The age of innocence may be over for Edith Wharton's cherished 1902 home. The nonprofit that owns The Mount in Lennox, Mass., is facing foreclosure on the 42-room mansion where the author penned some of her most famous work unless it can raise $3 million by April 24.
Massachusetts-based Berkshire Bank began foreclosure proceedings after Edith Wharton Restoration failed to make a payment in February. The foundation borrowed more than $4 million from the bank to purchase Wharton's personal library in 2005, and to cover budget shortfalls in recent years.
If the bank forecloses on the property, the home may be sold to a private owner. However, since the National Trust for Historic Preservation holds easements on the house and adjacent acreage, The Mount, a Save America's Treasures project, is protected.
Wharton designed The Mount based on principles from her first book, The Decoration of Houses, and it reflects her lifelong interest in architecture and interior design. Though it was her home for fewer than 10 years, she penned House of Mirth there and entertained literary icons such as Henry James.
Over the past two decades, Edith Wharton Restoration has raised $13 million to restore the house and formal gardens. Unfortunately, in the absence of an endowment, they must continually raise funds to cover about half of the operating costs for the property. (The other half is raised by ticket sales.) Approximately 30,000 people visit the house each year, which brings in $1.5 million a year, according to the foundation's acting president, Susan Wissler.
So far, the foundation has raised $600,000 to prevent foreclosure, but it needs a total of $6 million to restructure its debt. Wissler says an anonymous donor has pledged $3 million, but only if they can match it.
Wissler says she is talking with the bank daily in hopes of extending the deadline so that The Mount can open for the summer season, which is crucial for the foundation to cover basic operating costs while it continues to raise money.
Concern over the possible closure of The Mount prompted town selectmen and the chamber of commerce to hold a special town meeting last month to discuss the situation with Wissler and several board members.
"Tourism is very important to the Berkshire economy," says Selectman Rosco Sandlin. "From a public information standpoint, people needed to know what was happening."
Nearly 100 people attended the meeting, and though many shared ideas about how to raise the money, Wissler says that the greatest challenge is helping people realize the urgency of the matter.
"There's no guarantee that there's a white knight out there that will swoop in at last minute," Wissler says. "The support of everyone is going to be critical."
Aided by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Edith Wharton Restoration was formed in 1980 to rescue the estate from a developer. It was named an official project of Save America's Treasures (SAT) in 1998, and the following year, The Mount received one of SAT's first and largest federal grants, $2.865 million for the mansion's restoration. In 2003, it was one of 12 SAT sites featured on the television show Restore America, the National Trust's partnership with HGTV. Last year the National Trust presented a Preservation Honor Award to Edith Wharton Restoration.