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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Below, the dining room, which suffered a great deal of water damage. The Cuban mahogany ceiling was restored with new Honduran mahogany.

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Below, new plasterwork recreated from molded casts of the original ceiling.

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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.

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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.”

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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

H10985AN ITEM ON CURBED HAMPTONS, the real estate gossip site that is the Brownstoner of the East End, caught my attention this week: a 4BR, 4 bath Amagansett house on 3/4 acre, newly on the market for $2.2 million. It looks attractive enough, with its French doors and patio, but it would not have drawn my scrutiny if the address hadn’t sounded familiar: 1 Cranberry Hole Road, near the intersection of the new and old Montauk Highways — rather too close to the intersection if you ask me <sniff>, but set well back from the road.

I remember well the long driveway, because I went to a yard sale there when I first bought my house a few miles away in ’09. Back then, the house looked like this:

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The interior was dark and dreary, and I recall stressed but kind people dealing with overflowing boxes of videotapes and other junk, who gave me a rusted wrought iron bench which now sits on my front deck. I offered a few bucks, but they insisted on giving it to me, so eager were they to get rid of things. That’s why I remember the house at all.

At the time, I most definitely did not think, “Ooh, I’d love to buy this place, fix it up, and flip it for 2 million dollars!” But Katie Brown did, and did, paying $500,000 for it in March 2010, banging out a reno in a mere 15 months, and putting it right back on the market. That’s why she’s Katie Brown.

Katie Brown is a “lifestyle expert” and TV personality, a smaller-scale Martha Stewart, with long-running cooking and decorating shows that have been on Lifetime, A&E, and PBS (I’ve never seen them — as with Oprah, I know her career only through print media), several books, and a line of bedding and bath linen for Meijer, a chain of Midwest department stores. With her husband, William Corbin, a digital media exec, she’s renovated several houses on the cheap and a shade too trendily, including a Brooklyn brownstone, which I’m guessing is their primary residence; a Berkshires cabin that was written up in The New York Times; and another couple of places in the Hamptons which have been covered in sadly now-defunct decorating magazines.

Whether they originally bought the Amagansett house as a flipper is unclear. I’m guessing that was always the intention. In Katie’s own blog from the early spring of 2010, she called it a “weekend retreat” — but apparently not for her own family.

This is how I remember the house looking from the yard sale (these pictures are from Katie’s blog, with temporary furnishings– you can now see the dining table and chairs outdoors on the patio in the current real estate listing):

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Here’s what Katie saw in the c.1980 ugly duckling: “Although its grey exterior might appear to be a little drab, I think its what lies inside that matters most. Decades of history embedded in dated wallpaper, beautiful wood paneling in the main living room, sliding doors galore, and a backyard that looks like extends to the depths of eastern Long Island. As the weeks progress I plan on remodeling the entire house, and transforming this place into a summer retreat.”

This is the newly whitewashed, vastly improved main living space as styled for sale:

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The enterprising couple hit all the Hamptons real-estate tropes with their reno.

Set down a long private driveway…a chef’s gourmet kitchen with serious appliances…open living room, beamed ceilings with a fireplace… surrounded by French doors… garden courtyard…charming outbuildings, one an art studio…heated gunite pool… lush lawn….

Well, really, what could be bad, when you put it that way?

Former master bedroom, below

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New master

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Kitchen before

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Kitchen after. I just have to go on record saying I don’t like the kitchen at all. Shiny black tiles combined with rustic wood? No! And the placement of the refrigerator looks plain wrong.

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New dining room, below. I recognize the farmhouse table and graphic poster from another house.

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New bath

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Do I sound a little sour grapes? I don’t mean to. I’m full of admiration for clever, energetic, talented people who don’t give a damn about the received wisdom that ‘it’s not a good time’ in the real estate market, and hope they make a tidy sum.

What’s a Hamptons house without a pergola?

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I just wonder whether they know anymore: What is real life and what is staging?

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THIS MORNING, A FRIEND AND I were shooting the breeze about real estate and investment opportunities. I was saying I needed a new project. She, who has a wonderful Greek Revival town house in Chatham, N.Y. (Columbia County), mentioned a similar c.1800 house in Great Barrington, Mass., that she was aware of because one of her brothers became obsessed with it, briefly.

Online we went. I love the Neo-classical temple-like silhouette of the building — a harmonious square footprint with a pediment — and was stunned by the price, which has just been lowered to 199K (not its first reduction) after two years on the market. (I’m used to the Hamptons, remember.) The house, which is on almost 5 acres and was in a single family for a century, according to the listing, requires enough work to have so far discouraged all prospective buyers.

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Some of that is evident from the pictures on the listing agent’s site. It’s anyone’s guess what’s behind the tacky paneling and above the dropped ceilings.

There is an original fireplace, and the wing off the main house has a separate staircase leading to a room upstairs. There’s 500 feet of frontage along a two-lane road, the property is sub-dividable, and taxes are under $5,000/year.

Worth a look for an old-house fan in search of a place in the desirable Berkshire Mountains near Tanglewood, Lenox, and all the rest (and where, incidentally, the summer rental market is strong) — or maybe, like me, in search of a project.

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IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN: time for city dwellers to think about renting a country place for all or part of the summer. If a totally charming 2BR, 1 bath village house in Columbia County works for you, take a look at this one. It’s owned by good friends of mine, but that’s not why I’ve given it the casaCARA seal of approval.

It’s a renovated 1830s Greek Revival in Chatham, N.Y., half an hour from Tanglewood and the Berkshires. Comfortably and attractively furnished with mostly modern furniture, there’s a big eat-in kitchen and a glassed-in sun room at the back.

At just $1,000 for the month of June, $1,200 for July, and $1,200 for August, it’s an inexpensive getaway for sure. In fact, I’d consider renting it myself if I was the sort of person able to make plans more than 2 weeks in advance.

For more info, e-mail franeheller@gmail.com.

“EVER WONDER why our Yankee forebears seem to have been incapable of designing a bad house?” asks Rural Intelligence, a year-old culture website that is like a New York Times Styles section for the Hudson Valley and Berkshires.

It’s a point that will be abundantly illustrated this Sunday, June 14th, when the town of  Canaan, N.Y., in northern Columbia County, launches its 250th birthday celebration with an historic house tour featuring eleven houses dating from the 1780s to the mid-1800s, some open to the public for the first time ever.

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Isn't this missing some columns?

Upstate farmers may have built some fine vernacular dwellings in the late 18th century, but they went on to do some pretty strange remodels in the 19th (above). Many of the houses on the tour started as humble homesteads, usually two rooms up, two rooms down, with a central stairwell. As their owners prospered, they would either build a larger house adjacent to the smaller one, or remodel the existing house, often in the Greek Revival style.

Sometimes it is hard to discern the “hidden homestead,” but at Turning Leaf and in the Daniel Warner and Jason Warner houses, the original residence is a clearly defined 1790s wing at the back of the 1814 and 1830 main houses.

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Daniel Warner House: a gem

The Daniel Warner house has halved logs supporting the second-floor floorboards of the older sections; the Jason Warner house has trimmed and incised beams in the older part of the house, meant to be seen and therefore decorated – an unusually fancy finish for an 18th century farmhouse.

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Bradley House: spiffy eyebrow Colonial

The Canaan 250 House Tour runs from 1-5PM, Sunday, June 14; tickets ($20) and maps  available at Canaan Town Hall, County Rt. 5, just south of State Rt. 295, starting at 10AM.

"The Shanty": Dutch influence in its shape

"The Shanty": Dutch roofline, Victorian porch


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