Although this iconic estate of the celebrated American author has faced some difficulties and financial tumult, the picturesque property once again stands tall as an emblem of grand architecture and literary history.
Long before she wrote the acclaimed novels for which she is well known, Edith Wharton penned a design manual called The Decoration of Houses. In it she stated, “The desire for symmetry, for balance, for rhythm is one of the most inveterate of human instincts.” At a time when flowery Victorian décor was ubiquitous, The Decoration of Houses, co-authored by architect Ogden Codman Jr., introduced a radical way of looking at interiors—one that included proportion and relatively minimal details. Edith believed in straightforward design, and the book advocated a return to simple and unfussy decorating. Five years after Decoration was published, she hired Codman and a second architect, Francis L. V. Hoppin, to bring these principles to life.
The Mount, a forty-two-room estate built on the hillside of nearly fifty acres near the Berkshire Mountains in Lenox, Massachusetts, was inspired by European architecture and design. The exterior—built in white stucco and lacking any showy embellishments—is modeled after Belton House, an English country home. The interior design took cues from both French and Italian estates, its smooth terrazzo floors, barrel ceilings, crown moulding, and clean lines setting the stage for a retreat where Edith and her husband, Teddy, entertained guests and escaped from bustling city life.
The Mount was also Edith’s writing retreat—a peaceful place where she drafted her first best-selling novel, The House of Mirth. Each morning she awoke with the dawn and then stayed in bed to write, rising only after the clock had chimed eleven. And although her light-filled bedroom was where she worked, it was the oak-paneled library, filled floor to ceiling with books, that was Edith’s favorite room.
As she asserted in The Decoration of Houses, “There is no reason why the decorations of a library should not be splendid, but in that case the books must be splendid too, and sufficient in number to dominate all the accessory decorations of the room.” The books were removed from the home after Edith left and were later sold to a collector in London. Though approximately half of the books were destroyed during World War II, in 2006, the estate acquired the remaining 2,600 volumes, and the impressive collection now rests in its original home. When Edith moved to Paris in 1911, The Mount was sold to a private owner and subsequently served as a girls’ school dormitory until 1976. In 1980, Edith Wharton Restoration—an organization created to refurbish the historical home and its gardens—bought the estate and established it as a center for celebrating the literary legend.
However, after undergoing an extensive renovation and redecoration in 2002, the manor faced financial trouble. Although the threat of closure loomed, a group of devoted admirers banded together in 2008 to raise enough money to save the revered site. As a result of contributions and in-kind donations, the property, thankfully, is now on solid financial ground—a relief to all who treasure the bountiful history ingrained in this beautiful place. An inspiring example of twentieth-century architecture, The Mount’s understated yet elegant design and meticulously planned gardens also give us a glimpse into the life of one of American literary history’s most captivating and important figures.
Text Katie Brandon Farmand
Photography Kate Sears
To learn more about Edith Wharton, see “Edith Wharton’s The Mount” on page 54 of the July/August 2009 issue of Victoria.