Ventfort Hall Drawing Room, Lenox, Mass

The drawing room at Ventfort Hall in Lenox, probably around the 1890s. Image courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

The room in 2018:

Although the term is rather archaic now, a drawing room was essentially a living room, functioninging as a place that guests could “withdraw” to after a dinner party. Here in Ventfort Hall, the drawing room is located in the northwest corner of the first floor, next to the main entrance and across the entry hall from the grand staircase, which can be seen beyond the doors in the present-day photo. The first photo shows the room at some point around the 1890s, probably soon after the house was completed in 1893.

Ventfort Hall remained a summer home for more than 50 years, and the drawing room was likely used for its original purpose throughout much of this time. However, the last private owner sold the property in 1945, and the house subsequently became, at various times, a dormitory, a hotel, a ballet school, and a religious school. By the late 20th century, it had deteriorated on both the interior and exterior, and it was nearly demolished in the 1990s. It was ultimately preserved, though, and the house was restored to its original appearance and opened for public tours starting in 2000.

Today, the property is the Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, and the historic home is still open for guided tours of the interior. Here in the drawing room, the furnishing is not identical to the first photo, and plain white walls have replaced the busy Victorian wallpaper, but otherwise the room is easily recognizable from the first photo, including the restored ceiling and the ornate mantelpiece. Because of its location adjacent to the front door, the drawing room now serves as the museum’s gift shop, as shown in the present-day scene.

Ventfort Hall Grand Staircase, Lenox, Mass

The grand staircase in Ventfort Hall in Lenox, around the 1890s. Image courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

The staircase in 2018:

As discussed in more detail in the previous post, Ventfort Hall was completed in 1893 as the summer home of George and Sarah Morgan. Sarah was the sister of financier J. P. Morgan, and she constructed this house soon after receiving a $3 million inheritance from their father, Junius Spencer Morgan, upon his death in 1890. However, she died only three years after the house was completed, and George died in 1911, but the house remained in the Morgan family until 1925, when it was sold to railroad executive William Roscoe Bonsal.

The house was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Rotch & Tilden, with a brick, Jacobean Revival exterior. The interior consists of 28 rooms, but perhaps the most impressive space in the house is the grand staircase, shown here in this scene. It is located just inside the main entryway on the north side of the house, and it features a carved oak banister and oak paneling, matching the Jacobean style of the house. The second floor is decorated with arches, and above them is an ornate plaster ceiling.

Ventfort Hall remained a summer residence until around 1945, and during the second half of the 20th century it was used for a variety of other purposes, including a dormitory, hotel, and ballet school. From 1976 to 1987, it was part of the Bible Speaks College, but it subsequently sat vacant and was threatened with demolition. However, in 1997 it was acquired by the Ventfort Hall Association, which restored it and opened it as a museum.

Today, the appearance of the grand staircase has hardly changed since the first photo was taken some 125 years ago. Much of the interior suffered from neglect in the late 20th century, but the staircase remained well-preserved, and it remains one of the highlights of the building’s interior. Ventfort Hall is still open to the public for tours, and its restoration marks a major accomplishment for historic preservation in the Berkshires.

Ventfort Hall, Lenox, Mass

Ventfort Hall, on Walker Street in Lenox, around 1893. Image courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

The scene in 2018:

Ventfort Hall is one of the many large summer homes that were built in the Berkshires during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The region, particularly the southern part in and around Lenox, was a popular resort destination during this period, and some of the nation’s wealthiest families had estates here. Ventfort Hall, shown here in these two photos, was owned by George and Sarah Morgan, of the prominent banking family. Sarah (1839-1896) was the sister of J. P. Morgan, and her husband George (1840-1911) was a New York banker. Despite having the same last name even before their marriage, George and Sarah were only distantly related, having been descended from two different brothers who came to America in the 17th century.

Sarah’s father, the prominent financier Junius Spencer Morgan, died in 1890, leaving her with an inheritance of $3 million, equivalent to about $85 million today. Soon after, she purchased this property on Walker Street, which at the time was occupied by another house. This house was demolished, and the Morgans hired the Boston-based architectural firm of Rotch & Tilden to design a new one. These architects had previously designed several other estates in Lenox, including the nearby Frelinghuysen House, which the Morgans rented while Ventfort Hall was under construction. However, Ventfort Hall featured a very different architectural style, with a brick, Jacobean Revival exterior, as opposed to the wood-frame Colonial Revival-style Frelinghuysen House.

Ventfort Hall was completed in 1893, around the time that the first photo was taken, but Sarah Morgan died only three years later. George continued to own the property until his death in 1911, and his two children, Junius Spencer Morgan II and Caroline Morgan, subsequently inherited it. However, the house was often rented out to other affluent families. During the late 1910s, Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt spent several summers here while her own estate, Holmwood, was under construction here in Lenox. She was in her early 30s at the time, and had been widowed in 1915 when her husband, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt – son of wealthy businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt II – died in the sinking of the Lusitania.

The house was then rented by William Roscoe Bonsal and his wife Mary. William was a railroad executive who was originally from South Carolina, and he and Mary rented the house for seven years, before purchasing it outright from the Morgan family in 1925. He died in 1933, and Mary in 1940, and the Bonsal family sold the property in 1945. By this point, though, the age of large summer estates in the Berkshires had passed, and, like many of the other nearby properties, it was converted into institutional use.

