Gilded Age loses its glitter in Stockbridge — for now

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By Wednesday, Jun 25 News  12 Comments
David Scribner
The main entrance to Elm Court, the Gilded Age 'cottage' in Stockbridge that is proposed to become a spa and resort.

Stockbridge – If one were so inclined, the history of the Berkshires – past and present — could be written as the narrative of how the rich and ultra-rich have used the Berkshires as their personal playground – and made sure they had local officials under their thumb to protect their interests.

But sometimes, local officials can have the last word.

Case in point is the Elm Court Estate on Old Stockbridge Road, on the Lenox –Stockbridge line. Elm Court is a 114-year-old, 50,000 square feet, 96-room relic of the Gilded Age, one of the signature so-called “cottages” of the Berkshires perched on 90-acres atop a rise above Stockbridge Bowl. It was the family home – the third home, actually — of William Douglas and Emily Thorn Vanderbilt Sloane, whose descendants, Robert and Sonya Berle, sold the property in 2012 to Front Yard LLC for $9.8 million.

Elm Court as it faces Stockbridge Bowl.

Elm Court as it faces Stockbridge Bowl.

The Berle’s retain an interest in Elm Court by holding an $8 million mortgage on the property. They had restored a wing of the main building which they had operated as a boutique inn. That venture could not be sustained, however, leading to the sale of the estate.

Front Yard, a subsidiary of the Denver-based real estate management and investment firm Amstar, has proposed to convert Elm Court into a high-end resort and spa, adding 80 guest rooms and a wing off the northern wing of the building that would nearly double the size of Elm Court. Amstar’s brand for its Elm Court development is “Travaasa,” or “Experiential Journey,” from a faux Sanskrit phrase.

This week, Amstar, represented by a contingent of its top executives, including CEO Gabe Finke, encountered an unexpected detour on its otherwise smooth path to recreate a Gilded Age institution that would both preserve the grandeur of the original and add to it.

Before a standing-room only crowd in Meeting Room A at Town Hall, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to postpone until August 4 a decision on granting a special permit to Amstar to proceed with the redevelopment of Elm Court.

Amstar CEO Gabe Finke.

Amstar CEO Gabe Finke.

“We want to restore Elm Court to its previous stature as an inspirational real estate that would provide a unique experience for our guests,” Finke had explained to the board before their vote.

Local Amstar attorney David Hellman noted that Elm Court was in “complete and total disrepair” and that it would be “impossible for an individual to take this restoration on. It needs the deep pockets of Amstar. If Elm Court is to be saved, this is what has to happen. We could lose a major piece of history.”

The roadblock to approval of the special permit was provided by Old Stockbridge Road residents who presented the board with a petition signed by 79 neighbors of Elm Court who objected to the transformation of their residential neighborhood into a resort zone. Many of the signatories were present at the meeting.

“I didn’t expect this much turnout,” observed board member Deborah McMenamy, after listening to 45 minutes of opposition to the Front Yard plan. “It affects my understanding of this proposed project.”

“Your bylaws address precisely this situation,” declared Lenox resident Gregory Whitehead who lives across from Elm Court. “You must determine that this project will not affect the current or future character of this rural residential neighborhood. At the scale that it’s proposed, it will irreversibly change the character. Among other things, it’s a matter of safety. Old Stockbridge Road is one of the great roads in the Berkshires. We walk and run along it every day. The increased traffic will be dangerous. There is not enough information on the traffic impact. This is not Route 7A.”

Jon Dietrich of Fuss & O’Neill defended the traffic study that, he said, determined the Travaasa development would have an “minimal impact” on traffic on Old Stockbridge Road, and would provide an “insignificant risk” to pedestrians.

Travaasa opponent Gregory Whitehead speaks to Board of Selectmen.

Travaasa opponent Gregory Whitehead speaks to Board of Selectmen.

Whitehead insisted that the traffic study conducted by Fuss & O’Neill of Springfield did not take into account the pedestrian and bicycle activities along the hilly road that has limited lines of sight, nor did the study consider the affects of increased traffic on intersections with access roads to Wyndham Estates and Bishop Estates.

And he added: “How did this project get this far. It’s like dropping the Red Lion Inn into a country neighborhood. How could this happen in Stockbridge, of all places?”

Board Chairman Stephen Shatz seemed to agree: “I think we need more time, for there is sufficient evidence that it would be wise to look at the traffic impact a little bit more, and to consider the pedestrian issues. I don’t think we’re prepared to make findings this evening.”

But how did the Travaasa concept make it to this point? It happened in 2013 when the town residents approved a Gilded Age-era estates bylaw, allowing alterations to the historic structures and specifically designed to allow Travaasa to append a 50-foot high, 4-story wing to Elm Court. But the bylaw also gave the Board of Selectmen authority to grant a special permit for such alterations.

