Monday, September 6, 2010

Stops on the Road Trip Back to School - Part 2: The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts

The second historic estate my parents and I visited on our little tour of the Berkshires is probably the most well-known, if only because it was created by none other than the famous American author Edith Wharton. Later the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, Wharton built and landscaped The Mount relatively early in her career. She designed the house in 1902, already forty years old but not yet having published her more famous novels such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence or her influential non-fiction work Italian Villas and Their Gardens. She had, however, published The Decoration of Houses in 1897 and at The Mount she put her ideas into practice, designing an entire estate in accordance with her aesthetic ideals and principles. Compared to many other American estates with their blatant stylistic borrowing from English country seats, The Mount has a more continental feel, perhaps not surprising considering Wharton's copious writings against Victorian clutter and her love of continental Europe, which would lead her to spend the last two decades of her life in France. Though still supposedly modeled on Belton House, a 17th-century Palladian mansion in Lincolnshire, the French and Italian influences are strong at The Mount, particularly in the bright and playful interiors. Laid out a bit later than the house, the gardens, too, are a fusion of French and Italianate styles, with an Italian-style giardino segreto or "secret garden" and a French-style formal flower garden.

The woodland approach from the estate entrance to the house

The entrance façade

 White-washed brick walls covered in Euonymus fortunei in the entrance forecourt

Wharton left The Mount and moved to France in 1913 after divorcing her mentally troubled husband Edward Robbins Wharton. It was then occupied by other private owners and eventually used as a secondary building by a girls' boarding school. Restoration work only began in the 1980s. Consequently, much of the interiors as they had been during Wharton's times are no longer original but rather recreations and quite a few rooms have not been returned to a furnished state at all but rather are used as exhibition space illustrating Wharton's life and works. Interestingly, in those parts of the interiors that have been restored, one finds quite a few floral motifs that bring the garden inside.

The great hall on the first floor
 Wall panel painted in the style of Dutch flower paintings in Edith Wharton's boudoir
 Another flower painting
The gardens had disappeared more or less completely and have been reconstructed as part of the restoration of the estate; nevertheless, they have already grown in nicely and are once again beautiful. Looking at pictures of the gardens from Wharton's times and comparing them with the state of grounds now, one would not know that the neat hedges and flower beds have ever been gone. One enters the gardens through the terrace that runs along the garden front of the house. A double staircase descends through grassy terraces punctuated with clipped arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) to the lime walk, which consists of clipped linden trees (Tilia sp.) and runs parallel to the façade of the house, connecting the formal flower garden on the left and the sunken, Italianate giardino segreto to the right.
The view from the terrace across the lime walk and towards the woods in the distance

View towards the house from the lime walk

View along the lime walk towards the flower garden
The formal flower garden is situated in such a way in relation to the house that Edith Wharton could view it from her bedroom window. According to Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller in The Golden Age of American Gardens, it was the Red Garden in Wharton's time and she described it as "her Oriental carpet, floating in the sun" (Griswold and Weller 13). It is centered around a shallow rectangular pool which is graced by an Italianate dolphin fountain and edged with colorful annuals, though these follow a pink and purple color scheme this year rather than the red one that apparently characterized the garden in Wharton's time. The annuals in turn by panels of lawn set in light gravel paths and accentuated with globes of boxwood (Buxus sempervirens). Deep mixed borders of perennials and annuals run around the edge of the rectangular space and the vista of the lime walk is visually concluded by a niche constructed in French-style green lattice work.

The flower garden as seen from Edith Wharton's room

View across the flower garden as one enters from the lime walk

Japanese anemones (Anemone hupehensis var. japonica)

Annuals in the flower borders, including white Zinnia linearis, blue Ageratum houstonianum, and chartreuse Nicotiana alata

The house as seen from the flower garden

In comparison to the flower garden, the secret garden has a more rustic, almost rough formality and a very subdued color scheme. Shady and surrounded on two sides by tall stone walls clad in climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris), with the remaining two sides enclosed by a rustic pergola covered in fox grape (Vitis labrusca) and a terraced drop in level from the lime walk planted with lawn and arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), the secret garden has a strictly green-and-white color scheme. The central pool is round and contains not an elaborately carved fountain head but a pile or rough rocks from which the water spouts forth. The fountain is ringed with annuals, this year double impatiens (Impatiens walleriana) in palest pink interspersed with Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost'. Four straight paths that meet at the fountain divide the rest of the garden into quarters, each occupied by a sheet of lawn edged with white astilbe (Astilbe Arendsii Group) and further ornamented with a single globe-shaped boxwood (Buxus sempervirens). Smaller bed running around the boundary of the garden are planted with white-flowered Hosta plantaginea and ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris).

The secret garden as seen from above

View across the center of the garden towards the rustic pergola hung with fox grape (Vitis labrusca)

View towards the lime walk

Pale pink double impatiens (Impatiens walleriana)

The house as seen from the secret garden

The Mount is open to visitors daily from May 1 to October 31 from 10am to 5pm. For more information, you can visit the website of the estate at http://www.edithwharton.org/.

Additional Source: The Golden Age of American Gardens by Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller, 1991.

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