Shadow Brook

Lenox, Massachusetts

Completed in 1893, for Anson Phelps Stokes (1838-1913) and his wife, Helen Louisa Phelps (1846-1930). Situated half way up the Bald Head Mountain overlooking Stockbridge Bowl (aka Lake Mahkeenac), it stood two miles west of Lenox in The Berkshires. The sprawling Tudor-Revival mansion had a massive frontage of 400-feet and really did contain 100-rooms so that when Andrew Carnegie bought it in 1916 it was still considered to be the second largest private residence in the United States behind only Biltmore. Despite its size and glorious location, it was never occupied by any one family for longer than seven years, leading to spurious claims by a New York paper that the land had been cursed by the original American-Indian inhabitants. It ceased to be a private home after 1919 and although several similarly designed outbuildings remain, collectively known as "Shadow Brook Farm Historic District," the mansion was lost to fire in 1956....

This house is best associated with...

Anson Phelps Stokes

Anson P. Stokes, Merchant Banker, of Phelps, Stokes & Co., New York


Helen (Phelps) Stokes

Mrs Helen Louisa (Phelps) Stokes


William Augustus Read

William A. Read Sr., Investment Banker, of Dillon, Read & Co., New York


Caroline (Seaman) Read

Mrs "Carrie" Hicks (Seaman) Read


Spencer Proudfoot Shotter

Spencer P. Shotter, of Savannah, Lenox & New York


Elizabeth (Owens) Shotter

Mrs Elizabeth Wallace (Owens) Shotter


Margaret (Emerson) Vanderbilt

Mrs "Maggie" Mary (Emerson) McKim, Vanderbilt, Baker


Andrew Carnegie

Founder of the Carnegie Steel Company; Industrialist & Philanthropist


Anson Phelps Stokes was the grandson of Anson Green Phelps, co-founder of Phelps Dodge & Co., the largest traders of tin-plate in the world. Stokes invested his money in real estate and mining so that by the time he died he was thought to be worth $25 million. His wife, Helen, was her father's sole heir, inheriting a million dollars and a house on Madison Avenue in 1888. They were very distant cousins, their mutual ancestor being George Phelps who came to America in 1630. In New York City they lived on Madison Avenue and kept an elaborate country home on Staten Island. They were often in England where Stokes enjoyed fox-hunting, grouse shooting, and racing his yachts at Cowes, and their standing there was reflected when they were presented at court to Queen Victoria.

The Stokes' sold Bay View on Staten Island when they felt the area had become overcrowded. In 1889, they purchased The Homestead at Lenox and from 1890 began buying up land in the gentrified Berkshire hills, accumulating an estate of 900-acres by the time they decided to build afresh. Work began on the new house in 1891. The Stokes' chose to position it roughly 100-yards southwest of Oakwood which they'd purchased from Samuel Gray Ward and converted into stables. The Ward family had summered in Lenox since the 1840s and the site on which the Stokes house was built - "Shadow Brook" - had been named by Nathaniel Hawthorne in reference to a nearby trout stream.

McKim, White and... Willson

When they first conceived the idea of building a new summer home, the Stokes' naturally hired the best:  McKim, Mead & White were asked to draw up plans for the house while Frederick Law Olmsted was charged with landscaping the grounds. However, relations between Mrs Stokes and Stanford White quickly soured and the celebrated triumvirate were replaced by a comparative unknown, H. Neill Wilson, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Willson oversaw its construction and rumor has it that he may have used plans drawn up by Charles McKim to deliver the sprawling Tudor-Revival mansion.

"Mammoth" Proportions

On its completion in September, 1893, the New York gossip rag Town Topics wrote that, "the arrival of Mr and Mrs Anson Phelps Stokes at Lenox is proof positive that it is now quite the proper thing for the seaside throng to stray towards the mountains... I understand this mansion is a wonder in its way, and that the only things approaching its mammoth size are some of the buildings on the World's Fair grounds". Less than a year later, it continued: "To appreciate the size of this house, it may be told that the house is 400-feet front by 100-deep, that in walking around it you walk something over a quarter of a mile, that there is an acre of space on each of the four floors".

The 3-story house (over a basement) was topped with distinctive deep brown, rough hewn tiles and twelve chimneys. It was faced with white stucco, timber, and locally quarried white marble - the same then being used to construct Erskine Park for Mrs Westinghouse. Concerning its interior, when Gilded Age mansions are casually referred to as having 100-rooms, in most cases an eyebrow can be forgiven for being raised. But, Shadow Brook really did have 100-rooms, and perhaps even one or two more. Nonetheless, Mrs Stokes was still concerned that during the height of the season the house would be too small for their 9-children plus 50-odd house guests, so she had the architect increase the size of every room by one foot in each direction.

