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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 Jekyll.

The view today from the restored Italian walled garden to the restored Georgian Revival house.
David Andersen/EWR

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 axis.

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 following year.

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 says.

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 instead.”

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.”

Project Credits
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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