The Cottager: Not your average housewarming party

Ventfort Hall to celebrate 125th anniversary of Sarah and George Morgan's 'at home' gathering


LENOX — On the evening of Sept. 15, 1893, Sarah Spencer Morgan and her husband, George H. Morgan, celebrated their new "cottage," Ventfort Hall with a gathering of their closest friends and neighbors — about 150 in all.

Although the 28-room Jacobean Revival brick and sandstone mansion, designed by architects Roche & Tilden had been completed earlier that year and opened in June for the start of the summer season, the Morgans did not hold their housewarming party, called an "at home," until that fall. One can speculate the delay may have been due to the opening of the 1893 World's Fair that May, which drew many of the "Summer Colony" members to Chicago for part of the summer. A few months after its opening, the fair had lost its luster and the Cottagers had returned to their normal summer and fall haunts.

A society column published in the New York Times on Sept. 17, 1893, reported on the start of the fall festivities in Lenox, including the largest entertainment of the week: the Morgan's housewarming party.

"The cottagers delight in having house parties in October and November, because of the beauties of the late fall here," the society column begins. "The Morgans are rather quiet people, and while they entertain considerably, they do not care to have any great amount of gossip about it outside. This occasion brought together nearly all the cottagers and their guests, many of whom visited this residence for the first time. It is complete in every detail in furnishings and fittings, and it makes one of the finest summer homes in the town. The rooms and halls are very large and the house is so arranged that the first floor opens into one large room, so that the 150 or more people who were there on Friday evening had no difficulty in moving about and there was no crowding."

Among those in attendance were Emily Thorne Vanderbilt Sloane and William D. Sloane of Elm Court; Anson and Helen Louisa Phelps Stokes, who were in the process of building Shadow Brook; Count Carlos de Heredia and Countess Georgie Bruce Cook de Heredia of Wheatleigh; Baron Pavel L'vovitch Schilling and Prince Mikhail Mikhailovich Cantacuzene, also known as Count Speransky, a Russian general and ambassador who would marry Julia Dent Grant, granddaughter of President Ulysses S. Grant, in 1899.

Other guests included: Dr. and Mrs. Richard C. Greenleaf of Windyside; Hannah Minthorne Tompkins Lydig and David Lydig of Thistlewood; Mr. and Mrs. Henri Braem of Ethelwyn; Mr. and Mrs. John S. Barnes of Coldbrook; Joseph and Harriette Burden of Underledge; Mr. and Mrs. Richard S. Dana, who resided in what is now known as the Birchwood Inn; Gen. Francis C. Barlow and his wife of Sunny Bank; Mr. and Mrs. J. Searle Barclay; and George and Lili Higginson of The Corners.

While details on the actual party are limited, we know the Morgans continued to celebrate the fall season with a series of "open houses" well into November.

On Nov. 11, the Buffalo Evening New's society column reported: "Ventfort, the lovely new Lenox home of Mr. and Mrs. George H. Morgan, has been for the last month, and is still, the scene of a merry house party, the chief amusement of which is the rides and drives around the picturesque Berkshire during the day, and the evening dances, which the cold weather makes agreeable."

A Spectacular Jubilee Celebration

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To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Sarah and George Morgan's housewarming party, the Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum will host a Spectacular Jubilee on Saturday, Sept. 22, from 6 to 9:30 p.m.

"It's going to be an evening with cocktails and dinner, but it's not going to be your usual boring fundraiser," said Alice Nathan, a member of the board of directors and chairwoman of the event. "We're going to have several people from yesteryear in attendance. Guests will be greeted at the door by Sarah Morgan, herself."

Theater artist Anne Undeland, who has appeared as Sarah Morgan at several Ventfort Hall functions, will reprise her role as mistress of the estate. And, Nathan hinted, there may be a royal guest in the crowd.

"We'll have several interesting things to do as well," she said. "We'll have a few activities for our guests, similar to those the Morgans would have had at their party."

And while she's not willing to divulge too many of the evenings surprises, Nathan did say that guests shouldn't expect a sit-down dinner.

"We want people to be able to move around and mingle, so we're going to have food stations. We're using the whole first floor, so there will be plenty of room," she said. "I think this is going to be a really special evening."

One of the highlights of the night will be the unveiling of five photographs of some of the mansion's main interiors that were taken when Sarah and George Morgan were in residence.

"These are photos that have never been seen before," Nathan said. "We'll have them mounted outside each of the rooms."

The photographs were donated by a descendant the Morgans, of Elizabeth Morgan, of Princeton, N.J., who discovered them in her attic. The photographs will eventually be put on permanent display.

Tickets are $150 per person. Funds from the gala event will go toward the continued restoration and upkeep of the Gilded Age cottage. One of the most recent efforts, Nathan said, has been the installation of a lift that can bring visitors to the second floor of the mansion.


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