Living the Gilded Age Dream.

Those robber baron millionaires of the late nineteenth century left plenty of evidence of their beautiful excesses – there are the “cottages” at Newport, R.I., the Vanderbilt “Biltmore” monstrosity in Asheville, N.C., and any number of Manhattan mansions long since converted to hotels, condominium buildings and even department stores. Bergdorf’s was once – wait for it – a Vanderbilt mansion.

The CE and I have long brushed up against the era in our reading and we’ve taken many a tour, but now the excitement (mine) and mild dread (the CE’s) built as we made our way west to the Berkshires where we would be lodging at Wheatleigh, a bona fide vestige of the Gilded Age nestled in the woods between Lenox and Stockbridge Massachusetts.

The Wheatleigh mansion was built by Henry H. Cook, a New York banker who hit the big time by investing in the Union Pacific railroad. The Italianate mansion, a wedding gift to his daughter, was completed in 1893.

Hence the CE’s dread. He’s perfectly willing to admire relics of the distant past, but spending the night in them is a different story.

Ah, but even he softened a bit as we made our arrival at the lovely entrance.

I refrained from mentioning how similar it looks to its 19th-century self (but couldn’t help but think that it’s a lot better preserved than my 20th-century self.) This is a photo of the very same front entrance in 1893:

The entry opens onto an elegant living room:

While I was taking in the grand setting, the CE began to register the teeniest bit of angst. Because, while Wheatleigh is a very spacious mansion for say, one family, as an inn with just nineteen rooms, the guests are, by definition going to mingle somewhat – well, cozily – with one another and the staff.

The staff has clearly thought this through and for all the happenstance encounters in the hallways and on the grounds, each of them somehow maintains the warmth of an easy familiarity but also the most impeccably perfect distance of professionalism. We were very impressed.

I’d made our reservation almost a year in advance, before that $1.3 trillion giveaway triggered rampant inflation. But even at that time a night at the inn was a pricey proposition for those of us who did not make a killing in the Gilded Age. So when our room heater proved uncooperative and we struggled to decipher the inner thoughts of the shower fixtures…

the CE took the opportunity to remind me of how much he DOES NOT LIKE OLD BUILDINGS. “How much are we paying to stay here???”

“But it’s so beautiful!” I implored.

And the grounds! He had to agree with me about the grounds. Exquisite, and originally designed, of course, by that god walking amidst mortals, Frederick Law Olmstead.

We changed rooms, hoping for a less persnickety heater. Same shower fixtures. But everything else so very lovely. I will always remember The Portico dining room, which doubles as the inn’s breakfast room:

I will especially remember it because when I sat down one morning for coffee I slowly realized that the gentleman bent over his laptop a few tables away from me was none other than actor/comedian/writer/art collector Steve Martin.

Yes. I was tempted. All that coziness and mingling of guests, right? But I restrained myself and pretended to have absolutely no idea who he was.

Since we couldn’t spend the entire day at the inn decoding the shower fixtures or stalking Steve Martin, we went on a field trip to the nearby Norman Rockwell Museum, its walls lined with the Saturday Evening Post covers the CE and I remember from our childhoods.

Especially fun was the docent-led visit to Rockwell’s studio, which was moved to the grounds of the museum in 1986.

Alas, Norman Rockwell is no longer with us, nor is the Gilded Age. It was great fun to visit them both. Some things are lost in the passage of time but lucky for us some traditions remain…and you don’t need to live in a mansion to enjoy them!

Happy Thanksgiving!

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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1 Response to Living the Gilded Age Dream.

  1. dizzyguy says:

    Yes, it turned out to be a wonderful visit, as usual. We enjoyed all of the history and the past-its-time elegance. Enjoyed the Rockwell museum and the surrounding natural beauty. We then waited patiently to move to the next place where there was the hope of hot water and heat in the rooms.

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