Why Edith Wharton's house, the Mount, must be saved.

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April 21 2008 7:22 AM

Save the Mount!

Why Edith Wharton's house is an architectural treasure.

"Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click to view expanded image."

Outside design circles, not many people know that Edith Wharton's first publication was a decorating manual. It's a perplexing fact. Our own American grande dame, author of more than 40 books, friend of Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt … bothered herself with wallpaper and sconces? (Actually, she loathed wallpaper.) But after the initial shock, perhaps you'll remember reading The Age of Innocence or seeing Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of it and realize that Wharton is fused in your mind with masterfully described interiors—at which point, your confusion will click into a satisfied "Huh!" If so, you might be moved, as I was, to rent a car and go visit the Mount, the only one of Wharton's many residences remaining. But act fast: If the Mount doesn't somehow acquire $3 million by April 24, the bank is going to shut it down. The interiors you're about to see may be lost to the public forever.

Update, April 24, 2008: Thanks in part to contributions from Slate readers, the Mount was able to get its foreclosure deadline extended from today to May 31. Susan Wissler, acting executive director of the Mount, wrote, "Slate had much to do with the extension. The uptick in web contributions from the day the Slate piece appeared was immediate and significant." Keep up the good work. The official site of the Mount has all the details.

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Wharton co-wrote The Decoration of Houseswith architect Ogden Codman at a crucial moment in design history. In 1897, when the book came out, America was desperately trying to rid itself of Victorian clutter but didn't know how. Treatises like Wharton's, advocating common-sense living and a return to simplicity, guided the way. That her version of simplicity was very different from ours—lots of "clean-lined" French furniture—is beside the point. By combining the best of European classical design elements and arguing for proportion and symmetry, Wharton contributed to a new American visual vocabulary and influenced a generation of tastemakers. In 1901, she hired Codman to help her realize her own example of this vision: a grand, 42-room "cottage" overlooking a peaceful lake in Lenox, Mass., where she and her husband, Teddy, summered. (The rest of the year they lived on Park Avenue or traveled.) The Mount is more than a famous author's one-time summer home. It is a wood-and-stucco manifestation of Wharton's design principles and has the distinction of being an "autobiographical house."

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Wharton was 40 years old when she moved into the Mount, and she stayed for only a decade, but it was a decisive one. Until that point, she'd been an unhappily married society matron who dabbled in writing. At the Mount, she became a wildly successful novelist, experienced a sexual awakening (with the no-account rake Morton Fullerton), and prepared to leave Teddy for good; they divorced in 1913. As architectural historian David Dashiell told me during the generously exhaustive, erudite tour he provided: "It was here that she realized she could control her life." Her home's discreet unorthodoxy was a fitting backdrop for the upheaval to come. Take the tiny entry vestibule, which completely upended standard American notions of what an entryway should be. No showy portico here; instead, this fiercely private woman installed a narrow, grottolike intermediary space into which visitors could be admitted, vetted, and only then, if deemed worthy, ushered upstairs. As she wrote in The Decoration of Houses, "While the main purpose of a door is to admit, its secondary purpose is to exclude."

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The exterior of the Mount was modeled on a 17th-century English country house, but the interior is a graceful amalgamation of French and Italian ideas. After entering the ground floor vestibule and mounting the stairs, visitors are treated to this capacious, barrel-vaulted, terrazzo-floored gallery, inspired by the European piano nobile. The Decoration of Housesexplains that "gala rooms" like these were meant for entertaining: "Therefore, to fulfill their purpose, they must be large, very high-studded, and not overcrowded with furniture, while the walls and ceiling—the only parts of a crowded room that can be seen—must be decorated with greater elaboration than would be pleasing or appropriate in other rooms." In Wharton's day, the color scheme was reversed: pale blue-green walls with white trim.

Photograph by Willy Somma.

