Newport, R.I., is generally considered the first summer getaway for the rich and famous in U.S. history, and while the folks at Ventfort Hall in Lenox, Mass., don’t go out of their way to dispute that claim, Cornelia “Nini” Brook Gilder doesn’t have to feel good about it.
“They used to call Lenox the ‘inland Newport,’ but I never liked that,” said Gilder, an author, local historian and one of the many volunteers who helped save Ventfort Hall from the wrecking ball a little more than a decade ago. “I call Newport the ‘seaside Lenox.’ That’s how I feel about it. That’s how provincial I am.”
Ventfort Hall was the 1893 home of George and Sarah Morgan, and now houses the Museum of the Gilded Age, a period in American history generally covering the second half of the 19th century. It was a time when rich and prominent American families, such as the Morgans, the Duponts and the Vanderbilts, to name a few, began looking for summer homes away from the major population centers of New York City and Boston.
Summers in the Berkshires
“Lenox has been a resort really since the late 1840s,” said Gilder, who co-wrote both “Hawthorne’s Lenox” in 2008 and “Houses of the Berkshires” in 2011 and was also a major contributor to 2010’s “Architects in Albany.”
“People could get there easily by train, and that meant that wealthy Bostonians and New Yorkers suddenly had a mountain retreat they could go to. People from all over, even places like New Orleans, were coming to the Berkshires to spend their summers.”
Ventfort Hall, an imposing red-brick Jacobean Revival-style mansion designed by the Boston firm of Rotch & Tilden, actually shows up a little late in Lenox’s Gilded Age time line. When Junius Morgan died in 1890, he left his daughter Sarah $3 million (his son J.P. received $12 million), and she used it to build Ventfort Hall and moved in with her husband, George, a seventh cousin.
“Junius died in a carriage accident in Monte Carlo, and while J.P. made out a little bit better than his sister did, the $3 million did give her and her husband enough money to build their dream home,” said Mark Monette, office manager at Ventfort Hall.
“It had all the modern amenities of the day, such as hot and cold running water, and it was one of the first homes to have central heating. It had a two-lane bowling alley, which ran under our veranda, and it had a fire-suppression system and a burglar alarm system.”
The house cost $900,000 to build in its day, a figure that equates to about $23 million today, according to Monette. There are 50 rooms — 13 of them are bathrooms — and 17 fireplaces. The house has three stories and a basement, which includes the kitchen area, which has not yet been restored.
A series of owners
The house sits right in the small village of Lenox at 104 Walker St., but because of heavy tree cover it is not visible from the road. It was one of about 75 “cottages” built during the Gilded Age, and replaced an earlier home built on the grounds by the Haggerty family, the in-laws of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, a Union Army officer during the Civil War who led the first black brigade into battle at Fort Wagner and was killed there in 1864. He had spent his honeymoon in Lenox a year earlier.
Sarah Morgan was at Ventfort Hall for just three years before she died in 1896. When her husband died in 1911, their children began renting the place out, and in 1915 Margaret Vanderbilt, recently widowed after her husband, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, went down with the Lusitania, moved in with her two small children.
W. Roscoe and Mary Minturn Bonsal began renting the home in 1918 and purchased the place in 1925, living there until the family sold Ventfort Hall in 1945. There were a series of owners after that, including the Lenox School for Boys, the Fokine Ballet Summer Camp and The Bible Speaks, a religious community in Lenox that went bankrupt in 1987. In 1994, the Ventfort Hall Association was formed as Tjasa Sprague and other Lenox residents grew concerned about the fate of the building.
“The property had been for sale and had been shopped around, and eventually a nursing home operation bought it and wanted to turn it into a 260-bed facility, which basically would have required tearing down the building and putting up something else in its place,” said Sprague, who remains a member of the board of directors at Ventfort Hall. “So, the neighbors were up in arms, we fought the new developer and we won. Once we did that, we really had to band together to find some use for this wonderful building.”
The building was soon put on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1997 received a loan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which allowed the Ventfort Hall Association to buy the property.
“Tjasa was the prime mover behind all this, and I have to say that I was a doubter,” said Gilder. “Could this house really be preserved? I was willing to go along with the idea but I just didn’t know how it was going to work.”
Sprague, too, had her doubts.
“I was very enthusiastic, but I think we were all neophytes and didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into,” she said. “We didn’t know any better. But it was a beautiful building, a valuable mansion, and it really would have been a crime to just let them demolish it.”
So far, it has cost $4 million to restore the mansion and much more is needed. By June of 2001, enough of the home — the Great Hall, the dining room, morning room, butler’s pantry, and part of the long hall — had been restored to open those parts of the house to the public. The second floor had also been open but is now closed while the VHA tries to raise money to install an elevator. Monette and Giovanni Boivin, the house manager, basically operate the place on a part-time basis with a very small staff and a dedicated group of volunteers, all overseen very closely by the board of directors.
“In 2006, we hired an executive director, and through no fault of that individual it just didn’t work out,” said Sprague. “So we manage without a director. We’re a very intensive, hardworking board, and from the very beginning this has been a group effort. We meet every Monday and we put people in charge of special projects and they’re very good at it.”
Celebrating an age
Along with its beautiful stained-glass windows, stately stairways and ornate woodwork, Ventfort Hall celebrates the Gilded Age with a series of programs and presentations. “Les Petites Dames de Mode” is one of the primary exhibits, featuring 59 miniature “fashion models” that portray the history of women’s fashion from 1855 to 1914. John R. Burbidge, retired senior designer of the famed Priscilla of Boston, began the painstaking work of creating his 29-inch tall “ladies” almost 30 years ago.
Another special feature includes a summerlong run of the one-woman play “Clara,” the story of German pianist Clara Schumann, written and directed by Gary Muzzy and performed by Sarah Jeannette Taylor. Also, almost every Tuesday, the VHA has “Tea and Talk,” a series of lectures offered by various Gilded Age experts recruited by Gilder.
“Nini has been an absolute treasure from the beginning, and she’s so completely immersed into the history of Lenox and the Berkshires, she really is our historic arm,” said Sprague. “Our ‘Tea and Talk’ program really adds so much to our overall presentation.”
Visiting Ventfort Hall isn’t inexpensive. Guided tours are currently $15, but according to Boivin, no one goes away unhappy.
“A tour lasts about 45 minutes to an hour, and people are amazed by the architecture, the stained-glass windows, the size of the rooms, and all of the history connected to the building,” he said. “Then we take them out to the veranda and let them walk around the grounds. I fell in love with the place when I first saw it, and most people have the same reaction.”