Carole Owens: Roots of DeSisto's complex history

STOCKBRIDGE — DeSisto: What a long strange trip it has been.

Since Michael DeSisto died in 2003 and the school closed in 2004, the fate of DeSisto has been uncertain. A private school that considered the property until environmental problems were discovered and the town declined to help with the clean up. A horse farm, private club, and assisted living were proposed, and someone thought the time was right for a $9 million private home. Now a massive development is proposed.

The ups and downs of the 21st century mirror the 20th.Unlike most Berkshire Cottages, it had more than one name in its 125-year history: Beckwithshaw, Shaughlin, Bonnie Brier,and DeSistoIt was built in 1892 by Leonard Forbes and Margaretta Pierrepont Beckwith. Manor of Bechwithshaw was inscribed on the hall fireplace. Beckwith credited himself architect, but others credited H. Neill Wilson, architect of William Russell Allen House, Shadowbrook, and more.

Leonard, his brother Arthur, and his sister Helen inherited a large fortune. They seemed bright, talented, and blessed. By 1893 both Beckwith men were institutionalized. By 1895 there was a nasty lawsuit, one brother was missing, and the other was dead. The family tragedies played out in the New York Times.

As a result of colliding with an ice wagon and falling hard, Leonard's brother was declared mentally ill and confined to a sanitarium. He escaped. In July 1893, the Times reported,"Arthur Beckwith Captured."

In November, the Times reported, "L.F. Beckwith's Insanity." Leonard, consulting engineer for the Empire City Subway Company and chief engineer of the New York City Telephone Com-pany, began to act strangely.

The Times reported, "Mr. Beckwith's friends believe him insane beyond the hope of perfect recovery a sheriff's jury found Leonard Beckwith to be insane."

In 1895, his sister sued Leonard claiming he stole from Arthur's estate after Arthur was institutionalized. The Times reported, "Leonard Forbes Beckwith, who is at present in an asylum for the insane in Massachusetts, is charged by his sister, Mrs. Helen Beckwith Leigh, wife of Francis Dudley Leigh, of London, England, with being a defaulter for $150,000 to the estate of his brother, Arthur."

In the midst of the mess, Arthur escaped again, never to be found, and Leonard died. Beckwithshaw was on the market for the first time and for a long time.

November 24, 1895, the Times reported, "The death of Leonard F. Beckwith, which occurred last Monday at Bronxville, will necessitate the settling up of his affairs and it is probable that the fine place which he had built on the west shore of Mahkeenac will be in the market."Ten years later, in 1905, Beckwithshaw finally sold to Sam Hill, lawyer and railroad executive.

The sale price of the 30-room cot-tage, furniture, rugs, and a billiard table included was $90,000. After removing the inscription over the fireplace, Mrs. Hill (Mary) renamed the cottage Shaughlin.

Mr. Hill was never happy in New England. With less truth than sarcasm, Hill wrote he only bought the place "with the desire to help out the tax gatherer in that part of the country." In the same letter, Hill said, "I regard real estate as a liabil-ity and not an asset."

Eleven years later, in 1916, the home sold to H. R. (Dan) Hanna for $500,000. A tidy profit of $410,000 for the skeptical Hill. Dan was the son of famous politician and political strategist Mark Hanna.

In 1900, Joseph Choate, ambassador to the Court of St. James, wrote his daughter, Mabel at Naumkeag: "Life has a cartoon of Mark Hanna's Dream of Imperial-ism. It represents him with the Queen prostrate before him, Lord Salisbury and myself holding up her train, while he is putting her crown on his own head with all the magnates of both realms looking on in admiration."

Dan Hanna was owner of two Ohio newspapers, endower of the journalism school at Case Western Reserve, husband of four, father of eight, and horse lover. The much-married Dan bought the summer place as a wedding present for his fourth wife.

His wife renamed the cottage Bonnie Brier, and he built a barn. Known as the largest barn in the United States, it was 20,000 square feet and housed 100 horses.

For the locals, however, the fame of Bon-nie Brier is not attached to the house or barn — which burned to the ground in 1955 — to the insanity of one millionaire or the notoriety of another, the enduring fame of Bonnie Brier is that it was the site of the first Berkshire Symphonic Festival concert and the birth of Tanglewood.

A Berkshire writer and historian Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor. This is part one of a two-part series on DeSisto School. Part two on the years 1934 through 1937 will run in Sunday's Eagle.


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