Laurie Norton Moffatt
Also published on 9/4/2014 in the Berkshire Eagle.
19 August 2014
Board of Selectman
Town of Stockbridge
Stockbridge Town Hall
50 Main Street
Stockbridge, MA 01262
Dear Steve, Deb, and Chuck,
Many years before I chose museum work as my profession, I dreamed of being an architect. I was in love with buildings, especially the historic homes of the Berkshires. It was the 1970s and many communities were reeling from the destruction of old iconic structures, such as Penn Station in New York or Union Station in Pittsfield, MA, which had been torn down under urban renewal planning philosophies that considered the modern finer and less costly than renovating old structures. Historic Preservation was gaining ground and I was inspired. During my professional life as director and CEO of Norman Rockwell Museum, I have had the privilege of stewarding a beautiful landscape and park, and renovating or preserving four important historic structures through adaptive reuse, and building a fifth structure that in time will add to the historic architectural jewels of our community. What a privilege it has been.
As an art historian, I became an historic preservationist, and as a lover of nature and wildlife, roamed the wide open spaces of the Berkshires. I understood through my study of urban design, that one of the things that made the Berkshires so unique and special, was its determination to resist suburban sprawl, where one town flows into another, with only a name sign to denote crossing a town border and open land is developed for housing. Greenways and planned development, retaining open space and landscape are essential ingredients to preserving the rural character of our Berkshire region are among the highest priorities in the Town of Stockbridge Master Plan.
Blessed with some of the nation's most beautiful architecture, the Great Estates as we have come to call them, abound in the Berkshires. From one of the earliest homes, the Linwood Estate built by Charles Butler in 1859 and now the home of Norman Rockwell Museum, to famous homes such as the Mount designed by independent woman and author, Edith Wharton, the Berkshires' a constellation of homes. For more history on these glorious structures I commend to you Carol Owens' book, "Berkshire Cottages: A Vanishing Era," and Cornelia Brooke Gilder and Richard S. Jackson's book, "Houses of the Berkshires, 1870 - 1930."
The imposition in 1913 of the federal income tax and declining fortunes after the stock market crash of 1929 made the keeping and maintenance of these homes, predominantly built in the late 1800s and early twentieth century, an increasing burden on families who no longer had the wealth, or maintained the life style, to attend to them. Many fell into disrepair, or befell misfortune like Shadowbrook, which was destroyed by fire. Other Berkshire homes were eventually saved and repurposed into exquisite luxury lodging after years of languishing in neglect, such as Blantyre and Wheatleigh; resorts like Canyon Ranch or Kripalu; cultural institutions, such as the Mount and Norman Rockwell Museum, or developed into residential housing and condominiums such as White Pines, Bishop Estates, Winden Hill and Stonehill.
Few families had the resources to keep these homes in their family. One family who valiantly struggled to preserve their family estate were Col. and Mrs. George Wilde, owners of Highlawn Farm in Lee. Marjorie Wilde was heir of the Vanderbilt descendant Emily, a granddaughter of Cornelius, who built Elm Court in 1884, one of numerous Vanderbilt mansions around the country built by the heirs of the industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt. Imagine caring for and keeping such a property, more than 50,000 square feet of home and outbuildings, 90-acres of land and extraordinary vistas in one's family for four or five generations! How grateful we should be! The Frederick Law Olmstead landscape (creator of Central Park in New York City) is a treasure in itself.
Fifth generation Robert, "Bob" Berle and his wife Sonya, together with Lila Wilde Berle through love, sweat and financial equity and commitment of personal resources, began the herculean task of restoring this structure, bringing it back from the vandalized state the community rendered the property over the long decades that it sat empty, while still owned and paying taxes by the Wilde family.
After attempts to make a go at operating the property, and realizing that the financial business model would simply not work on the existing scale to improve and maintain the structure, the Berle's began the search for a property manager and investor who had the vision and resources to take on the continued restoration and management of the historic property that had been held in the family for 125 years.
There are many competing values when considering the merits of development — historic and architectural preservation, preservation of open space, wildlife corridors, public safety, economic viability and quality of life. The Stockbridge Great Estates Overlay District outline the properties in our community that the townspeople desire should be saved to preserve the unique character of our community. Elm Court is one of the Greatest Estates.
It takes deep resources to restore, manage and operate an historic property. Just ask the owners of the region's historic inns, historic homes, and cultural organizations. Without our donors, patrons and investors, these properties would have to be broken up and developed, with long roads and many homes dotting the historic landscape and forever destroying open space. An irreplaceable part of our region and nation's heritage — the Great Estates, which like England's grand Country Homes, are part of this region's history and are what make the Berkshires so unique and beautiful, represent a heritage that goes back generations for both the owners and employees' families who worked on these estates.
The adaptive reuse of Elm Court proposed by Travaasa would add more than 100 jobs, generate a robust tax base, and will create beneficial economic impact in the community. Far from providing only entry level jobs, resorts, cultural organizations and historic properties generate many well-paying executive and management positions in the areas of finance and accounting, technology, construction, carpentry and grounds maintenance, sales, marketing and web development; interior design and architectural preservation; executive chef, head dining, beverage and housekeeping positions; security, executive culinary arts and local food purchases; health, wellness and lifestyle jobs, trail management and more. An entry level worker can learn the hospitality business and move up the ranks quickly into a highly transferable hospitality management position. These are excellent jobs for our community and young people.
Visitors come to the Berkshires to escape the suburban sprawl of their home communities, seeking open space, wildlife corridors, scenic vistas and beautiful historic architecture. For 125 years one family strove to and succeeded in preserving an utterly irreplaceable national historic structure, the largest Great Estate in the Berkshires, Elm Court, situated on 90 acres of open land. Let's not miss this chance to save it, under the stewardship of owners who will develop it with great care and taste. This is the last best chance for this property and an excellent investment for our community. I wholeheartedly support it and hope that the Selectman and Town of Stockbridge will too, as voted by our citizens at annual Town Meeting.
Laurie Norton Moffatt