LENOX — The Mount, home of Edith Wharton Restoration, hopes to embark on a historical renovation project to restore the Laurel Lake shorefront farmhouse built by Wharton and her husband, Teddy, in 1906.
The house, uninhabited for 12 years and deteriorating but with “solid bones,” is on a 3.4-acre lot, jointly owned by Lenox and Lee. It’s part of the 16-acre lakefront Edith Wharton Park, also co-owned by the two towns since 1971.
On preexisting farmland, the house was built after the Whartons acquired the estate off Plunkett Road in 1901 and spent 10 years living there part time, before selling it to private owners.
In order for The Mount to acquire and restore the farmhouse, town meeting voters in Lenox and in Lee will be asked to authorize their select boards to transfer ownership of the lot, while preserving local conservation restrictions “in perpetuity” to prevent any future development of the property.
The remaining acreage of the Edith Wharton Park, a lakefront meadow, would continue under joint ownership of the Lee and Lenox conservation commissions to preserve open space.
“We have a keen interest in seeing the farmhouse preserved and restored,” Mount Executive Director Susan Wissler wrote in a letter to the Lee and Lenox boards and to Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen.
They pointed out that the potential agreement has been under discussion off and on for several years, but the outline of the proposed transaction came together this month.
“To me, the most important thing is securing the house,” Wissler told The Eagle. “It was part of the original estate, and there’s a huge untold story surrounding that building and the whole farm complex that we could tap into. I think it can serve multiple purposes, and it’s a marvelous bookend to the estate, which is how it was originally intended.”
At a time when many great estates are “under terrible threats of being carved up, subdivided and public access being lost forever or diluting the integrity of what was originally conceived,” Wissler said, “we are actually knitting the estate back together, and that, to me, is very exciting.”
When the Foxhollow School, which had owned the Wharton estate since 1931, sold off the farmhouse complex in 1971 to the two towns, the school’s cook, Johnny Van Lingen, and his wife were granted lifetime tenancy at the house as part of the agreement. After he died and she moved elsewhere, it became vacant in 2009.
Potential uses of a restored farmhouse include accommodations for The Mount’s writers-in-residence program, now in its eighth year, but public access to the site would be maintained.
It’s Wissler’s highest current priority.
“Since the towns are willing to work with us now, I would put everything else on hold so we can close this deal,” she pointed out.
A preliminary appraisal values the 135 Laurel Lake Crossroad property at $335,000. Based on the final negotiated sale price, each town would split the proceeds.
Wissler has estimated the cost of renovation at close to $1 million. She would conduct two fundraising campaigns, the first over 60 to 90 days to acquire the house and, later, the second for the restoration, potentially with partial support from the taxpayer-supported Community Preservation Act.
Both select boards enthusiastically have approved adding an article to each town’s annual meeting warrant, enabling the transaction to proceed.
During discussion, former Lenox Selectman Channing Gibson, who long has been involved in explorations of the farmhouse’s future, declared that “we need to act to preserve what’s there,” since the property, while structurally sound, has seen better days.
“It doesn’t need a lot, but it’s going to go quickly if we’re not careful,” he cautioned. “It’s a terrific project for the town, and I hope the town meeting will see it that way.”
In Lee, longtime Select Board member Patty Carlino suggested that the towns should have the right of first refusal to take back the property, should something befall The Mount.
A two-thirds vote in favor by residents in Lenox and elected town meeting representatives in Lee are the next steps to make the sale of the land possible through a purchase-and-sale agreement with The Mount.
The proposal to sell the farmhouse to The Mount will be on the agenda of the annual Town Meeting in Lee on June 24, and the Lenox annual meeting June 29.
According to Ketchen, the deal “provides a historic restoration through outside investment in a way that the towns would not normally choose to spend their resources. It also provides a small, but not insignificant, payment to the towns and it benefits a Berkshire institution that is vital to our culture and visitors.”
A final transaction agreement would go to the Legislature, where two-thirds approval is needed in both houses. Then, Gov. Charlie Baker could sign the agreement to remove the property from conservation protection enshrined in Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution.
Approved by voters in 1972, it authorizes the state to ensure that lands acquired by towns for conservation purposes are not converted to other uses, such as development, without a roll-call vote by a supermajority of lawmakers.
Wissler would seek a new conservation restriction to protect the farmhouse parcel, likely with Mass Audubon, which serves as conservation steward of protected nearby land, or the Lee and Lenox conservation commissions.
As Ketchen explained, in order to take land out of the state’s conservation protection, a town has to put land into Article 97’s domain. So, at their town meeting, Lenox voters will be asked to accept 4 acres of open space behind a condo development at 241 Walker Street, which would be subject to the state constitution’s restrictions.
“In my 21 years of public service, things have never aligned quite like this,” Ketchen said at last week’s Lenox and Lee Select Board meetings.
Acknowledging a complicated warrant article for the town meetings, “It’s a lot to digest, but it will never be more simple than it is in the next 30 days,” he declared.
“It’s a wise decision for the towns,” Lenox Select Board Chairman Neal Maxymillian agreed. “The Mount has a unique ability for the highest and best use of this property. To me, it’s only a win-win, and it makes great sense.”