Saving the Mount

The Berkshires home of Edith Wharton testifies to her time and taste, but $3 million must be raised soon or it may become a historic footnote.

I was first drawn to Edith Wharton as a graduate student at New York University in the seventies. Her novels, like The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, dramatize the conflicts that many contemporary women were experiencing—such as how to be fully oneself in a society that called for them to play traditional roles. Wharton’s own conflict was her struggle to become a writer when her mother expected her to be an attractive socialite. My mother’s family came from the same Old New York society background. We even had cousins in common, so my study of the novelist was not just a literary exercise but also an important identity quest. As for Wharton’s identity, I knew that The Mount, her house in the Berkshires, was where she had established her own world, away from the frivolous milieu of nearby Newport, Rhode Island, and the rigid environment of her family’s Manhattan home.

In 1901 Edith Wharton bought 113 acres of woods, farmland, and wetlands in Lenox, Massachusetts, and erected a 35-room house—inspired by an English country home, with rooms in the classical European style—that would reflect the ideas she’d discussed in her book The Decoration of Houses. Wharton spent nine years writing successfully at The Mount. There she penned her first best-selling novel, The House of Mirth (published in 1905), and went on to produce a book every year. But her time at The Mount was cut short. By 1911 her marriage to Teddy Wharton was breaking up as he sunk into a manic-depressive state and embezzled money from her trust fund. Wharton had been spending winters in Paris since 1907 and thought the house was too expensive to maintain from afar. In 1911 she gave up America altogether, finding in Europe a more congenial atmosphere for the intellectual woman.

Wharton hadn’t lived at The Mount for more than six decades when I went looking for it. It was nameless and not on any map. In 1975 I went into a Lenox shop holding a photo of it. “Oh yes,” someone said, “that is part of Foxhollow School.” The house had been used as a dormitory for a girls’ boarding school. My husband and I followed directions to Plunkett Street and drove down the charming driveway, bordered by sugar maples and lined with myrtle and ferns, to discover a large house badly in need of repainting. The lovely façade was covered with fire escapes that had rusted onto the white stucco. Could this be the “monument to the almost too impeccable taste of its so accomplished mistress” that Henry James had once praised?

We entered The Mount and were greeted by curlers on the floor of the foyer. Leaks stained the walls. We found just one relic from Wharton’s time: In the back hall was a box that registered the bells used to ring servants, and it still listed “Mr. Wharton’s bedroom” and “Mrs. Wharton’s boudoir” among the rooms to which its arrow would point.

Throughout the eighties I grew even more interested in Edith Wharton’s work. I presented papers on Wharton and her architecture at conferences at the Cooper-Hewitt museum in New York and Radcliffe College. In 1987 I was one of the organizers of the first Edith Wharton Society conference, held at The Mount. My role was to invite scholars who, along with the members of the society, would deliver papers bringing The Mount out of obscurity and showcasing current Wharton studies.

In 1991 I joined a New York advisory committee to The Mount. One year later I was asked to join the board of the Edith Wharton Restoration, the organization that maintains the house. I had almost finished my book Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life. There had been large money problems and the place was still shabby. In 1980 the National Trust for Historic Preservation purchased The Mount, then resold it to a group of history-minded enthusiasts led by Lila Berle. Around the same time the acting troupe Shakespeare & Company moved in as tenants. The Mount’s executive director, Tom Hayes, tried to maintain a workable coexistence between Edith Wharton Restoration and Shakespeare & Company. Many of the troupe’s plays were dramatizations of Wharton’s short stories, which kept her spirit alive, but resentments flourished. How could we restore the house to Wharton perfection with actors living there and using the drawing room for a stage? After much publicity about our disagreements, Shakespeare moved out, in 2001.

By that time I was off the board, where I’d been involved in organizing fund-raisers, such as the one in New York in which well-known actresses read Edith Wharton stories. I instead became more involved with the Garden Restoration Committee.

Wharton was emotionally connected to her garden. My research had dealt with the books she had written on Italian gardens. I visited almost every one of them and came to understand her sense of place. While she was contemplating her move to the Berkshires in the early 1900s, she confessed: “I’m in love with the place—climate, scenery, life and all—and when I have built a villa on one of the estates that I have picked out, and have planted my gardens and laid out my paths through my bosco, I doubt if I ever leave.”