“Passage of the bylaw does not mean the town approved this project,” argued attorney Elizabeth Goodman, representing Old Stockbridge road residents Barney and Julie Edmonds. “A 112-room hotel is not in keeping with a quiet residential neighborhood. It’s the scale of the project we object to. This would become more of a Marriott than a cottage. It needs to be less intrusive. And the traffic increase would have a permanent impact on the neighborhood. It’s a dramatic change in your town, and you have the authority to examine alternatives, to suggest this project become something more harmonious with the neighborhood.”

Eugene Talbot addresses Board of Selectmen: from left, Charles Gillett, Stephen Shatz, and Deborah McNemany.

Eugene Talbot addresses Board of Selectmen: from left, Charles Gillett, Stephen Shatz, and Deborah McNemany.

Eugene Talbot, a member of the Planning Board, approached the table where the three selectmen were sitting, and with his hands on the table, put it this way: “I live quite far from the property we’re speaking about. And it is important to preserve old estates. But we also have to consider size. This is a slippery slope that could lead to larger and larger projects. Stockbridge is a model, small New England town, and we’ve maintained it character for 250 years. You can put your stamp on preserving the character of Stockbridge. The intent of the bylaw was to save these properties, but is was also assumed it could be adapted so that we would not be creating a Club Med North.”


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12 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Nick Diller says:

    While I feel, the plan by the Denver based group would bring needed tax revenue to the town I feel they should scale it back a bit to accomodate the wishes of the residents of the area.
    Or make condos out it the property

  2. Honey Sharp says:

    Just take a look at the Norman Rockwell prints just above on the wall in the Selectmens’ room, and you’ll get the idea. It’s all a matter of scale and Stockbridge, while it enjoys its other Gilded Age “cottages” (but not as hotels), likes to keep it small. Contradictions abound though. Would Tanglewood get a permit today??

    1. Judy Boullet says:

      good point, Honey.

  3. Jane Ryan says:

    Excellent article. Although I don’t live on Old Stockbridge Road, I attended the meeting because I am extremely concerned about the proliferation of hotels of all sizes that are being proposed for the Berkshires. Are we about to become ‘hotel land’? A project of this size will not only change the character of Old Stockbridge Road but will alter the delicate balance that now exists between our visitors and the residents of our community. I feel that we are at a tipping point and we need to scale this project down and get it right.

  4. Jane Ryan says:

    Excellent article. Although I don’t live on Old Stockbridge Road, I attended the meeting because I am extremely concerned about the proliferation of hotels of all sizes that are being proposed for the Berkshires. Are we about to become ‘hotel land’? A project of this size will not only change the character of Old Stockbridge Road but will alter the delicate balance that now exists between our visitors and the residents of our community. I feel that we are at a tipping point and we need to scale this project down and get it right.
    (I’m having trouble posting this comment.)

  5. Laury epstein says:

    Fascinating story. Luckily for those who respect stockbridge history, the town has a great select board.

  6. carol hymowitz says:

    Excellent article explaining both the history and current situation

  7. Christopher Owen says:

    Corrected and revised from June 25th. Please ignore or delete.

    I was extremely sorry to have missed the meeting but more than pleased to read of the turnout and, at least for the present, a negative vote for the current and expanded proposal. I firmly believe Stockbridge and the surrounding area, in particular Lenox, should oppose another spa of this or even the former reduced size. Stockbridge already has what can be argued to be one of the Nation’s best, Canyon Ranch formerly Bellefontaine. In reading details of the June meeting and the early comments following it, repetition becomes unnecessary except to say I heartily agree with all but one, the single suggestion of scale reduction but nothing else.

    What appears conspicuous by its absence, both at the meeting and following comments is any discussion of Elm Court’s grounds designed by Frederic Law Olmsted, the landscape architect of Central Park in New York City. As he was and remains to this day, Olmsted is considered the greatest landscape architect of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as was Frank Lloyd Wright considered the greatest architect of the same period extending up to 1959. What remains and appears to have been overlooked in all discussions thus far is Frederick Law Olmsted’s design of the landscape surrounding Elm Court, now in serious danger of being totally sacrificed and replaced with a multiple of varied use structures which would presumably include garages and carports, maintenance and selected staff facilities, all of which we know little or nothing regarding location and appearance,. Also new roadways and parking areas with uncertain surfaces, but presumably macadam, being the cheapest, all resulting in considerable loss of natural landscape, including lawns, etc.. Presumably there will be a consultant landscape designer whose qualifications we may never know, potentially casting the final blow and erasing all that remains of Frederic Law Olmsted, at least insofar as the Berkshires is concerned. All of the above MUST be controlled by a selected group of professionals and residents.

