Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sermon on the Mount

Before she wrote a word of fiction, Edith Wharton was an interior design enthusiast. She wasn't an interior decorator because she needed no profession, having been born into the original Jones family, the ones we've spent 150 years trying to keep up with. Her first published work was The Decoration of Houses, an interior design manifesto. She put her words into action in the design and decoration of the Mount, her country "cottage" in Lenox, MA.

Wharton spent happy years at the Mount; it's where she wrote some of her best-known works, where she spent days hanging out with her buddy Henry James, where she and her husband-of-convenience, Teddy, amicably worked out the details of their divorce by letters sent across the hall, from one bedroom to the next. Wharton lost the Mount in the divorce and went into exile in France, and thus began a decline in fortunes for the home that ironically mirrors the downward spiral of Lilly Bart. The Mount was in private hands, then became a boarding school for girls, and then for years housed a theater company. Finally, in the early 1990s, restoration of the Mount began; it's recently been open to the public as an incompletely restored museum.

Sadly, the Mount is about to go into foreclosure. In fact, if $3 million isn't raised by the end of business today, the bank will take it. You can read the saga of the Mount's financial troubles in this week's New Yorker (I can't link to it because it won't go online until next week). The purchase of Wharton's library from a British book dealer led to some of the financial difficulties, but the truth of the matter is that the museum has been operating at a deficit for years.

Most house museums operate at a deficit, as it turns out. There's been a trend in recent years of these small museums being turned back to private hands; trustees try to turn these historic treasures over to the state, but the state wants no part of an expensive losing proposition. Geeks like me, who will drive out of the way to tour an historic property, are an endangered species; geeks like me who care about the preservation of our architectural history to the point where we become philanthropic about it are even more endangered.

What do we lose when historic properties revert to private hands, to become country clubs or condos? Watch this slide show to understand the Mount's importance. A property doesn't need to have been designed or inhabited by a person of distinction to be significant, though. To our contemporaries, our homes say something about who we are, how we see ourselves. More importantly, future generations can learn valuable lessons about the way we live now by studying our homes. I learned more about the culture of slavery by touring restored plantations that I ever did by reading a book. In a couple hundred years someone will learn more about contemporary suburban life by touring a restored McMansion (assuming one stands that long) than by reading a history of the exurbs.

What's the solution? I don't know. Start by becoming a geek. Support house museums by visiting them. Support historic preservation efforts. Some things just aren't meant to become condos.

UPDATE! The bank has extended Wharton Restoration's outstanding loan due date until May 24. So far, $800K has been raised. In the meantime, the Mount remains open for tours until May 9.

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