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Wharton's Mount is returning to form

Email|Print| Text size + By Sacha Pfeiffer
Globe Staff / December 26, 2007

LENOX - By 1997, the palatial estate built nearly a century earlier in this upscale country town by wealthy novelist Edith Wharton had fallen into disrepair.

The terrace that encircled the 25-room European-style house was on the verge of collapse. Chunks of stucco had broken off the exterior. The windows were riddled with rot.

"The building was in very sad shape," said Stephanie Copeland, president of Edith Wharton Restoration, a nonprofit group formed to rescue the 48-acre property from disintegration. "It was clear that we were either going to restore it or we were going to lose it."

Intent on returning the home, called The Mount, to its original grandeur, the group launched an ambitious and costly renovation project. Preserving the building was important, it believed, because although Wharton is best known for her more than 40 books, she was also an accomplished interior designer and gardener - and the Mount's handsome decor and elaborate landscaping were a testament to that.

Wharton's most famous works include "The House of Mirth" and "The Age of Innocence," which won her a Pulitzer Prize. But her first book was "The Decoration of Houses," an 1897 guide to interior design. In it, she expounded on her belief that a home should embody the principles of proportion, harmony, simplicity, and suitability. Seven years later, influenced by her frequent European travels, she published "Italian Villas and Their Gardens," in which she wrote that gardens should be divided into rooms and should blend into the natural landscape.

"Wharton was not only one of our greatest writers, she was also a major contributor to the field of interior design, architecture, and landscape gardening," Copeland said. "This is an area that's very unappreciated about her."

The Mount became Wharton's design laboratory, a place where she could put her theories into practice. Her 16,000-square-foot house, for example, was built on a hillside to take advantage of its sweeping views of the Berkshire Hills and nearby Laurel Lake. Its main rooms overlooked three acres of formal gardens, which incorporated grass terraces, stone walls, and a crushed marble walk, reflecting English, French, and Italian styles.

And its entrance hall had double glass doors that kept visitors out of the main house unless Wharton was home to welcome them. "While the main purpose of a door is to admit," she wrote in "The Decoration of Houses," "its secondary purpose is to exclude."

Wharton's property also included a two-story stable, a gatehouse, and a greenhouse with an attached potting shed. Inside the house were a gallery where she displayed art and furniture acquired during her travels, a drawing room with ornamental plaster ceiling, a 2,600-book library, a servant wing, and an attic containing eight servants' bedrooms.

As Copeland likes to say, "The Mount is the Monticello of Massachusetts," a reference to Thomas Jefferson's preserved plantation in Virginia. In other words, just as Monticello is a monument to Jefferson's contributions to American architecture and gardens, Wharton's home is a monument to hers.

Thanks to the efforts of Edith Wharton Restoration, much of the property now looks the way it did when Wharton lived there with her husband, Teddy, and their beloved dogs. The gardens have had a $5 million makeover, during which their original footprint was replicated using historical photographs. The house also has a new roof, cupola, stucco siding, windows, shutters, terrace, and stone foundation. Inside the main house, the principal public rooms, as well as Wharton's bedroom suite, have been restored.

Meticulous efforts have been made to match the look of the house from more than a century ago. By having an analyst study the multiple layers of paint on Wharton's sitting room walls, an original color palette was recreated. Her bedroom required an even more arduous process. It had been decorated with a textured wallpaper that is no longer manufactured, so a Canadian company that makes custom paper was hired to create a facsimile, which it did using colored rags.

The nonprofit restoration group was established in 1980 but didn't start renovation on the property, which went through a series of owners after it was sold in 1911, until 1997. That's because the house had a tenant - Shakespeare & Company, a theater group that moved in during 1978 and left in 2001 - whose presence caused work to be delayed.

The total cost of renovation to what is now a National Historic Landmark is expected to reach at least $30 million, and a $10 million endowment will be needed to cover maintenance and upkeep, according to Copeland. About $14 million has been spent on the project so far, she said. Money has come from private donations and state and federal grants.

"Visiting The Mount is an educational experience," Copeland said, "because not only do you hear about Wharton's theories of design, you actually see the house she built and the gardens she made based on those theories."

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

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