From the Terrace
A lightning turnaround in the Berkshires restores the 100-year-old
landscape at Edith Wharton’s The Mount.
By Allen Freeman
A hundred years ago, novelist and nonfiction writer Edith Wharton
began filling in the grounds she had designed for her new summer
estate in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. Wharton
and her husband, Teddy, had purchased 113 farmland acres in Lenox
and had sited a large house, which they called The Mount, on the
top of a slope to take advantage of a panoramic view. During the
previous summer, as the house was being finished and furnished,
Wharton had overseen preliminary work on her design for the gardens
and orchards. Along the way she had consulted with her niece, Beatrix
Jones (later Farrand), a founding member of the American Society
of Landscape Architects, who designed the approach to the main house.
Throughout that first decade of the twentieth century, the prolific
author of The Age of Innocence (for which she would become,
in 1921, the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction)
was to apply to The Mount her knowledge about landscape gardening
and horticulture. She was steeped in the traditions of Renaissance
Italy (one of her many books was the 1904 Italian Villas and
Their Gardens) and eighteenth-century France and enthusiastic
about the ideas of British landscape gardener and writer Gertrude
The view today from
the restored Italian walled garden to the restored Georgian
A broad terrace on the main floor of the new house provided a platform
for viewing the distant hills, Laurel Lake, and a meadow, as well
as the gardens Wharton meticulously planned immediately below. A
Palladian staircase led to a path covered in marble chips and more
steps descending through a series of parterres, bordered in arborvitae
and hemlock hedges, and to an allée flanked by pleached lindens
called the lime walk, extending parallel to the wide rear elevation
of the house. The southwest terminus of the lime walk was a walled
Italian garden with a rock fountain and a minimum of plantings.
The garden’s east wall was breached by arched openings framing
views toward the lake and hills. At the opposite end of the walk,
Wharton literally oversaw the planting of annuals; from her bedroom
on the house’s northeast corner, the writer could evaluate
profusions of petunias, phlox, snap-dragons, stocks, penstemons,
and hollyhocks, and she could descend grass steps from the house
toward her handiwork. Just beyond the flower garden, she had positioned
an arched trellis niche, which terminated that end of the lime-walk
Wharton wrote her first bestseller, The House of Mirth
(1905), at The Mount. Describing her routine there, she corresponded
to a friend: “Here I write every morning, & then devote
myself to horticulture; while Teddy plays golf & cuts down trees.”
Six years later, her marriage was over, her sojourn in the Berkshires
permanently ended. Wharton moved to France in 1911; she died there
in 1937 and was buried in the town of Versailles.
“I first saw The Mount in February 1982,” says David
H. Bennett, ASLA, then a student at Harvard University’s Graduate
School of Design and now a senior associate at EDAW Earthasia Ltd.
in Hong Kong and head of the board of directors’ grounds committee
at The Mount. “Covered by deep snow with a slick coating of
ice and shrouded in thick, gray fog, the place could not have been
more gloomy and forlorn. The large, white stucco house seemed overwhelmed
by an evergreen thicket on all sides, but below the terrace that
wrapped around the main floor of the house, it was possible to make
out a series of terraces defined by arborvitae hedges.”
He continues, “On a return visit that spring I found The
Mount occupied by actors and crew of the theater company that performed
on the grounds. Stage sets were being constructed on top of the
garden walls and fountains, and the lower branches of the hemlock
hedges had been hacked away to make room for port-a-johns. There
was no evidence of the lindens along the lime walk. The outlines
of this path and other walks were barely discernible in the grass.
The stone walls, arches, and pergola of the sunken garden retained
a certain faded charm, but the circular pool in the center was cracked,
and the dolphin fountain from Wharton’s flower garden had
been placed here.”
Just four years ago, the grounds of The Mount were still a ruin.
Yet today, as you look down from the terrace, a scene spreads before
you that curiously approximates the conditions that the Whartons
experienced during the summer of 1903. The outlines are pristine,
the stone-chip paths immaculate, the lime walk flanked by rows of
immature lindens planted in perfectly mulched squares. The parterre
hedges are low to the ground, the lawns are blankets, and the walled
garden and flower garden await the planting of annuals. Susan Child,
ASLA, of the Boston-based firm of Child Associates, led the lightning
turnaround for a nonprofit called Edith Wharton Restoration, Inc.
(EWR), the owner of The Mount since 1980.
For better, for worse, and ultimately for the best, The Mount has
had six owners. In the fall of 1911, the Whartons sold their Berkshire
estate to Albert R. and Mary Shattuck, who had rented it for two
summers and, as owners, called it White Lodge. Shattuck heirs sold
The Mount in 1938 to an elderly couple, Carr Vattel Van Anda, a
retired managing editor of The New York Times, and his
wife, Louise. The fourth owner, beginning in 1942, was the neighboring
Foxhollow School for girls. The school converted the house’s
second floor and attic into a dormitory, lodged horses in the stable
next to the approach road, and generally took good care of the place.
