The Cottager: The dismantling of Stonover Mansion

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LENOX — "All or Any Part — of the Stonover mansion, Yukon Avenue, Lenox, Mass., now being salvaged. Excellent slate roof, copper gutters, flashing and downspouts ... French doors, cupboards, laundry equipment, tile flooring. Library with shelving, doors, beamed ceiling and fireplace to match. Marble and frame fireplaces. Sufficient materials to construct several houses. Heavy duty elevator for cellar to sidewalk. Vaults and wall safes. See Salesman Chase on wrecking job."

The classified ad, announcing the dismantling and salvaging of the 45-room yellow-grey stucco French country house formerly owned by Mary Parsons ran on Nov. 4, 1942.

Parsons, who founded the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, in 1929, was known for conservation efforts, decades before it was fashionable. She opened the estate's paths, known as "Parson's Woods," to the public as long as they did not "bark trees, chip rocks or dig ferns." She also was known for re-introducing the beaver to the state in the 1930s.

Richard S. Jackson Jr. and Cornelia Brooke Gilder relate the following tale of her heroic feat in "Houses of the Berkshires: 1870-1930.": "With her chauffeur Frank Gorman, Mary Parsons rescued a pair of the creatures from Columbia County, New York, and drove them to Lenox in style. Settling into this new protected habitat at Pleasant Valley, the beavers flourished. Today, much of the Parsons' verdant farmland is a marsh because of the engineering of the beavers' prolific descendants."

In subsequent years, following Mary's death and the demolition of Stonover, many would forget the summer cottage that played host to Roshanara, a famous Russian dancer, and talks by notable speakers, such as Aleksandr Kerensky, a key political figure in the Russian Revolution of 1917, at Mary Parson's after-dinner lectures (or afternoon teas) in the library.

It was not the first time the house had been taken apart. But it would be the last. Following the death of Mary Parsons, at the age of 77, in 1940, the house was purchased and demolished by neighbors looking to improve their view.

Constructed first in 1875 by architect Charles P. Hutchins of Troy, N.Y., for her father, John E. Parsons, Stonover was originally a tall, square clapboard Victorian mansion with a conical tower and a slate mansard roof.

John E. Parsons was a prominent New York attorney who is often credited with successfully defending the American Sugar Refining Co. from an anti-trust suit by the U.S. government. However, while a very successful attorney, Parsons was not the lawyer who successfully defended the sugar company now known as Domino. In 1909, Parsons and seven other officials associated with the American Sugar Refining Co. were indicted on charges of "having conspired in restraint of interstate trade and commerce in fine sugar for the purpose of monopolizing the sugar trade." The case went to trial in 1912 and the indictments were dismissed.

According to his obituary, published in the New York Times on Jan. 17, 1915, a year prior to the trial, John E. Parsons, then retired, testified before a Congressional committee named to investigate the sugar industry.

"He was just as frank as he ever was in defending trusts," the obituary stated. "He said, 'I believe in organization of capital, in organization of labor, in organization of ability, in any way that is to the interest of the contributors.'"

Besides staunchly supporting private trusts, Parsons was known for his philanthropy, helping to found and serve as the first president of the New York Cancer Hospital. He was known to give away a quarter to half of his yearly earnings and supported not only his church, but many other hospitals in New York and in the Berkshires. However, his will bequeathed his fortune, said to be in the millions, and property to his family, while also providing small sums to his staff.

"I make no charitable bequests. While I have lived, I have given what I thought to be suitable. I dislike posthumous generosity. And I do not wish to debar my children of the pleasure themselves of using in charity such part as they see fit of what may come to them," The New York Times reported on his will.

His property was split among his six children. To his daughters, Mary and Gertrude, who were unmarried and in their 50s, he left Stonover. The sisters immediately set out to improve the Victorian manse. In 1921, they hired Delano & Aldrich to make the improvements, which included moving the house further back on the property, removing its whimsical turrets and mansard roof. The architects transformed the house into a sophisticated French country house with stucco yellow-gray walls with "vivid blue around the casement windows, French dormers and eaves."

"Summertime parties spilled out onto the wide grass terrace, which wrapped around three sides of the house. This terrace created a space similar to The Mount's, built 20 years earlier by Mary Parson's contemporary and acquaintance, Edith Wharton. Tables and chairs were set out in the shade of an umbrella. A low stucco wall surrounded the terrace, forming a natural seat for extra guests," according to a description by Jackson and Gilder.

Gertrude would enjoy their home for only six years, as she died of pneumonia during a trip to Italy in 1927.

Mary Parsons would spend decades presiding at her family's summer estate, championing the establishment of zoning ordinances in the town, and taking part in many civic clubs. Shortly after Stonover was demolished, a Japanese-style house was built on the site by Lenges Bull, a local Chevrolet dealer. It remains privately owned, but was open to the public during the latest Lenox House Tour. Should you get a chance to tour the property, be sure to look for a stucco wall that surrounds the house — it's the last physical remnant of a grand home.


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