The Cottager | Eastover: A grand house reimagined as a holistic retreat
LENOX — Thousands of acres of farm land disappeared from the Lenox landscape in 1910, as three new Gilded Age cottages were raised on Berkshire hilltops.
The New York Times applauded the investment of over a half million dollars in the summer colony, where the trio of New York notables were turning "quaint farms into the sweep and lawn of estates."
"Where once old farm houses stood are now the various types of country villas of all periods which fit the particular spot and outlook. Everywhere the spirit of public improvements dominates," the article stated.
The three New Yorkers investing in the Lenox hillsides included Robb de Peyster Tytus, who built Ashintully in Tyringham; Banyer Clarkson, who built Riverside and Harris and Mabel Metcalf Fahnestock, who built Eastover on a "bold promontory which juts out and shows the full range of the hills." The estate originally consisted of 400 acres.
It would be two years before Fahnestock would host the first of many summer and fall soirees at the 30-room, red brick and white marble Georgian-style mansion. The parties — luncheons, dances and balls — would take place both inside and out, where guests would dance and dine among rose bushes and other flowing plants with the sunken garden designed by Beatrix Ferrand, Edith Wharton's niece. The mansion was one of four in the Berkshires designed by Francis L. V. Hoppin. The other three were The Mount, Ashintully and Brookhurst.
Harris Fahnestock Jr. had worked for a time at his father's bank and been associated with his brother's financial institution before retiring at the age of 37 in 1906. (His father, Harris C. Fahnestock, who helped finance most of the Civil War through his First National Bank, left an estate of $17.7 million, the majority of which was invested in bank and railroad stocks, as well as Western Union and The Met.)
The younger Fahnestock's true passion was the sport of coaching — competitive driving of enclosed, horse-drawn carriages. It was at Eastover that he was able to pursue this passion. He built a u-shaped horse barn for his teams and refused to convert it into a garage as his neighbors did. Instead he build a five bay garage on property across the street.
He continued to drive his coaches well longer than most of his neighbors, shunning travel by automobile, even in the city until 1930, when his coachman, Edward Capps died. Capps had served the Fahnestock family for 45 years, driving first for the father and then for the son. Harris would give up coaching that year and eventually donate his prized coaches to the New York Historical Society.
Capp's death occurred the same year as that of Mabel Fahnestock. Fahnestock would remarry in 1937. Georgett Gerard-Varet Hyde, a divorced Frenchwoman, was nearly 30 years his junior when they wed.
The family put Eastover on the market in 1941, two years after the death of Harris Fahnestock Jr. in 1939. At the time of his death, Eastover had grown to encompass 930 acres and included the mansion, coach barn, a garage, a two-family superintendent's house, an ice house, a chauffeur's house with attached garage, a machine shop, hen house and several barns and houses belonging to the farms consumed by the estate.
Eastover sold in 1941, at auction to the Virgilio family, which leased it to the Duncan School for Boys. The school went bankrupt in 1944 and the estate was put on the market again. In 1946, George Bisacca purchased the estate's buildings and 500 acres for $41,000. He turned the property into a resort and eventually offered skiing and other activities. The property, which now includes multiple dwelling built during its life as a ski area, was then run by his descendants, Dorothy "Tikki" Winsor and her daughter, Betsy Kelly, who closed the property in 2009 before selling it to Yingxing Wang and her husband, Gudjon Hermansson, a Manhattan hedge-fund executive, for $3.6 million in 2010. The couple, who have invested near $20 million in the property (including the sales price and $1.8 million in personal property) opened a 90-room holistic retreat on the site in 2015.
Discovering Eastover was a happy accident for Yingxing Wang back in 2009, when she and her husband were driving through Lenox, hoping to find a summer home. Her son had just started at Harvard University and her daughter was attending summer camp at Belvoir Terrace. Wang and her husband were searching for the right place and were on their way to visit a farm house when they passed by the now 600-acre estate.
