Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Luxury Finds a Life Raft

The graveyards of the world, we are told, are filled with indispensable men. You've never heard of Morris K. Jesup (1830-1908), I'll bet, but he led a large life that brimmed with good deeds. In fact, his "curriculum good-deedae" is so weighty, it would be the foolish writer who tried to list everything in one place. Ergo, I will distribute references to his innumerable philanthropies, using as mnemonic devices the various architecture facets of his Lenox, MA country house, called Belvoir Terrace.

Let's start with the gate, located a quarter of a mile up Main Street from the middle of Lenox village. The intended approach to the estate, as is the case with many a fine old country place, has been closed off in favor of a more conveniently situated - and easier to maintain - service drive nearer the house. This is a pity, since today's visitors are denied enjoyment of a dramatically contrived descent through deep forest that leads to a manicured clearing before the manse itself. The Olmsteds drew original site plans, then fell out with the owner, who gave the job to the almost as famous Ernest Bowditch.

The property covers 30 acres, but seems much larger since gate and house are about as far apart from one another as you can get and still stay on the same property. While we're in the woods, let me mention Jesup's assiduous advocacy of a state protected Adirondack Wilderness, this at a time when most Americans were intent on slashing and burning as much of that wilderness as possible.

To arrive at Belvoir via main gate and original drive is to emerge in sudden sunlight before a sort of magical Black Forest palace. Out of sight on the other side of the house is a vast sloping lawn beyond which, despite the growth of the trees, is a big view of the mountains. Actually, the intersection of Cliffwood Street and Yokun Avenue is hiding on the other side of those trees, but if no one told you you wouldn't notice. The effect is one of gazing out upon a wilderness.

The plans for Belvoir were completed in 1888 by the Boston firm of Rotch and Tilden, and the house was completed in 1891. Boston based R & T, which had a big regional practice, did four houses at Lenox, including Ventfort Hall, visited by Big Old Houses in February of 2012. Arthur Rotch's design for Mr. Jesup, and for the owners of Ventfort for that matter, speaks eloquently to a late Victorian aesthetic anchored firmly in the innovative - if occasionally incoherent - 1880s. Rotch was a great one for quirky details, unexpected corners, fireplace "nooks," involved woodwork, short stairs, half levels, and floor plans that went on and on ...and on.

Jesup, a self-made millionaire who organized his own bank at the age of 26, was by age 54 so awash in millions that he decided to retire. Still relatively youthful - by my standards, anyway - he became the prototypical man who "makes it in order to give it away." Well, he didn't give it all away. Belvoir, seen below just after completion, was commissioned at about the same time he retired. What I notice most, aside from Rotch's profusion of pointy towers, is that overscaled eyebrow window, which reminds me of nothing so much as Jabba the Hutt. I think it's intended to compliment the odd louvres on the other side of the roof.

Jesup died in 1908 and his widow in 1914. In the 'Twenties a Florida speculator named Howard Cole breezed through Lenox snapping up devalued white elephants, of which Lenox had a superabundance, including Belvoir. After failing to turn it into a club, Cole sold it in 1929 to a Boston department store heir and radio pioneer named John Shepard who restored it to private residential use. At around this time, the house caught fire, not fatally but sufficient to require substantial repairs. This may have been an excuse for some not absolutely necessary additional alterations. The most obvious of these are the outermost of the pointy towers, which have been turned to stone and topped with battlemented crowns. My eyebrow window has vamoosed as well, in its place an overfed and balconied dormer flanked by a pair of smaller inset dormers. Ralph Adams Cram, a notable graduate of Rotch and Tilden's Boston office, is credited with the alterations.

Here's the house today, quite recognizable even if time has rubbed away a bit of its architectural detail - and all of its wonderful ivy. The pool, by the way, is an antique that dates from the Shepard alteration.

Belvoir's entry facade, seen below "then and now," is an original composition if ever there was one. The afore-mentioned roof louvres over the front door are windows that let light onto a third floor hall. I can't say I approve of the modern three-bay dormer that squats atop the left side tower.

