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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
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.
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.
DO YOU KNOW the website Rural Intelligence? Even if you’re not in the Hudson Valley, a lot of its coverage is of interest to old-house lovers everywhere.
I subscribe to their weekly e-mail newsletter. This week, Rural Intelligence, which is spearheaded by two former New York Times editors, digs deep into questions that perplex old-house owners when it comes to greening up their historic structures without robbing them of all character.
Read on for more:
This Saturday, October 24, Herrington’s, the local hardware chain, is hosting Lean Toward Green, a showcase of environmentally responsible home building products and systems that promise to make our houses more energy efficient and comfortable. There will be special seminars on window replacement and insulation, where the tax incentives for doing both will be explained. There are the right things to do. Absolutely. In theory.
But in fact, those who own the antique houses that give our region so much of its special character face greater challenges when it comes to “going green.” Everyone knows that modern windows are tighter, but those leaky old ones with their narrow mullions and ripple glass look so right. And yes, walls thickly padded with insulation obviously cut down on fuel waste. But to get them that way may require the destruction of plaster interior walls that have held their own, and lent character to the building, for a couple of hundred years.
If it were just personal taste vs. energy efficiency, there would be no question of the right thing to do. But these houses contribute mightily to the commonweal. They are historic relics, symbols of all that is right with this region, and a big part of why the Hudson Valley and New England hold such a special place in the hearts of our countrymen nationwide. So this isn’t just about us. And this isn’t just about now. Once these houses have been “upgraded”—once their interiors and all moving parts have been sucked out and replaced with modern materials—the entire region is one step closer to being just another American suburb filled with fake “colonials.” No one wants that. On the other hand, no one wants to live in a museum—unless, of course, it’s the Bryant Homestead, in Lenox, above, which would almost be worth freezing for.
So, on the eve of their Lean Toward Green symposium this weekend and to get a taste of the kind of advice we are likely to get there, we threw a tough one at the wise men and women of Herrington’s: If we are weighing historic preservation against energy conservation, is there an acceptable choice?
As it happens there may well be. In an e-mail response, Herrington’s recommended various ways of tightening an older house without ruining it. Replace old windows with new, insulated ones, using a company that can replicate historical details. Add loose fill or batt insulation to attics without any disruption to the structure. Insulate the basement, and use rigid insulation on the exterior. This last, of course, would require the removal of exterior siding, something purists prefer to leave alone until it rots. Herrington’s even sent a link to the Building Science website that has an excellent article from Fine Homebuilding magazine with three case studies of upgraded older homes, and a list of priorities—first of which is to get more modern mechanicals. No sentimental value there.
Go here for a bit more.