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JUST BACK from a few days visiting a friend in Western Massachusetts, where I was amazed at the number of Victorian villas. The area is a catalogue of 19th century styles including Second Empire and Italianate, with details like arched, porthole, and bay windows; porches, balconies, and cupolas; and all manner of decorative molding.
Sadly, these grand dames of yesteryear are often located on now-busy roads, and they mostly look like white elephants — enormous and drafty and difficult to heat without servants to stoke the many fireplaces. Some are in sorry shape. Others, like the blue- shuttered example here, in the town of Lee, seem well-maintained.
We stopped in Lee for lunch at the Cakewalk Cafe, then checked out a couple of thrift/antique stores on the intact 19th century main street, below.
Then into nearby Lenox, where my friend had managed to dig up the one historic house in the area — of some 75 such Berkshires “cottages” — open on a mid-winter weekday: Ventfort Hall, below, a 28,000-square foot Jacobean Revival mansion with 54 rooms, designed in 1893 by the Boston architectural firm Rotch & Tilden for Sarah Morgan, sister of financier J.P., and her husband George.
Like so many unwieldy mansions of that era, it had been abandoned for some time and fallen into ruin. As recently as the 1990s, the floors were ice-covered and littered with chunks of fallen ceiling plaster. Oak wall panels were missing, and the exterior was crumbling.
Docent Marsha McDermott, above, showed us ‘before’ photos — that is, before a small group of concerned locals formed the non-profit Ventfort Hall Association and purchased the property, then raised $4million in private and public funds to restore it and open it to public view. Then she sent us off to explore, giving us carte blanche to open doors and poke around.
Being avid Downton Abbey watchers, my friend and I could well visualize the family that lived here, enjoying such amenities as indoor plumbing, electric and gas lighting, radiant heat in the basement ceiling, a burglar alarm system, internal fire hoses, copper speaking tubes in the walls, and an electric elevator. Above, the Great Hall. Newly carved American red oak panels were left unstained, below, to distinguish them from the original woodwork. Unfortunately, there are no original furnishings left in the house; they were sold off long ago.
Below, the dining room, which suffered a great deal of water damage. The Cuban mahogany ceiling was restored with new Honduran mahogany.
Below, new plasterwork recreated from molded casts of the original ceiling.
Delicate plasterwork and an onyx marble fireplace in the drawing room, below, which was used by Sarah Morgan and her daughter Caroline to entertain guests. It’s now a gift shop.
We exited onto the rear verandah, below, made of wood painted a ruddy color to match the stone facade. (If this elevation looks familiar, it’s because it was used as a set in the film The Cider House Rules.) The breeze coming off Stockbridge Bowl Lake, now obscured by trees, gave the house its name: Ventfort means “strong wind.”
Open 360 days a year, Ventfort Hall is available for weddings, receptions, dinners, parties, corporate meetings, and Victorian teas — not to mention picnicking on 12 acres of surrounding park. For more info: 413/637-3206, www.GildedAge.org
IT’S BEEN A TRADITION on Long Island’s East End for almost three decades: the East Hampton House & Garden Tour, held Thanksgiving weekend to benefit the East Hampton Historical Society — a worthy cause if ever there was one. It’s scheduled for Saturday, November 24, from 1-4:30PM, with a benefit cocktail party on the evening of Friday, November 23.
My favorite of the five houses on this year’s self-guided tour is (no surprise) the oldest: the late 18th century Stafford-Hedges House above and below, said to have a tumultuous history of scandal and rumor over the course of its 230 years. It’s a “half house,” with the front door to the extreme right of the original structure, intended later to be expanded with its mirror image. In this case, that never happened. Instead, there’s a modern addition at the back.
The other houses represent a mix of periods and styles, from an 1894 Amagansett farmhouse to a cottage described as “East Hampton meets Nantucket via Harbour Island (Bahamas),” designed by a prominent interior designer and owned by a local landscape architect, below.
There’s also a 21st century modern home in Wainscott, heavy on the glass and incorporating indoor hanging gardens, designed by East End architect Maziar Behrooz, and a newly built “Tuscan casetta” in the Northwest Woods section.
The Opening Night Cocktail Party on Friday Nov. 23 from 6-8, a fund-raiser for the Historical Society, will be held at the 1891 William E. Wheelock House on 10 manicured acres, one of East Hampton Village’s first grand shingle-style cottages.
