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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
HERE’S A NEW YEAR’S GOODIE. Yep, with the turn of the calendar, it’s time to start thinking about…summer houses! The listing says this sweet and unpretentious 3BR, 2 bath (bigger than it looks at from the outside) dates from 1847, and that seems about right. The symmetry, porch columns, pilasters on either side of the front door and six-over-six windows, all say Greek Revival to me. At the same time, the front porch and picket fence say farmhouse (they’re not mutually exclusive). It’s in the village of Greenport,on Long Island’s North Fork, where nearly all the houses are of similar vintage (see more of Greenport’s architectural charms here).
The price has just been reduced by 30K. The still-upwards-of-400K ask reflects the tip-top condition of the house, the optimism of the sellers, and the market being pretty strong.
Except for the dated kitchen, the house appears immaculate — renovated perhaps to a fault (recessed lights in old houses are a particular peeve of mine).
Check out the listing, with lots more photos, here.
Anyone local have insight to share about the Main Street location?
SOMETIMES YOU JUST HAVE TO SEE FOR YOURSELF. That was the case with the Southold Victorian on the North Fork of Long Island whose listing I blogged about a few days ago. Even though it is more than an hour’s drive and a $30 round trip ferry fare through Shelter Island from my house in Springs, I made the trek on Sunday morning to see just what was wrong with the place for it to be priced so low. I knew there had to be something.
Ah, yes… it is an intriguing situation, and an object lesson in how listing photos can lie. Head on in the photos, the place looks normal: a gabled farmhouse of the late 1800s, with a wide front porch. But there were no photos of the sides or back of the house.
Here’s why: for reasons known only to previous owners, the house had metastasized over the years, with a series of completely and utterly wrong-headed, senseless, absurdly un-designed additions and extensions. What we have here is a demolition project. The whole house doesn’t need to be taken down — just 2/3 of the existing 3,600-square-foot structure (if it can be called a structure), to bring it back to approximately its original size and shape.
There’s very little in the way of old detail, even in the original part of the house, and the rooms have been mostly chopped up with extraneous walls. There are little jigs and jogs that lead to nowhere, closets with windows, room after tiny room so confusing you can’t even tell what’s meant to be the dining room, the living room, or the master bedroom. The whole house is covered with vinyl siding, over 1950s asbestos shingle. Maybe there’s clapboard underneath, or perhaps that’s long gone.
Any bad decision that could be made has been made. There are a couple of roof decks that have no logical access (you have to climb through windows to get to them). They would provide a view of Long Island Sound, which is tantalizingly nearby — a matter of a few hundred yards — but inaccessible, because of fenced neighboring properties, except by roundabout road.
The balusters on the original staircase have been replaced with new Victorian-style ones, below. The floors are newish and mismatched.
The windows in the “best” room, below — a coffered (though low) ceilinged space in the middle of the old part of the house — were replaced with an ugly modern ‘picture window.’
One of the rear additions, below, was meant to be a rec room or family room of some sort. It is dark, water damaged, visibly moldy.
A huge disproportionate growth on the second floor, below, is a sun-flooded room with another modern picture window that should perhaps, if it’s to be anything, be a bedroom or office, has been given over to a crummy-looking Jacuzzi — someone’s idea of a good use of that space.
There are two kitchens (both awful) and 3-1/2 baths, done cheaply and horribly. There are approximately 7 bedrooms.
The only original windows are in the attic, below, reached by a ladder that folds down out of the ceiling.
On paper, the place is exactly what I was looking for when I began my search for an old house on Long Island in early 2009: a Victorian farmhouse fixer-upper in a secluded location — it’s at the end of an unpaved road, on a 1/2 acre lot with abundant sunshine — for under 300K. But the amount of money that would probably have to go into demolition and rubbish carting alone, not to mention rebuilding, makes it no bargain. As you look around, incredulous, the house even begins to seem over-priced (though it is a foreclosure, and offers are being accepted).
On the plus side, the basement looks clean, the circuit breaker panel fairly new. There are two furnaces in undetermined condition, forced-air ducts running hither and yon, and the plumbing pipes have been properly drained and winterized.
Anybody know how much demo costs? If only I owned a bulldozer.
A FIELD GUIDE to 19th century American architecture, all on one block in one town. Not even that long a block either: Bay Avenue in Greenport, on the North Fork of Long Island. There’s everything from a c.1820 Greek Revival sea captain’s cottage to squared-off Italianates of the 1840s, front porch farmhouses, and turreted Victorians. Take a walk and gawk with me…
Got a favorite?