In 1976, at the instigation of Foxhollow School’s last headmistress,
The Mount was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.
A Connecticut developer purchased the property in 1977 and sold
it to a theater group called Shakespeare & Company early the
Beginning in 1980, when EWR was founded under financial arrangements
devised by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, The Mount’s
stewardship suffered from the conflicting purposes of the Shakespeareans
and the underfunded preservationists. Harvard University’s
Graduate School of Design undertook a study of the grounds in 1982,
and piecemeal work on the house assured that the structure survived
mostly intact through the 1980s. But the current era of financial
solvency and the comprehensive restoration of the landscape and
buildings did not begin until 1992 when the EWR board selected Stephanie
W. Copeland as president and CEO. Originally a theatrical producer
in New York City, Copeland became a consultant to the National Endowment
for the Humanities’ theater program and then a turnaround
artist for struggling nonprofit theater groups. Having helped Shakespeare
& Company get out of the red in the early 1980s, she was invited
back a decade later to head the besieged restoration effort. Copeland
recruited as deputy director Scott Marshall, a preservationist trained
at Columbia University, who had come to The Mount as an intern in
1985 and served as the organization’s assistant director from
1986 to 1989.
Before his death last October, Marshall authored The Mount’s
256-page historic structure report, which consists of a historical
narrative plus a description of the mansion’s existing condition
by John G. Waite Associates, Architects. Historian Cynthia Zaitzevsky
is finalizing another document, the cultural landscape report; Zaitzevsky’s
findings, including descriptive passages of The Mount in correspondence
between Wharton and such illustrious guests as writer Henry James
and sculptor Daniel Chester French plus historic photographs that
Marshall researched and collected, have guided the grounds restoration
for the past three years. Such secondary documents are important
to the restoration because no drawings survive of the landscape
that extends behind the house.
The Mount’s landscape restoration was triggered in May 1999
when the federal Save America’s Treasures (SAT) program, which
channels congressionally appropriated and private funds into preservation
projects nationwide, announced a $2.865 million matching grant to
EWR. Of the $5.73 million total, $2.5 million went into the landscape
restoration. A SAT requirement was that the grant and its match
had to be spent “in very little time,” Copeland recalls,
so EWR quickly put out a request for proposals for 19 initial landscape
restoration projects—including the lime walk, the flower garden,
and the walled garden—and invited four responding firms to
give presentations. “Child Associates was immediately our
choice,” she says. The 19 projects were narrowed to 11, says
David Andersen, EWR project manager, “in part because we didn’t
have the money.” One project that awaits restoration is the
kitchen garden, designed by Farrand, near the estate’s main
gate. It will cost close to $1 million, Andersen estimates.
Child says she had read Wharton’s novels and many of her
short stories in the 1970s and had visited The Mount in the late
1980s when “it was so overgrown that my only impression was
grass terraces perceived through enormous arborvitaes. I had no
sense of a real vista. The grounds seemed constricted, the house
decrepit. It reminded me of some unattended Southern mansions I’ve
seen. The request for proposals included a recent schematic drawing
by artist and photographer Carole Palermo Schulze showing the layout
of the gardens. There are things in the drawing that aren’t
very precise, but the idea was there.”
An archaeological site examination, begun in 1999 by a team from
University of Massachusetts at Amherst, revealed exact dimensions
and some original materials. Discoveries included the paths’
substructure, which was composed of shards of marble probably excavated
at the site for the foundations of the house. Roping off sections,
the workers dug at certain points to reveal the soil strata. A few
key digs enabled them to determine the paths’ layout and dimensions.
“If there is anything that the writer of a cultural landscape
report hopes to acquire, it is the kind of exact validation like
the one the archaeologists uncovered at The Mount,” Child
Two Berkshire County landscape contractors, Ingersoll, Inc., and
Webster Gardens, collaborated on the restoration. “They first
removed the huge, overgrown trees that were meant to be bushes,”
Copeland explains. “They started in the walled garden and
backed out of the site, coming down the lime walk, clearing the
terraces, doing the rock garden, and backing all the way into the
flower garden. They didn’t want to have to bring in the heavy
equipment more than once.”
Re-creating Wharton-era plants has involved a combination of strategies.
Contractors Tom Ingersoll and Ben Webster recommended substitutions
for some plants, such as those in the now-shaded walled garden where
sun-dependent flowers would not thrive, and for hemlock, a target
of the wooly adaelgid. Boxwood is used instead.
At the other end of the lime walk, regeneration of the flower garden
required a detective search. “The garden wasn’t static
during the Wharton years, so we are restoring to an era,”
Child explains. “The documentation is catch-as-catch-can.
