Berkshire County, Massachusetts GenWeb Project


Bellefontaine, Lenox, Massachussetts
Bellefontaine was built in 1897 during the "Guilded Age" by Giraud Foster as a retreat for his family. The mansion is a copy of Louis XVI's Petit Trianon and was the most ornate and lavish of the summer cottages, yet the most constant in theme of design, appointments, decoration, and landscaping. Drawing on a European heritage dating back at least to his grandfather, a man of considerable means who came to this country from Scotland in his own ship, Giraud Foster -- possibly of all the cottagers -- most perfectly fit the classic mold of lord of the manor.

Built in 1897 of local brick and marble from the quarries of nearby Lee, Bellefontaine was in all other respects an authentic period piece, and Giraud Foster lived in it with graceful authenticity. As befits the true lord of the manor, Foster was visible and active in the community, known to its citizens and knowing them, serving as president of local clubs, senior warden of neighboring Trinity Church, and a manager of the Lenox Library. Until his death in 1945, although he admitted to residences elsewhere, Bellefontaine was the home of his heart.

Bellefontaine was sold at auction in 1946. The statuaries that remained after the auction (rumor has it) were plowed under as pagan symbols by the religious order that purchased it in 1947. A fire gutted the main building two years later, and today only the library remains from the grand design.

Given the popularity and acclaim of Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Enid and Mel Zuckerman decided to open another health resort on the East Coast. This time, the search for the right location took a long time – until the Zuckermans saw the Bellefontaine Mansion in Lenox, Massachusetts, in the heart of the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.

Built in 1897, Bellefontaine had been a private home, seminary and then a boarding school, but when the Zuckermans saw it, it was empty and gutted by fire. Applying their philosophy of creating harmony with the surroundings, the Zuckermans decided to restore the mansion while adding New-England-style buildings in keeping with the local area, a classic vacation destination that was once home to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton and Norman Rockwell.

Canyon Ranch’s architects worked with the local historic preservation board to be sure that their restoration of the Mansion’s exterior and gardens was fully authentic, using materials and techniques consistent with the turn of the last century. In addition, they meticulously restored the beautiful Library, the only room that had not been destroyed by fire, to its original dignity.

By opening day – October 1, 1989 – Bellefontaine Mansion had recaptured its former glory. The Integrative Health Center, a state-of-the-art Spa and new guest accommodations were in the plans from the start. Today the health resort provides an unsurpassed vacation experience in an atmosphere steeped in New England grace and hospitality.


Merchant, banker, manufacturer, inventor, investor, and philanthropist Anson Phelps Stokes commissioned Shadow Brook castle in 1891. The architect was H. Neill Wilson, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. At a cost of one million dollars, four hundred men labored for two years to build it. At the time of its completion in 1893, it was America's largest house, and remained so for two years until Biltmore was completed in Asheville, N.C., in 1895. The foundation, first floor, and most of the stonework were made of locally quarried marble. The tower was made of marble entirely. The 728 acre estate included a working farm, and a mansion previously on the site was remodeled as a carriage barn.

Mr. Stokes lost a leg five years later in a riding accident, and lost also his liking of a house with over three acres of floorspace. After an attempt to make Shadow Brook castle into an inn failed, it passed through several hands, ending up under the ownership of the wealthiest man in the world at that time, Andrew Carnegie. Mr. Carnegie had been looking for a suitable summer home in the United States to compliment his Scottish castles and numerous other homes, and immediately proceeded to remodel Shadow Brook castle to the tune of over a million dollars. President Grover Cleveland was one of many notables that enjoyed the estate as guests of Mr. Carnegie. Andrew Carnegie died at Shadow Brook castle in 1919.

Andrew Carnegie's widow gave Shadow Brook to the Jesuit Society of Jesus in 1922. In March of 1956, the castle burned, killing four members of the community, but was rebuilt. The new building does not approach the quality of the old one.

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. Pierpont 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.

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