Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Hairbreadth Escape


About twenty years ago, during a very fluid period in my career, a girl I knew suggested we rent a mansion together in Stockbridge, Mass. Either a single or a double homicide - depending on whether or which of us escaped - would surely have ensued, so it was a lucky thing we dropped the plan. One of the places we looked at was a fantastically decrepit pile in nearby Lenox called Ventfort Hall. Where I live now didn't look a lot different than Ventfort when I moved in. However, Ventfort is about 14,000 square feet bigger.




Ventfort Hall was constructed between 1891 and 1893 for a man named George Hale Morgan and his wife, Sarah Spencer Morgan. Like FDR and Eleanor, the Morgans were distant cousins with the same last name. Nowadays we rarely think of carriage accidents as potentially fatal - I mean, how fast could they be going? However, they killed our forebears with depressing regularity. Morgan's prosperous father-in-law, Junius Spencer Morgan, died in a crash outside Monte Carlo in 1890. The accident provided his daughter Sarah with a big inheritance, and her husband with sufficient cash to build Ventfort Hall. Sarah's brother also prospered in the world; his name was J. Pierpont Morgan. Rotch & Tilden, a Boston firm responsible for five important local houses, designed George and Sarah Morgan's Lenox house in a style that might be called Gilded Age Elizabethan. This was a "look" in Lenox, a resort that came to be called the Newport of the Hills.




You think it looked bad outside? You should have seen it inside, for example the dining room. Why are we looking up in this image? Because the entire floor has collapsed. The whole house wasn't as wrecked as this, although the more intact areas were in the process of being scavenged for salvageable architectural fabric.




Here's that same room today, restored to what is very nearly its original condition. Credit for the rescue of Ventfort Hall belongs to a group of local residents called the Ventfort Hall Association. In 1994, with the backing of a few deep pocket individuals, the Association offered to buy Ventfort for $650,000. The owner was a nursing home operator whose demolition plans had been stymied by adjacent property owners. The offer was rejected. The next year, the Association offered $500,000. Still no deal. In 1996, they offered $350,000 and finally a deal took shape. If the operator would agree to suspend further interior demolition, the Association would raise the price to $400,000. The property closed in 1997, with a $250,000 loan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and $150,000 cash from friends.




Here's Ventfort in 1998, minus the Vietnamese jungle that had formerly engulfed it. What's wrong with this picture, aside from a monstrous house in severe distress? If you compare the gable in the foreground with the one on the left, you'll see that its original Flemish silhouette has been ham-handedly altered. Probably the bricks were falling off, prompting the kind of cheapjack repair that afflicts many an aristocratic old house.





This is Jeffrey Gulick, the man in charge of stone carving and decorative plaster repair at Ventfort. (Now you'll recognize him when you see him on the street). He's completing work on a brownstone finial that's destined for the uppermost part of the restored gable.



The stone itself, supplied by Portland Brownstone Quarries of Portand, CT, reportedly came from a demolished Connecticut prison. Jeff's work is done and ready for mounting.



Champlain Masonry of Pittsfield, Mass. did the installation.




Here's the finished product, good as new.





While you contemplate this vintage view of the salon at Ventfort I'll give you a precis on how the place got so run down. Morgan's wife died three years after Ventfort was finished, but he and a second wife continued to use it during the Lenox season until he died in 1911. During the First World War, Morgan heirs rented Ventfort to Margaret Vanderbilt, wife of Lusitania victim Alfred Vanderbilt, and later to Roscoe Bonsal. The Bonsals eventually bought the house in 1925 for $103,000, and twenty years later, in 1945, their heirs sold it for $22,500 to Arthur Martin. The new owner converted the mansion into a dormitory for Tanglewood students and subdivided the perimeter of the property into small building lots. Then in 1950, Bruno Aron turned Ventfort into a hotel called Festival House. The Fokine Ballet Camp came along next and continued to kick the old house around, in the manner of dormitories everywhere, until 1976. Then an outfit called The Bible Speaks inflicted yet more dormitory abuse until a spectacular bankruptcy at the end of the 1980s. Enter nursing home operator, intentional neglect, and threatened demolition.




This was the salon in 1997.








Jeff Gulick, the man who did the exterior carving, is also in charge of interior plaster restoration. Pretty amazing.




Ventfort's elaborate ceilings were falling down all over the place. This one is in the corridor to the billiard room. The darker colored original section was used as a model for reproducing missing areas. The light colored work is all new.




The glory of Ventfort's interior is its paneled double height stair hall. Before the Ventfort Hall Association was able to stop it, someone with a crowbar had evidently done extensive shopping for rails, paneling, moldings and the like.






Fine carpenter Michael Costerisan of neighboring West Stockbridge has been painstakingly replicating missing pieces which, once stained, will be indistinguishable from the original work.






Things were awful upstairs too. Here's the Blue Room, before and after restoration.