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At the end of the gallery is Teddy's den, a smallish "lounging space" with lots of natural light where he read, saw friends, and managed his wife's finances (the only job he ever held). As The Decoration of Houseswould have it, even this undersized workroom was given a certain grandeur: "The best way of obtaining an effect of size is to panel the walls by means of clear-cut architectural molding: a few strong vertical lines will give dignity to the room and height to the ceiling." Surprisingly, given Wharton's admiration for clean lines and simple shapes—elements that were often, during her time, hotly debated using moral rhetoric such as honestyand purity—the room also boasts a bit of chicanery: a (not-so) secret door. "Every device is permissible that helps to produce an effect of spaciousness and symmetry without interfering with convenience: chief among these contrivances being the concealed door." On the other side of it is Wharton's library.

Photograph by Willy Somma.

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Wharton had hoped to build her house out of stone, but though she was wealthy, she wasn't wealthy enough and had to make do with wood and stucco. Here in her library, however, she went for broke: built-in bookshelves made of costly quarter-sawn oak, each with an intricately hand-carved decorative cartouche atop. "There is no reason why the decorations of a library should not be splendid," she wrote in The Decoration of Houses, "but in that case the books must be splendid too, and sufficient in number to dominate all the accessory decorations of the room." Wharton never wrote in here; instead, she liked to invite two or three friends to sit on plump armchairs and a chaise by the fire (out of view).

Photograph by Willy Somma.

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As you might expect, Wharton's biographer Hermione Lee is very concerned about the fate of the library. She wrote to me in an e-mail: "I had the good luck to be able to immerse myself in her reading—and look at every mark she made in her books. My biography of Wharton is full of details of her readings. Eventually the books were sold to the Mount—so they went back to the library she herself had designed, where they are now sitting. The thought that the library might have to be sold—and in all probability dispersed—to save the fortunes of the Mount fills me with sadness."

Photograph by Willy Somma.

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All of the Mount's architectural details are original to the house or painstakingly restored. In 1982, most of the applied decoration in the drawing room, from the wedding cake of a ceiling (a demonstration of her disdain for "monotonous" overhead surfaces) to the decorative swags between the French doors, was reinstated after severe water damage. Those doors are key to her vision: An ardent gardener, Edith was an equally passionate (and prescient) believer in the modern notion of "indoor/outdoor" living; the room opens out onto an enormous marble-paved terrace overlooking her magnificently landscaped grounds. The interior decorations, however, are complete fabrications. After Edith left for France in 1911, the building was a girls' school and then a theater company until 2002, when Edith Wharton Restoration, a nonprofit established in 1980, took over. That year, decorators were invited to reinterpret the interiors for a fundraising designer showcase. Fortunately for Wharton fans, Charlotte Moss hewed as closely as possible to the original scheme, right down to the fringe-trimmed tufted sage sofa and three separate "conversation" areas (one hidden from view).

Photograph by Willy Somma.

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"My photographic memory of rooms and houses … was from my earliest years a source of inarticulate misery, for I was always vaguely frightened by ugliness," Wharton confided in her memoir, A Backward Glance. At the Mount, she surrounded herself with beauty, sparing no detail. By chance, the only time the estate lay vacant was during the late 1970s, just before the restoration craze hit. Surely there were curious interlopers during those years, but they left everything alone, even the easy-to-take hardware such as this lovely ormolu-and-enamel rim lock.

Photograph by Willy Somma.

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Wharton devotees are forgiven for shuddering at the use of leopard print—a casualty of 2002's designer showcase. At the time, decorator Libby Cameron told Berkshires Week that she'd used it to pay homage to her vision of Wharton as a "modern woman." Though Wharton wasn't a fan of the stuff, it can be argued that she'd have appreciated the practicality of using a dirt-hiding pattern in a highly trafficked area. The original black-painted iron rail, at least, is accurate. Wharton considered staircases to be transitional spaces and therefore liked to give them "outdoor" features. The way the ziggurat of the stairs is hidden by an undulating outer casing is an especially nice touch: It makes the staircase look more like a conveyor than a thing that needs to be surmounted.

Photograph by Willy Somma.