The gardens at The Mount had long been neglected; the little rounded evergreens that once accented her flower beds had grown into an impenetrable jungle of towering trees. At Yale, where Wharton’s papers are kept, I found boxes and boxes of her plant lists. I also found correspondence noting that she had white petunias around her fountain and ten varieties of phlox in the flower beds. By 2002, after a careful study of photographs, letters, and her lists, we had restored the terraces, the arborvitae hedges, and the lime walk of linden trees joining the two sunken gardens. By 2005 we had re-created the early-20th-century Gertrude Jekyll–style flower garden. Finally, the landscape was completely reconfigured. I was amazed. I thought I knew Edith Wharton well, but I discovered yet another side of her upon seeing the way she’d conceived the gardens with such grandeur.

Today The Mount and its grounds look wonderful. Wharton’s drawing room, library, dining room, and Teddy’s den were renovated in 2002.

However, the enormous maintenance needs following the restoration have greatly raised the costs of operating The Mount. The library now holds most of Wharton’s 43 books as well as the 2,600 volumes she had owned, which had to be repurchased from a book dealer in England for $2.6 million. This put us in debt for almost $9 million. Today we need to raise $3 million to pay for the books and the mounting operating costs. If we can do that, an anonymous donor will match the amount.

When, in July of 1998, Hillary Clinton visited The Mount, she emphasized that it was a symbol of “what a woman could do on her own” and that preserving such American landmarks was “honoring the past and imagining the future.” Wharton herself believed in visiting houses with literary histories. In search of George Sand’s in the French village of Nohant, she noted that the windows led “straight into the life of George Sand.” On such trips Wharton liked “especially to fancy” the friends and moments of a writer’s life. Inspired, she illustrated her characters through the places they lived. Just as Lily Bart, Wharton’s heroine in The House of Mirth, is defined by not having a house and Mrs. Manson Mingott in The Age of Innocence is characterized by her building a French-style mansion near Central Park, Wharton’s own tale continues to be told through The Mount, a must-see destination for literary enthusiasts in search of Wharton’s, and our country’s, intellectual past.

Eleanor Dwight is the author of The Gilded Age: Edith Wharton and Her Contemporaries (Universe Publishing) and Edith Wharton: an Extraordinary Life (harry N. Abrams).

On the Preservation of a Historic House

The Mission

To preserve and restore The Mount as a tribute to Edith Wharton.

The Challenge

Having raised $1 million of the $3 million needed as of June when this piece was written, the Edith Wharton Restoration, which runs The Mount, hopes to raise more funds through Wharton scholars and fans. Support has come from Europe, too, where the author was awarded the title of chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1916 for her refugee work during World War I. After an anonymous supporter matches the sum raised, the total of $6 million will pay a portion of the debt owed to various creditors, including $4.5 million to the Berkshire Bank. After this the financial situation will be far more manageable.

Fund-raising

The Mount’s board of trustees has created a series of presentations to raise awareness of the historical importance of The Mount and its financial difficulties. These by-invitation-only presentations are given by trustee and financial restructuring specialist Gordon Travers in major cities such as D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York.

Allies

First lady Laura Bush, honorary chair of the Save America’s Treasures program, with President Bush gave the Preserve America Presidential Award to The Mount in 2005, followed by a visit in 2006. Other key allies include Jill Ker Conway, writer and former president of Smith College, and Michael Eisner, former head of Walt Disney. Many members of the Edith Wharton Society, a worldwide group of scholars and academics, have also greatly contributed to the effort.

At the Mount

To offer people a true sense of being a guest in Wharton’s home, The Mount has taken down all velvet ropes with the exception of the library’s. The Terrace Café—on the main terrace, where readings take place on Wednesdays—is now open for lunch and dinner. There are a number of projects in the works, some with academic institutions around the country, that are on hold until The Mount can secure its financial future. One-on-one tours of the original 2,600-volume library are available upon request, and the house can be booked for private events.

Contact

The Mount is open to visitors from the beginning of May through the end of October. The fully restored garden, designed by Wharton, is in bloom from late June to mid-August. Most years monarch butterflies appear by the thousands in late August. Readers interested in becoming involved in saving The Mount should contact director Susan Wissler at 413-551-5103 or swissler@edithwharton.org. —Elettra Fiumi