The swamp maples were beginning to turn red as we headed to the Berkshires recently for a brief visit.
By Paul Hicks
The swamp maples were beginning to turn red as we headed to the Berkshires recently for a brief visit. It was off-season in that mecca of summer culture, so there were no crowds of tourists when we stopped in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for lunch at the venerable Red Lion Inn.
After a bowl of delicious clam chowder (New England style, of course), we took the scenic route to the nearby town of Lenox. Along the way we passed several of the area’s grand country homes, known locally as “cottages,” most of which were built between the 1870s and the 1920s.
One of the grandest of these Gilded Age mansions is “Naumkeag,” designed in 1885 by the firm of McKim, Mead & White for the family of Joseph H. Choate. Choate was a prominent lawyer in New York City, who served as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain from 1899 to 1905. Now operated as a nonprofit museum the house and gardens are open daily to the public from May 26 to October 15, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/Berkshires/naumkeag.html.
One of Choate’s closest friends was John E. Parsons, a native of Rye (born in 1829), whose family home is still located on the Post Road next to the Jay Heritage Center. Parsons, who was also an eminent New York attorney, maintained a city residence on Madison Avenue and had a second country home in Lenox from 1871 until his death in 1915.
Our destination for the night was “Stonover Farm,” the only Parsons family residence that remains in Lenox. (Two others have been torn down.) The farmhouse, barn, and other buildings on the 10-acre property have been creatively restored by the current owners, Tom and Suky Werman.
Since moving back east from Los Angeles some 13 years ago, the Wermans have operated the property as a first-class bed and breakfast (www.stonoverfarm.com). The hay barn is used for weddings and charitable events, while the horse stalls have been turned into gallery space. (Coincidentally, Suky spent some of her childhood years in Rye.)
Intrigued by the history of the cottages and cottagers in Lenox and environs during the Gilded Age, we first delved into a fascinating book, “Houses of the Berkshires (1870-1930)” by Richard S. Jackson Jr. and Cornelia Brooke Gilder. In addition to general background on the region, the book provides details on 37 of the houses and includes over 300 photos.
In one of their colorful descriptions of the social scene at the turn of the last century, the authors observed that, “The annual September Tub Parade, when the cottagers rolled down Lenox’s main street in carriages bedecked with flowers from their green houses, is often described as marking the end of the summer season. In truth, it marked the beginning of fall, the high season.”
Many of the cottages that are covered in the book are privately owned and not open to the public. Some, like “Naumkeag,” open later in the spring, including “The Mount,” which was the home of Edith Wharton and her husband. Both self-guided and guided tours of the house and grounds at “The Mount” are available but consult the website for more information (www.edithwharton.org).
Fortunately for us, one of the most interesting mansions, “Ventfort Hall,” is open throughout the year and is conveniently located in the center of Lenox. Built in 1893 by George Morgan and his wife Sarah (his distant cousin and sister of J.P. Morgan), the residence, which sits on 26 acres, included 15 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, and 17 fireplaces.
It was saved from demolition by the efforts of a group of local preservationists and donors as well as support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In a continuing process, the exterior and interior have been remarkably well restored, as shown by some of the photos when the restoration began. A visit to Lenox should include a tour of “Ventford Hall” (gildedage.org).
Although some of the Lenox restaurants had not yet reopened for the season, we had an excellent dinner with a friend at Alta Restaurant & Wine Bar in the heart of town. In addition to its delicious food and good service, Alta features more than 20 choices of wine by the glass, all at reasonable prices.
Perhaps the best time to visit Lenox and see the cottages is soon after Memorial Day when Naumkeag and the Mount are open, the gardens are in bloom, and the crowds have not yet arrived. If you think that hedge fund moguls who live in backcountry Greenwich invented the mega-mansion, just wait until you have seen some Berkshire cottages.