Chapter 20. Wealth and the Arts in the Berkshires: Stockbridge and Lenox


The invasion of great wealth into the Berkshires started in 1869 and ended around 1929. The period of greatest wealth in the Berkshires was from about 1880 to World War I. It is this later period we will focus on here. By 1880 there were thirty-three estates in Lenox and seventy-five by 1900. There were quite a few estates in Stockbridge and a few in Great Barrington and Lee as well. If driving around the towns of Lenox and Stockbridge the tourist sees many of the mansions of the once wealthy. Many of these mansions are now being used by schools or businesses or are being converted into condominiums.

Not all the mansions of the area can be covered, but this chapter will concentrate on those that are either open to the public or soon will be. Touring all the sites available would take at least two days. The tour starts in Lenox at the home of a winner of the Noble Prize for Literature, Edith Wharton.

The Mount
South of Lenox on US 7 at 7A (Open Tues-Fri 11-4, Sat-Sun 9:30-4, summer; Fri 11-4, Sat-Sun 9:30-4, fall)

As a writer Edith Wharton perhaps best known for her novels Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence. She was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 into a Society family. The Mrs. Astor was a first cousin of her father. The Jones family owned a mansion in Newport known as Pencraig (located on Harrison Avenue on the opposite side of the island from where the huge Newport mansions arose).

Edith married Edward "Teddy" Wharton in 1885. The marriage was not exactly a happy one with sexual relations between the partners ceasing early in the marriage at Edith's request. They lived together more as companions with Edith assuming somewhat of a motherly role towards her husband.

Wharton's first true work of fiction went to press in 1890. Not long after this the Whartons bought two dwellings, one in New York City and the other in Newport, known as Land's End and located on Ledge Road.

Teddy and Edith sometimes stayed at Pine Acre, the summer home of Teddy Wharton's mother and sister in Lenox. (This house is located on Walker Street near the center of Lenox. It is presently "The Gables.") Edith fell in love with the area and in 1901 purchased Laurel Lake farm, which belonged to the Sargent family.

The Whartons constructed a new house beginning in the summer of 1901. Edith called it The Mount (after the Long Island home of Ebenezer Stevens, a relative who was an artillery officer in the Revolutionary War). Wharton was very fond of this house as it was hers completely from conception to occupation. She had written a book on interior decoration with Ogden Codman, Jr., and she saw this house as a chance to express her desire for a return to classicism. Teddy's den definitely shows a French influence. From her own bedroom she could see both Laurel Pond and Laurel Lake. She would write in bed in long hand, and when finished with a page, would simply drop it on the floor. Periodically, the maid would pick up the pages and have them typed. The pages were then proofed and sent to Scribners, her publisher. There are seven tiny rooms for servants. All the rooms enter onto the hallway. The drawing room is now an eating area. On the terrace they put on plays for the entertainment of the diners.

The Whartons traveled continuously back and forth between Europe and America. Neither Teddy nor Edith enjoyed good health, both suffering from a variety of nervous disorders, and the changes of scenery seemed to help them.

Edith began a really serious literary career starting in 1898. And a very prodigious career it was. Her most popular work, Ethan Frome, is to a great extent autobiographical, reflecting her feelings of being trapped in an unhappy marriage. The novel captured much of the feeling of the Berkshire spirit and landscape.

Her novel, The Age of Innocence, portrayed the lives of the American wealthy -- a subject to which few American writers were privy. In that sense she is a "novelist of manners," and as such influenced writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald. The writer Henry James visited here three times.

Starting around 1908 both Edith and Teddy engaged in extra-marital affairs. In addition, Teddy embezzled money from Edith's trusts. These difficulties eventually led to the sale of The Mount in 1911. Edith lived in Europe for the rest of her life. There she divorced Teddy. She died in 1937.

When you visit the Mount they may or may not be offering a van tour of the mansions of Lenox and Stockbridge. If you are interested in taking the tour, call ahead for reservations. Edith herself loved to drive around town in her automobile, referring to these drives as "motor flights."

Prospect Hill, one-half mile from Stockbridge (Open daily 10-5, May-Oct)

This mansion was built for Joseph Hodges Choate in 1885-1886. Choate was a prominent New York lawyer who won the case before the Supreme Court for the repeal of the first graduated income tax. He also served as Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

Naumkeag is the Indian name for Salem, the town in which Choate grew up. The house is built above Stockbridge overlooking the Housatonic River and with a view of Monument Mountain (up which Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne climbed). Stanford White was the architect of this Norman and shingle-style cottage. Soon after designing the house, the firm of McKim, Mead, and White turned to building in the classical style.

