History is full of parallels and few are more apparent than the periodic acquisition of great wealth by a very few and its conspicuous consumption.
A statistic cited in the PBS documentary, Gilded Age, revealed that in 1897 the richest 4,000 families in the U.S.—representing less than 1 percent of the population—had about as much wealth as the other 11.6 million families all together.
By comparison, in 2017, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the three richest Americans, had as much wealth as the bottom half of the population.
But there is a difference. Today, the wealthiest among us seem reluctant to exhibit the extent of their wealth while in the Gilded Age the motto could have been, “If you have it, flaunt it.” The post-Civil War industrialists, who made their fortunes on the backs of exploited workers, wanted everyone to know their status.
“It was not an introspective world concerned with motivations and underlying causes,” wrote Carol Owens in her book, Berkshire Cottages. “It was a material world. Who you were was determined by what could be seen.”
The Gilded Age rich and famous built fabulous homes in Newport RI, Bar Harbor ME, Saratoga NY and the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Influential industrialists such as George Westinghouse and Andrew Carnegie were drawn to the Berkshires by the pristine air and beautiful vistas. In all, more than 75 “cottages” were built in the Berkshires, concentrated in villages such as Stockbridge and Lenox.
At one point, Shadowbrook, which burned down in 1956 and whose property is now home to Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, was the largest home in America with 100 rooms. An apocryphal story would have it that the Yale-educated scion of the Stokes family cabled his mother, “Arriving this weekend with Class of 96.” The story goes that she responded, “Already have houseguests. Try not to bring more than 50.”
While apparently without merit, the story illustrates the size of the house and the wealth of its owners. It dwarfed neighboring Berkshire Cottages such as Ventfort Hall, one of the most expensive of the “cottages” ever built. Now known as Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, the Elizabethan Revival mansion cost more than $900,000 ($24,937,516 in 2018) when erected in the 1890s.
It was built for George and Sarah Morgan, and the design was the most ambitious project of Boston architect Arthur Rotch, who included a billiard room and bowling alley, seven ventilated bathrooms, an elevator, burglar alarms and central heating. The house and its outbuildings took nearly 40 servants and groundskeepers to keep it going.
After the Morgans passed away, Ventfort Hall's succession of owners used it for 70 years for purposes including a ballet school and a hotel. By the early 1990s, it appeared to be doomed. A developer planned to tear it down to build a nursing home but the Ventfort Hall Association, with the help of private donations and loans, bought the house to restore it according to its original layout and interior design. Most impressive is the Great Hall, the setting of Sarah Morgan's lavish parties, where a hand-carved, three-story stairway leads to a “minstrel’s balcony” with stained glass windows as a backdrop.
Today, Ventfort Hall is a cultural venue providing a year-round schedule of plays, lectures and children's programs. On October 27th, at 3:30PM, for instance, Pittsfield historian Jeffry Bradway, returns to the mansion appearing in costume as Edgar Allan Poe to present readings of three spine-chilling classics, The Raven, Annabel Lee and The Masque of the Red Death. A Victorian tea will follow his performance.
Naumkeag, a Trustees of the Reservations property, also recalls the vanished world of fin de siècle opulence. It was built in 1885-86 by Joseph Hodges Choate, a Salem lawyer who increased his wealth by defending the interests of the new industrial aristocracy. It is crafted in a highbred style combining classical and shingle-style architecture.
A National Historic Landmark, it was bequeathed in its entirety in 1958–from furniture to garden tools to its intact dairy barn–to the Trustees of Reservations which hosts tours from April through early October. Come fall, Halloween is celebrated on the estate with a Haunted House on two weekends, starting October 19th, and the holiday season is marked with Garden Illuminations from November 23rd to December 30th.
Another Berkshire Cottage that can be readily visited, and which carries on the literary legacy of its first owner, is The Mount, once the home of author Edith Wharton. Today, The Mount, maintained and operated by the Edith Wharton Restoration Inc is a National Historic Landmark and a cultural center that celebrates the intellectual, artistic and humanitarian legacy of Wharton.
Wharton used principles described in her first book, The Decoration of Houses, in designing the house. She thought that good architectural expression included order, scale and harmony. The house exterior is white stucco set off by dark green shutters and clusters of gables and white chimneys rise from the roof which is capped with a balustrade and cupola. Wharton's niece, Beatrix Jones Farrand, designed the kitchen garden and the drive.
Wharton was far from the only creative genius at work in the Berkshire landscape. Chesterwood was the Stockbridge summer estate and studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French. Most of French’s originally 150-acre estate is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation which operates it as a museum and sculpture garden..
When French purchased the farm in 1896 to house a summer estate and studio space he had already achieved national acclaim for his bronze Minute Man statue, placed at the Old North Bridge in Concord MA.
French had a studio built on the property near the circa 1820 farmhouse. This space would become French’s primary studio space for the rest of his working career. It was here that he conceptualized the massive statue of Abraham Lincoln that sits in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.
In 1901 French hired Bacon to design a replacement for the farmhouse, the Georgian Revival structure now standing on the estate. Chesterwood has been managed by the Daniel Chester French Foundation, The Trustees of Reservations, and now by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, since French’s 1931 death. It is open for tours from late May through mid-October; admission is charged.
Ventfort Hall, Chesterwood, The Mount and Naumkeag are dedicated to recalling the bygone days of the Gilded Age but other survivors of that period of excess continue to welcome visitors today—albeit for a price. Among the survivors is Blantyre, which, along with Wheatleigh, Cranwell and Canyon Ranch (originally Bellefontaine, built in 1896-1898 for Giraud and Jean Foster) have become exquisite modern-day retreats. Blantyre was built in 1902 by Robert Paterson, who crafted an idealized version—replete with towers, turrets, and gargoyles—of the Scottish castles he remembered from his youth. The manor house was furnished in the English style with furniture brought from that country.
The family used the house during the summer and fall “seasons” and entertained frequently, with garden parties where New York musicians provided background music and grand dinner-dances. Each party became more and more lavish, befitting the Gilded Age.
In 1980, the Fitzpatrick family fell in love with the abandoned Blantyre, purchased the building and reopened it after extensive renovation as a country resort. The property was later purchased by real estate investor Linda Law who brought the building’s history into the 21st century with a bow to the old and a nod to the new.
Another relic of the past that has been transformed into an emblem of modern elegance is the former home of Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, who served as Secretary of Treasury under Chester A. Arthur. Frelinghuysen’s summer home, built in 1888 (some sources say 1881), was designed by Roth & Tilden, and allowed the Frelinghuysens to entertained lavishly with former President Arthur among their many guests.
The house was subsequently owned by Thatcher Adams, who renamed it “Sundrum House” finally was used as a dormitory for the Lenox School for Boys. In 2016 it was transformed into the elegant Kemble Inn.
With 13 sumptuously appointed suites in a variety of design themes (art deco, modern, Hollywood, old world glamour) the inn amply fulfills the site’s early purpose of offering hospitality. The curved driveway, grand staircase, shimmering chandelier and large fireplaces of old continue to recall the lavish entertaining of the past.