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After Declaring Itself Debt-Free, The Mount Looks To The Future

The former estate of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Edith Wharton is debt free for the first time in decades.In 2008, The Mount owed $8.5 million to lenders and was threatened with foreclosure. Missed fundraising marks led to the financial troubles. Now, the debt has been shaken thanks to a yearlong fundraising campaign, according to Executive Director Susan Wissler.

“It opens up so many opportunities for us,” Wissler said. “Rather than looking to solve the problems of the past it allows us to focus very closely on our future.”

With the debt retired, The Mount will save more than $200,000 a year, which will support its annual $1.8 million operating budget. The nonprofit staffed by 12 full-time year-round employees does not have an endowment and raises roughly half of its budget from private sources. Wissler, who moved up from deputy director to her current role during the financial issues in 2008, says being debt free will help development efforts like readapting the site’s stable to serve as the attraction’s primary cultural and education center along with other expansions.

“We’re standing on Edith Wharton’s roof and looking at our fence line which is about 50 yards beyond the formal gardens. But that’s not the original boundary line of the property. The original boundary extended way beyond the swamp and the trees down to the shores of Laurel Lake which you can just see through the forest. Our hope, [with] a lot of parties involved, but I think is a win-win situation for everyone, is to create a network of trails throughout all of this acreage for the benefit of the community.”

More than 40,000 people visit the 50-acre National Historical Landmark in Lenox each year, a 40 percent jump since 2008. Outside of the organization’s efforts, Wissler says The Mount has benefitted from a renewed interest in Edith Wharton and her work, like The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth.

“She was a keen observer of the Gilded Age and the very moneyed-class of New York City which was her childhood home,” Wissler said. “I think a lot of her observations and criticisms frankly – people find hugely relevant in today’s economic times. I also think that her insights into the human condition, the issues of love versus responsibility and social justice – those issues are still very relevant even today.”

Wissler says a number of young writers are also reengaging with Wharton’s literary collections, which go beyond novels and short stories to include writings from the front lines of World War I. Through partnerships with 40 institutions in the Berkshires and elsewhere, The Mount has expanded programming beyond literary and historical talks by hosting theater from Shakespeare & Company, weekly jazz events that draw some 600 people and a series of sculptures that dot the grounds.

A Wharton Scholar who has published a book on the author, Irene Goldman-Price serves on The Mount’s board.

“The Mount is now the literary haven,” Goldman-Price said. “We’ve also had Tanglewood, for a long time we’ve had The Mahaiwe and we’ve always had the Berkshire Theatre Festival. So we’ve had a lot of places for music and theater, but these are specifically literary events. I think that enhances the cultural life of the Berkshires by having that.”

Edith Wharton designed her home, which was built in 1902. She lived there until 1911. The building served as private residences and home to Shakespeare & Company. In 1980 the Edith Wharton Restoration formed and received funding to buy the property. The house officially opened to the public in 2002.

To thank the community for ongoing support, Berkshire County residents can visit The Mount for free throughout October.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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