Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Wharton's Mount is returning to form


Wharton's Mount is returning to form
By Sacha Pfeiffer
Globe Staff / December 26, 2007

LENOX - By 1997, the palatial estate built nearly a century earlier in this upscale country town by wealthy novelist Edith Wharton had fallen into disrepair.

The terrace that encircled the 25-room European-style house was on the verge of collapse. Chunks of stucco had broken off the exterior. The windows were riddled with rot.

"The building was in very sad shape," said Stephanie Copeland, president of Edith Wharton Restoration, a nonprofit group formed to rescue the 48-acre property from disintegration. "It was clear that we were either going to restore it or we were going to lose it."

Intent on returning the home, called The Mount, to its original grandeur, the group launched an ambitious and costly renovation project. Preserving the building was important, it believed, because although Wharton is best known for her more than 40 books, she was also an accomplished interior designer and gardener - and the Mount's handsome decor and elaborate landscaping were a testament to that.

Wharton's most famous works include "The House of Mirth" and "The Age of Innocence," which won her a Pulitzer Prize. But her first book was "The Decoration of Houses," an 1897 guide to interior design. In it, she expounded on her belief that a home should embody the principles of proportion, harmony, simplicity, and suitability. Seven years later, influenced by her frequent European travels, she published "Italian Villas and Their Gardens," in which she wrote that gardens should be divided into rooms and should blend into the natural landscape.

"Wharton was not only one of our greatest writers, she was also a major contributor to the field of interior design, architecture, and landscape gardening," Copeland said. "This is an area that's very unappreciated about her."

The Mount became Wharton's design laboratory, a place where she could put her theories into practice. Her 16,000-square-foot house, for example, was built on a hillside to take advantage of its sweeping views of the Berkshire Hills and nearby Laurel Lake. Its main rooms overlooked three acres of formal gardens, which incorporated grass terraces, stone walls, and a crushed marble walk, reflecting English, French, and Italian styles.

And its entrance hall had double glass doors that kept visitors out of the main house unless Wharton was home to welcome them. "While the main purpose of a door is to admit," she wrote in "The Decoration of Houses," "its secondary purpose is to exclude."

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