Tickets to the Opening Night Cocktail Party start at $200, which includes entry to the tour the following day. Tickets to the House & Garden Tour are $65 in advance and $75 on the day of the tour. Ticket proceeds benefit the East Hampton Historical Society and are on sale via:
- EHHS office, 101 Main Street, Tuesday – Saturday, 10-4
- By phone at 631-324-6850
- Website: www.easthamptonhistory.org.
- Clinton Academy, 151 Main Street, Friday, November 23 and Saturday, November 24, 10-4
I COULDN’T HAVE SAID IT better myself…and that’s why I’m lifting, wholesale, a sidebar that appeared in the November 5 issue of New York Magazine to counter-balance a real estate story on brand spanking-new condos. Under the headline “Old Rules! A Contrarian’s View,” architectural conservator James Boorstein, a man after my own heart and mind, explains the enduring advantages of vintage construction. If there’s a manifesto that expresses the guiding principle behind this blog, this could be it. Bolding mine.
I’m an architectural conservator, and my firm, Traditional Line, restores interiors for museums and homes. I own most of the building I live in, which I’m guessing is from the 1860s. Tearing it down and putting up a seventeen-story building would be a financial boon, but I don’t want to live in a new building. In most new condos, the spaces are tiny, the ceiling heights are low, the materials are poor, and things are not well made. In the old days, labor was cheap and materials were expensive. Now material is cheap and labor is expensive, so things are fabricated in factories and brought in. But labor is a big part of making something right. My building has the kind of ornate plaster molding in the hall that not even a very wealthy person would typically reproduce today.
New has become synonymous with good, which means we don’t fix things anymore. A lot of old buildings have 100-year-old wooden windows that just need to be repaired. Instead, people replace them with aluminum windows that are more like appliances than part of the architecture: When they get old, you throw them out. Everything used to be built of wood, and when you get a dent in it, you scrape it out and refinish it and it’s literally as good as new. In a lot of cases, you don’t have to do anything at all. An old wood-paneled library doesn’t require any maintenance. That woodwork just sits there and looks good for years. It’s like the food in some very expensive restaurants: The attention to detail shows, and it can be a source of deep pleasure.
As told to Justin Davidson.
FOR TODAY’S CURBED HAMPTONS COLUMN, I interviewed Sally Spanburgh, local historian and author of a new book, The Southampton Cottages of Gin Lane (History Press). She’s also a blogger, and the book is an outgrowth of her 4-year-old blog about the historic architecture of Southampton (Long Island, N.Y.)
Gin Lane (aka Dune Road) is a three-mile long oceanfront strip on which 19 original cottages remain. The joke, to me, is that these so-called ‘cottages’ are actually sprawling mansions with untold square footage and numbers of bedrooms. They were built in the 1870s through 1920s, not by the “upper echelon” (they were in Newport) but by bankers, lawyers, doctors, judges, stockbrokers, and so on.
Love their evocative names: Nightbrink, Sandymount (shown in the postcard, top), Happy Go Lucky. Click here to read the whole post.
ONE DAY A COUPLE OF MONTHS BACK, a friend and I were walking on Main Street in East Hampton, N.Y., and decided to look into the Osborn Jackson House, because it was there, and because I’d never taken the time to investigate it. The village of East Hampton, settled by English people from Kent in the early 17th century, is justifiably proud of its historic houses, some of the oldest in the country.
Before we knew it, we were swept up in a detailed tour of the house — just the two of us — in the way that often happens in under-visited historic house museums. The docents are so pleased to have takers that they tell you everything there is to know, from the way the chair seats are woven to the provenance of each teacup. I busied myself taking photos and barely remember a thing the man said, except that the house is furnished not with its own original pieces, but with material appropriate for the time and place.
Our visit happened to come at a time when my columns for the Brooklyn real estate site Brownstoner were all about modern design, and there was some back-and-forth in the comments about modern vs. traditional, so I’d been giving the matter some thought. There couldn’t be decor more ‘traditional’ than the Osborn Jackson house, and if ever I thought I was a straight-up modernist, a look into this house dispelled that notion. With a couple of exceptions (e.g. wing chairs — for some reason, I can’t stand them), I think this house, and almost everything in it, is absolutely beautiful.