One my long autumn road trip, I managed to visit quite a few author residences. Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, stuck out the most because of all the design tips I picked up while exploring the rooms. I thought I’d share some below.
Admittedly, this trip to Edith Wharton’s home was totally by chance. I was planning to drive from Seneca Falls in the Finger Lakes region all the way to Concord, MA when I realized there didn’t seem to be able hotel availability in Concord. I decided I’d just spend the night somewhere on the way and started looking at Google Maps as well as cute towns in western Massachusetts.
Lenox popped up and I saw that The Mount was a must-visit spot. Now, I’ve really only read a few Edith Wharton books since I wasn’t a diehard fan of her novels like I was of Louisa May Alcott or L.M. Montgomery as a teen, but I did always like her as an author, so I knew I had to make the trip!
I was surprised by how much I loved wandering around her former home, and I also learned she was incredibly interested in interior design. I went with an audio tour and noticed a lot of the descriptions of the rooms were also nods to Edith’s design preferences. I thought I’d put some of the things I learned in a post below, so enjoy!
Who is Edith Wharton?
Before I get into the design lessons, I thought I’d go over both Edith Wharton and The Mount. This’ll give you some context to everything!
When it comes to female American writers, Edith Wharton has to be among the most well-known and influential. I say this as not only an avid reader but as someone with a B.A. in English! Her particular niche was upper class New York society at the turn of the century.
Ever hear the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses”? She was literally born into that Jones family!
As part of American aristocracy, Wharton went through everything we’d now say was part of “old money” culture. Fluent as a child in the romance languages. Winters in NYC and summers in Rhode Island. Governesses. Coming out as a debutante. A failed engagement. And finally a marriage to someone significantly older (12 years).
The difference, of course, is that Wharton loved reading and writing. She is said to have wanted to learn more than was normal for women of her social standing and often read from her father’s library. Her writing ambitions started as early as age 11 and she sometimes published anonymously since “writer” wasn’t a respectable occupation.
She actually didn’t publish her first novel until she was forty but from that time to her death, she published something nearly every year. Her most famous novel, The Age of Innocence, also made her the first woman to wine the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Some other works you may know include The House of Mirth, Summer, Ethan Frome, and The Buccaneers, which was just turned into a TV show on Apple TV.
The History of Edith Wharton’s Home – The Mount
Now if you read Edith’s bio, I know you’re wondering, “Sorry, isn’t The Mount in Massachusetts? When exactly did she live here?”
Well, here’s your answer!
After Edith married Teddy Wharton in 1885, they did what many wealthy families did and bought a house in Newport, Rhode Island. It was in her second Newport home, Land’s End, that she began to learn about design with Ogden Codman Jr. She’d also learn more when buying a home on Park Ave in Manhattan and, of course, traveling frequently to Europe. It was in 1897 when she co-wrote The Decoration of Houses with Codman.
Buying The Mount
Edith and Teddy built the property between 1901 and 1902, and it was the first time Wharton could apply her design ethos to her home. The Mount is inspired by Belton House in the UK as well as classic French and Italian architecture. When you visit, you’ll really see how much of a wooded getaway it is. I imagine after disliking life in Newport so much, Edith probably found the Berkshires to be the perfect antidote!
The Mount was Wharton’s design pride and joy, and she had a hand in everything from the interiors to the landscape. She even once said it was better than one of her most famous works – The House of Mirth! She and Teddy lived here until 1911 and it was during this time she’d write some of her most well-known works.
Leaving the Mount
Unfortunately, as we all know when one aspect of your life starts going well, another inevitably goes to shit. Despite the move to The Mount and Edith trying her best to keep Teddy busy with the genteel activity of farming, his struggles with mental illness continued to worsen. They eventually sold their home in 1911 and divorced in 1913. Edith would move to France and Teddy would go to his sister’s.
After the Whartons, The Mount would go through different phases as another private residence, a girls’ dormitory for Foxhollow School, and home to Shakespeare & Co. Only much later was it purchased by Edith Wharton Restoration to be the museum you see today.
Design Lessons from The Mount
1. Be wealthy enough to buy a house surrounded by nature.
I mean, let’s be real for a moment. I thought this post would be a fun way to look at Edith Wharton’s home and even learn a little tip or two on interior design. But the real draw of The Mount is the fact that it’s a gorgeously spacious house surrounded by the Berkshires in New England. Good luck buying 113 acres in a mountainous area for less than a few million these days!
So, you know, if you really want to follow Wharton to a T, you’re going to want to start figuring out where to buy property surrounded by nature! For the rest of us, I still think some of this advice can apply even if we can’t gaze out to the mountains from a mansion for some writing inspiration.
2. Design based on your personal preferences not trends or flash.
Keep in mind – Edith was designing this house coming off The Gilded Age with all its opulence. I’m assuming she learned a thing or two, and I imagine as a Jones, she never felt pressure to follow trends and was able to instead focus on what she actually liked.
Also, as we all know with trends, for every action, there is a reaction. If the Gilded Age was known for its glamour and gold, it makes sense Wharton would prefer simpler, cleaner designs. (Funnily enough, I think The Mount would still be considered extravagant by today’s standards but compared to some Gilded Age mansions, it’s practically Scandinavian!)
3. Proportions are more important than size
As many guides to The Mount will tell you, while Edith Wharton and her husband were rich, they weren’t rich-rich. So for the old money society of their time, they lived more modestly. I know, I know – if you go to the house you’ll scoff, but I guess everything is relative.