Let's step inside to what Mr. Rotch would have called the "living hall," separated from the front door by a short but very broad flight of stairs. This architectural conceit, so popular in the 1880s, harked back (improbably) to the great medieval halls of Europe. As the lifestyle of America's plutocracy grew in sophistication, the living hall's too public spaces fell out of favor. This one has a charming gothic accent, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the exterior elevations. The architect's intention was visual variety, however, not design consistency.

The hall is flanked by a pair of asymmetrical alcoves. The one below is on the north, outside the drawing room. Typical of the era and the architect, it is beautifully detailed in a style which soon fell out of fashion with a serious thud.

The vintage view below looks across the hall to the south alcove, located outside the dining room. A diminutive curved stairway behind a columned screen leads to an organ loft tucked behind faux pipes. The loft was closed eons ago and the organist's stairway replaced by an elevator to the master bedroom suite. My hostess, Nancy, is taking particular care on those railless steps. The folding door to the elevator is visible beside the alcove's picturesque - if entirely superfluous - fireplace.

Belvoir has been a summer arts and performance camp for girls for almost sixty years. The original dining room was, of course, way too small for 170 campers and 90 in staff. A window on the south wall became a door to a large dining hall addition which, fortunately, neither seriously damages nor unduly intrudes upon the original house.

For reasons unknown (to me, anyway), the swing door to the serving pantry has been cut in half. The cabinets beyond it survive and the kitchen, although re-outfitted for industrial scale feeding, still occupies its original footprint. The windows in the servant hall formerly overlooked an exterior kitchen courtyard, but open today into the dining hall.

Let's return to the pantry, skip the bifurcated swing door, climb five steps to the main entry landing, descend fives steps to the hall, turn right, take the door beside the north alcove fireplace, and have a look at the drawing room.

Again typical of many big houses - especially ones whose owners didn't read very much - Belvoir's drawing room and library were combined into one big room. Whatever else he read, Morris Jesup certainly read the bible. Besides being a founder and president of the YMCA, he organized the United States Christian Commission (a Civil War soldiers' aid society) and was president of the New York City Mission and Tract Society. Happily, all his philanthropies weren't about Jesus. Jesup supported a refuge for slum bound immigrants called the Five Points (formerly New York's most hideous slum) House of Industry, the Womens' Hospital, the Tuskegee Institute, the Fund for Educational Freedmen...and I think that's enough for now.

The "now and then" images below illustrate the same corner of the drawing room. The billiard room is through the open door.

If you've been to Shelburne Farms in Vermont, designed around the same time as Belvoir by Robert H, Robertson for Dr. William Seward Webb and his Vanderbilt wife, you've seen a grander version of this room, or, more correctly, what this room used to look like. Shelburne's library is also adjacent to a living hall and also does double duty as a drawing room. The difference is the survival of the original forest green palette on the walls. This wonderful color speaks to the dark and romantic forests that lie beyond the rolling lawns of a country house. Too often, the color is misunderstood as simply being "dark" and painted white. Big mistake.

When Nancy's mother bought the house in 1953, the owner offered to toss in all the furniture for another $100. Nancy's father thought it was junk and said no. A few pieces stuck to the house anyway, including these former dining room chairs, about which Nancy is having some deep thoughts.

One of the turrets that was turned to stone in 1929 is to the left of the drawing room fireplace. It serves as a sort of anteroom to the charming flower room.

Here's John Shepard Jr., the renovator of Belvoir Terrace. It is a topic for another day, but being simply rich and dapper wasn't good enough for Lenox in the snooty 1930s. The flower and billiard room addition is often attributed to Shepard's renovation. According to an 1896 article in the "Pittsfield Sun," however, Jesup eliminated it from Rotch's original plan, only to add it a few years after the house was built. Shepard's alteration may have given the flower room its whimsical and vaguely Art Moderne look. The billiard room, by contrast, has the heavy look of the 'Nineties.

