The Cottager | Seranak: A perfect view of the Berkshires and Serge Koussevitzky's private life
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Editor's note: This is the first of three columns about the cottages that can be found on the Tanglewood campus.
LENOX, MASS. — On nights that Serge Koussevitzky conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, he would descend down the long, winding, pebbled driveway from his home atop Baldhead Mountain, parting the lines of cars as he drove behind a two-man motorcycle escort with "sirens wide open and screaming."
At least that's how his trips to Tanglewood, located a mere quarter-mile down the road from his estate, were described in an August 1949 "Town and Country" magazine article, "The Berkshire Story." The article, which on a whole describes the economic benefits the summer music festival provides to Lenox and Stockbridge, begins with a not-so-subtle undertone of displeasure on the part of full-time residents, one who describes it as "a little too much of muchness."
One gentleman, described as a "descendent of an old Lenox family," criticized Koussevitzky for the grand scale intrusion and a lack of taste: "They advertise Beethoven, and they give you Copland. It's revolutionary music ... They say that when people come out of the Shed after hearing that modern music, they run over other people's dogs — deliberately."
Perhaps it was this same unnamed gentleman who called Seranak, the conductor's 170-acre estate, "esoterically too Russian" — a description its original owner, Kate Sturges Buckingham, would have found laughable. As described in the article — a piano, two portraits of the conductor, and a collection of berets — were among the few items the Koussevitzkys had added to the home.
Buckingham, known as "Chicago's Grandest Spinster," along with her brother, Clarence, built the 19-room Colonial house atop Baldhead Mountain. Completed in 1912, the house, which they named Bald Head Farm, was reported to sit 1,853 miles above sea level.
"The location is one of the finest in Lenox," the New York Times, reported in 1912. "... facing the south, with a beautiful overlook of Lake Mahkeenac and the Monument Mountain range of hills far below Stockbridge. Many consider it the finest view, a combination of woods, water and mountain, to be had in the Lenox region."
The Buckinghams were the first Chicago millionaires to acquire a Lenox estate. While most papers attributed the villa, as the house was called, to Clarence C. Buckingham, it was really his sister, Kate, who was in charge. While Clarence bought the original farm the estate sat on, she added her own 80 acres to the property and oversaw the building of the house.
The Buckingham siblings, which included a third sister, Lucy Maud, were no strangers to the Berkshires. Their father, Ebenezer Buckingham, was one of a contingent of Chicago businessmen who built their "cottages" in Pittsfield. He owned a 55-room mansion, which burned to the ground in 1899. Following their father's death in 1911, the siblings were left independently wealthy. Clarence would die in 1912, leaving his estate to his sisters. Kate, who cared for her sister, Lucy, until the time of her death in 1920, would be the left the lone heir to the family fortune.
Buckingham was as generous, as she was wealthy. From her obituary, published in the Chicago Tribune: "She was godmother to the Art institute; the collections for which it is most famous for were her gifts. She was godmother to the opera; at the time of her death she was a guarantor. She was godmother to some 200 or more music and art students. She was a heavy donor to the Field museum, to innumerable Chicago charities, to many, many nameless Chicagoans."
Much of her charity work, which she immersed herself in at the age of 15, was done with anonymity. At one point, she removed her name from the Social Registrar and kept company with only a select inner circle.
Her reclusive nature, especially in the Berkshires, was self imposed despite the assertions of Cleveland Amory, author of "The Last Resorts," in a 1964 article in The Berkshire Eagle. Amory claimed that the Chicago millionaires who summered in the Berkshires were shunned by the "snobocrats" of Lenox and Stockbridge, thus forcing Buckingham and her brethren to "live quietly" on their estates. His assertions are quite contrary to the reports of the Time's social reports from the era, which often noted the balls and lunches hosted by Miss Buckingham. She appeared less frequently in the social pages as she grew older and kept a tighter social circle. Her activities in Lenox became limited to affairs that included the arts, music and horticulture.
It was her love of the arts and her devotion to the Art Institute of Chicago that saved Bald Hill Farm from the wrecking ball. As noted by author May Callas, in "Profiles of Tanglewood Families," Buckingham made many wills in her time, and at one point, requested the house in Lenox be destroyed, as she "did not want anyone else to live in it." Fortunately, Buckingham changed her mind and bequeathed her Berkshire estate to Walter B. Smith, her lawyer, who was also a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago, upon her death in 1937.
The Koussevitzkys purchased the estate including the house its furnishing, linens and china, from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1939. Despite Serge Koussevitzky's assertions that he purchased the house for $25,000 from a man named McCormick in 1939, the Chicago Tribune reported that Smith sold the estate, with proceeds going to the Art Institute, to Koussevitzky for $18,000. The furnishings and other contents came at a price of $2,000.
