Wheatleigh Revisited

Departures, November/December 2000

It all started with the chandelier.

“I remember vividly the day it shattered into a million pieces,” says Susan Simon, standing in the exact spot where the ornate fixture, with its cut-glass prisms and dazzling 19th-century artisanship, once held sway.

We’re in the Dining Room of Wheatleigh, the “newly” grand country hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts, in the heart of the Berkshires. Once a private, Italianate villa, Wheatleigh has been spectacularly restored, renovated, refreshed, and refurnished, and Susan and her husband, Lin, are explaining to me how the whole thing came about. The chandelier, it seems, fell early on in the renovation when there was still some tentativeness about how far was “too” far.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Susan’s going to be terribly upset,'” says Lin, who discovered the chandelier on the floor. “So I waited until the end of the day when I came home to tell her. I was very surprised by her reaction.”

“It was liberating, absolutely liberating!” comments Susan. “I knew at that point anything was possible. We would hold on to what we could of the past; however, our real goal was to reinvent Wheatleigh for the present.”

And so they have.

Nearly three years after l’affaire du chandelier, and a mere carriage ride away from where Edith Wharton wrote, Wheatleigh once again rules as the epicenter of Berkshire style and hospitality. The difference? This time around you and I are invited for the weekend as well.

“Wheatleigh is their baby,” explains Calvin Tsao, who with his partner, Zack McKown, is the architect responsible for the new Wheatleigh. “From the very beginning the Simons knew what they wanted, and what they wanted wasn’t a museum.”

No one who’s ever arrived late on a Friday night to be greeted by general manager François Thomas, or by one of his 62 mainly European staff members, could ever mistake Wheatleigh for a museum. In the wee small hours the fireplace roars; and in the Library there’s smart conversation over Cognac and smoked salmon. Even by the standards of this rarefied Berkshire enclave of elegant country houses, Wheatleigh is grand, very grand indeed. But then it has been since 1893, when H.H. Cook, a successful New York financier, built Wheatleigh as a wedding gift for his daughter, who was soon to be Countess de Heredia. The villa was constructed on 380 acres by the Boston firm Peabody and Stearns, which brought 150 artisans over from Italy; the gardens were done by Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th-century landscape architect best known for New York’s Central Park.

“The brilliance of Calvin and Zack,” declares Susan, “was bringing Wheatleigh into the twenty-first century.”

The work of Tsao & McKown has been described variously as eclectic, postmodern, neoclassical, minimal, selective, restrained, and playful. Take your pick: They are all on view at Wheatleigh. The entrance, or the Great Hall, as it’s formally referred to, which could easily have seemed cold and rather intimidating (think of those cavernous rooms at Xanadu in Citizen Kane), has been softened by several intime sitting areas–say a chair and a reading desk, or a Moderne-ish sofa upholstered in platinum crushed velvet. The lighting is warm and inviting. And with the hotel’s great arched windows, the natural beauty of the Berkshire countryside literally envelops you. Everywhere you look indoors there’s a connection to that world outdoors–whether it be in the abstract paintings by local artists or in the subtle use of colors that somehow manage to reflect the Berkshire palette: mustard, wheat, sage, and cypress.

“It’s about being in harmony with what’s outside,” says McKown. Both modern and yet deeply suggestive of a world gone by, Wheatleigh’s magic is accomplished without gimmickry. One may quibble with a piece of furniture here or a painting there, but the overall effect is of an architecture and design that are profoundly compatible with and reflective of their environs.

The story of Wheatleigh’s transformation from then to now is a long and involved one, but it starts with the collaboration of architect and client. The Simons (he was a lawyer via Yale, Harvard, and Stanford, she a partner at an art gallery in Chicago) moved into Wheatleigh on June 15, 1981, three months after Lin first saw the villa while on a business trip from Chicago to nearby Stockbridge. That night–learning that it was for sale by the New York couple who had been running the place, unhappily and unsuccessfully, as a hotel–Lin called Susan to say he’d seen their future.

Neither Simon remembers ever having wanted to own a hotel, but Susan flew out to have a look anyway. Two days and 48 sleepless hours later “we made them an offer and never looked back,” says Lin. “We decided that once buildings like this one are gone, they’re not coming back.”

Things could have proceeded comfortably for another 15 years, except that Lin and Susan knew that they wanted something different. “But it took us five years to find architects with the kind of sensibility we were looking for,” says Lin. He discovered his dream team in The New York Times Magazine when he fell in love with an apartment designed by Tsao & McKown featured in its pages. The chic fortysomething Manhattan architects had worked with the likes of I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, and Rafael Vinoly before going out on their own to design, among other projects, the VIP lounge of Virgin Atlantic Airways, the interior of the Hard Rock Hotel tower in Las Vegas, the fifth floor of Bergdorf Goodman, and the library for a New York City public school.

“In other words, we’re eclectic,” states the Hong Kong-born and Harvard-educated Tsao. “What appears stylish about our work evolves from a studied, earnest, arduous process of research and fact-gathering. We design projects that know their place.”

Collaborating closely with the Simons, Tsao and McKown worked “like forensic investigators, trying to fit together the pieces so that when the door opens the entire place seems all of a piece,” McKown recalls. He and Tsao even studied old photos “so that we had a sense of what had once gone on.” Theirs was not an attempt to replicate but to reinterpret, to preserve Wheatleigh’s romantic past while updating it in a contemporary fashion. Take, for example, the bathrooms. The evening we checked in I was exhausted after the three-hour, post-work drive from Manhattan. I fell in love first with the white fire-clay tubs, several of which were uncovered in a London antiques store, shipped to northwestern Massachusetts, and hoisted into the second-floor windows by a massive crane. Other singular touches included limestone floors, wood-shuttered windows, and the handblown sconces whose soft lighting had even moi looking almost rested. There was, thankfully, not a high-tech anything anywhere. “Bathrooms,” says Tsao, “aren’t for watching TV and making phone calls.”

The bedrooms, which vary in both their style and configuration, are nevertheless–like the hotel in general–united by a commanding aesthetic, clean, clear lines, and an almost Asian restraint.

At the end of one of the two loggias that frame Wheatleigh’s circular driveway one finds the Aviary, where Leonard Bernstein stayed and played (his piano was actually squeezed into the living room) when performing at the summer Tanglewood festival. As reimagined by Tsao & McKown, a swanky downstairs room opens onto a winding narrow staircase leading to a terribly romantic, if teeny, room that boasts a jaw-dropping view of the Berkshires.

Throughout the hotel–whether it be the phalaenopsis orchids, an antique Japanese vase, or a cashmere throw–one senses Calvin and Zack in every detail. “It is not simply a question of this is fabulous, that’s fabulous, let’s buy it and stick it over here,” says Calvin, noting the light fixtures from Des Lampes on Rue de Beaume in Paris and a pair of antique lacquered-leather scroll boxes that he found in Souzhou, a small town outside of Shanghai.

In the Dining Room one really sees the Tsao & McKown genius. Here the partners made one of the few real structural changes to the property–and it works. It was their idea to enclose the out-of-doors courtyard by artfully installing glass windows between Palladian columns, thus creating a year-round extension to the Dining Room. (Artisans from the same foundry that worked on the restoration of the Statue of Liberty were called in to do the intricate copper and glass installation.) And it’s quite a feat: part Philip Johnson’s Glass House, part Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles. Then again, the Dining Room at Wheatleigh has been important from the very beginning….

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