Sunday, February 24, 2008

House of Cards Or Life, Once Again, Imitates Art...

"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." (Ecclesiastes, 7:4)

From the New York Times:

February 23, 2008

Landmark Massachusetts Building Where Wharton Wrote Faces Foreclosure


The Mount, Edith Wharton’s estate in Lenox, Mass., is in danger of being put in foreclosure, says Stephanie Copeland, president of Edith Wharton Restoration, the organization that owns and maintains this stately residence and its surrounding gardens.

It now owes the bank some $4.3 million, and in mid-February, when it failed to meet a scheduled monthly payment of $30,000, the bank sent a notice that it intended to start foreclosing unless the default was remedied promptly, Ms. Copeland said.

To stay open, she added, the Mount needs to raise $3 million by March 24. “The bank has really been very patient,” she explained. “They’re eager to help us work this out.”

If the Mount succeeds in raising that sum, Ms. Copeland said, an anonymous donor is waiting in the wings who has pledged to match it. The money could be used to help restructure the bank loan and to settle another outstanding debt, roughly $2.5 million, that the Mount incurred from a private lender in 2005 to buy Wharton’s 2,600-volume library from George Ramsden, a British book collector. The Mount also owes Mr. Ramsden roughly $885,000, to be paid off in nine yearly installments, and recently it defaulted on a scheduled payment to him, too.

“The situation is quite serious,” Sandra Boss, interim chairwoman of the Mount’s board, said in a telephone interview from London, where she works. “On the one hand, the Mount is winning awards for preservation and is internationally renowned as an institution. And it’s well run from an efficiency perspective. We’ve made great progress by cutting costs and raising revenues. On the other hand, our current debt levels are unserviceable and unsustainable. We’re not in control of our own destiny unless we can mount a restructuring of our debt.”

Ms. Boss became a board member in late 2006, when the board was reformed to include people with business expertise and fund-raising experience. “We knew the situation was challenging,” she said. “But we didn’t anticipate it would get this bad.” She added that raising money for nonprofit organizations was more difficult in a downward-trending economy and ruefully recalled the flinty Mrs. Gryce, a character in Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth,” who only “subscribed to Institutions when their annual reports showed an impressive surplus.”

The Mount, which is open from May to October and weekends in November and December, receiving some 30,000 visitors annually, was built by Wharton in 1902. She designed it herself, in accord with the simple aesthetic — simple for the time, anyway — she had championed in her first book, “The Decoration of Houses,” written with Ogden Codman Jr. The house has 35 rooms, including an enormous piano nobile, or first-floor gallery, but is noteworthy in part for its private spaces, especially Wharton’s bedroom suite, where she did most of her writing.

Mr. Bonzo is familiar with The Mount, its staff & its financial difficulties, since he spent some time in Great Barrington a few summers ago.

It is a glorious house, beautifully restored and set in the most magical gardens and grounds, so he is mystified as to why an attraction with so many advantages should be in such dire financial straits.

It's true that times are hard for house museums, with visitation shrinking due to so much competition for the tourist dollar, but western Massachusetts and the Hudson River Valley are home to any number of fascinating houses that are at least keeping their doors open, continuing with their restoration projects, and generally staying afloat. The Mount has the added advantages of a very famous original occupant and a location near Lenox and Tanglewood that attracts highly affluent summer folk hungry for cultural stimulation.

Mr. Bonzo can't help but wonder about Ms. Copeland's role in the imminent disaster facing this cultural gem. The unsecured loans for operating expenses seem to him to be evidence of reckless spending, an inability to raise funds, and poor management in general. The rapid turnover in board members has resulted in a lack of oversight, to say the least, and Mr. Bonzo happens to know that staff turnover during the past several years has been even more frequent. New leadership with much better management, budgeting, and fund-raising skills might be in order, no?

Ms. Copeland should be held responsible for much of the Mount's current difficulties. Even if some deep-pocketed angel can be found at this late hour, it's obvious that this situation will only re-occur in the future under the present leadership. It would truly be tragic if The Mount ended up in the hands of property developers chanting "Condo, Condo..."

I call Ms. Copeland's attention to Lily Bart's final evaluation of her financial position:

"A careful examination of her cheque-book, and of the unpaid bills in her desk, showed that, when the latter had been settled, she would have barely enough to live on for the next three or four months; and even after that, if she were to continue her present way of living, without earning any additional money, all incidental expenses must be reduced to the vanishing point."

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

1 comment:

UD said...

Sounds like yet another way for Harvard to spend down its endowment...