Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum
Ventfort Hall, built by George and Sarah Morgan as their summer home, is an imposing Jacobean Revival mansion that typifies the Gilded Age in Lenox. Sarah, the sister of J. P. Morgan, purchased the property in 1891, and hired Rotch & Tilden, prominent Boston architects, to design the house.
The town of Lenox was the center of the social season in the Berkshires during the Gilded Age, the period between the Civil War and the First World War. Drawn to the Berkshires by artists and writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Catherine Sedgwick, Fanny Kemble and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who had settled here early in the 19th century, as well as the beautiful countryside and scenic views of mountains and lakes, many prominent financiers and industrialists constructed luxurious and imposing summer homes in Lenox and the surrounding area. In fact, Ventfort Hall was one of about seventy-five Berkshire Cottages built in Lenox and Stockbridge during this period.
Rotch & Tilden had designed four other Berkshire cottages in Lenox and they were well known for their many city residences as well as public and religious buildings. They also designed many summer houses in Bar Harbor, Maine. Arthur Rotch played a pivotal role in the development of architectural training at both M. I. T. and Harvard, and is also known for the Rotch Traveling Scholarship, founded through the American Institute of Architects to provide European training for American architectural students. Ventfort Hall was completed in 1893.
Now on 11.7 acres, Ventfort Hall was originally the centerpiece of a large landscaped garden of 26 acres. The mansion, constructed of brick with brownstone trim, has an impressive porte cochère covering the entrance while the rear of the house, which once had a long view to the south of the Stockbridge Bowl and Monument Mountain, has a wood veranda along its entire length.
Described at the time of its completion as “one of the most beautiful places in Lenox,” the house had “28 rooms, including 15 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms and 17 fireplaces.” Typical of the period, the interior features a soaring three-story great hall and staircase with wood paneling detailing. Other rooms include an elegant salon, paneled library, a dining room, a billiard room and bowling alley. It was designed with all the latest modern amenities, numerous ingeniously ventilated bathrooms, combined gas and electric light fixtures, an elevator, burglar alarms and central heating. The property contained several outbuildings, including two gatehouses, a carriage house/stable and six greenhouses.
After the deaths of both Sarah and George Morgan, the house was rented for several years to a young widow, Margaret Vanderbilt, whose husband, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, had died on the Lusitania.
In 1925, W. Roscoe and Mary Minturn Bonsal purchased the house after seven years as tenants. Bonsal, a prominent figure in the expansion of railroads throughout the southeast, built the first cross-state railroad in Florida and served as president and treasurer of the North & South Carolina Railway and the South Carolina Western Railway.
After the Bonsals sold Ventfort hall in 1945, the house had a series of owners and was used as a dormitory for Tanglewood students, a summer hotel, the Fokine Ballet Summer Camp and housing for a religious community.
In the mid-1980s the property was sold to a nursing home developer who wanted to demolish the building. In response to this threat, a local preservation group, The Ventfort Hall Association (VHA), was formed in 1994. On June 13, 1997, with the help of many private donations and loans, and with a five-year loan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, VHA purchased the property.