Elm Court, Former Summer Cottage of Vanderbilt Family, Hits Market for $12.5 Million

One of the most unique and historic properties in the Berkshires has hit the market again. Elm Court, the sprawling “summer cottage” that was built by Emily Thorn Vanderbilt and her husband, William Douglas Sloane, in 1886, was officially listed for sale on October 19, 2020 after plans to transform it into a resort, spa and restaurant fell through. Massive in size and largely still in serious disrepair, it is unclear whether the property will be scooped up by another developer with big dreams or if it will be purchased and used as a private residence once again.

At the time that it was built, Elm Court was just one of several magnificent Gilded Age “cottages” to spring up in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. In the years following the Civil War, wealthy industrialist dynasties, including the Carnegies, the Choates and the Westinghouses, flocked to the bucolic and mountainous area to construct peaceful getaways for themselves and their families. The property is steeped in history not just by virtue of having originally belonged to the Vanderbilt family; in 1919, the Elm Court Talks, which helped to mold the development of the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles, were held there, and the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

A Summer Cottage Befitting American Royalty

So, what will $12.5 million get you if you are so inclined to purchase Elm Court? Located at 310 Old Stockbridge Road in Stockbridge, its 90 acres are actually split between two municipalities; 87 of them are located in Stockbridge, but three of them – including the entrances and road frontage – are located in Lenox. Situated just one mile from downtown Stockbridge, Elm Court affords stunning views of the Stockbridge Bowl and of the Berkshire Mountains.

Originally designed to be a “simple” summer cottage, the property was expanded upon repeatedly in its first 15 years; today, the listing cites approximately 55,000 square feet of living space, and it’s one of the largest American Shingle-style homes in the United States. Designed by famed architects Peabody and Stearns, the manor boasts 46 bedrooms and 27 bathrooms. Elm Court features a massive, thoroughly modern kitchen with high-end appliances. The huge butler’s pantry is larger than the kitchen itself. Fine touches are rampant throughout the property, including coffered ceilings, parquet floors, wood-burning fireplaces and mercury glass doorknobs.

The grounds include a gardener’s cottage and a butler’s cottage that offers eight bedrooms. There are 23 massive greenhouses spanning more than two acres, including one that is large enough to accommodate palm trees, as well as an ornately appointed carriage house and stables. In 1888, Frederick Law Olmsted – a prolific landscape architect best known for being the designer of Central Park in New York City – was retained to design the grounds. Olmsted ultimately transformed more than 40 acres of the property into finely manicured lawns and formal gardens over a period of 13 months and through more than 70 designs. An ornamental pool with a semi-circular pergola added to its refinement. The grounds also include a replica of Rome’s Fontana delle Tartarugho, or Fountain of Turtles, and a cistern by the lily pond that was used by servants to filter and pump water still stands today. Sadly, however, the grand elm tree that gave the property its name succumbed to disease in the 1960s.

The Fascinating History of Elm Court

In 1885, construction of Elm Court began at the request of Emily Vanderbilt Sloane and her husband, William Douglas Sloane. Emily was the granddaughter of Vanderbilt family patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was also fondly known as The Commodore. William Sloane and his brother, John, owned W & J Sloane, making their own fortunes selling imported Oriental rugs and fine furnishings.

The couple initially intended for Elm Court to be a modest summer cottage for themselves and their five children. However, plans shifted upon the death of Emily’s father, railroad tycoon William Henry Vanderbilt, in late 1885. He left each of his eight children $10 million; today, that would be equivalent to roughly $268 million. Needless to say, Emily and her husband were now exceptionally flush with cash, and plans for Elm Court changed accordingly.

Over the next 15 years, Elm Court was expanded upon countless times. At one point, the estate included more than 4,000 chickens and was generating more than 40,000 pounds of hay per year. The grounds also housed 25 coaches and horse teams. William Douglas Sloane died in 1915, but Emily continued to summer at Elm Court. In 1920, when she was 68 years old, she married 70-year-old Henry White. White died at the estate in 1927 after an unsuccessful surgery. As for Emily, she ultimately died at Elm Court in the summer of 1946 at the age of 94.

After being shuttered for a few years, Elm Court reopened as an inn in 1948. For a while, the inn played host to the public, offering overnight accommodations, special events and a full-service restaurant. However, the cost of upkeep proved to be too much, and the inn was closed for good in 1957. From there, the property was shuttered and mothballed and was largely ignored for many years. During that time, sadly, vandals hit the property again and again, destroying much of its fine detailing and making off with many of its elegant fixtures.

In 1999, Elm Court, which was owned by Sloane’s great granddaughter, Lila Wilde Berle, through a real estate trust, was sold to Robert Berle, a great-great grandson of Emily’s second husband, White, for $947,380. Berle proceeded to perform renovations for more than three years before reopening the spot as a luxury bed and breakfast. Those plans ultimately faltered too, and Berle sold the property in 2012 to Travaasa Experiential Resorts and Front Yard LLC for $9.8 million, closing the door on the property’s 137 years in the Vanderbilt family.

Front Yard LLC, a resort developer, partnered with Travaasa and bought the property ostensibly to redevelop it as a sprawling resort. However, the project seemed ill-fated from the very start. Plans for Travaasa Berkshire County, as the resort was tentatively being called, met fierce resistance from local residents and zoning boards. Neighbors filed a lawsuit against the developers and the zoning board, but it was shot down in July 2017; the same thing happened when it went to the state court of appeals later that year. It was dismissed for good via a private settlement between the parties.

Ultimately, plans for the resort were scrapped after the necessary investment capital failed to materialize. With other resorts in the area, including Canyon Ranch and the newly opened Miraval Resort, it is not clear whether one at Elm Court would have found any real footing. The proposed plans also would have required the construction of a hotel annex, adding to the already hefty renovation and repair price tag. Despite the renovations that have been performed thus far, significant additional work is required. At least 8,000 square feet of living space is in desperate need of restoration, so whoever snaps up the property will have their work cut out for them. Locals are hoping that the property is sold and becomes a private residence again, but its ultimate fate is still up in the air as it sits on the market.