The Cottager | Ashintully: A mansion cursed by Egypt's pharaoh kings?
TYRINGHAM — On a warm Sunday in April 1952, a fire broke out in the fields outside the home of Katharine and John S. McLennan Jr. Strong winds had whipped through the backyard where Mrs. McLennan was burning trash in an incinerator, blowing hot sparks into the grass of a nearby field. A fire ignited in the grass and in the couple's milk barn, spreading quickly to the nearby forest. In the end, it claimed 600 acres of dense woodland in Tyringham, Monterey, Otis and East Otis.
And it destroyed Ashintully, a 35-room Georgian-style mansion with 15 fireplaces and 10 bathrooms that had been built on the side of Round Mountain by Robb de Peyster Tytus and his wife, Grace Seeley Henop Tytus.
The Tytuses were New York intellectuals who aimed to be a little more off the beaten path in the Berkshires. It was on their honeymoon in 1903, while visiting friends in Tyringham, that the couple fell in love with the area. They returned several weeks later, purchasing three farms, creating an estate of some 1,500 acres.
Born in Asheville, N.C., Robb de Peyster Tytus was born into wealthy family. He graduated from Yale in 1897 and was at first an illustrator. He would develop an interest in archeology and would join famed archeologists Percy E. Newbury and Howard Carter in Egypt. There, he would join them in their excavations at Luxor, where he helped uncover the palace of King Amenhotep III, grandfather of King Tutankhamen. In 1903, he would marry Grace and publish his first book about the palace of Amenhotep III. The couple's first daughter, Mildred, was born in Cairo, while the couple was still abroad and living in a houseboat on the Nile.
Upon returning to Tyringham in 1904, the couple lived in a farmhouse and began breeding horses, cattle and sheep. They immersed themselves in the community.
Robb Tytus was twice elected to the state Legislature as the representative of the 7th Berkshire District. This was no easy feat at the time, as he was a Democrat in a strongly Republican district. Articles at the time said he attributed his win to his campaign, which "distributed 1,800 boxes of chocolate drops to the wives and sweethearts of voters."
But a Boston Globe article noted his first win coincided with his announcement that he and his wife were finally building their much planned home. "...The work of the foundations were begun when the campaign was the hottest," the article stated.
Started in 1910, Ashintully, designed by architect Francis Hoppin, was said to have sparkled in the moonlight and shone brightly in the sunlight. It would take two years to complete. The cost to build the mansion that would be known as The Marble Palace, is debatable, but falls somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million, depending on what newspapers estimated it to be at the time an article was written and how well informed the writer was. Many authors, who put the price tag at $1 million, also insisted the home was made completely from Georgian marble. It was not.
In fact, very little of the so-called Marble Palace was actually marble. The majority of marble used in the house — in fireplaces, window and door casings, steps and a terrace — was either from quarries in nearby Lee or shipped in from Italy. The structure itself was covered in stucco mixed with white sand brought in from Nantucket, which gave it the appearance of marble in certain light.
Perched high above the valley, the Palladian masterpiece, with its four Doric columns, was a white marvel rivaled only by its interior. Here, a two-story library and music room was the heart of the house. Measuring 78 feet long by 28 feet wide and 32 feet high, it was built to match the dimensions of Amenhotep III's great hall and was said to hold 12,000 volumes on its shelves. On one side was a dining room, on the other, a drawing room. All three rooms opened onto a terrace overlooking the valley, behind them, a hallway, 110-feet long, ran with a grand double staircase that connected on a landing above.
According to a sales flier published in the 1950s, the second floor included a sitting room, a private study, a sewing room, a master bedroom with a fireplace and dressing room, five large bedrooms with fireplaces, a small bedroom and four bathrooms. The third floor had 12 servants' rooms and a large bathroom including several bathtubs, wash basins and toilets. In the basement, the kitchen, maids' dining room, laundry, drying room, wine cellar and storage rooms could be found.