During the second half of the 20th century, Ventfort Hall was used for a variety of purposes, including as a dormitory for Tanglewood, a hotel, and a ballet school. Starting in 1976, it was one of several historic mansions owned by the Bible Speaks College. However, this school closed in 1987, and the building subsequently sat vacant for about a decade. It was threatened with demolition by a developer who wanted to construct a nursing home on the site, but it was ultimately sold to the Ventfort Hall Association in 1997, and it has since been restored to its original appearance.

Coming after many years of neglect, the restoration of Ventfort Hall was a major project, but the house opened for public tours starting in 2000. Around this same time, the house made an appearance on the silver screen when the exterior was used as a filming location for the 1999 film The Cider House Rules. Since then, the house has remained open to the public as the Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, and it is one of several historic 19th century mansions in the Berkshires that have been converted into museums.

Frelinghuysen House, Lenox, Mass

The house at the corner of Kemble Street and Walker Street in Lenox, around 1890. Image courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

The scene in 2018:

This house is often identified as having been the summer home of Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, a former U. S. Senator from New Jersey and the Secretary of State under President Chester A. Arthur. However, it appears that the house was actually built in 1888 – three years after Frelinghuysen’s death – by his widow and three of their adult children. Either way, though, the house is a very early example of Colonial Revival architecture, and it was the work of the Boston architectural firm of Rotch & Tilden, which designed several other grand summer homes here in Lenox.

The three Frelinghuysen children who owned this house were Frederick, Jr., Lucy, and Matilda. They lived here at various times, but they also rented it to other families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These included George and Sarah Morgan, the brother-in-law and sister of financier J. P. Morgan, who lived here in the early 1890s while their own house, Ventfort Hall, was being constructed nearby. About a decade later, the Alexandre family similarly lived here while awaiting the completion of Spring Lawn, which is located immediately to the south of here.

By about 1909, the Frelinghuysen house had been named Sundrum, and it was occupied by Thatcher M. Adams, a New York City attorney who served as president of the New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb. Sources provide conflicting information about whether he owned it, or simply rented it from the Frelinghuysen family, but either way Sundrum was his summer home until his death in 1919.

Subsequent owners of this house included the Bassett family, who were here for many years during the mid-20th century. However, they would be the last private residents of the house, as by this point the era of grand Berkshire summer homes had passed. Like a number of the other estates in the area, it was converted into institutional use, becoming a dormitory for the Lenox School for Boys. This school closed in 1971, but the former Frelinghuysen house was subsequently acquired by the Bible Speaks College, used the property from 1976 until 1987.

In the early 1990s, the house was converted into a hotel, which opened in 1995 as the Kemble Inn. Although millionaires no longer built massive summer estates here in the Berkshires, the region remains a popular destination for tourists, with a number of hotels and resorts, particularly here in the Lenox area. The Kemble Inn is still in business nearly 25 years after it opened here in the former mansion, and the exterior of the house remains well preserved, with few noticeable differences between these two photos except for the missing balustrades on the roof.

Breezy Corners, Lenox, Mass

Looking north on Cliffwood Street toward Greenwood Street in Lenox, with the Breezy Corners house on the right, around 1905-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The street in 2015:

As mentioned in previous posts, Lenox was a popular summer resort in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the house on the right side of the road was one of many summer “cottages” in the area. It was built around 1860, and in 1882 it was sold to Emily Meigs Biddle, a member of the prominent Biddle family in Philadelphia. She and her three adult children spent many summers here, and after Emily’s death in 1905, her youngest daughter, Emily Williams Biddle, inherited the property and kept it until she died in 1931. Over the nearly 50 years that the Biddle family owned the house, they made a number of additions to the original structure, including a third floor, a tower, and a larger servant area. Only part of the house is visible from this angle, but there are not many differences in these two views. There have not been any dramatic changes since the first photo was taken, and the historic home is still standing at the corner of Cliffwood and Greenwood Street.

Spring Lawn, Lenox, Mass

The Spring Lawn estate on Kemble Street in Lenox, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

Spring Lawn was one of many summer “cottages” built in the Berkshires in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when towns like Lenox were popular resorts for the wealthy during the Gilded Age. This mansion was built in 1904, replacing The Hive, which had been the home of Charles and Elizabeth Sedgwick and the site of Elizabeth’s prestigious school for girls. Her students included Ellen Emerson, the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson; Mary Abigal Fillmore, the daughter of president Millard Fillmore; and Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill.

The school closed after Elizabeth Sedgwick’s death in 1864, and the property changed hands several times before being purchased by New York businessman John E. Alexandre, who demolished the old house and built Spring Lawn, as seen here. It was one of the first buildings designed by noted architect Guy Lowell, who later went on to design the New York State Supreme Court Building, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Charles River Dam in Boston.

Alexandre didn’t have much time to enjoy his new house, though. He died here in 1910, and it was sold to another prominent New York City resident, Mrs. Arthur F. Schermerhorn, who renamed it “Schermeer.” The house was later owned by the Lenox School for Boys and Bible Speaks College, and it has since gone through a number of other owners. As of the 2015 photo, the house is vacant, but in 2013 the owners announced a plan to restore the historic home as part of a proposed 14-building resort on the property.