The Winthrop Estate: New Life for a Gilded Age Mansion
In 2002, when Jamie and Ethan Berg were living in Cambridge, MA, and expecting their first child they started to explore the real estate market in the Berkshires. Their broker mischievously asked them: “You wouldn’t be interested in a 15,000 square foot mansion in the middle of Lenox, would you?” The Bergs didn’t think they were, but they were intrigued and went to look at the Winthrop Estate anyway. They were bewitched and besotted. “Our breath was taken away!” says Ethan. By happenstance, the Bergs had found a place where they could nurture a dream to revive “the 19th century tradition of leading an intellectual life in a social setting” by making the house a venue for exploring “music, the arts, ideas and fine cuisine in good company.”
Like so many of the gilded age mansions, the 1927 Tudor house was dying a slow death. It had been barely touched for decades and was about to be foreclosed even though it was being used improbably as a corporate headquarters. “There were fluorescent lights and office carpeting, but it seemed to have beautiful bones,” says Ethan, who recalls all the people who worked there wore heavy coats because the thermostat was kept low since it was so expensive to heat the place. Ethan cut a deal with the owner to prevent the foreclosure even though the Bergs were unclear about what they would do with a 12-bedroom house.
By then, Ethan had become the manager for a private investment partnership after a successful stint at the high-powered Monitor management consulting firm, so he could run his new business from anywhere. In 2003, the Bergs (photographed right at Tanglewood this summer) moved into the house and camped out in the paneled library because it was the coziest room and had a working fireplace. (After six months, they moved next door to a modest 1950s house that is also part of the 45 acre estate, where they live with children, Joshua, 7, and Arden, 4.) “I would sit in the empty mansion and try to take cues from it,” says Ethan. “I thought, Let’s lead with quality and the rest will take care of itself.”
He envisioned the house filled with music and interesting people—and now it is. The Bergs have developed parallel missions for the mansion, which is known as both the Lenox Athenaeum and the Winthrop Estate. As the Atheneum, it hosts readings (by authors such as Simon Winchester), chocolate and wine tastings, and chamber music concerts (with superstars like Emanuel Ax or Yehuda Hanani, who stores his piano in their music room) for charities like the Lenox Library or Charley’s Fund. As the Winthrop Estate, it can be rented out in its entirety for family reunions or weddings. “You can have the whole wedding party stay together in the house, and have the ceremony and reception here, too,” says Jamie, a former personal trainer at Canyon Ranch who acts a concierge for whatever group is in residence. “You can stay up late and have breakfast in your bathrobes. It’s not like being at an inn or B&B. It’s all yours.”
The Bergs have renovated and decorated the mansion (with help from Lenox neighbor Daniel Dempsey) so that it feels like a private house that’s been well-kept by generations of the same blue-blooded family. It has an old money elegance like someplace rented out by a duchess in the English countryside to help pay the taxes. “I wanted it to look like the most beautiful place I knew, which was the Tea Room at the old Ritz-Carlton in Boston,” says Ethan. As luck would have it, the Ritz was shut for renovations when they bought the house, and Ethan learned that all the furniture had been shipped to a warehouse in Ohio. He flew out to the midwest and bought desks, lamps and chairs, which is why the house has an authentic Brahmin aura. “Everything we’ve done has been a non-linear, organic process,” says Ethan. “We held off on renovating specific spaces in the house until we really felt we had the right design, the skilled craftsmen, and the right materials to do it in an exquisite way.” The house still has its stately steel casement windows and the original bathroom fixtures with their heavy nickel handles and faucets. “They used the absolutely finest of everything when they built this house which is why it lasted,” he says.
That Tanglewood is two minutes away is no coincidence. Indeed, Tanglewood was a key factor in their choosing to move to the Berkshires. “In 2000, before we had kids, we decided to take a year off to bicycle around the world,” says Ethan. “It gave us a lot of time to talk about what type of life we wanted to live as a family.” They came up with four criteria for the ideal domicile. “It needed to have a rich cultural/intellectual life, beautiful nature, good bicycling, and a sense of community.” They determined that four places in the world had what they wanted: Kyoto, Tuscany, the region around Valencia, Spain, and the Berkshires; it was finding the Winthrop Estate that sealed their fate.
On a recent Monday night, the Bergs had 70 guests for a chamber music concert featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Society Hill String Quintet (some of the musicians stayed overnight in the upstairs rooms), which was a fundraiser for the Lenox Library. The guests drank wine in the main hall and on the verandah before the program, and gathered in the dining room and conservatory afterwards for dessert. The musicians were as thrilled to be there as the audience, because performing chamber music in the intimacy of a house is really how chamber music was meant to be heard. “We look forward to performing here all year long,” said violist Judy Geist. Ethan Berg smiled his kid-in-a-candy-store grin. “That’s music to my ears,” he said.