July 30, 2014

A tour of Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount


Edith Wharton designed and built her three-story home in Lenox, Massachusetts, and I hadn’t known, though you might, that she was an expert in architecture and gardening. This house, built in 1902, is living proof.

Wharton spent her youth in Europe, and came back to America with a strong sense of culture shock (New York was “the ugliest city in the world” to her) and an even stronger design sensibility. The arches in her gallery, for instance, have a clear European influence. Her decorating is remarkably sparse compared to other estates from the turn of the century (not to mention the Victorian decorating she must have grown up around). Wharton wrote forty books in forty years, and many of her most famous were written from The Mount.

The Mount looks nothing like it did twenty years ago; it was reopened in 2007 after major renovations. These details were important to Wharton in her life as in her fiction, as Edmund White pointed out in The New York Review of Books in 2007:

Edith’s twelve years of unhappiness came to an end when she and her husband at last moved away from Newport (and the proximity to her mother and other relatives) and took up living in Lenox, Massachusetts, also a “social” town but one with more scope for Edith. It was there that she built a thirty-five-room house, The Mount, which Henry James described as “a delicate French château mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.” At last she was able to get rid of the clutter and ill-sorted bric-a-brac of her Victorian girlhood. Her book on decoration was so successful that it banished forever the practice of having in the same house various rooms from different cultures and epochs (the Turkish corner, the Gothic dining hall, the Louis XVI bedroom, etc.).

But if the building and decorating of her house (and entertaining artistic and intellectual friends) pulled her out of her long slump, what finally saved her was writing, “making up” short stories and novels and nonfiction books.

Here’s a firsthand look at the restored house, library, and gardens that fueled Wharton during some of her most prolific years.

Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.