Anyway because of this, Wharton liked to focus on proportion, which is just good advice regardless. After all, if you have a studio apartment, bigger furniture is going to make it feel smaller. Whereas if you buy appropriately sized furnishings, you’ll see how spacious you can make that same square footage feel.
4. Use mirrors to make places feel more spacious
Here’s an easy one we can all copy – embrace mirrors! They’re a great way to open up a space, especially if you don’t have a ton of windows. You can see this in play in The Gallery where she has mirrors lined up to reflect through the windows. It has this cool effect of making the space feel larger both inside and out. Plus if you where to look in from the outside, the mirrors would reflect nature right back at you!
5. Look for ways to achieve symmetry
Once again the Gallery is a great example of this. Mirrors and doors help give the feel of symmetry. The “double doors” that lead to Teddy’s den are actually just one door. And that door is symmetrical with the door that opens up to the bathroom in said den.
Another fun example? Not all the shutters on the exterior of the house are hiding a window.
6. Drawing rooms shouldn’t be stuffy.
Most of us don’t have drawing rooms these days but back in the day these rooms often felt ostentatious and downright stuffy. Wharton believed in designing her drawing room to feel spacious and almost airy (by 1900s standards). This is mainly achieved with simpler design as well as floor to ceiling windows that let in a ton of natural light.
7. Circular tables allow for better conversation
This is another one I really like! When you go to buy your dining room or kitchen table look for circular styles rather than square or rectangular one. I agree that it makes conversation flow better to see everyone equally. I also just generally feel like circles have a softer vibe than anything with edges.
8. Overhead lighting flatters no one.
HARD agree on this! I don’t know when it was but in the last few years I’ve really hated overhead light. It’s so harsh and it really is pretty unflattering with how it casts shadows from above. Instead, opt for lamps that cast a softer glow and help make spaces feel cozier at night.
If you look in The Mount there are no overhead lights anywhere and the ceilings are allowed to have their fun crown molding designs without interruption.
9. Turn your boudoir into a private office…
I fully love that Wharton turned her boudoir into an office but I love…
10. … but do all your best writing in your bed
…that she did all her writing in bed. As someone who has a lap table and infinitely prefers to write while in my pajamas under my blankets, this made me feel so validated. If writing in bed works for Edith Wharton, it definitely works for me.
11. Books should always be the main focal point in a library
When designing a library space, always make sure books are the main focal points not art or design or anything else that might take away attention. Good rule of thumb even if most of us don’t have separate library rooms these days.
12. Details matter
For Edith Wharton’s home, the devil was always in the details. You could have all the fanciest furniture and materials in the world but it’ll always feel like something is missing if you neglect the details.
This is different for everyone. But think about what kind of art you choose to frame and hang. Or if you buy patterned furniture or wallpaper, what kind of designs are you choosing and why. Even if you live in the tiniest, drabbest place, you can focus on little details!
See Edith Wharton’s Home for Yourself
Tour or Self-Guided Tour
If you want to explore Edith Wharton’s home for yourself, you can go on a tour or with a self-guided tour via their audio guides. I had no problem showing up and getting tickets right away but if you go during busier seasons, you may want to pre-reserve on their website.
Hours & Admission
The Main House is open 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM through the end of October. In November and December it’s open only on the weekends until 3:00 PM. (Double check potential events though – this is a wedding venue!)
Admission is normally $20, but if you check their site there are a ton of discount options to make the trip doable.
There’s plenty of free parking! You’ll park and then get tickets at the little kiosk before going into the barn to watch an orientation video.
The house is a bit of a walk from the barn, so if you need to drive, there are a few parking spots by the house. Really, though, it’s a pretty and short walk, so walk if you can.
The Mount is extremely accessible regardless of your circumstances. As I mentioned in the parking section, you are able to drive up to the house. There’s also an elevator in the house so guests can get to each floor. Caregivers are, of course, given free admission.
Highly recommend perusing the gift shop at The Mount because it’s chockfull of goodies from Wharton’s books to all sorts of trinkets and cool finds. I picked up some books as well as a very cute tote bag.
You can find food and drink at the Terrace Café which is right in the Main House. However, downtown Lenox is only a few miles away and has plenty of restaurants and eateries as well.
Nearby The Mount
The Mount is in Lenox, Massachusetts which is an adorable New England town on its own. Like I said in the intro, this was such a last minute stop, I didn’t have time to explore the area.
Turns out there are a ton of other author spots as well as generally historic homes and parks. I’m going to need a second trip to explore. Plus, if I come in the summer next time, Tanglewood is home to Shakespeare & Co.
If you stay in Lenox I highly recommend staying at The Constance. I paid a little extra to stay here and don’t regret it in the slightest. It has that nice, homey feeling where there are snacks and drinks left out in the dining room all day and where whoever is handling check-in is as cheerful and chatty as if you were visiting an aunt.
It’s right off the main downtown area, so I went for a run as soon as I arrived and then walked over to dinner at Bistro Zinc for dinner. I managed to get in at the bar and had the most delicious bœuf bourguignon. If French isn’t your thing, the host at The Constance listed off a bunch other restaurants in walking distance as well, so just ask them for tips when you come!
And there you have it – all the fun design lessons I learned from Edith Wharton’s home! Any tips I’m missing? Let me know below!
For other cool homes worth visiting in the US, read these next:
- 40 Castles in the US to Live Your Best Fairytale Life
- The Getty Villa: Explore Los Angeles’s Best Kept Secret
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