One of the National Preservation Honor Awards, announced last week, went to The Mount, American author Edith Wharton's estate in Lenox, Mass. Since its reopening in 2002, it has become one of the most renowned literary landmarks in the country, drawing 30,000 visitors annually.
Wharton purchased the property in 1902 and renovated it according to her own design. "This place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth," Wharton once wrote in a letter. At The Mount, Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome and entertained fellow literary stars such as Henry James. After a scandalous divorce in 1911, she left The Mount and moved to France, where she lived until her death in 1937.
The year after Wharton left The Mount, her ex-husband sold the property. After several other owners, a brief stint as a school, and a long period of neglect, the nonprofit group Edith Wharton Restoration, Inc. purchased The Mount in 1980 to restore the property.
By then, however, the American Renaissance-style estate had become unstable; its ceilings had collapsed, and its gardens were overgrown. A full-scale restoration began in 1997. Five years and $14 million later, The Mount reopened as a house museum.
Project supervisors did an "extensive amount of research" to make sure that Wharton's home and grounds were restored accurately, says Stephanie Copeland, president and CEO of The Mount. Restoration technology specialists and architectural historians relied on original blueprints, Wharton's personal correspondence, and 19th-century newspaper reports to bring The Mount back to life.
During the five-year project, funded in part by a Save America's Treasures grant of $2.9 million, workers restored the gardens, the exterior of the house, several main rooms, and the greenhouse, which had essentially collapsed.
"One of our greatest challenges was restoring the enormous terrace along the northeast side of the house," Copeland says. The terrace was built on a stone foundation that had destabilized so much over the years that it might cause collapse. "We removed each stone individually, marked them, corrected the foundation and then replaced the stones exactly as they were," she says. "It was very difficult, to say the least."
Now the 113-acre property, which is both a National Historic Landmark and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is open annually to visitors from May through October. Several exhibits depict scenes from Wharton's novels and design exhibitions that demonstrate Wharton's own design principals, which she wrote about in 1897's The Decoration of Houses.
"By drawing thousands of visitors from around the world every year to its educational programs, house and garden tours, and literary events, The Mount is a great example of how historic preservation protects vital pieces of American history while making lasting contributions to the health and well-being of communities across the nation," said National Trust President Richard Moe at the Oct. 4 awards ceremony.
- Krista Walton, Preservation magazine