Edith Wharton had lifelong love affairs with her homes. At the turn of the century, Edith fell in love with a new locale: the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. She wrote to Ogden Codman, Jr., with whom she had co-authored The Decoration of Houses: “The truth is, I am in love with the place—climate, scenery, life & all.”
Built by Edith and Teddy Wharton in 1902, The Mount was the scene of many of Edith’s greatest triumphs and some of her deepest sorrows. It was in this self-created setting that she wrote her first bestseller, The House of Mirth, and entertained illustrious friends such as Henry James. It was at The Mount that Edith Wharton came into her own as one of America’s greatest writers.
The Whartons moved from The Mount in 1911, but Edith never fully separated herself from the property. In her later years she admitted poignantly: “The Mount was my first real home… and its blessed influence still lives in me.”
The Mount survives today as Edith Wharton’s autobiographical house, definitely embodying its creator’s spirit and ideas, as well as her distinctive passion for houses.
The design of The Mount involved a combination of Edith Wharton’s philosophies and astute knowledge of design and architecture, the initial planning by Ogden Codman, Jr., and the work of the firm Hoppin & Koen. It is difficult to assign specific design elements to individuals with complete certainty, due to a lack of documentation.
The idea of locating the house on a rock outcropping to take in the view of Laurel Pond and Laurel Lake was most likely a decision made by Edith and Teddy Wharton in response to the site. The H-shaped plan of Codman’s rough sketches suggest the mansion was based on English country houses of the 17th century, specifically Belton House in Lincolnshire.
The Mount is smaller than Belton House, and instead of being built of grey stone, The Mount’s appearance is affected by the use of stucco painted white (with the green shutters, the effect is that of a proper New England house). And instead of Belton’s flat site, The Mount’s unusual hillside perch and the large terrace anchoring it to the landscape are distinctive features.
Forecourt and Entrance Hall
Just as the Forecourt was designed to be an extension of the house into the landscape, the entrance hall was an extension of the landscape into the house. It was conceived as a grotto, or artificial cave, with stylized plaster-work simulating mossy walls and dripping water. The original marble fountain supports a bronze statue of Pan by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies.
The gallery was inspired by smaller rooms Wharton had admired in Italy. It is essentially a circulation space, allowing separate access to all of the surrounding rooms and cross ventilation in the heat of summer. Here Wharton displayed a collection of objets d’art from her travels—vases, busts, statues, and antique furniture. Wharton chose terrazzo and marble for the floors. The bas relief sculpture about the doors to Teddy Wharton’s den is original to the house and depicts John the Baptist as an infant.
Teddy Wharton’s Den
This room, where Teddy Wharton had a small office and could relax, was designed by Ogden Codman, Jr. It maintains its original hardware (ordered from France), mirror, marble fireplace, cast-iron fire-back, French doors, and parquet floor. Two original classical-style paintings set into the walls above the doors depict satyrs. The case displays treasures from Edith Wharton’s book collection, which can be viewed in the library through the “hidden” doorway.
Edith Wharton’s Library
The design of Wharton’s library follows recommendations in The Design of Houses that the primary decoration of a library should be its books, and that the shelves be organic decoration built into the walls rather than freestanding furniture. The paneling is oak, and the design and detailing are by Codman. A tapestry was inset into the library wall; the original was sold in the 1930s, and is approximated here. Although Wharton was photographed several times sitting at her desk, she actually did most of her creative writing in her bedroom. The library was a place for solitary study, or for entertaining close friends with readings before the fire.
The books on the shelves are Edith’s own, having returned to The Mount in 2006 after almost a century in Europe. Click here to read about the history of Edith Wharton’s library (in PDF form).
The largest room in the house, it is also the only room with an elaborate ceiling treatment, which was completely recreated in 2002. Highlights of the original decoration included two c. 1710 Brussels tapestries set into the walls: “Narcissus at the Fountain” and “Bacchus and Ariadne.” Both are reproduced here from photographs. The room features a beautiful French marble mantle with a cast-iron fire-back depicting Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. The terrazzo floor was covered by a carpet, probably an Aubusson from France.
The one photograph of the dining room in the Whartons’ time reveals a round Victorian table with white-painted French armchairs. A cushion under the table was provided for a favorite dog. The two paintings inset into the walls are original to the house, but little is known about them. The elaborate plaster garlands of fruits, birds, and fish were designed by Odgen Codman and based on the work of Grinling Gibbons, the renowned 17th-century English woodcarver.
The hall, which is approximately 59 feet long, was decorated plainly in Wharton’s time, in keeping with her belief that a hall was a principally a passageway and not a living space. It is divided into two distinct parts: a staircase hall, which might have been furnished as a waiting area, and a narrow gallery onto which the majority of rooms open.
West Guest Suite
The suite of two adjoining rooms on the western side of the house was probably used by Wharton’s married guests. The larger room has a fireplace of grey Italian marble.
Henry James Guest Suite
The novelist Henry James was Wharton’s most honored guest, and it is likely that he stayed in this, the best guest room, during his three visits to The Mount. James was deeply impressed by the beauty of the estate, which he called “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond,” and by the Whartons’ hospitality.
Teddy Wharton’s Bedroom Suite
Just as Teddy Wharton’s den is smaller than his wife’s library, so is his bedroom suite smaller, as if to emphasize his secondary position in the household. Its one distinctive feature is the beautiful mantle of black and white negro marquina Spanish marble.
Edith Wharton’s Boudoir and Bathroom
Wharton’s boudoir, or sitting room, was designed by Codman, and is the most elaborately decorated room on the bedroom floor. It is dominated by eight floral still-life paintings set into the paneling, which came from Milan, Italy. Original furnishings included a desk, a sofa, and a daybed, with curtains and upholstery of toile de Jouy.
The bathroom opens onto a vestibule, so that servants could enter without disturbing Wharton in her rooms. The wallpaper was reproduced by Scalamandré in 2006 based on examples found in situ.
Edith Wharton’s Bedroom
This room was decorated simply, the treatment “most fitting” for a bedroom, according to The Design of Houses. The mantle is of rare grey and white French marble. The recently installed wallpaper is based on a fragment of Wharton-era paper found in a nearby bedroom.
Wharton did most of her writing here; she would awaken early and write in bed, dropping the finished pages to the floor to be collected later for typing by her secretary. The bedroom connected to Teddy’s suite by way of a door into his dressing room.