CONNECTIONS: Life and loves in the Gilded Age

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By Tuesday, Aug 15 Life In the Berkshires
Portrait of Rita de Acosta Stokes Lydig by Giovanni Boldini.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Thistledown, 1891

Thistledown was built for David and Hannah Lydig. What distinguishes David Lydig’s obituary is the absence of any form of work. David Lydig was born in 1841, graduated Columbia College in 1861 and married Hannah M. Tompkins in New York City in 1870. He was a member of the Union Club, Tennis and Racket Club, Lenox Club, and Mahkeenac Boating Club. He died in 1917 having lived up to at least one Gilded Age ideal: like a British gentleman, he did nothing with style.

Hannah was born in 1844 and died in 1930. She engendered more gossip and rumors than ordinarily associated with the ladies of the cottages. What makes the gossip peculiar is that it was not engendered by the behavior of living people, but only behavior after death.

In life, the behavior of Mr. and Mrs. Lydig and neighbor F. Augustus Schermerhorn was impeccable. The only written account we have of Hannah is from her co-trustees of the Lenox Library board, Mrs. Carlos deHeredia (Wheatleigh), Harris Fahnestock (Orleton) and William B. Osgood Field (High Lawn). They praised Hannah for her devotion to the library, especially to the children’s reading room.

Rumors were whispered after David Lydig died in 1917. He left his wife $100,000, Thistledown, the city house at 83 East 79th and the furnishings for her lifetime. He named Lenox neighbor F. Augustus Schermerhorn trustee and executor of his entire estate. Lydig instructed him to dispose of it in the manner that “men of good business judgment manage their own affairs.”

When F. Augustus Schermerhorn died in 1919, he left Hannah $550,000, his Lenox estate of 15 acres (Pine Croft) and 1,400 acres in Lee, Lenox and Washington. The will reads, “For Hannah Minthorne Lydig my lifelong and dearest friend.”

By comparison, he left his sister Ellen Auchmuty the property they owned jointly in New York and $50,000 out of which she was to reward his servants. He also left his sister his personal property out of which she was to remember cousins, nieces and nephews. Of course, the New York property was commercial property worth millions and the personal property ran to 80 pages of silver, art and first editions.

George and Sarah Morgan's Ventfort Hall.

George and Sarah Morgan’s Ventfort Hall.

Once the terms of the will were known, the gossip erupted. Obviously there was a lifelong affair between the two Berkshire cottagers. Proofs of an affair were few but the gossips made the best they could out of what they had. There were the wills, of course: the husband’s seemed to snub the wife and the neighbor’s seemed to overly reward her. Then, of course, there was the relative position of gates. The gates of Thistledown lined up exactly with a back pathway to Pine Croft marked by white marble pillars. Unnoticed until the reading of the will, they were now called Hannah’s gates, and it was widely circulated that the gates marked a path built for secret access between the cottages for romantic assignations.

Now that there was a blot upon Hannah’s character, more stories came to light. Her will, like her life, was impeccable: she left Lenox Library $40,000; she left money to the town of Lenox and to the Lenox Congregational Church. However, there was cause for gossip related to her will: It was a claim of $62,000 brought against the estate for an item not in the will.

Dr. Jesse W. Hedden claimed he treated Hannah from 1920 to 1930 for the sum of $12,000 in fees and had an oral promise from Hannah for a $50,000 legacy which the will should have but failed to include. The claim was settled out of court for $7,500 representing professional fees only.

Nevertheless Hannah was henceforth looked upon as a “Hot Mama,” 19th-century style. The gossips had it that Hannah had a husband, a lifelong lover and then a madcap affair with her doctor. Of course, rumors were dampened somewhat by the fact that Hannah was between 75 and 80 years old at the time of the alleged madcap affair with the doctor. Moreover, there was no proof of the affair with Schermerhorn and it is possible that the amount left Hannah by his will was actually hers. That is, the monies he managed and held in trust for her after her husband’s death were turned over to her after his death.

Thistledown

Thistledown, a Rotch and Tilden-style Federal reminiscent of both Frelinghuysen and Osceola.

Regardless of any and all rumors, David and Hannah are buried side by side in the Church on the Hill cemetery. And so the rumors surrounding this cottage were put to rest? Not quite. David Lydig left Thistledown and the New York house to Hannah for her lifetime. After her death in 1930, because she died childless, Thistledown went to Lydig’s brother Philip.

