Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 10, 2020

On the Road: Homes of Berkshires Rich & Famous

by Shera Cohen

By my count, there are seven National Historic Landmarks in the Berkshires of MA. Yesterday, I had the experience of visiting two of these. Seemingly, National Historic Landmark titles might be tossed around to any site that meets the qualification of being old. Not the case. In my past career, a near-lifetime ago, one of my important jobs was to access this illustrious status for a particular building and area of land in Springfield, MA. While I like challenges, this was a grueling task that took many months, interviewing experts in historic fields, surveying land, readings, and much more.

The importance that both The Mount in Lenox, MA and Naumkeag in Stockbridge, MA have been deemed worthy by the Federal government as sights of significance in America’s history is valuable. Equally, significant is that The Mount and Naumkeag were each founded at the turn of the 20th century by women.

This was the era of the Gilded Age, when women, especially daughters of rich New York tycoons, traipsed through society with all of the trappings of finery, folly, and fortune. Yet, other women of this era used their attributes and money to become far more generous than their male counterparts. Whether or not the term “philanthropists” was used, the outcome of wealthy women helping those in poverty became extremely crucial to the women of the Gilded Age.

It wouldn’t have been a surprise if Edith Wharton, owner of The Mount and Mabel Choate, owner of Naumkeag had afternoon tea together on a hot summer day, refreshed by the air that flowed across the long hallway from an open door at each end. These were the days when horsemen drove the carriage into the circular entry in front of the house. They presented a calling card to a servant which was then placed on a small brass dish and delivered to the lady of the house. Conveniently situated was a second-floor window to take a peek at the lady or gentleman caller.

Edith and Mabel were both raised in New York City, where their dads made their fortunes. Edith in 1862 (when the Civic War was very much in progress, and Mabel Choate in 1870 (the anti-bellum era). They found respite, natural beauty, creativity, and solitude in their Berkshire homes, and at the same time, traveled the world; Edith acquiring stories that influenced her numerous novels, and Mabel bringing home tremendous works of art from Asia.

The Mount
Taking a self-guided tour with the help of docents throughout the building was no hindrance to what we saw and learned. Having participated in a formal house tour of the Mount in the past, I had remembered many of the special points to look for; i.e. Edith Wharton’s Suite where she spent many hours writing her novels in bed, all in long-hand. From her window, she could look directly at her pet cemetery on a large grassy hill. Supposedly the cemetery is haunted. I had been on the Ghost Tour in the past, and I highly recommend it. Three floors, each with long and deep hallways were surrounded by bedrooms and separate bathrooms of various sizes. Four to seven servants cooked the meals in two large kitchens and Butler’s Pantry, using the elevator for easy access. Most impressive is the library, a dark room of carved panels of wood containing Edith’s original collection.

Mabel Choate’s home Naumkeag, in its own and completely differently design, appears out of nowhere as an 15th century stone castle complete with parapet. The design and construction of the house became a project of many years for Mabel and architect Fletcher Steele. Every minutia of Mabel and Fletcher’s suggestions were evaluated by the other. There became a team. Because our tour focused on the gardens, there was certainly enough to fill an hour of time. I have said in previous articles that tour guides/docents can make or break the experience for the guest. This guide, with a blue floppy hat and whose name I missed, was exceptional and humorous. She quoted Mabel, a beautiful woman who remained single, saying, “If you have a garden and a home, you don’t need a man.”

At each turn was another garden with carefully selected flowers and trees; my favorite being the Chinese pagoda with tall colorful stands surrounding, along with serpentine bushes to create an actual home within a home, the bushes becoming a carpet, of course.

I suggest keeping The Mount and Naumkeag on your “to see list” this summer or fall. Our governor and MA is quite vigilant in adhering to Covid guidelines. Call ahead, book tour times or do-it-yourself tours, realize that bookstores and concessions will likely not be open. I found that distancing was never a problem, as patrons were extremely courteous to each other. Parking at both venues is ample, as well as the vista from all sides of the properties. For details, go to the venue websites at and

Yes, Elizabeth Wharton and Mabel Choate had the pleasure of living in their lovely homes, but like many women of the Gilded Age, they gave back during their lifetime and afterward. Elizabeth and Mabel did not just sit around in their gardens.