Bellefontaine was built by Giraud Foster
in 1897 who hired the architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings. They were
the same architects who designed the New York City Public Library for the
Astor family and Brookside for Mr. William Stanley of Great Barrington.
Although the date of the house
is commonly listed as 1889, the July 3, 1897 issue of American Architects
& Building News pictures Bellefontaine. The house was built of white
marble and pale brick. The marble was from the quarries at Lee, Massachusetts,
four miles away.
The house was approached by a long drive through the woods, and the only
hint of what splendor awaited the visitor, was a glimpse of statues placed
along the drive. The house was built around an inner court with a waterway;
a long narrow pool, and surrounding it were examples of Mr. Foster's collection
of statuary. They took all forms from Adonis to gargoyles, from Hercules
to goats. They were imported or copied from statues in France and Italy.
A favorite story told about Foster by Cleveland Amory and many local
residents is: A tour guide was discouraged from bringing paying sightseers
up the elm-lined drive to view Bellefontaine. Angry, he decided to make
one more trip. Mr. Foster was entertaining on his terrace. The guide spoke
loud enough to be heard, "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the home of
Mr. Foster who made all his money in one day. He married it."
Notwithstanding the story, Giraud Foster and Jane Van Nest were on equal
footing when they married. Andrew Foster, Giraud's grandfather, arrived
in America from Scotland in
the early 1800s. He carried with him letters of introduction to the best
houses and ample funds. He had sailed across the ocean in what apparently
was his own ship. The Van Nests also arrived in America in the early 1800s.
They were from Holland where, as the "Van" indicates, they were
land owners. Both families established their American social and financial
standings in New York. Jane and Giraud were each grandchildren of the original
The couple was childless until 1904. Parents for the first time, Giraud
Foster was fifty-four years old and Jane Van Nest was in her late forties.
So late in life was it, that Mrs. Foster was diagnosed as having a tumor.
Contrary to the diagnosis, their son, Giraud Van Nest Foster, was born at
the Waldorf Astoria in New York City and was, from the day he was born,
called simply "Boy."
When Boy was ten years old, a friend of Mrs. Foster's asked, "To
which school will you send Boy?"
The answer was, "Groton, of course."
"But," the friend asked, "can Boy read or write?"
The son had spent his early years at Lenox, New York, Palm Beach and
on the Continent traveling with his parents, not in school. An experiment
was conducted and was discovered that Boy could do neither - read or write.
Tutors were hired. Among them was George Livermore who would later marry
one of the daughters of Charles Astor Bristed of Lakeside.
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Boy did attend Groton. He arrived "in
state" with chauffeur, footman and nanny in two cars to transport them.
Even at Groton, his manner of arrival was noted and occasioned a response.
As soon as the entourage departed, Boy was beaten up.
Called Boy Foster all his life, he told a family member that the fact
of his father's death really struck him when he returned to Bellefontaine
for the funeral service and the butler, Paul Roth, opened the door and said,
"Good afternoon, Mr. Foster."
Mr. Foster died in 1945 shortly before his ninety-fifth birthday. In
1947, Bellefontaine was sold to the Fathers of Mercy. One of the cottagers noted in his diary alongside "get
a haircut" - "Bellefontaine sold for $1.3 million dollars including
the 1,800 statues." For many years the statues formed the centerpiece
of one of the great mysteries of Lenox. Shortly after Bellefontaine was
purchased by seminarians, locals say, all the statues disappeared. Some
thought the good fathers had sold them. Others said that were offensive
to the religious occupants of Bellefontaine, and that they decapitated the
statues and buried them in the waterway.
The auction catalogue printed shortly after Mr. Foster's death, and before
the property became a seminary, lists hundreds of statues. Hundreds were
sold at auction, but not eighteen-hundred. Unfortunately the keeper of the
diary is gone, and we cannot ask him what he meant. It is not clear that
Bellefontaine sold anything close to 1.3 million dollars. The New York Times
reported that the estate was appraised at one hundred and twenty three thousand
dollars. The stamps affixed to the deed of sale appear to represent a sale
price of forty thousand dollars. The truth lies between those two figures,
not beyond them. So, the number of statues is also questionable . Whatever
the number, what happened to the rest?
In February, 1949, the interior of the house was totally destroyed by
fire. It was then rebuilt by the new occupants and became the Immaculate
Heart of Mary Seminary. The devastating fire of 1949 left only one room,
the library, unscathed. The outer walls were not destroyed by fire but were
altered by the seminarians. Sadly, Bellefontaine was reduced to a mere echo
of what it once was.
Pictures taken after the fire show some statues still in place. Some
say that the old mystery was solved by workman in the 1980s. In their digging
it is said, they found the rest of the statues. They had, after all, been
buried, and like Bellefontaine, they are much altered . They were found
piece by piece, head by arm by torso. But others argue that a head from
a cherub and an odd arm do not a collection make and do not represent the
wholesale burying of graven images.
One thing is for sure. Traveling around the
Berkshires, one can find many of Bellefontaine's famous statues: the lions
at Shipton Court (now Seven Hills Resort), the well-head adorned with mermaids
and tritons of The Apple Tree Inn and the seahorse that overlooks the Stockbridge
Bowl from the grounds of Wheatleigh. Like symbols of a forgotten era, like snatches from a dream, the statues
of Bellefontaine are scattered over the Berkshire Hills.
Bellefontaine stood vacant for a number of years waiting for a purpose that could support such a grand structure. In
1987, Mel Zuckerman was searching for a second location for his successful
spa resort, Canyon Ranch of Tucson. Many of the spa's guests were from the east coast and Mel was
looking for a location that would serve these clients. Bellefontaine fit
Today, Bellefontaine is experiencing a renaissance. Canyon Ranch is a popular
destination for the rich and famous and has restored the cottage's status
as a symbol of "the good life." The building has also been physically
restored to much of its original splendor as part of its $40 million dollar
conversion into a premiere health spa.
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