Belvoir's bathrooms haven't fared very well, an exception being this ornate powder room hidden behind a panel in the billiard room.

Let's leave the billiard room, cross the drawing room and pause in a foyer at the foot of the main stair. Underneath the stair is a powder room whose interesting wall tiles (not the floor tiles; they're new) were part of the post-fire renovations.

Mrs. Jesup's bedroom, which sits on top of the drawing room, is filled with campers every summer. I hope they appreciate the view. Her fireplace is an appealing, if stylistically baffling, pastiche. The Shepard-renovated bath kept its Victorian sink; the shower is part of a later - and not very gentle - conversion to institutional use.

The faux linenfold door in the image below leads to a bathroom located between the Jesups' respective bedrooms. Very little of its original finish remains. A number of Belvoir's bathrooms have pianos. (It is a very musical place).

Besides Mr. Jesup's room, seen below, are 4 other second floor bedrooms. The Jesups had no children, so I suppose they filled them with guests. He may have had none of his own, but at approximately the same time he built his Lenox country place he also built a Lodging House in New York for the homeless children of others. There seems no better time to mention it, so let me add that Jesup was president of the American Museum of Natural History, and a fervent supporter of Robert Peary's assaults on the North Pole. In fact, the most northerly point in Greenland is called Cape Morris K. Jesup.

Mr. Jesup's closet sits on top of the old organ loft. The steps were wider before installation of the elevator.

Across the hall, a pair of smaller bedrooms with a Shepard-era bath between them overlooks the drive.

The grandest guestroom, situated atop the dining room, is another 1880s period piece. There is no way to describe the fireplace mantle, other than to note that it's true to the period. I love the bathroom, up its own little flight of stairs. It too sits atop the organ loft. In lieu of architectural symmetry, there's space and charm, and more phoney linenfold doors. What could be finer?

At the south end of the second floor, located above the kitchen, is a guestroom with a French provincial touch.

A typical back stair connects the kitchen to third floor service corridor. The latter, lit at one point by those odd looking louvres, is lined with mystifyingly large and comfortable servants' rooms. Even the bathrooms for the help, despite their modern institutional disguises, were clearly a couple of cuts above average.

Having progressed to the family landing, we'll take that stairway down. Lenox property values were slipping in the 'Twenties, but by the 'Fifties they had tanked. In 1953 for $30,000 the Shepard estate sold Belvoir on 30 acres to Mrs. Edna Schwartz, a former professional ballerina. One of Mrs. Schwartz's daughters was also a ballerina, and as there were no girls' dance or arts camps in this part of the world back then, she decided to start one at Belvoir. Fifty-nine years later, her daughter Nancy Schwartz Goldberg is again opening Belvoir for 170 3rd to 11th grade girls who will spend the summer of 2013 studying art, dance, music and theatre, interspersed with a lot of sports and special events. As for Belvoir itself, Nancy spends about $150,000 a year keeping it up. It wouldn't take much to convert the arts camp back to a private house which, in my book, is high praise. The link is


  1. An amazing house (the term 'quirky' comes to mind!)
    and another amazing post.

    James Morgan
    Olympia WA
    where there not many big old houses, a shame...

  2. John, after gleefully discovering your website a few months ago, I'm steadily working my way through the archives - truly a treat for a big old house lover. When I lived on Long Island, my girlfriends and I would spend hours trawling the North Shore's hidden lanes. Coming from New Zealand, where we have virtually nil big old houses, it's SO good to get my fix here - especially such thoughtful, well written, passionate posts: thank you!

  3. I love your approach and especially appreciate your interest in the 'below stairs' portions of houses.

    I've loved exploring old houses and buildings big and small since I was about 10, and I never feel that I've really seen a building unless I see the non-public parts.

    These less self-conscious utilitarian spaces are very revealing of the construction techniques, technology and typical design and finishes of the day. In grand houses, these spaces may be simple in comparison to the public/family spaces, but may still be beautiful (and sometimes even more tasteful!.

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