Berkshires Victoriana



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,

Park Slope A to Z


AT FIRST I THOUGHT this was going to be a hopelessly random post, a mash-up of recent photos I wanted to share but that had no particular organizing principle. Only when I looked at them all together I realized the bay windows, stained glass, and carriage houses do have something in common. They’re all in Park Slope!



Park Slope, Brooklyn’s biggest brownstone neighborhood — in fact, the largest concentration of 19th century housing stock in the entire country, I once read — is many things. Here are some of them, in alphabetical order:

annoying, beautiful, congested (in spots), Democratic, elegant, fucked, Gold Coast, historic, intense, jogger-laden, kid-happy, left-wing, mansion-infested, novelist-ridden, overpriced, parking nightmare, quiet at night, restaurant-challenged, self-satisfied, top-of-the-market, unfazed, Victorian, wifi-ful, xpanding, yoga-friendly, and zealous about its food coop rules.

(I can’t believe I managed to come up with 26 alphabetical adjectives — if you can do better on any of them, feel free. Click on “[#of] comments” in tiny type under the post headline above, and a form will open up for your comment. I know, WordPress doesn’t make it easy.)


I’ve never lived in Park Slope, though I’ve long admired its varied architecture, and envied its proximity to Prospect Park and the Botanic Gardens. And, of course, I wish I had had the foresight to snatch up some of those brownstones when they were cheap (I’m wincing, recalling a 5-story house with a mansard roof on the corner of Sixth Avenue and a North Slope block — Lincoln Place, maybe — for $150,000…Would somebody please KICK ME NOW?!)


Anyway, now that I’m in neighboring Prospect Heights, I find myself in the Slope more often. I’m getting familiar with certain blocks I trod on my way home from the Fifth Avenue bus.


The list of places I want to try/hang out is growing…Cafe Regular, Juventino…and many of them are in the Slope. It’s like discovering a new continent, that’s how vast it seems to an outlander. And with such architectural riches, it could take a long time to get bored.


One Weekend in Maine


CAPE PORPOISE, MAINE – Maine fulfilled my pre-conceived notions: rugged coastline, superior lobster, and lots of Revolutionary-era cottages and Victorian mansions — almost nothing but old houses, in fact, in the area around Kennebunkport.

I particularly love the over-the-top yellow and white gingerbread castle, below. Looks like it was originally a brick Colonial, amended in the 1840s with the addition of carved wood detail in the Gothic style that was then the rage.


Scroll down for more Maine scenes, from grand to humble, that caught my eye…