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 emigres.

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 the bill.

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.

Click here to order this classic Berkshire book

 

 




Basic Facts:

  • Location: Lenox
  • Built:1897
  • Owner: Giraud Foster
  • Architect: Carrere and Hastings
  • Current Use: Canyon Ranch Health Spa

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