"Doing up the Mount" November 2002

A team of talented designers was turned loose on Edith Wharton's Legendary home. What would the author of The Decoration of Houses have thought? Come for an exclusive first look...

THE MOUNT STANDS ON ITS HILL, GLEAMING  white amid the green, elegant yet unassuming. It doesn't look like the place for a revolution. And yet, when Edith Wharton built it five years after she wrote The Decoration of Houses and launched her writing career, her precepts of simplicity, proportion and fitting details were radical-and fulfilled beautifully on this Berkshire hilltop. Once she wrote, "a woman's nature is like a great house full of rooms," and in these light-filled spaces full of calm classicism, she expressed her wish for harmony, peace and seclusion. Mornings, she wrote in her bed, with its sweeping view of the smudged-blue hills beyond. At midday, she rose to inspect her beloved garden or join her guests. Only her closest friends were invited, like Henry James, who shared her intellectual interests and joined her in walks and drives. Evenings they read aloud together in the library or had animated conversations on the terrace, as the sun set pink and the fountains splashed. When, ten years on, she moved to Europe and sold The Mount, she could never bear to revisit, although, she wrote, "its blessed influence still lives in me." 

A century after she first stepped within, The Mount, now owned by a preservation group, is once again welcoming visitors. Two floors have been scrupulously restored, and to celebrate The Mount's centennial (and make up for the fact that Edith Wharton's original furnishings are long gone), seven designers were invited in to do up the rooms. "We didn't ask them to look backward, to replicate turn-of-the-century styles," says Stephanie Copeland, the head of the Edith Wharton Restoration. "Instead, they were meant to think of what Edith Wharton herself might have done if she were decorating now." In fact, she might well have welcomed their fresh takes on her traditions-this was, after all, the woman who swept away Victorian clutter, insisting that everything "confused and extravagant" give way before principles "based on common sense and regulated by the laws of harmony and proportion," "Decorators still relate to her principles," says Stephanie Copeland. “And it was eerie-though each worked independently, there is a similar palette, a similar spirit, throughout." The rooms will remain in place for several years as restoration continues; transformed by today's vision, The Mount is still, as Henry James remarked, the place of "every loveliness of nature & every luxury of art."

The table setting pictured features cutlery in a mix of old Tiffany and a French dessert set; the china, Sevres; the crystal, from Bohemia; all, from Elise Abrams Antiques.