The Koussevitzkys renamed the estate, Seranak, an acronym of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky, and settled in on the mountain top. A decade after the purchase, the Koussevitzkys' relationship with those around them emulated that of Buckingham's. In the 1949 "Town and Country" article, Serge reported of his neighbors, "we are friends," but the couple acknowledged they only accepted about three invitations during the summer social season. The couple was too busy to socialize, as they were realizing Serge's lifelong dream of establishing a music academy.
"Little did I think that my own early dreams of a Music and Art Center in Moscow, in the heart of Russia, would find its realization in the heart of New England a quarter century later. Indeed, miracles cannot be accounted for," Koussevitzky said of the Berkshire Music Center, known today as the Tanglewood Music Center, which he founded in 1940.
"No one goes to Seranak."
It's a phrase I've heard over the last few weeks, as this column has come up in conversation. But indeed, I did visit the elusive Seranak, with its winding driveway and breathtaking views.
"If you tried to search for Seranak on the Internet five years ago, you wouldn't have found anything. Maybe an old newspaper article or two," caretaker John Roethel says as he and his wife, Peggy, lead me through a screen door onto Seranak's terrace. Wooden rocking chairs are lined up in front of a stone wall, where the view is a sweeping vista filled with blue skies and green rolling hills that fade into the shores that line the Stockbridge Bowl.
"You can see three states from here: New York, Connecticut and of course, Massachusetts," Roethel says, before turning and pointing to a side of the house. "There's a whole other wing of the house you can't see from here. The whole wing shoots out over there, Downton Abby-style. It was the servants' quarters."
The house and its contents, Peggy says, are in much the same condition today, as they were when the BSO purchased the estate in 1979 from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. Serge Koussevitzky left the estate to the foundation he started in memory of his wife, Natalie, who died in 1942. Although he died in 1951, his third wife, Olga, who died in 1978, was granted lifetime rights to live at the estate.
"Most people don't know that Natalie was his second wife. He divorced his first wife," Roethel says. "Natalie bought this house for him. She helped his career. He remarried five years after her death. Olga was his secretary for 18 years and Natalie's niece. He was 73 and she was 47."
Koussevitzky married Natalie Ushkova, the daughter of an extremely wealthy tea merchant, in 1905, the same year he divorced the ballerina, Nadezhda Galat, whom he married in 1902.
Prior to the BSO's purchase, Olga Koussevitzky kept up the house, which was the summer home of teachers and students of the Berkshire Music Center.
"[Koussevitzky] taught Leonard Bernstein in this room," Roethel says, as we enter a double parlor off the main hallway. "He called this the 'Music Room.' It's still set up the way he had it. He always had two baby grand pianos in here. Most of the furniture is original."
Not much has changed at the estate, which the Roethels have managed, along with several cottages below, for the last five years.
"You still have to be invited to stay here," Peggy says, returning from the kitchen, where she's just checked on an item in the oven. "No money ever exchanges hands. The guests are usually conductors or critics from the larger newspapers."
But the house is rarely empty, as it is during my visit.
"We host the [Seranak] Supper Club on Fridays and Saturdays. You have to be a member to have dinner here. It's very formal, with jackets and ties," John Roethel says. "We also host the post parties after the concerts."
In Koussevitzky's study, a plaster cast of his left hand, in the throes of conducting, sits under glass atop his desk, which still has his papers in a drawer. The room is full of framed photos and letters from colleagues and dignitaries, including Eleanor Roosevelt. Koussevitzky's death mask, cast in bronze, sits on a book shelf.
On the second floor, four of the five bedrooms are used for visitors, while the caretakers take the fifth. Two rooms, named the pink and blue rooms, are so named for the color of the walls — painted so to delight the nieces and nephews who once stayed there. Olga's room is still decorated in the same furnishings she had during her lifetime there. Roethel points out a servant call button, where the three buttons are labeled, "alarm," "maid," and "man."
In Koussevitzky's room, his shirt collars and bow ties are still in the dresser drawers and an armoire still holds his specially cut conducting jackets and shoes. A special tub for his dogs still remains as part of the room's bathroom plumbing fixtures.
"While everything is original, we are up to code," Roethel assures me, pointing out foam sprinkler systems and doors held open by magnets that will release and close the doors in the event of a fire. "The place is equipped with surveillance cameras, motion detectors and state-of-the-art alarms."
But forget about cable television or streaming your favorite shows via a WiFi connection, he says. Running a service line up to the house would cost about $30,000, so guests are limited to a single television channel and DSL for internet service. But I say, who needs cable or Netflix, when you can see the world from your window?
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