Monday, June 7, 2010

7 June 1892: Edith Wharton Begins to Build "The Mount"

From Mass Moments: 1902, the writer Edith Wharton wrote to a friend about a visit to the site of her new home, The Mount, under construction in Lenox: "Lenox has had its usual tonic effect on me, & I feel like a new edition, revised and corrected." Once considered desolate wilderness, the beautiful Berkshire Hills and the quaint village of Lenox drew writers, artists, and intellectuals throughout the nineteenth century. By 1900 Lenox had become the summer place of choice for many of New York's wealthiest families. Like Wharton, they built magnificent houses — which they called "cottages" — with extensive grounds. When the Gilded Age ended, so did the "Berkshire Cottage" era. A few estates survive. Edith Wharton's The Mount is one of them. (read the rest)
It's a wonderful place in the sense of house and landscape. It's also been a great venue for cultural events (we've enjoyed seeing Shakespeare performed there).

And now, as the saying goes, the rest of the story.

What Mass Moments did not mention was that, by 2008, The Mount—by now, a historic site dedicated to the legacy of Edith Wharton—was facing foreclosure and begging for emergency public donations.  Speaking in favor of saving The Wharton Restoration (that's the official name), the Boston Globe—cleverly, it no doubt thought (admittedly, the Globe thinks everything it does is clever)—entitled its editorial, "Edith Wharton's House of Worth." However, there is another, more critical or ironic way to read that punning tag, for this is really a story of overvaluation: inflated sense of worth and impunity.  To be fair, the Globe also avuncularly declares that board members "must ask themselves tough questions about whether the organization overextended itself," and correctly concludes, "The evidence suggests that it did."  This is what we refer to as genteel understatement. The Wharton Restoration ran into trouble because of a series of shockingly ill-considered decisions, first and foremost, reckless reliance on debt in the absence of a sustainable strategic plan.

One final and near-fatal blow was the entirely understandable but dubiously justifiable decision to purchase Wharton's library from a British bookdealer. In the first place, although the importance for Wharton scholarship is obvious, the connection to the site is more tenuous. Wharton lived there for less than a decade, so the library actually comes in large part from her European expat digs. In the second place, as my book-history and book-trade colleagues agree, the collection was vastly overvalued at a price of 2.6 million dollars for 2,600 volumes (you do the math; even few "association copies" belonging to famous authors have that kind of intrinsic average value). Better management would have gotten a better deal or called the dealer's bluff. What is even more shocking—indeed, stupefyingly stupid—was the decision to purchase the books on the vague assumption that individual donors would later step forward and finance the deal by "adopting" individual books. Finally, one can question whether the books belonged at a site that was not yet properly equipped to house them and manage their use.  The Wharton papers are at Yale, and a large institution with deep pockets and proper facilities and staffing might have been a far more appropriate purchaser.  It's always tempting to try to acquire collections that are generally germane to the focus of a historic site, but one needs to ask the tough questions about core mission, support and sustainability.

The current Executive Director (and Vice President of Operations at the time of the débâcle) tells the story of the crisis in the most sanitized fashion and paints its prospects in the rosiest light.  (the editor of the interview calls these remarks "open and precise." LOL) We know all too well what happened. As for the future ("pragmatic about facing ongoing challenges"), we shall see.

Everyone who cares about culture, book history, and historic preservation should be glad that The Mount has been saved. But we should all hope and pray that the new management will be wiser.  Recent years have seen a trend (and need) for better planning and assessment at historic sites. The recent financial crisis and changing cultural market make that planning and accountability all the more important.

Lesson:  True, if you build it, they will come, but you then need to preserve it, endow it, and manage it efficiently!

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