June 7, 1902

Writer Edith Wharton Builds in Lenox

On this day in 1902, the writer Edith Wharton wrote to a friend about a visit to the site of her new home, The Mount, under construction in Lenox: "Lenox has had its usual tonic effect on me, & I feel like a new edition, revised and corrected." Once considered desolate wilderness, the beautiful Berkshire Hills and the quaint village of Lenox drew writers, artists, and intellectuals throughout the nineteenth century. By 1900 Lenox had become the summer place of choice for many of New York's wealthiest families. Like Wharton, they built magnificent houses — which they called "cottages" — with extensive grounds. When the Gilded Age ended, so did the "Berkshire Cottage" era. A few estates survive. Edith Wharton's The Mount is one of them.

A gifted and successful author — she was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the first to receive full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters — Wharton was also a talented designer.

The part of western Massachusetts that would later become an elegant resort area had little appeal and no mystique for early European settlers. One traveler who passed through the area in 1694 described "a hideous, howling wilderness." Although the mountains and forests were home to Mahican Indians, colonial farmers preferred the fertile, gentle Connecticut or Hudson River Valleys to the rugged terrain.

Hearty souls who might have been tempted to settle in the area were further deterred by squabbles between Massachusetts and New York over the border. Others feared attacks by French and Indian raiding parties. Large numbers of whites only began to settle central Berkshire County after the French and Indian War ended in 1763.

Even after the Revolution, life in Lenox (named for a British nobleman who defended the Patriot cause) was far from inviting. By the 1780s, when the last of the Mahicans were deported to a reservation in New York State, most of the town's 1,000 residents relied on semi-subsistence farming and iron ore mining. With debt almost unavoidable, many local farmers followed Daniel Shays in his failed rebellion.

Any time the court was in session, the usually quiet town was crowded with lawyers, clients, witnesses, jurymen, judges, and, as one local newspaper put it, "spectators trading horses in the street and politicians smoking over government affairs in the barroom."

Change came quickly after 1800; in the course of the nineteenth century, this remote, hardscrabble town was transformed into one of the most popular resorts in New England.

Outsiders first began to come to Lenox on business at the very end of the eighteenth century when the legislature designated the town, which is in the exact center of Berkshire County, as the seat of county government. Any time the court was in session, the usually quiet town was crowded with lawyers, clients, witnesses, jurymen, judges, and, as one local newspaper put it, "spectators trading horses in the street and politicians smoking over government affairs in the barroom."

Boardinghouses and inns were built to accommodate the people who visited the town on business. As word spread of the area's attractions, more and more travelers came to Lenox to explore the surrounding countryside. The outside world began to take note of a beautiful little village tucked away in the lovely Berkshire Hills.

The County Court enlivened Lenox in another way. It drew the distinguished lawyer Charles Sedgwick, his wife Elizabeth, and his sister Catherine, a well-known writer, away from neighboring Stockbridge. This well-connected, civic-minded family helped establish Lenox as the educational and cultural center of South County.

They transformed Berkshire fields into rolling lawns and lush gardens, where they entertained in a manner that earned Lenox the title of the "inland Newport."

The 1840s and 1850s were the "age of culture" in Lenox. The English actress and writer Fannie Kemble made it her home. Artists, writers, and intellectuals including Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes all made extended visits. Nathaniel Hawthorne actually lived over the Stockbridge line, but as he was closer to Lenox village, he called Lenox home during the year-and-a-half he spent writing The House of the Seven Gables.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the economic elite began to outnumber cultural figures in Lenox. Business and industry were producing fortunes of unprecedented size. Wealthy New Yorkers began to favor the town as an ideal place to escape the city heat in style and, thanks to excellent train service, with ease.

From around 1880 to 1920 these families used their seemingly limitless wealth to build huge mansions on sprawling estates. By 1880 about 35 such "cottages" were scattered around Lenox and neighboring Stockbridge; the number more than doubled over the next 20 years.

Magnates such as Andrew Carnegie, George Westinghouse, and the Vanderbilts put up Gothic castles and elaborate Victorian mansions, one more ostentatious than the next. They transformed Berkshire fields into rolling lawns and lush gardens, where they entertained in a manner that earned Lenox the title of the "inland Newport."

Many years later, she described The Mount as her "first real home. . . its blessed influence still lives in me."

Edith Wharton was one of the most famous residents of Lenox in this era. A gifted and successful author — she was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the first to receive full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters — Wharton was also a talented designer.

In 1902 she decided to build a home for herself and her husband that would reflect design principles she had laid out in the 1897 book she co-authored with Ogden Codman Jr., The Decoration of Houses. She named it The Mount. Completed in less than a year, it resembled a seventeenth-century English county house with classical Italian and French elements. She chose all the furnishings and designed the extensive gardens as well.

The Mount became Wharton's refuge from a failing marriage and the repressive world of upper-class New York society. Many years later, she described The Mount as her "first real home. . . its blessed influence still lives in me." It was there that she wrote many of her 40 books, including the most famous, Ethan Frome, which is set in a town modeled on Lenox.

Wharton reluctantly sold The Mount when her husband's ill health forced her to return to New York in 1911. Like many other Berkshire "cottages," the property fell into disrepair. Shakespeare and Co. began renting it in 1978; it remained the theater company's home for the next two decades. Now owned by Edith Wharton Restoration Inc., the house has been restored and opened to the public.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Western region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Town of Lenox website

Lenox: Massachusetts Shire Town, by David H. Wood (Published by the town, 1969).

History of Lenox and Richmond, Massachusetts, by Charles J. Palmer (Berkshire Family History Association, 1994).

Boston Globe, "Restoring Civility: Edith Wharton's Magnificent Berkshires Estate is Reclaimed in Time for Its Centennial," June 2, 2002.

A Backward Glance: An Autobiography, by Edith Wharton, with an introduction by Louis Auchincloss (Scribner, 1998).

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