Last month, the New England Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art (the ICAA) arranged a trip to Lenox to tour The Mount, the magnificent home of author Edith Wharton. The event was sponsored by ICAA member firm Paragon Landscape Construction and organized by Dan K. Gordon Landscape Architects. Catalano Architects joined the trip to learn more about this historic Massachusetts site.
Edith Wharton is the author of over forty novels, including The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. In 1897, she co-wrote a primer on architecture and interior design entitled, The Decoration of Houses. Wharton read extensively about architecture and gardens, and the ideas that she outlined in Decoration became the basis for the design of her home in Lenox. Wharton and her co-author Ogden Codman believed that the architecture itself must drive the interior design through thoughtful use of symmetry and proportion. “The better the house,” they wrote, “the less need for curtains”. The house and the book are a rebellion against the Victorian era’s dark wood and dripping trims.
The original 113-acre parcel of land where The Mount sits was purchased for $40,600 in 1901. Wharton spent as much again on the landscape design and installation. (In 2015 dollars, approximately $1.1 million each for the land and landscaping.) The structures – including the house, the stables, and the carriage house – cost $85,000 at the time.
Ogden Codman Jr., an architect educated at MIT who co-authored the book with Wharton, was engaged to design the main house. Codman and Wharton met in the early 1890s in Newport where he had his architectural practice. Francis L.V. Hoppin, an architect who trained at the firm McKim, Mead, and White, was later engaged to reduce costs.
The restrained exterior of the home and the rough plan layout are thought to be inspired by Belton House in Lincolnshire, England. Wharton preferred the 17th century English country house design to what was being built in Newport at the time, which she considered ostentatious.
The Main House, originally built in 15 months in 1902, underwent a significant restoration beginning in 1997. At the time of the interior restoration, noted interior designers were invited to decorate a room within the house as part of a showcase, from which money was raised for the restoration.
The most historically-accurate and elaborately decorated room is the boudoir (from the French Bouder: to sulk or pout). Edith gave the impression that she wrote in this room (as she was often photographed sitting at the desk), but in fact she did most of her writing in her bedroom.
The main house and its gardens also reflect an Italian influence inspired by Edith’s childhood years spent traveling in Europe; her passion for garden design led her to write Italian Villas and Their Gardens in 1904. The first garden that was developed on her Lenox property was the French Garden, which provides a gradual transition from the house to the garden.
The landscape design includes a sunken Italian Garden, which has a grotto-like feel with water features and shade-loving plants. Connecting the Italian and French gardens is a Lime Walk, planted in 1905, a nod to the English gardening tradition of using linden trees as hedgerow. Wharton’s landscape architect was Beatrix Jones Farrand, a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
Wharton’s gardener, Thomas Reynolds, was employed year-round and had his own home on the property. Edith Wharton lived at The Mount from 1902-1911. She sold the house in 1913 after her divorce, and moved to France where, she felt, as a divorced woman she could live without scorn.