10 November 2014

A Visit to the Mount

On my recent trip to the Berkshires, I was able to spend a day at the Mount, Edith Wharton’s former home in Lenox, Massachusetts. I had been once before, years ago when the Mount was still being worked on, and was eager to see the home and gardens fully restored.

Author of more than 40 books and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature (1921), Edith Wharton was also a keen interior designer and gardener. Her first book was actually about design, The Decoration of Houses, which she co-wrote with architect Ogden Codman, Jr. in 1897.

When she and her husband, Teddy, purchased 113 acres of land in Lenox for $40,600 in 1901, she decided to design and build a house based on the principals of her book. Recruiting Codman and Francis L.V. Hoppin as architects and R.W. Curry as builder, Wharton conceived of a home with classical Italian and French influences and none of the heavy, Victorian excesses popular at the time. Finished in the fall of 1902, the Mount would be Wharton’s home for the next ten years and her last address before leaving Teddy and America to live in France.

The walk up to the entrance of the Mount. Photos by Michele.

Turning down the unfortunately named Plunkett Street, we parked near the front of the estate where the gatehouse and stables are located. A quarter-mile walk down a maple-lined drive brings you to the entrance of The Mount, which actually appears to be at the side of the house. You can go inside for a tour but we chose to explore the grounds first before the rain became too heavy.

Continuing past the house, you come to an Italian walled garden with its arched walls and rock-pile fountain. Wharton called this her giardino segreto or secret garden. Steps lead up to a lime walk that runs behind the house, which makes you feel as if you've stepped into the past and are on the grounds of a French castle. Looking up, you find the back of the Mount with its wide terrace and distinct green and white striped awnings.

At the end of the Lime Walk is the French flower garden with its dolphin fountain. Wharton originally planted the garden with hollyhocks, phlox, snapdragons, and stocks, among others. Many of these same flowers are planted today, and we were fortunate to still find some blooms even late in the season. 

Looking out beyond the gardens the lawn slopes down to the trees and a small body of water courtesy of the some busy local beavers. To step out onto the terrace and look down onto the gardens and the trees beyond would never get old.

Leaving the flower garden and walking down a path in the woods we came around to the other side of the house and a small rise on which one finds a small cemetery where Wharton's dogs are buried. Wharton loved her dogs and was often photographed with them. Here lies Modele, Mimi, Miza, Jules, and Toto too. We discovered afterwards that Wharton had a view of the cemetery from her bedroom window.

The Gallery. Photo by Michele.

Looking down the long Drawing Room. Photo by Michele.

Back at the house, we decided to take the guided tour, which begins in the entrance hall created to resemble a grotto. Here visitors would wait to see if Mrs. Wharton was entertaining people (she famously disliked large parties; no surprise then that the Mount only has two guest rooms). If she was, the visitors were often greeted by their hostess bearing champagne. 

Side note, I was told when entering the house that I could take photos with my camera but no flash. No problem. I was shooting with my camera when I decided to take a quick shot with my phone so I could post an image on Instagram. My phone was dead. The guide noticed and said that it happens all the time, and they think it's the ghosts acting up. Later, when we stopped somewhere in town, I plugged my phone in to find it charged at 50%. Ghosts? 

Anyways, the tour continued through the rooms on the main floor, which include the Gallery where the Whartons displayed treasures from their travels; Teddy's Den; the Drawing Room, which reminded me of sitting rooms at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh; and the Dining Room where a jar with dog treats sits on the table, ready for one of Wharton's little friends.The library is also on this floor with oak panelling and shelves filled with books from Wharton's personal collection. It was a room where Wharton liked to engage in conversation with close friends like Henry James not, contrary to her publicity photos, where she wrote (she did that in her bedroom). 

A distinctly modern touch to the staircase. Photo by Michele.

The bathroom has its original tub and wallpaper. Photo by Michele.

It should be noted that when Wharton moved to France, she emptied the house of its belongings. When the Mount was restored, a select group of interior designers were invited to reinterpret a room, keeping Wharton's ideas in mind. This accounts for why the furniture is not original to the house and why there are some decidedly modern elements to be found like the leopard print carpeting on the staircases. 

Upstairs on the bedroom level is the West Guest Suite, the Henry James Suite (the room with the best view), Teddy's Suite, and Wharton's Suite, which is comprised of her bathroom,  bedroom, and boudoir (or sitting room). It was here in her bed that Wharton would write every morning, flinging each page to the floor for her secretary to collect and type up. Her boudoir next door, the most elaborate of all the rooms on this floor, acted as her office and the current furniture in the room mimics what was originally in the room including a table and chair, and chaise lounge by the window. 

It was at the Mount that the Whartons' marriage finally disintegrated. Although it was long and unpleasant, Wharton managed to write some of her best material during this time including Ethan Frome and my personal favourite, The House of Mirth. I like to think that that the house helped, giving her the space and quiet that she needed to work. 

Back down two flights to the ground floor is where you find the Kitchen, Scullery, and Laundry Room. The Whartons were good employees and made sure that their longtime cook, Mary Bagley, and staff were equipped with the latest gadgets. And speaking of staff, there were other small rooms in the house, including on the bedroom floor, where servants either did work (like sewing) or had their own bedrooms.

After finishing the tour we got a cup of much needed hot tea and sat outside on the terrace admiring the view. Such a lovely home and gardens. I can't wait to visit again, perhaps in the spring to see all the flowers in bloom. Until then, I'll just have to read some Edith Wharton.

For more information about the Mount, visit their website here.

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