We really enjoy living in the greater Boston area. There are so many things to see and do. Recently, we visited Ventfort Hall in Lenox, Massachusetts and stayed for a holiday afternoon tea.
America’s Gilded Age was the period between the Civil War and the First World War during which wealthy industrialists and bankers built vast and imposing vacation homes in shore towns like Newport, Rhode Island and the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. I’ve just finished reading Love, Fiercely, the story of a couple painted by John Singer Sargent, so the stories of these highly interconnected, affluent families was on my mind. I’d be willing to venture that the Minturns and Stokes were guests at Ventfort Hall in its heyday.
Ventfort Hall was built by the sister of J.P. Morgan and her husband in the heavy-handed Jacobean Revival style in 1893. Despite its English architecture, Sarah Morgan gave the house a French name, vent fort (vehn for) means “strong wind.” The 28,000 square foot “cottage” was a combination of heavily-carved dark wood paneling and the most modern conveniences of the day, including gas and electric light fixtures, an elevator, burglar alarms, and central heating.
After the deaths of the original owners, the house passed through the hands of several owners, becoming increasingly shabby. Eventually, a developer acquired the property with the intention of bulldozing it and using the land for a nursing home. To that end, he started to pry off every bit of woodwork to sell as salvage. When the building was acquired by Ventfort Hall Association in 1997, plaster was hanging in sheets from the elaborate ceilings, floors had partially collapsed, and wood had been devoured by carpenter ants.
I have to admit that if I’d seen the house in 1997, I would have counseled the Association to walk away and not throw good money after bad, but they’ve done an amazing job. Soon after their acquisition of the house, it was used as a set for The Cider House Rules. Since the property was standing in for an orphanage, it was appropriate that it look a little dilapidated, but the film gave a much needed cash injection to get the repairs started. Craftsmen have restored the intricate plaster ceilings, rebuilt the fireplaces, pieced together the puzzle of the dismantled paneling, and carved replacement sections for pieces that were missing or too badly damaged. Today, the downstairs is in pretty good shape, although there is still work to do, and the principal rooms of the upstairs are quite lovely. Most of the furnishings have been donated or are on loan, as the VHA is working with very limited funds.
Afternoon tea was a fund-raiser for the ongoing work at the Hall. VHA volunteers put on an ample and elegant spread based upon recipes in the Ventfort Hall cookbook. Guess who won a copy of the book by sitting on a specially marked seat? Guess who avoids cooking whenever possible? I swapped it with a very nice guest for a CD. When I got home, I rewatched The Cider House Rules to see Ventfort’s movie debut. The film made it clear how much the VHA has accomplished since taking on the preservation of this remarkable property. If you’re in the Berkshires, do stop by.