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Globe Editorial

Lean times at Edith Wharton's

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May 2, 2008

THE FATE of The Mount, novelist Edith Wharton's Lenox home, is still uncertain. The grand house and gardens, a national historic landmark that welcomes visitors, needs $3 million to avoid foreclosure.

Fortunately, what started as a tale of woe can still become a story about rebirth. Digging in for the long haul, the board of trustees of Edith Wharton Restoration - the nonprofit organization that runs the Mount - is committed to overcoming this financial crisis and providing the literary museum with new life. To succeed, the group will need good management and a firmer grip on financial reality than it has shown in the past.

The Mount is well worth saving. Wharton had the house built to her specifications in 1902, and wrote her novel "The House of Mirth" there. But over time it passed through several hands and fell into disrepair. In 1980, the Edith Wharton Restoration took over and started winning federal preservation awards. But as the Mount improved, its operating costs rose.

In 2005, the Mount made a fateful decision to borrow $2.6 million to buy Wharton's personal library from a British bookdealer. But a planned fund-raising campaign faltered. And by the summer of 2006, all but one board member had resigned.

Earlier this year came news of a possible foreclosure if the Mount couldn't make its bank payments. Today the Mount has nearly $9 million of debt, which includes its mortgage, a line of credit, and the money it borrowed to buy Wharton's 2,600-volume library.

Despite these clouds of financial doom, a new optimism and pragmatism has emerged.

"So much more can be done," says acting president Susan Wissler. Wissler replaces former president Stephanie Copeland, who resigned in March. The board had sought to create two leaders: one in charge of operations and finance, and the second to run creative programming - a position that Copeland declined.

Restructuring the leadership makes sense. It's sad to lose Copeland's visionary passion. But while the Mount needs good programming, the organization also needs someone to mind its finances and raise funds aggressively.

Trustee Gordon Travers says that the board expects to provide "hands on" oversight for a year or two. And the trustees are discussing plans to create an institute with programs that reflect Wharton's interests, from literature to design to the work she did on refugee housing during World War I.

The board is considering practical financial steps, such as encouraging fund-raising by recognizing donors better. It is also looking at finding an institution that might buy Wharton's books, but allow them to remain at the Mount. These steps should be handled with care. If books are sold they should indeed be kept at the Mount and digitized so that more people could access them on the Web.

First, though, the Mount has to attract more large donations to end the foreclosure threat. It has raised only about $830,000 of the $3 million it needs to get a matching $3 million gift from an anonymous donor.

The Mount captures the spirit of a great writer and of her printed world. Saving it would help save a piece of American culture.

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