In 1902 Philip married Rita de Acosta Stokes, a divorcee. When she divorced William Earl Dodge Stokes in 1900, she received $1,000,000. The fortune was given in exchange for her relinquishing custody of her son, William Earl Dodge Stokes Jr. The story made the newspapers; it was a “story to dine out on” and everyone heard of the “Million Dollar Baby,” WED Stokes.

Rita never saw the child again. When he was a young man, however, they were introduced at a party. Everyone stood around holding their breath to see what would happen. They did not recognize one another but, when the names were spoken, they were polite, nodded and moved on.

Stokes eventually lived at Thistledown and called it Thistlewood. On the front face, it is a Rotch and Tilden-style Federal reminiscent of both Frelinghuysen and Osceola. On the back face, it is eclectic and oddly reminiscent of Belvoir Terrace not in the fabric of the building but in the curving wings on either side of the recessed porch.

Ventfort Hall, 1893

Ventfort Hall was built for George Hale and Sarah Spencer Morgan. On April 24, 1891, the executors of the Haggerty estate, Annie Haggerty Shaw and Clemence Haggerty Crafts, sold Ventfort to Sarah Spencer Morgan.

The property had a fine house and a proud history before the Morgans’ purchase. Annie was the widow of Robert Gould Shaw, famed as colonel of the Massachusetts 54th first Black regiment in the Civil War. Robert and Annie were married in New York but honeymooned at Ventfort. Annie therefore specified Haggerty cottage, called Ventfort, could not be torn down. It was moved across the street so Ventfort Hall could be built on the site to benefit from the views.

Sarah was the daughter of Junius Spencer Morgan, founder of the J.S. Morgan Bank, and sister of John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan. George Morgan (no relation) and Sarah lived quietly and comfortably. The closest thing to upheaval or scandal was when Sarah gave birth to the first grandchild and named him Junius Spencer Morgan after the grandfather, a name J.P. wanted to reserve for his son. Then, too, there was the lawsuit.

Ogden Haggerty's Ventfort

Ogden Haggerty’s Ventfort

A fishmonger sued for the price of oysters delivered for a party at Ventfort Hall (and the cost of shucking them). The cook testified her kitchen maid shucked them; the fishmonger lost.

Sarah died in 1896, three short years after her cottage was completed. George eventually remarried a widow from Pittsfield.

In “The History of England” (1848), Thomas Macaulay describes the English county seat but he could have been describing Ventfort Hall:

“There is no class of dwelling so pleasing as the rural seats of the English Gentry…In the buildings good sense and good taste combine to produce a happy union of the comfortable and the graceful.”

Ventfort Hall is an Elizabethan Revival mansion designed by Rotch and Tilden. Seemingly contrasting details such as the Dutch gables actually were typical of the Elizabethan country house “resulting from the influx of Dutch refugees including draftsman and craftsmen.” Other exterior elements such as the hardscape and the plantings were loosely informed by Italian architecture during the Elizabethan period.

Interior features of note include the broad carved oak staircase, the pendant ceiling in the great hall reminiscent of a ceiling executed in the 17th century at Sizergh Castle and preserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the decorative plaster ceilings in the salon and gallery. Typical of Elizabethan country homes, the formal rooms are paneled and connected by the wide gallery. Features atypical of the Elizabethan style such as the wooden colonnaded rear porch, Tiffany chandelier, and bowling alley were popular elements of 19th century Berkshire cottages.

After George’s death, executors of the estate rented Ventfort Hall to W. Roscoe Bonsal from 1921 to 1925 when he purchased it. It remained a private summerhouse until the Bonsals sold it in 1945. In sharp contrast to the first 100 years when Ventfort Hall had only three owners, all of whom used it as a single-family residence, during the next 50 years, Ventfort had six owners, all of whom used it as a public facility. In 1993, Ventfort Hall was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1997 Ventfort Hall Association purchased it and began restoration. In 1999 it was named an America’s Treasure and thereafter was known as the Museum of the Gilded Age. Stabilized and restored, it is a 28,000-square-foot asset at the center of Lenox and remains a 28,000-square-foot maintenance challenge.


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