"We wanted to preserve all of this. We did not want it developed," Wang, who immigrated from South China in 1985, said, as she pulled up photos on her iPhone during my recent visit to the estate. "There are beautiful wetlands in the forest. I was out there the other day and saw a fish in the water. I had not yet met this fish. I was thrilled."
Transforming the 24-buildings on the estate into a working, satisfying business has not been an easy task, she explains as we stand outside on a patio with a fountain pond. The estate had needed much more work than the couple was originally told. Water mains and sewer lines had to be replaced and brought into each building. A grove of old pine trees, which began toppling over during storms, had to be removed. A primary electrical line had to be brought into the property and new electrical wiring was put in, as well as new gas lines. Roofs on 12 of the buildings were replaced, as well as the rotted out steel support beams in the pool house. A tennis court was removed and replaced with a Japanese garden. Asphalt roads and parking areas were put in.
As we approach a series of buildings, which remind me of small ski lodges or long row houses found in summer camps, Wang says she originally envisioned opening a summer camp, where children from around the world would bunk together and learn from each other. But the dream was put aside when the couple began upgrading the spaces. It became obvious that another model would be necessary and they began exploring the idea of a holistic retreat.
The retreat offers classes in yoga and Qigong, a traditional Chinese spiritual approach to healing that seeks to align body and mind for health and meditation. It also hosts a variety of holistic, teacher-led retreats. And it is partnering with Berkshire Community College to host a series of Community Wellness courses this fall.
We tour the rooms, simple, yet clean rooms with queen-size beds and large bathrooms. The walls are bare and the furniture simple. The sheets, she said, are high-end cotton for comfort. The bed spreads and runners, which feature a simple Asian motif, were designed specifically for the resort.
"We want the rooms to be comfortable, simple and clean," Wang explained. "We keep everything simple, because, when you come here, we want you to be outside or in a class. We also do not provide housekeeping services for under three days. We are environmentally sensitive, so we do not change the beds during a person's stay. Would you change your own sheets every day?"
We pass through several of these buildings, crossing through a court yard with old marble statues, make our way through the indoor pool house, which also hosts a sauna, showers and massage rooms. We pass by vegetable gardens and fruit trees in a fenced in yard and tour the in-progress eco-friendly waste water treatment plant they are building. Wang explains the water from the retreat will filter through the building, where tropical fruit trees will cleanse it with their roots as part of a process that ends with the water being dispersed back into the earth.
The former carriage barn, known as Tally-Ho, has a full kitchen and bar, as well as a dance hall equipped with a full sound-system, DJ booth and lighting. It's second floor can be used as studio space or accommodate wedding parties.
We return to the mansion, which she says she has worked hard to maintain its character. When current building codes required a second stairwell for the second floor, Wang rejected architectural renderings putting a massive steel structure on the outside. Instead, she worked with the architect to put a stairwell inside the mansion.
Much of the mansion remains as it did when it was built. Entering through a vestibule, white Ionic columns great the visitor as they step into a long hallway, in front of them is the reception area. Like The Mount, the rooms flow into one another. A long hallway reveals the family dining room, now a yoga or meditation room, which flows into a library and then the study, now Wangs office, which circles into the dining area. From there, we make our way into the servant's dining room, which now hosts formal teas. We make our way up the grand staircase to the second floor, where there were nine bedrooms and a sitting room.
Wang brings me to the Fahnestock's bedroom, to see the view and points out how his room would have allowed him to see the sunrise every morning. She also notes that while the bathrooms were fully upgraded, she took care to replace the floors with tiles that matched the original design.
On the third floor, which housed the staff, she shows off the former offices belonging to the cook and points out that the rooms get bigger as you travel from one end to the other, increasing in size by a servant's status.
"They had 64 staff members," Wang says, as we pass by the call box still labeled with the original owner's names.
Before leaving, Wang and I sit, sipping on steaming ginger tea, at a round table in the dining area looking out a breathtaking views of October Mountain.
"We are about community here," she says. "Part of our purpose is to have people sit at the same table, to get to know one another. We want to be a place where you can relax and enjoy the environment."
For more information, visit http://eastover.com.
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