The historic photos are not always dated. They don’t repeat
the same view of the garden or section of the garden. They are taken
at different seasons.” One set of photographs, for instance,
shows blooms surrounding the pool in the flower garden. “We
all looked at the images,” Child says, “but no one could
identify the flowers until we consulted curator Peter Del Tredici,
the director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. And Peter said,
‘I really think this is an early form of petunia, probably
an import.’ So we looked it up in [L.H. Bailey’s Standard
Cyclopedia of Horticulture] and, sure enough, it was a very
loose sort of fluffy petunia, Petunia axillaries, from Argentina.
Peter obtained seeds from one of the historic seed banks, and Greg
Ward of Ward’s nursery in Sheffield, Massachusetts, propagated
them for us. Last summer, they were all around the pools, and they
looked wonderful. This year, because of finances, they put in impatiens
Child also is fascinated by the pervasive influence of Gertrude
Jekyll (1843–1932). Wharton visited the influential English
writer’s gardens and discussed her concepts with Farrand.
Separately, both Americans met Jekyll in Surrey—Farrand during
the summer of 1895 and Wharton a few years later. Much as Wharton
and her cowriter Ogden Codman Jr. suggested alternatives to stodgy
Victorian notions of interior decor in The Decoration of Houses,
Jekyll looked anew at garden design, arranging perennials to express
exuberance instead of trotting out greenhouse exotics and arranging
them in stiff displays. “Wharton used European layouts, but
she was caught up in collecting seed, like everybody else,”
Child says. “She took advantage of the new freedom to paint
her own canvas.”
Authors experience the ebb and flow of scholarly perception and
popular acceptance, and Wharton’s stock, buoyed by women’s
studies and successful movie adaptations of The Age of Innocence
and The House of Mirth, is rising. But was Wharton, born
with a silver spoon in her mouth, a mere dabbler in house decoration?
Was she a garden dilettante, as some have charged; was she strongly
influenced by her niece? How did Wharton acquire the skill and knowledge
to design her own garden?
First of all, as Henry Hope Reed, the author of books on classical
design and the first curator of Central Park, has written, she was
an outstanding figure in a generation of Americans “who seized
on the great classical tradition of Western art and used it to help
shape the arts in our country.” One concludes from the series
of essays collected in Italian Villas and Their Gardens
that Wharton applied the same prodigious analytical skills that
make her the author of enduring fiction to a subject, landscape
gardening, about which she was passionate. She traveled, she observed,
she analyzed, and she wrote, sometimes with sardonicism, as in this
passage from the introduction to Italian Villas: “The
cult of the Italian garden has spread from England to America, and
there is a general feeling that, by placing a marble bench here
and a sun-dial there, Italian ‘effects’ may be achieved.
The results produced, even where much money and thought have been
expended, are not altogether satisfactory.” Indeed, a major
point of the book is to elevate the taste of the rising American
middle class in the creation of their gardens.
Lost and found, the restored landscape at The Mount is a new window
into Wharton’s mind. The restored grounds spreading down from
the terrace were obviously shaped by a person with strong ideas
about adapting European precedents in North America. Compare The
Mount to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, where
in the 1890s George W. Vanderbilt spent a much vaster inherited
fortune hiring the towering landscape figure Frederick Law Olmsted
and a famous architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt, and importing
European decorative and fine art. Among all the Biltmore acquisitions,
Vanderbilt recedes; it is difficult to imagine who he was. In marked
contrast, Wharton is emphatically present at The Mount. “Edith
somehow knitted this formal landscape into a very natural landscape,”
says Child. “She wasn’t copying any specific place.
She just understood.” She lived and worked there, and you
can picture her studying landscape effects from her bedroom or from
the terrace and directing adjustments—to the lawn steps, to
the arrangement of evergreens in the bosk next to the walled garden,
to the displays in the flower garden.
Without any question, the house and the landscape are a single
piece of cloth, a tapestry expressing the pivotal decade in the
life of an intellectual woman. As a novelist, Wharton experienced
her first popular success during the period of The Mount, and she
seems to have achieved emotional independence there as well. And
then she escaped to France.
Before she left forever, during her last summer in the Berkshires,
Wharton wrote about The Mount to her close friend Morton Fullerton:
“Decidedly I am a better landscape gardener than novelist,
and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses
The House of Mirth.”
Landscape restoration design and landscape architecture:
Child Associates (Susan F. Child, ASLA, principal in charge).
Landscape historian: Cynthia Zaitzevsky Associates
(Cynthia Zaitzevsky, principal).
Horticultural consultant: Peter del Tredici, director
of Living Collections, Arnold Arboretum.
Archaeologists: Martha Pinello; Timothy Binzen.
Edith Wharton Restoration: David Andersen, project manager; Gordon
Clark, construction/maintenance consultant.
Landscape construction: Webster Ingersoll, LLC.
Heirloom seed propagation: Ward’s Nursery.
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