Big Old Houses: Luxury Finds a Life Raft
by John Foreman
The graveyards of the world, we are told, are full of indispensable men. You've never heard of Morris K. Jesup (1830-1908), I'll bet, but he led a large life that brimmed with good deeds. In fact, his "curriculum good-deedae" is so weighty, it would be the foolish writer who tried to list everything in one place.
Morris K. Jesup (1830-1908).
Ergo, I will distribute references to his innumerable philanthropies, using as mnemonic devices the various architecture facets of his Lenox, MA country house, called Belvoir Terrace.
Let's start with the gate, located a quarter of a mile up Main Street from the middle of Lnox village. The intended approach to the estate, as is the case with many a fine old country place, has been closed off in favor of a more conveniently situated — and easier to maintain — service drive nearer the house.
This is a pity, since today's visitors are denied enjoyment of a dramatically contrived descent through deep forest that leads to a manicured clearing before the manse itself. The Olmsteds drew original site plans, then fell out with the owner, who gave the job to the almost as famous Ernest Bowditch.
The property covers 30 acres, but seems much larger since gate and house are about as far apart from one another as you can get and still stay on the same property. While we're in the woods, let me mention Jesup's assiduous advocacy of a state protected Adirondack Wilderness, this at a time when most Americans were intent on slashing and burning as much of that wilderness as possible.
To arrive at Belvoir via main gate and original drive is to emerge in sudden sunlight before a sort of magical Black Forest palace. Out of sight on the other side of the house is a vast sloping lawn beyond which, despite the growth of the trees, is a big view of the mountains. Actually, the intersection of Cliffwood Street and Yokun Avenue is hiding on the other side of those trees, but if no one told you you wouldn't notice. The effect is one of gazing out upon a wilderness.
The plans for Belvoir were completed in 1888 by the Boston firm of Rotch and Tilden, and the house was completed in 1891. Boston based R & T, which had a big regional practice, did four houses at Lenox, including Ventfort Hall, visited by Big Old Houses in February of 2012. George Tilden's design for Mr. Jesup, and for the owners of Ventfort for that matter, speak eloquently to a late Victorian aesthetic anchored firmly in the innovative — if occasionally incoherent — 1880s. Tilden was a great one for quirky details, unexpected corners, fireplace "nooks," involved woodwork, short stairs, half levels, and floor plans that went on and on ...