The ground floor contained 17-reception rooms that included the Ballroom, Library, Study, Drawing Room, Pompeian hall, Breakfast Room, Cedar Room, Music Room (with a capacity to seat 500), Dining Rooms (apparently there were three of them) and Billiards Room, plus various kitchens and servants' rooms. The second floor was for their guests, with 20-bedrooms and 15 accompanying bathrooms. The third floor was for the family with 11-master bedrooms and 9-master bathrooms plus another 11-bedrooms for live-in staff and five servant's bathrooms. Throughout the house were further store rooms and linen rooms and the basement housed the laundry room, wine cellars etc.

"The Best Manager I Have Ever Known..."

It cost $1 million, took a workforce of 500-men two years to build, and whereas Olmsted had started the landscaping, it was Ernest Bowditch who finished it. If Mrs Stokes appears to have been a difficult client, her head gardener at Shadow Brook didn't think so: “Mrs Stokes was the best manager I have ever known. Many great ladies are so sudden and impervious in their demands on a gardener that he is always nervous and wondering what next. But not Mrs Stokes… It was run like a perfectly organized business”.

For the next six years, Shadow Brook buzzed with activity, not only in the summer, but in the winters too: the Stokes family frequently held weekend parties for 50-guests at a time, also hosting huge parties to celebrate Christmas and New Year, and in March they and their children hosted equally large numbers of their friends from New York to join in winter sports events such as tobogganing, sleigh-riding, snow-shoeing and ice-fishing.

Hopping Out of Town, Permanently

The fun came to an abrupt end in the summer of 1899 when Stokes was thrown from the gelding he rode against the advice of his groom and crushed against a tree, resulting in his leg being amputated. They came up to Lenox the following summer (1900), but Anson recalled, "after the loss of my leg, I was unable to enjoy Shadow Brook as much as I had previously done, because I could no longer ride about the place as I had been accustomed to do, and of course, I could not play golf". He went on to add, "most of my children, being actively engaged in business and in benevolent work in New York, found they had much need to be in the city during the autumn, which was the Lenox season, and Lenox was too far away for them and for me to get easily back and forth from town".

The Stokes' did not return after 1900. For the summers of 1901 and 1902, Shadow Brook was leased to the financier and book collecting fanatic William A. Read and his wife, Carrie, but by April 1902 the mansion had been placed on the market and Stokes had commissioned his son, Newton, to build him Brick House outside Darien, Connecticut.

In 1903, the hotel-sized home was leased to Henry W. Merrill to be run as an hotel. But, while the mansion was now Stokes-free, the various other Tudor-Revival properties on the estate (eg. the Rev. Anson Phelps Stokes Jr.'s Shadow Brook Farm) continued to be occupied by various other members of the Phelps Stokes family up until the 1950s. 

"The Workings of an Old Indian Spell"?

In the same year (1903) that the 10-year old mansion became an hotel, an article appeared in Pulitzer's New York World (a paper, it should be noted, that thrived on sensationalism and cared little for fact) claiming: "the wise ones, who are versed in sorcery and legendary lore, declare that Anson Phelps Stokes has been driven away from 'Shadow Brook' by the workings of an old Indian spell". As we already know, this was not the case, but although the Stokes' only lived here for seven years, they would be its longest private occupants.

Shadow Brook was a hotel for just two short years, during which time part of the interior was re-arranged allowing it to boast 100-rooms. In January, 1906, the mansion and 358 of the estate's original acres were purchased for a reported $250,000 by Spencer P. Shotter, who for the previous two summers had leased Charles Astor Bristed's cottage, Lakeside, on Stockbridge Bowl. Shotter was a flamboyant Canadian who settled in Savannah as Chairman of the American Naval Stores Company where in 1898 he commissioned Carrère and Hastings to build him a magnificent Beaux-Arts mansion, Greenwich Place.

Shotter and his wife, Elizabeth Owens (whose family owned the Owens-Thomas House now considered the finest example of English Regency architecture in the States) wasted no time in making their presence known at Lenox. But, just four years later (1909), he was embroiled in a scandal for violating the anti-trust law, sentenced to three months in jail and fined $5,000. He appealed, won his case, but the legal bills cost him his fortune.

Going Out with a Bang

The Shotter's entertainments at Shadow Brook were rarely ordinary, such as the Southern breakfast they served up after a hunt in 1906: "Throughout the big house quantities of Spanish moss was used in contrast to red autumn foliage. Cotton balls from the cotton fields were in abundance as table and mantel decorations, and cunningly arrayed for effect were pomegranates, melons, and Southern grapes, all from Mr Shotter's Georgia estate. The menu was typical of the South, and included terrapin stew, fried chicken with bell peppers, stuffed ricebirds, cold meats, grapes, and ices. The ices were served in a novel favor, representing a cotton bale, designed by Miss Isabel Roundtree, Mr Shotter's niece".

