Monday, November 06

GREAT BARRINGTON CARR VATTEL Van Anda thought he and his wife, Louise, were being stung on property taxes on their 157 acres of Lenox land on Kemble and Plunkett Streets. The Van Andas had paid $25,062 for the place, a mansion and eight outbuildings, at auction in 1938. Town assessors Charles A. Dee, Daniel M. Cowhig and Timothy E. Mahanna figured the estate was worth $70,000.

Van Anda spared no wordage in his nine-page, typewritten statement filed with an abatement request in September 1940. He asserted the property — called The Mount — was really worth only $34,498. His tax bill of $2,240 should be halved, he said.

He felt unduly burdened when compared with the nearby estates of Aileen M. Farrell (Holmwood, nee Erskine Park) and Giraud Foster (Bellefontaine). Using a mathematical logic which would have baffled Einstein, Van Anda insisted that the price Farrell paid for her property, as a proportion to what the town had assessed it for, would yield a ratio which, if applied to The Mount, render a figure about half what the Lenox assessors had on the books. In another formulaic assault, he came up with a like value when compared with the admittedly fancier property that is now Canyon Ranch.

Then there was the matter of the heating system in the former home of Edith Wharton. "There were two furnaces," Van Anda wrote, "one supplying hot air to a part of the house, the other operating a hot-water circulation through pipes to other parts of the house. It was known that the existing furnaces were worn out and the one which sent hot air through the family rooms was replaced. It was found to be useless to replace the other unless the walls of the house were cut open to replace the worn and rusted pipes." The Van Andas forewent the $7,300 to replace the heating system.

"The servants get on as best they can with small portable coal-oil stoves in their rooms." That his case was well presented should be no surprise.

Ohio-born Van Anda (1864-1944) was a student of astronomy and physics at Ohio University. He became night editor of the Baltimore Sun and, later, the New York Sun. New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs' hired him as his right hand. Ochs wanted all the news that was fit to print, and Van Anda as managing editor from 1904 to 1924 found that news.

The Times was the first to report the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Van Anda engaged two dozen telegraph lines to have the text of the Versailles Treaty sent from Washington, and he ran it in full — across 62 columns — in 1919. Van Anda secured near-exclusive coverage of Howard Carter's opening of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923. The newspaper's circulation soared under his hand.

But could he sway the Lenox assessors? The assessors engaged professional appraiser J.R. Hampson to establish a new value for The Mount. In his 13-page report (plus Photostats of building profiles and footprints), Hampson concluded the property had a replacement value of $218,941 (based on extensive calculations of square and cubic footage) and cash value of $80,927. The main house alone, he said, had a $33,174 cash value.

Sorry, Mr. Van Anda.

I fell upon this episode by chance. Looking for something else one day, I had come across several newspaper clippings about the towns of Lee and Lenox jointly purchasing 14 acres of former Mount property from Foxhollow School in 1971 for $100,000. The Berkshire Natural Resources Council helped the town conservation commissions broker the deal with funds from the Massachusetts Department of Natural resources and the U.S. Department of Interior.

The land, on the west side of Laurel Lake Road and fronting Laurel Lake, includes an open meadow (in Lenox) and a farmer's cottage (in Lee). Across the road are buildings that were part of Edith Wharton's original working farm, separated from her grounds, as Van Anda had complained, by swamp and by Laurel Pond.

The towns call the property Edith Wharton Park, and if you look past the bent metal gate at the entrance today, you'll see a well-weathered sign proclaiming its name. The field was recently mowed when I strolled across it to water's edge. Scott Marshall in his 1997 book "The Mount: Home of Edith Wharton" described the nearby barns (developer Donald Altshuler years ago converted them into residences), but he made no mention of this parcel. When I inquired for materials from Lenox Library's reference librarian, Amy Lafave, she came up with the copy of Van Anda's fascinating abatement application — and this unexpected story.

Louise Van Anda died in 1941. Carr Van Anda sold the property the next year to his neighbor, Headmistress Farrell, who had brought her Foxhollow School from Rhinebeck, N.Y., to neighboring Holmwood. She needed to replace classrooms and a stable that had burned in December 1941. She paid the bargain amount of $18,000 for The Mount. Was Van Anda right after all?