Ventfort Hall has been open to the public since 2000, but not many of its rooms are finished AND furnished. This master bedroom is an exception. Tjasa Sprague and Steve Baum took me around last weekend. Tjasa is the Association's treasurer, and the prime mover behind the whole undertaking. She decides on projects and Steve manages them. The closed door behind her goes to one of two master bathrooms.




For me, original bathrooms are among the most interesting parts of old houses. That gizmo on the wall above the tub was part of a vintage burglar alarm system.



Here's the same view today. The new marble replicates the vanished original slabs. Heaven only knows who made off with the tub. A bit of original wall covering hidden behind the alarm box provided a template for the restored walls.




The Morgans supposedly slept in the same room, even though their house had the traditional his and her master bedrooms. Here's the other one, as yet unfurnished. Only the top half of the fireplace mantle was here in 1997; the bottom half represents an educated guess of what the missing section looked like.




This is Tjasa (pronounced tee-AH-sha) and yours truly in the billiard room. Why am I wearing a hat and a down-filled bomber jacket? Because it's February and this is a 28,000 square foot house.








Whatever else befell Ventfort Hall, the stained glass remained intact.






There is no end of projects, inside and out. Here and below are more before and after views.










Since buying Ventfort in 1997, the Association has spent over $4,500,000 on restoration projects. One of the most ambitious was rebuilding a grand porch overlooking a sweeping lawn above Kemble Street.







Here's what the porch looked like during the Gilded Age, and how it looks today.





Ventfort Hall is short on furniture, only partially open, has scuffed floors, and a lot of missing pieces. For all of that - and quite aside from its value as a cultural artifact - it is a spectacular object. You just want to climb all around this place and marvel at the fact that it still exists.



This was Ventfort then...



This is Ventfort now. It's open all year long and supported entirely by donations, plus any and everything they can think of to raise money - dances, tours, concerts, lectures, dinners, mystery nights, exhibitions, theatrical presentations,etc., etc. Here's the link: www.gildedage.org

16 comments:

  1. Absolutely amazing. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. I was one of the summer 'guests' of Fokine Ballet Camp for 6 glorious years of my life.

      'Ms. Fokine and Mr. 'B' HARDLY 'kicked the old house around. You obviously didn't do any in depth research about this period. We had maids that cleaned. We were proper young ladies who wore white gloves to Tanglewood and were never permitted to 'kick the old house around'.

      Instead, we revered her beauty and charm and grace.
      Ronnie Bernard Lazarus

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  2. John, great pics of the darkest days and the rebirth. I visited in 2001 when maybe three rooms were open to the public.

    On the edge of the relatively small footprint the estate retains today there was a lovely old carriage barn with Jacobean accents. It was surrounded by thorny brush and looking as poorly as the main house did upon your first visit. Hopefully it hasn't collapsed, but I could understand it going untouched while priorities were set on the manor itself.

    The injection of some money, labor (and publicity) when Cider House Rules was shot there along with a Walgreen's ad I'm sure were welcomed events.

    Sadly the cycle of neglect by some non-for-profits being over their heads with owning a Berkshire Cottages still goes on. The former DeSisto School (2-mi away from Tanglewood on Route 183) one of the original Cottages was acquired by a speculator in a bankruptcy sale in 2009 yet has never been occupied. The 220-acre estate and 25,000sq ft 1880 mansion quite possibly will be razed from neglect.

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  3. Thank you for another great post. So interesting to read about this house. So thankful that it has been saved and restored!

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  4. A labor of love by those craftsmen to bring this beauty back to life.

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  5. Have always admired the dedication, determination and volunteer spirirt clearly evident here in the rescue of this mnansion and others across the country, like the Lockwood Mathers home in Conneticut, the Elms in Rhode Island, Carolands in California and Oheka in New York to name a few. They all had more than one appointment with the wrecking ball. A great post and a great inspiration to get yourself involved in preserving your local heritage

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  6. What a thrill to see that this amazing building was saved!

    Elizabeth

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  7. What an amazing revival! I somehow found my way to your blog and I love these old homes, grand or small! Thank you for sharing this story!
    Perhaps one day I will visit!

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  8. This is wonderful! I love to see the restoration work. It is remarkable what skilled artisans can do!

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  9. These pictures are helping me to write a historical fiction, it's so much easier to write something you can more or less see. Thank you!

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  10. Lovely views of a lovely old house coming back to life. But I want to know: why did they install a burglar alarm over the bathtub?
    jim of olym
    olympia, wa

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  11. I lived here in 1979 from 2 months old to 15 months old, altho i have no memory of it as i was to young my Mom sure does and i like looking at my first Home makes me smile. looks great by the way really beautiful, i would love to come visit one day with my Mom.

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  12. This was a great trip down memory lane. I went to Fokine Ballet camp and lived there during the summer. I remember it very clearly.

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  13. So beautiful! Thank you for sharing the photos and history!

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  14. Fantastic to see the old house. I also went to Fokine ballet camp, and although we may have abused the house, all the girls loved it and appreciated its many charms, including the wide back lawn with its graceful hill. I remember swimming in a huge puddle in the back during a heavy downpour along with 30 or so other girls!

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