The mansion has twenty-six rooms and sixteen fireplaces. At one time sixteen servants worked here. There are many alcoves in the house, the result of the turrets on each side of the house. Lincrusta (a mixture of paper-maiche and linseed oil) is used on the walls as an imitation leather. The library has two charcoal portraits of Joseph and Mabel Choate by John Singer Sargeant. One of the couple's sons did not do well at Harvard, so he transferred to Williams College. There he had a mental breakdown as a result of a hazing incident.

Joseph Choate settled in Lenox to be near his two law partners. You can see the homes of his partners, Linwood and Southmayd, from the rear of Naumkeag.

Be sure and see the gardens. Originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame, Nathaniel Barrett of Boston completed the job.

Linwood (private)
Butler Road

Nearby Naumkeag is Linwood, built in 1858-1859 for Charles E. Butler following his retirement from his law firm. Butler's law partner was Joseph Choate who built his home within sight of Linwood. After Butler's first wife died, he married Susan Sedgwick, the niece of Catherine Sedgwick. The house is named after Catherine Sedgwick's 1835 novel, The Linwoods.

A caretaker of Linwood, George Seeley, developed a national reputation for photography. Most of his pictures were taken on the Linwood grounds. The Norman Rockwell Museum now occupies the house.

Off Rt. 183, Glendale, Stockbridge (Open daily 10-5, May 1-Oct 31)

In order to memorialize the sacrifices of the nation's Civil War soldiers, a great boom in public monuments began. The best pieces of work to be produced in this movement span the time period between the unveiling of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' "David Farragut Memorial" in New York in 1881, and the dedication of Daniel Chester French's "Abraham Lincoln" in Washington, D.C. in 1922.

Chesterwood was the summer home of sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931). Although French was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, the family moved first to Cambridge, Massachusetts and then to Concord. French attended M.I.T., but failure in three subjects cut short his college education. His sculpture talents became so obvious that in 1873 the town of Concord commissioned him to sculpt what became "The Minute Man" monument located at Old North Bridge.

Between sculpting commissions, French studied abroad in Italy and later in Paris. In 1888 he purchased a home and studio in New York City and soon after married his cousin, Mary French. He lived in New York City in the winters. In the summers he lived either in Concord or Enfield, Massachusetts or with the colony around Saint-Gauden's house in Cornish, New Hampshire.

In 1897, seeking more permanent summer quarters, French purchased a farm in the Glendale section of Stockbridge. The property eventually came to be known as "Chesterwood" after his grandfather's house in Chester, New Hampshire.

On the property French built a studio, designed by Henry Bacon, who had worked with McKim, Mead, and White before joining forces in the firm of Brite and Bacon. The studio came complete with a railroad track that enabled French and his assistants to push a sculpture outside to the terrace to be viewed in natural light. Many visitors would stop here to chat. French used the reception room to entertain his business clients. Inside the studio are three different sized moldings of Lincoln. The sculptor always used three models: a wasted mold figure; a three foot high figure; and a seven foot high figure.

Bacon also designed the Georgian Revival residence (1900- 1901), the garage (1909), and the garden fountain (1911). The house is made of modified stucco (small stone are used in it rather than ground stone). Bacon and French also worked together on some fifty sculpture projects over a twenty-five year period.

French was considered this country's most important sculptor following the death of Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1907. French dearly loved Chesterwood, dying here in 1931.

Other Sites

If you want to spend more time in the Stockbridge-Lenox area, combine this chapter with the one entitled "Literature in the Berkshires." Also of interest is the Norman Rockwell museum. It has many of the illustrator's paintings. In the center of town Rockwell had a studio over what is now the Stockbridge Center Market. The original home of Alice's Restaurant, made famous by the singer Arlo Guthrie, is down the alley. It is now a Greek restaurant.

When in the area of New London, visit the Edward S. Harkness mansion in the Harkness Memorial State Park (off Route 213 which in turn is off Route 156), Waterford, Connecticut. The forty-two room mansion of Italianate design, begun in 1902, was the summer home of Harkness, who had inherited the fortune created by his father who had invested in Rockefeller's Standard Oil. The interior is now used to exhibit art works.


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