July 30, 2014
A tour of Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount
by Kirsten Reach
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.
Edith Wharton designed The Mount in 1902, a testament to her expertise in architecture and gardening. She wrote her bestselling House of Mirth (1905) in this house, earning her the equivalent of $700K, as well as the classic Ethan Frome (1911).
Wharton began her first book, a work of nonfiction titled The Decoration of Houses, with this theory: “Rooms may be decorated in two ways: by a superficial application of ornament totally independent of structure, or by means of those architectural features which are part of the organism of the house, inside as well as out.” The arches shine in her upstairs entry hall, with double-doors lining the end of each hall (the one we’re facing only opens on one side; she added the second door for visual balance).
Her library contains nearly 900 books. Pictured here is the fireplace where she and houseguests like Henry James once read to one another.
“Pictures and prints should be fastened to the wall, not hung by a cord or wire, nor allowed to tild forward at an angle,” Wharton writes in The Decoration of Houses. In the $30 million restoration that began in the early 2000s, a painter literally added Wharton’s art to the walls, copying photographs of the tapestries she had in the sitting room during her tenure at The Mount. (One of the greatest surprises of a visit is that you are permitted to sit on the furniture, since none of it is original to the house. It makes for a cozy and welcoming tour.)
It’s impossible not to look up in this room. The ceiling was leaking before a nonprofit restoration group took over; pieces of plaster fell onto students below. It took a specialist six months to reconstruct this remarkable ceiling.
Wharton dined with two of her eight dogs, one on each side. Treats for the dogs sat beside her on the table. The other places are set for her closest friends and family.
Many of Wharton’s publicity photos feature the author at her desk; she rarely wrote here.
Instead she preferred to write in bed, one little dog under each arm and a well of ink balanced on her lap desk, tossing pages to the floor for servants to retrieve after the ink dried. She took her tea in the morning and rarely rose for the day before 11:30. Her father is featured above the bed, along with her two brothers; her relationship with her mother was more contentious (she took to writing rather than hosting, and her mother was a well-known socialite).
The most recent restoration project is the kitchen downstairs. Wharton and her husband, Teddy, were known for being good to their servants (because, Edith said, she was raised in a house that wasn’t). When she sent their cook away for rheumatism treatments, Wharton reports they ate little but toast until her return.
Exhibits on the second floor showcase Wharton’s extensive relief efforts during the First World War, and her difficult relationship with her husband as he was devoured by bipolar disease, going so far as to try to take her fortune. In a quiet divorce, she asked only to keep the name “Mrs. Wharton.” On a brighter note, Wharton believed her gardening was superior to her novel-writing, which is hard to believe.
Two lines of rectangular bushes line the walks on your left and right.
Fountains and heaps upon heaps of flowers greet you behind The Mount.
Wharton and her husband were utterly devoted to their dogs, later burying each in a ceremony and annointing each with a tiny headstone in their own pet cemetery.
An old photograph of Wharton at her desk.
Ex libris Edith Wharton, during her time in France.
Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.