Wharton's home, The Mount, to reopen Thursday for self-guided tours

Author Edith Wharton's retreat, The Mount in Lenox, is reopening for self-guided tours today. Advance, timed reservations strongly are encouraged, but walk-ups will be accepted.

LENOX — An "oasis of tranquility" in a pandemic-stressed world.

That's how Susan Wissler, executive director of The Mount, views author Edith Wharton's estate built in 1902, her home for a decade.

The historic house museum and cultural center has been open only for visitors to walk the trails and view the gardens since the coronavirus hit in March.

But, Wharton's retreat reopens for self-guided tours Thursday. Advance, timed reservations are strongly encouraged, but walk-ups will be accepted. Under the state's guidelines for visitors, capacity inside the mansion is limited to 60 guests at a time.

Face coverings are required while inside the house, while social distancing is expected for visitors when they are outside.

Hours for tours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Tuesdays, through the online reservations system at edithwharton.org. The Mount's bookstore, now located in The Stable near the property's Plunkett Street entrance, and the Terrace Cafe are open to the public when the mansion is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Programming by authors and other speakers remains online and free. Wissler said "attendance" is averaging 113 per digital presentation, or 1,700 virtual visitors for 15 programs held to date.

"The digital presentations have been surprisingly successful," she said. "I wasn't sure if people would be `Zoomed out,' but the appetite seems to be holding."

Some in-person programs will be presented at The Mount when health and safety guidelines permit, including possibly a reading of Wharton's short stories on the terrace.

The Mount faces an earned-income revenue loss of $1 million, with its season truncated and 14 scheduled weddings — a $200,000 source of revenue — postponed until next spring and summer. Earned income includes tour and program ticket sales, cafe, bookstore and weddings, but not contributions.

Thanks to a federal Payroll Protection Program loan of $245,200 received in March through Greylock Federal Credit Union, The Mount has kept the year-round, mostly full-time staff of 17 employed without furloughs or layoffs. The normal staff of 50 to 55 for the summer season will be limited to about 35 full- and part-timers, including the grounds crew and cafe staffers.

The reopening also is partially funded by a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities received last month, which is earmarked for salaries.

So, the total $1 million loss has been cut nearly in half, Wissler pointed out.

She projects visitation for the abbreviated summer and fall season at about 25 percent of the previous year's total of 52,000.

"We were in a very strong position going into the COVID-19 pandemic," Wissler said. "We've had a couple of really good years. The Mount is very fortunate."

But, she cautioned, "it will require a close watch over the finances and keeping diligent."

If the pandemic affects next summer, there will be some serious financial pain, she acknowledged. "But, we can weather it for the time being," Wissler said.

Overall, The Mount has cash reserves of about $1.3 million for operations, thanks to a bequest by former trustee Neil Ellenoff.

According to The Mount's audited statements, the total endowment as of March 31 stands at approximately $7 million, including a multimillion-dollar pledge from an anonymous donor, payable annually over five years.

Visitors to the grounds have totaled nearly 10,000 ahead of the mansion's reopening, compared with 7,000 as of this time last year. Last year's 52,000 attendance total included about 32,000 for tours of the house.

The Mount endured a brush with bankruptcy and foreclosure in 2008, with debts totaling nearly $9 million, the majority of it owed to Berkshire Bank.

"What almost killed us was our debt, and what saved us was our debt," Wissler said. "Since we owed far more than the property was appraised at, the bank had no alternative, if they wanted to get their money out, but to work with management to try to turn things around. So, they were willing to enter into forbearance agreements to give us time and they also forgave debt at various times."

As a result, The Mount has been debt-free since 2015. Its audited financial report for the fiscal year ending March 31 shows an $8 million surplus, primarily reflecting gifts and pledges restricted for the endowment. Since 2008 — that was its financial bottom — to 2020, The Mount's equity has improved by $20 million.

For the fiscal year ended March 31, the operating bottom line depicts a $119,000 surplus, an improvement from a succession of break-even years.

The organization's total assets have doubled within the past year, to $16,550,000, due largely to a significant pledge to The Mount's endowment.

The financial turnaround from the dark days of 2008 remains "pretty amazing," Wissler said. "I do have to pinch myself."

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