The couple decorated their house with many artifacts and treasures from their time abroad. In one account published in 1937, it was reported that "a portion of the wall frieze which decorated the banquet hall of the palace of Amenhotep III" was part of the decor of the dinner hall, which also included a collection of hieroglyphic records from a village of Egyptian artisans.
"Another relic is a dark blue glass receptacle, probably used for cosmetics, which is the oldest glass on record," the article continues, also mentioning an Egyptian necklace, restored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which belonged to Grace.
Also among the Ashintully treasures were a Jacobite cup supposedly used by Bonnie Prince Charlie (also known as Charles Edward, the Young Pretender), a large collection of Irish amethyst glass and Waterford crystal.
Robb Tytus would not enjoy the summer home for long. He would die in Saranac Lake, N.Y., where he was being treated for advanced tuberculosis, in August 1913.
Grace Tytus, left with two young daughters, Mildred and Victoria, would remarry. In January 1915, she married John S. McLennan, a publisher and Canadian senator. Their marriage would end in 1927, when Grace successfully sued for divorce. The couple had one son, John S. McLennan Jr.
In 1927, Grace would take her daughters to London, where they were presented at the Court of St. James. During that time, she rented Ashintully to the author Henry Adams, great-grandson of President John Adams and grandson of President John Quincy Adams. It was there that he had an encounter with a "talking picture."
According to the 1937 article, Grace Tytus liked to relate the tale of the encounter with the painting, found in a room decorated with Flemish tapestries.
"The author said he was startled one night by someone speaking his name. [All] Of the sudden, the painting, which was on the wall at the foot of the royal four-poster, glowed with life and for a few minutes they held conversation. Then as he gradually dozed off to sleep, the painting also remained silent. Mr. Adams said that frequently that summer the picture actually talked to him. The portrait is of an Italian woman of noble birth and Miss Tytus believed it was stolen from a Roman palace and smuggled into this country."
The painting was found hidden in a crate of furniture the family purchased, most likely hidden there by art smugglers, the article states.
It appears the portrait fell forever silent after Mr. Adams departed, but the story of the unusual painting was not the last story to cast a shadow on Ashintully. A series of unfortunate events would plague the family in the coming years. Grace Tytus would fall and break her hip in October 1928 while staying at Ashintully. She spent nine days in the hospital before returning to the estate, where she died from a heart attack. Five years later, in 1933, Mildred would fall asleep at the wheel while driving home to Springfield after a visit to Ashintully. She would succumb to her injuries.
The tragedies, would lead AP News Features writer John B. Knox to bring up a whispered rumor that the family was cursed in a 1951 article about the demise of the "dream-like palaces" of the Berkshire Hills. In it, he wrote the following: "Outmatching even Shadow Brook was 'Ashintully' — the estate of Robb de Peyster Tytus, Egyptologist. Some said the family had incurred the displeasure of Egypt's dead kings by disturbing their sleep."
Victoria Tytus Coolidge, who inherited the estate with her older sister Grace, sold it in 1937, having emptied it of its furnishing and artifacts. Those she did not keep, she donated to museums or sold at auction. The house and land was sold to William Tacy, of Otis, and Arthur S. Rogers, of Lee, who, to the ire of Tyringham's residents, began lumbering the property. It was then, that Victoria's half-brother, John S. McLennan Jr., now a classical composer, purchased the home and lands he had grown up on, for $18,000.
He and his first wife attempted to live in the house, but failed to remain there after the first winter. In the subsequent 15 years, he would have children, divorce and remarry, but he would not live in the empty tomb that Ashintully had become. A month before the fire, Ashintully was sold for $35,000 to a New York investor. A down payment had been made and the final transfer of ownership was to take place just a day or two after the fire found its way into the attic of Ashintully, leaving only the foundation and four Doric columns in the aftermath.
John and Katharine would continue to live in the farmhouse at the bottom of the estate, creating lavish gardens that remain on the property, which were donated to the Trustees of Reservations, along with 120 acres, in 1977. The gardens, which include the ruins of Ashintully, are open, free, on Wednesdays and Saturdays through Oct. 13.
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