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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

Thomas Moran Studio in 2008

EAST HAMPTON’S MAIN STREET, formally laid out in 1648, is a) very pretty tree-lined boulevard with a pond full of the requisite swans, and b) a trove of historic sites. I admit to not having fully explored it yet. Some, like Mulford Farm and ‘Home Sweet Home,’ two of this country’s earliest examples of English colonial architecture, I ran to right away when I first bought a house here almost three years ago. Others I’m just finding out about.

Shoring-up efforts

Recently on NPR I heard a guest talking about the restoration of the Thomas and Mary Moran home and studio at 229 Main Street. Thomas (1837-1926) is known primarily as a painter of the American West in the Hudson River School style (his paintings of Yellowstone have hung in the White House and Capitol Building); his wife Mary Nimmo Moran (1842-1899) was an etcher and landscape painter. Turns out their 1884 cedar-shingled, Queen Anne-style home and studio — which I’d never really noticed, so overgrown is the property — across from the town pond and cemetery in which both are buried, was the first artists’ studio in East Hampton.

Thomas Moran, “Easthampton, Long Island”

It’s been a National Historic Landmark since 1965, but that hasn’t prevented it from succumbing to the ravages of time. It’s been unoccupied for the past eight years and some sections, on the verge of collapse, have been shored up, but much more work is needed.

Thomas Moran’s ink drawing of studio interior

Restoration and fund-raising efforts are ongoing. A fund-raiser in Manhattan — a one-night exhibition of the couples’ artwork at the Babcock Galleries, 724 Fifth Avenue — is scheduled for Tuesday, March 6. Tickets are $100. For more info, go here.

Hard to believe that in a province as wealthy as East Hampton, no government money or private benefactor has come forth in a big way, and that it must be such an uphill battle.

Etching by Mary Nimmo Moran

ONE OF THE PERKS of writing for shelter magazines is getting inside a lot of interesting houses. For the holiday issue of Hamptons Cottages & Gardens magazine, I got a look at the interior of one of East Hampton’s venerable Main Street houses, built around the time of the Revolution.

Its longtime owners removed a later Victorian front porch (for which they were find $5,000 by the Town and considered it a fair deal), restored its wavy glass windows and wood-paneled walls, and furnished it largely with period-appropriate antiques.

You can find the whole article right here.

Photos: Tria Giovan

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HERE’S A FRESH HOT LISTING FOR YOU — it just came on the market two days ago. It’s a classic, cedar-shingled 1920s house with a farmhouse-style front porch, 4 bedrooms, wood floors throughout, and some interior details.  

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The house is in Greenport on Long Island’s North Fork, a great little town with a Main Street full of mom & pop stores, a vintage carousel, ice cream parlors, an Art Deco movie theater, antique shops to explore, and a few good restaurants — but Greenport’s main appeal, IMO, is that it’s made up almost exclusively of older homes.

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This one seems to have a lot to recommend it, including an attractive garden and a location a block from the Peconic Bay.

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On the minus side, it looks like the taxes are high and the lot is small (7,000 square feet). Still, if you’re in the market, it’s worth a look. For more info and pictures, click right here.

152 Bay Avenue, Greenport, Long Island

152 Bay Avenue, Greenport, Long Island

OK, it’s the oldest real-estate cliche in the book, but this house is a gem. A Greek Revival built in 1810 by David Kendrick, a ship’s carpenter, on Long Island’s North Fork, it oozes authenticity, history and charm. It’s the real deal.

Just reduced from 459K to 399K, it’s an estate sale; proceeds will go to Cancer Care.

Picture it in summer

Picture it in summer

Its last owner, Hope Dewar Hendler, was a chic and feisty lady who worked in fashion and millinery for decades.  She continued to take the jitney from Manhattan out to her beloved Greenport cottage until shortly before she died last December at 92.

PROS: Harmonious ‘golden rectangle’ architecture (the main space is most

Picture it de-cluttered

Picture it de-cluttered

UNclaustrophobic, about 600 square feet with windows on three sides); formal lawn and garden with boxwood hedge, side pergola over a brick patio;  tiny country kitchen; original floor, doors, and windows. Wonderful location 1/2 block off Greenport’s attractive Main Street; 1/2 block to the harbor.

CONS: Only one small bedroom downstairs, 1 dated bath.  Tiny country kitchen (yes, that’s also a pro because it’s charming as hell, but small — no reason it couldn’t be expanded, however). House needs painting inside and out.

Picture it de-toiled

Picture it de-toiled

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There’s also an unfinished but clean attic reached by a narrow twisting stair.  Kids might enjoy sleeping up there; adults will hit their heads on the rafters.

For more info: Suzanne Hahn, Brown Harris Stevens, shahn@bhsnorthfork.com

Please note: I am NOT a real estate broker, nor do I have any financial interest in the sale of any property mentioned on this blog.  I just like spreading the word about unique, historic properties and what I believe are solid investment opportunities.

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