attract publicity and visitors.

"People still come here, constantly, because of `The Cider House Rules,'" added Linda Rocke, marketing and communications coordinator. Based on the John Irving novel, the film starring Tobey Maguire and Michael Caine used the exterior of the mansion during a three-week shoot in November 1998 to depict the St. Cloud orphanage, where Maguire's character, Homer Wells, lived.

While association leaders await a possible green light for a new film, a $350,000 renovation to shore up the exterior of the 1893 summer retreat of seventh-cousins George and Sarah Morgan (sister of banking tycoon J.P. Morgan) is nearly complete. But the punch list of restoration work remains active.

The most recent exterior repairs were funded by a recent $30,000 matching grant from the town's Community Preservation Act reserves, as approved by annual town meeting voters last May, as well as a matching $125,000 infusion from the Massachusetts Cultural Council's Facilities Fund and a $40,000 direct grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Rocke said.

The stabilization project included rebuilding a pair of gables partially torn away from the back of the structure.

"We want the back of the building to be safe and secure for people who go out on the porch or in the backyard for events," Ryer said.

Cracked chimneys were repaired and several roof leaks were sealed, he added.

"We were trying to clean up the outside envelope of the building before winter sets in," he said.

"This wasn't all done willy-nilly," Blau stressed. An architect who specializes in historical restoration, Jamie Rinehart of Hill Engineers in Dalton, drew up the plans based on studies of Gilded Age buildings.

During the winter, the long-awaited elevator connecting the first and second floors is slated to be installed, Ryer said. The project had been planned for last winter but was delayed while Otis Elevator Co. completed a customized "platform lift" to fit the existing elevator shaft.

The elevator installation, replacing the building's original lift built in 1893, complies with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. It is funded through a major "Give Us a Lift" capital campaign that raised $120,000 for the project.

Approvals were needed and received from the state's Architectural Access Board in Boston. Handling the construction is Michael White Contractors of New Marlborough.

"The whole exterior of the building needs work," Ryer said, with a new roof as the next priority, estimated to cost several hundred thousand dollars. Financing remains to be set up for that project.

"Structurally, we're in pretty good shape," he said, and there's no threat of any crumbling or collapse. In addition, a new water main is being connected from Walker Street for the mansion's updated sprinkler system, funded by $100,000 in grants and donations.

"We are always fundraising," Blau said. The board is considering either a new capital campaign or a search for additional grants.

"We're very excited that we've had such a good rapport with the town of Lenox," she added, citing Fire Chief Daniel Clifford and Buildings Inspector BJ Church for cutting the Ventfort Hall Association some slack when needed.

The nonprofit operates on a $300,000 annual budget, ran a slight surplus in 2016, Rocke said, "and we're doing better in '17 than we did in '16." Combined paid attendance for events and tours totals 12,511 so far this year, she added, fueled by a 9 percent increase for the scheduled events.

Ventfort Hall — on the National Register of Historic Places and saved from a developer's demolition by a volunteer group led by Tjasa Sprague and Marcia Brown in 1994 — is open year-round for tours and hosts monthly events such as monthly dinner theater mysteries. It's closed only on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Easter.

The monthly dinner theater mysteries sell out with 56 available seats, so an encore performance of the Thanksgiving weekend show, The Comical Mystery Tour ensemble's "You Can't Toy with Death," is slated for Saturday, Dec. 16. The $40 ticket price includes a full-course dinner and the show.

"We're always looking to add events the community will value and want to attend," Rocke said.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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