The Millers' Tale
Restoring a barn of historic proportion
Photographs by Paul Rocheleau
In 1901, Edith Wharton purchased The Mount and a small farm east of the property next to Laurel Pond on Summer Street. The farm, built in 1896, included a stable, ice house, and wagon shed, plus living quarters for her coachman, William Parlett, his wife, Emma, and son, Charles.
The Lenox farm became Wharton’s husband Teddy’s domain. In 1905, The Berkshire Gleaner reported that he was building a large barn where he planned to keep a herd of registered Jerseys. According to biographer R.W.B. Lewis, Teddy “loved all the cows, sheep, ducks and hens so much that he could not stand to slaughter them.”
Fast-forward 91 years and several owners later. The small farm remained, but the animals were gone. Doris Flesher from Wheeler & Taylor Realty Co. introduced her clients, Annette and Michael Miller, to the neglected property. The abandoned complex was in a sad state, but the Millers, like Edith Wharton, fell in love with the Berkshires and its environment.
They had been searching for a vacation house outside of their home in Boston and had looked on the Cape and in Rhode Island. Nothing inspired them. “If you go to the Cape, you end up having dinner with the same people,” Michael explains. “The Berkshires had so much to offer, both natural beauty and culture. Even back then when we bought the property, there was Tanglewood, Berkshire Theatre Festival, Jacob’s Pillow, and Shakespeare & Company.”
They saw the potential of Wharton’s old farm and, after acquiring it, had planned to live in the ice house that took a year to renovate. When the couple bought the property, they had no plan to do anything with the barn. In fact, at one time Michael thought the barn would be demolished.
The Millers lived in their small but idyllic cottage for eight years. Then things changed. Their family had grown, and their two children, Deborah and Bruce, had children of their own. If the family were to share the summer house, more space was needed. The adjacent barn could provide a solution and accommodate the extended family, but the Millers faced the challenge that the structure was literally falling apart.
Challenge was nothing new to Annette Miller. As a young woman, she wanted to be an actor but her mother forbade it. Rather than defy her mother, she got a day job substitute teaching and went to night school for acting.
The teaching job paid the rent except when she bought theater tickets, which meant borrowing money from her mother to make ends meet. Still, she persevered with her acting goal and eventually got her Equity card.
This charismatic actress is famous for her role in Golda’s Balcony, in which she won the Elliot Norton and IRNE awards for “Best Actress.” She also was nominated for the Elliot Norton Award in the title role of Martha Mitchell Calling. Annette will star in the Shakespeare & Company production of Sotto Voce, August 18 through September 11. Michael, a lawyer by profession, has also been involved with Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, serving on itsboard of directors.
So the former Wharton barn became their new challenge. They either had to tear it down or restore it. Restoration, they decided, would be costly but worth it. After all, the barn had a history and was an integral part of the property’s legacy.
They found architect Stephan Green, landscape architect Walt Cudnohufsky, and, as luck would have it, master builder David Babcock who lived down the road. The Millers dug into their coffers and work began.
The structure, according to Green, was in “a dramatic state of disrepair.” He and Babcock looked at the project and concluded it was necessary to rebuild it from the ground up.
The east and north side remained intact, but the south side leaned at a precarious angle. Despite the heavy lifting required, the team took up the immense task of transforming the barn into a livable space.
The goal of the unique 8,000-square-foot, two-year project was to make a distinction and merging between the new and the old.
The resulting state-of-the art Italian kitchen, for example, harmonizes but also contrasts with the antique barn structure. A portion of the original stables were kept exactly as they were in Wharton’s time. And rather than separate the barn from the ice house, Green created a folly linking the two buildings.
Another hurdle facing the team was connecting the interior and exterior environments. Cudnohufsky wanted to enhance the house by creating a space of visual delights. He envisioned spectacular views into the garden, a continuity and flow from the interior to the exterior.
One of the ways he achieved this was by using a ceiling-to-floor picture window on the southwest side of the barn, highlighting the natural wooded environment. Standing on the deck outside the window, there’s an illusion of being inside; the reverse is true when standing on the inside.
Another special feature used by Cudnohufsky was a shingled fence that allows an uninterrupted view across the fields and continuing over Laurel Lake and the eastern Berkshire Hills. Cars parked on one side of the fence are hidden from view, while on the other side a densely planted perennial garden is divided by large, dark flagstones leading to the barn’s front entryway.
One of the problems confronting Cudnohufsky was at the lower level of the barn.
The Millers wanted a pool with ample amounts of sun, shade, and wind protection without having a fence. He again used a circular shingled barrier plus an arbor, preserving the expansive southern view over Laurel Pond.
“No matter what the project is, the problems aren’t the solution,” says Cudnohufsky. “Whatever the problem is, it unlocks the solution.”
The most interesting thing about this extraordinary property, apart from the detailed professional renovations, is the people. It may be a whimsical and far-fetched thought, but perhaps Edith Wharton’s spirit brought the Millers to her former farm.
Here on this property, both Edith and Annette develop their characters: Wharton in her stories; Miller in her plays. During the summer, the Millers can be found enjoying the lovely home they’ve created, drawn to the Berkshires not just for its natural beauty and cultural activities, but because it’s a one-of-a-kind place easily accessible from Boston.
And just as Wharton loved to entertain her literary friends, the Millers also take great pleasure in entertaining.
Many have visited, including Mike Wallace, Jane Fonda, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Mike and Kitty Dukakis. The couple also hosted a fundraiser for the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy.
“He called one day after attending the fundraiser,” recalls Annette. “He was driving by on his way to Pittsfield and said how much he loved our home.”