As his fortune dissipated, Shotter put the house on the market in 1912 but not before one last party: For the previous five seasons he'd loaned Shadow Brook to the Berkshire Hunt Club for their annual ball and despite his waning funds his last year here was to be no exception. The Shotters had been used to regularly entertaining up to 200-guests and one such occasion was written-up in The New York Times in September, 1909 (four months after Shotter had been sentenced to jail) when they hosted that year's Berkshire Hunt Club Ball for all, "the beaux and belles of Lenox, Newport and Bar Harbor".

The music room that night was described as, "magnificent... with ceilings of carved quartered oak panelled in disks, and wainscoting of the same rich timber in panels, with its magnificently carved mantel surmounting a huge fireplace, its floor especially constructed for dancing, and its gallery for musicians, needed but little adornment... The reception of guests took place in the Pompeian hall. This room, centered by a white marble fountain, is 30-by-48-feet, and is finished by white panel with a Pompeian frieze... There was a buffet supper after midnight in the grand dining room, another beautiful apartment done in old English oak. On the east side of this room is a large fireplace surmounted by a mantel with English hunting scenes elaborately carved in solid oak".

Privacy and Peace for a Grieving Mrs Vanderbilt

In September, 1915, the Shotter's third daughter, Eleanor, chose to get married at Lenox, but the reception was held at Osceola. Shadow Brook had been leased that June for $15,000 to Mrs Maggie Vanderbilt who only weeks before lost her husband, Freddy, when the R.M.S. Lusitania was torpedoed by the Germans. On first glance, Shadow Brook seemed an enormous house for a widow to occupy, but she enjoyed not only its tranquility, but its privacy: There were rumors that she had guards posted at both entrances to Shadow Brook because of threats she'd received to kidnap her sons.

The Last Home of America's Greatest Philanthropist

Andrew Carnegie is remembered as the self-made steel magnate whose company was at the center of the largest industrial takeover in U.S. history. He then dedicated the remaining 18-years of his life to philanthropy, giving away $350-million in that period, not including the $30 million left when he died, which he also willed to charity. 

As highlighted by the sinking of the Lusitania on which Freddy Vanderbilt had lost his life, the war in Europe had made civilian travel between there and North America unsafe. Up until then, Carnegie had spent most of his time in Scotland at Skibo Castle, but with failing health and unable to return to his native home he was on the look out for a suitable country retreat which his physicians advised should be sited at some altitude.

After spending the previous two summers in Lenox, in the summer of 1916 Carnegie had been staying at Brick House in Connecticut, the country home of none other than the by-then widowed Mrs Anson Phelps Stokes. Independently, his wife and daughter had both spent part of the same summer in Lenox and it was his daughter who suggested that her father place an offer on Shadow Brook. That October, Carnegie paid $350,000 to Shotter's creditors for the mansion and its 250-acres on which were included two stables, two lodges, six greenhouses, tennis courts, gardens, terraces, and a large reservoir supplied by mountain streams from which Carnegie installed an indoor fire safety sprinkler system.

In June, 1918, Carnegie arrived in Stockbridge (the station they preferred to use over Lenox) for the season with his wife, daughter, secretary and "other attachés" - and 45-pieces of luggage. Said to be "in fine fettle," Carnegie flattered local reporters when he said that Shadow Brook had become, "as dear to him as was Skibo Castle". But, his next season at Lenox was to be his last and he died at Shadow Brook on August 11th, 1919.

Seminary to Cinders

After Carnegie died, his widow "virtually abandoned" Shadow Brook preferring to pass her summers at Skibo in Scotland. She placed the estate on the market in December, 1920, and in October, 1922, she sold the mansion and its acres for about $200,000 to the Jesuits of the Province of New England to be converted into a seminary for 150-students. It was still serving in that capacity when a an oil explosion in the boiler room started a fire that tore through the mansion on March 9th, 1956, killing five of the residents. Tragically, by then no-one knew that Carnegie - the man who spent the last 18-years of his life dedicated to helping others - had fitted a sprinkler system within the house but which sat inactive as the fire consumed what had been the second largest house in the States. 

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Contributed by Mark Meredith on 20/08/2021 and last updated on 29/08/2021.
Main Image Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association, CC BY-NC-ND; Houses of the Berkshires by Richard S. Jackson & Cornelia B.  Gilder; The New York Times Archives; The Rise and Fall of Shadow Brook, Berkshire Eagle; Shadow Brook, A Cursed Cottage or Just Unlucky, by Jennifer Huberdeau, Berkshire Eagle; Love, Fiercely; A Gilded Age Romance (2012) by Jean Zimmerman


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