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Though large by any standards, the Mount was actually a rejoinder to the architectural ostentation that Wharton had experienced in Newport, R.I., and even to those houses going up near hers in the comparatively more "low-key" Berkshires. Arranged in a very logical and symmetrical H-plan, in which rooms all in a row open onto a hallway with two straight expressions at either end, the house has a very human, livable scale. While everyone else was flaunting wealth, she was trailblazing: The notion that your home should be a reflection of your own aesthetic, not someone else's, was only then coming into being. As the local paper put it shortly before Wharton moved in: "This will be one of the houses whose furnishings reflect the character and taste of its owner, and not that of any upholstering firm, no matter how artistic."

Photograph by Willy Somma.

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This is one of several guest rooms and the place where Wharton's dear friend Henry James stayed the three times he came to visit. The door to the left leads to a bathroom where, on one especially hot day, he sat in a cold tub with the fan blowing, eating oranges. When Wharton booked him an early passage home, he was outraged. Just because he was miserable didn't mean he wanted to leave. The striped wallpaper is a remnant of the designer showcase, but the floors are deceptively bare. In 2002, each plank was scrupulously lifted, numbered, and set aside so that the infrastructure could be secured and sprinklers installed—a fearsomely expensive procedure. Such are the present costs of Wharton's corner-cutting at the time of construction; 100 years on, the building is frightfully unsound. Needless to say, not too many backers are interested in funding unglamorous structural renovations—hence, in part, the Mount's current plight.

Photograph by Willy Somma.

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This is the view of Wharton's bathroom and bedroom from the vestibule. The wallpaper is the restoration of a pattern believed to be original to the house—much to the mystification of the Mount's restorers. Wallpapers were highly controversial at the turn of the century, and Wharton was one of their loudest detractors. "Besides being objectionable on sanitary grounds," she maintained, "they are inferior as wall-decoration to any form of treatment. ... A papered room can never, decoratively or otherwise, be as satisfactory as one in which the walls are treated in some other manner." Wharton wrote in her bedroom every day until noon. She loved the view: before her unfurled her highly manicured gardens, to her left, a tiny cemetery where she buried her small, beloved dogs. While here, she was amazingly prolific, writing the novels The House of Mirth (1905), The Fruit of the Tree (1907), and most of The Custom of the Country (1913); the novellas Sanctuary (1903), Madame de Treymes (1907), and Ethan Frome (1911); the study Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904); and many short stories and poems.

Photograph by Willy Somma.

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Wharton was very strict about which rooms were for public consumption and which were private. This boudoir, across the hall from her bedroom, was a way station: a third-floor sitting room where she received her most intimate visitors. The decorative molding and painted panels reflect its status as a public space; in comparison, her bedroom is shockingly plain. In an early short story, "The Fullness of Life," she wrote: I have sometimes thought that a woman's nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting room, where members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handle of whose doors perhaps are never turned, no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.

Photograph by Willy Somma.

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Is the Mount's plight a bellwether? Certainly the economy doesn't bode well for any cultural institution. But Susan Wissler, acting director of Edith Wharton Restoration, and her recently laid-off publications director, David Dashiell, worry that the Mount's troubles speak to a larger trend toward über-commercialization. It's not cheap running a place like this—taking into account salaries, maintenance, upkeep, property insurance, housekeeping, and other concerns, the annual operating budget is $2.2 million—and though Edith Wharton Restoration raises half of that each year, for the balance they rely on public support, which has proved more and more difficult to come by. "The Mount is a work of art," Wissler explains. "Nobody expects the Mona Lisa to pay her way." She's optimistic, though, that some savior out there will step in. The irony of the situation is not lost on Hermione Lee. As she concluded in her e-mail to me, "Edith and her husband Teddy sold the Mount when their marriage was breaking up, in circumstances of great pain, confusion and distress, just under a hundred years ago. It seems deeply and darkly ironic—as ironic as any Wharton novel—that the house should once again be undergoing financial and management troubles."

Photograph by Willy Somma.

Kate Bolick is a writer in New York. Her first book, a personal exploration of single women in America, will be published next year.

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