    One comment I particularly applauded suggests the conversion of Elm Court into condominiums. Opposers to this idea will immediately cite the very high cost of the individual units. Units hopefully designated to be no more than in the single figures, nine or less, and with the stipulation to preserve as much of Peabody and Stearns’ architecture as well as Delano and Aldrich’s interiors. Exterior changes to be kept at a designated minimum, and both exterior and interior subject to review, again by a selected group of professionals. In part the condominium idea, though far smaller has worked at Oanoak located on Prospect Hill, with outbuildings, these being concealed within the landscape. The main house with its frontage undisturbed.

    Look about and observe the millions of dollars many are willing to spend on their homes today. Tens of millions, and most recently nearly fifty million being asked for a single apartment in Manhattan! Why then not a secondary or retirement home at a fraction of those figures with similar or more square footage. This may not be Manhattan but it does have the panache of being Elm Court designed by architects Peabody and Stearns, and in part the interiors designed by Delano and Aldrich, the landscape (without the responsibility of owner’s maintenance) designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, all within a cultural Mecca of great museums, theaters, concert halls and restaurants. Last but certainly not least a world class Spa not ten minutes from your front door! A win win solution for Elm Court, it’s remaining landscape preserved, far less traffic on and off the property, less area needed for parking, less roadways, and far less people again on and off the property.

    This becomes an opportunity for those of means who can readily find and purchase a unique residence from such publications as, don’t laugh, the real estate sections of Architectural Digest National and International editions, the Robb Report, Preservation News, and like publications, as well as prominent real estate companies both here and abroad. In all likelihood many of these “owners” (board reviewed) will become potentially generous donors to the cultural activities surrounding them. With care and concern for future generations, the Berkshires with its natural beauty, limited development heritage and history, the fervent hope is that it will remain amongst the favorite national and international destinations on the East Coast.

    History, specifically with regard to Elm Court. Apart from its creators and former owners, does one remember hearing or reading of “The Elm Court Talks”? Over time including leaders and diplomats world wide which led directly to The League of Nations and The Treaty of Versailles. Again at Elm Court there remains the potential to strengthen and maintain many attributes of the Berkshires mentioned above: culture at a strengthened level, minimal development, open land, reduced traffic, and crowds.

    Finally, and playing the devil’s advocate, if all we might wish for fails and our worst nightmares takes place what restrictions besides scale are being considered? I’m unaware of discussions related to exterior additions and modifications to Elm Court, as well as the locations and design for all new structures? (certainly potential “carbuncles” as coined by Prince Philip) in other words the independent buildings, modern or traditional, being compatible and in harmony with Elm Court itself? Waste facilities with leach fields, where? Is all this too late to control? Without such thought can we not expect an overall design such as Kripalu?

    WHEN WILL THE TREES COMPLETELY OBLITERATE THE VIEW OF THIS MONSTROSITY///

    Christopher H. L. Owen, Architect

    PS With carefully planned walking paths within view of Elm Court but with privacy to its residences, and specific times open to the public, the land, Elm Court , and its views can remain visible to the public. This is not an uncommon feature of many English country homes both National Trust and private.

  8. Alan Schur says:

    I moved to Old Stockbridge Road 2 years ago & live approx. 100 yards from Elm Court. I purchased this location for the surrounding beauty & the tranquility of the street. Handling the intersection of Old Stockbridge Road & the Lenox town monument especially in the summer is enough. I also believe their are enough alternatives for this property that creating another large hotel would be destroying the “heaven” that I thought I just purchased.

    1. Barney Edmonds says:

      Alan,

      I read your comment to David Scribner’s article and I’d like to talk with you Karen more about Elm Court.

      My wife, Julie, and I live at 316 Old Stockbridge Rd and we’ve been here year-round since 1998. We’ve been opposing the new Annex for quite a while now and are helping organize a neighborhood association. You can check us out at osrna.org,

      Is 200 OSR in Winden Hill. I ask because Mary and Walter Taylor and some other Winden Hill people have signed a petition asking the developer to come back with a smaller and better-scaled plan. The Sockbridge Board of Selectmen meet this Monday at 7pm in Town Hall to vote on their Special Permit. Many of our neighbors and many other Stockbridge residents are opposed and will attend this important meeting.

      Please call us — 413-637-2676 and/or send your e-mail address so we can tell you more about our plans.

      Thanks,
      Barney Edmonds

  9. mara goodman davies says:

    i think these people from denver are kidding themselves that they could consistantly fill a resort that big. for the past 11 years, i’ve own a gorgeous condo with a paneled living room, and spacious suites in the mansion building at winden hill. we just re-listed it to sell at a reduced price, still my real estate agent is having a tough time getting people up here to even see it. winden hill offers the same mansion living, a beautiful pool, tennis and the same location as elm court. you would think we’d have a million prospective buyers, but people aren’t coming to the berkshires in the massive amounts these hoteliers expect. really, if they are smart, they should scale WAAAAY back, be conservative and maybe, just maybe they’d get their initial investment out.

  10. Christopher Owen says:

    Apologies, misspelling above, third paragraph Oanoke should be Oronooque.

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