It begins with a long drive to the Berkshires; a drive that took us hours from Boston, down highways and through quaint, mountain resort villages, ending with a turn down a tree lined, winding road.
Then, there it was. An almost ominous manor home amidst the winter scene, red brick and barren branches; mud so thick the car was nearly trapped.
For too long I have been fascinated by homes just like Ventfort's own. Not the McMansions of the 21st century but the homes of oil barons and the obscenely wealthy. Old money types, you know? I like to think it is because the homes such as Ventfort Hall, lovingly called Gilded Age Manor Homes, are America’s only equivalent to Britain's famous Country House. The States after all are far too young and, for most of their life far too poor to possess castles. But in the 19th century, as money poured into the hand's of individuals like J.P. Morgan and the infamous Vanderbilts, these individuals took it upon themselves to build estates of their very own, modern marvels that were American made, to challenge the best of European delights.
Ventfort Hall is far from the most luxurious of it's gilded brethren, but it still holds its charm. Even moreso, it serves as the Berkshires home for the Gilded Age Manor Home Museum, and so, we decided to take a look.
Born of J.P.Morgan's sister Sarah's imagination and enthusiasm, over 930,000 dollars were spent on the construction of Ventfort Hall and its grounds between 1891-1893. That’s approximately $25,750,730.58 in today’s dollars if we account for inflation, so yes, it is still a marvel even by today’s standards. Altogether the ‘cottage’ as it was lovingly referred to, contains 19 bedrooms, 7 bathrooms, 17 impressive fireplaces. It even once sat on 26 acres (although the size of has been greatly reduced down to 11 acres today). But, that is arguably the least astounding thing about the place.
The interior of Ventfort Hall has withstood the test of time, albeit just barely. Significant restoration work has been ongoing since the 1990’s thanks to community involvement as well as some aid from the National Historic trust and even Hillary Rodham Clinton, but the work is far from finished. Throughout our tour of the museum, photos were displayed showing the damage to the home over the decades. And believe me when I say that it was damaged.
In the event you get the chance to tour the home yourself, I’ll save you some of the details. But know this, that the sordid history of the home includes everything you could hope for.
Three years after Ventfort Hall was completed, Sarah Morgan was killed on a trip abroad, and the home was never quite the same. As our guide joked, it was Sarah who ‘wore the pants’ in the household, and controlled almost every aspect of how Ventfort Hall was run. The only thing her husband George controlled were the greenhouses, which he could view from the window in his favourite room (he even had a habit of using the servant halls to slip outside to his beloved gardens without being seen).
After Sarah’s death, George remarried another Sarah, but it wasn’t long before he died as well. From thereafter, poor Ventfort would exchange hands numerous times, the first of which being Margaret Vanderbilt, wife of Gwynne Vanderbilt. Margaret, you see, had rented Ventfort as a sort of escape after the death of her husband on the Lusitania.
Some years later W. Roscoe and Mary Minturn Bonsal rented the property, and purchased it outright after seven summers amidst it’s warmly wooden walls. Bonsal as it were, was a prominent figure in the expansion of railroads throughout the country and if you’re from Florida, then the name I’m sure would be quite familiar.
But after the Depression hit, and the old money types saw their empires fall, Ventfort became something of an orphan. In 1945, it served multiple individuals, first and foremost that of the Tanglewood Conservatory Students. It also served as the home of a preacher in the 1970’s and 1980’s who was later charged for embezzlement in a scandal that resulted in him never being seen again.
Still, all of this activity meant the home was alive in a sense, and not thoroughly abandoned. Then, following the preacher’s disappearance, the property was sold to a nursing home developer who wanted to demolish it.
Yes. That’s correct.
For a retirement home.
With late, 1980’s architecture.
Thankfully the local community of Lenox gathered and, appalled at the notion of losing the region’s gem after all it had been through, formed a preservation group to help get it on the radar of The National Trust and other organizations who could contribute to purchasing the home.
Today, Ventfort Hall is still under a state of construction, but rooms are opening what seems like weekly; and this is its charm. As you walk the home, even in wintertime as the chill creeps in through the original glass windows, there is an inexplicable sense of warmth. There are cracks in the walls and peeled back wallpaper that show its age, but, it fits to tell the home’s story. The restoration work that has been done does not attempt to gloss over or modernize Ventfort Hall to be palatable to the modern guest. From the creaking floorboards, to the century old wallpaper in a small corner of Sarah’s old bathroom, the transition to the past is seamless throughout.
As a historian, and a person with a background in conservation work, I was gladdened to see the affection brought to Ventfort Hall. So much so that as stories were told of Sarah Morgan pacing the long corridor from fireplace to fireplace (to get her exercise in winter), you could almost see her ghost with its dress flowing behind her. A woman of her era, waltzing to find George gazing longingly out the window, Sarah lingers there, strong willed and handsomely framed by walls brimming with her favourite wood.
What is most impressive about the home is the very thing that makes it almost austere in comparison to others like it from the age. I believe this is in part due to the home’s ability to manifest light in every corner, even with its walls laden with the dark tone of Cuban Mahogany. Light simply exists everywhere, slivers of it to slip in wherever possible to battle the darkness throughout. The contrast in rooms like the former, make-shift chapel or evening room for example is stunning. Nestled in a rather grand nook above the staircase in the Ventfort Hall's entryway, this room is where Sarah and George would find peace and quiet with each other before dinner (which was often quite the event). But it was in precisely a room like this, where the style of the home for me felt the most earnest. In Ventfort Hall, the wood is everywhere, never out of sight. The mahogany frames every space your eyes can land on, and makes the rooms feel luxurious but familiar. While not as overbearing as a mountain lodge, it is a home that is far from feeling stark, and certainly not empty. Yes, Ventfort Hall is ornate, do not get me wrong, but among its 17 fireplaces lies a sense of intimacy that can be missed in grander gilded homes such as The Breakers or The Elms, and this is what truly makes it a wonder.
The restoration work that has been done over the years is cautious, and yes, there are still cracks in the ceilings, and missing floorboards in the rooms but it is human. The fireplaces are gorgeous, but crumbling, and there are hooks in the walls where previous tenants began to tear the home apart. But this is what makes Ventfort Hall feel authentic, and I for one, am glad they have made an effort to retain the signs of its age. Like scars upon the weary frame.
The home can never be what it once was. But the ghost of it, is alive and well. Even beyond the careless tenants and a tumultuous filming of Cider House Rules. Beyond the embezzlement scandal and years of snow, and frost and mud, the building survives with the love of the community. A love that is felt. As members of Lenox, the two men working the museum that day knew all the stories. The good, the bad, the ugly; and they spoke of it all as if the home was a friend. Someone who, maybe had a few bad years but was getting their life back together. And with new finds like the missing floorboards in the carriage house just the day before our arrival, it is clear to me what Ventfort Hall has a long way to go, but is finding life again, and boy is it beautiful.
Scroll the gallery below for more photos of this beautiful estate
If you would like to visit Ventfort Hall, you can find it nestled between the trees of Lenox, Massachusetts. Admission is $18, and all the proceeds go towards the care and keeping of the home, and funding projects that will ensure its history will be around for generations to come.
Photos courtesy of Kit Mayquist 2018, unless otherwise noted.