College puts Elm Tree House to greater use

After years of limited use, Elm Tree House, the mansion on the Mt. Hope Farm property, is to be brought up to code thanks to alumni support. Alumni support will allow for greater use of the 850-acre college-owned estate. Due to high maintenance and upgrading costs, the college had not been able to take full advantage of the property, which includes the 72 room Elm Tree House.

“For a variety of reasons involving expense and code regulations, we have kept [Mt. Hope Farm] mothballed for several years. We only used it for outdoor events such as the senior dinner-dance and reunions,” President of the College Harry C. Payne said.

Williams alumni Herbert A. Allen ’62, David S. Peresky ’60, and Francis T. Vincent ’60 are financing all upgrading costs in order to fulfill the plans the college has for its use.

“The College is in the position of paying for the maintenance of infrastructure and buildings that, because of building codes, have not been suitable for intensive use integral to our academic mission,” said Henry Art, Professor of Biology. “While Mount Hope Farm, in a literal sense, was the primary crucible of the “Green Revolution” and the Elm Tree House is a funky, elegant mansion infused with the ethos of Rockefellers, Prentices, and even the Manskers, these probably are not sufficient reasons for a small liberal arts institution to spend considerable amounts of money on their upkeep.”

As stated in a news release from the Office of Public Affairs, the Elm Tree House at first will be used for a new Distinguished Visitors Program. This program will bring special guests in different fields such as politics, arts and athletics to the college to interact with students and faculty for several days. The program will be chaired by Fay Vincent and supervised by advisors from the Williams community.

“The focus of activities there will be largely surrounding leadership and public affairs, broadly construed. I fully expect that students will participate in gatherings up there with leaders and forums on public issues,” Payne said. “We also plan to use it as a facility for leadership training activities, and I expect that some of these activities will involve students as well.”

The estate, built in 1928, was willed to the Lenox Hospital in New York in 1962 after the death of Alta Rockefeller Prentice, daughter of John D. Rockefeller. Williams bought the property at this time but after failed attempts at finding a use for the property the college sold various parts of the property.

The college considered using the property to set up an all-women’s college, but because of the enormous amount of funding this would entail, the college began to consider coeducation. Also, at that time the community was becoming more environmentally conscious and the college considered making Mt. Hope the center for environmental studies, however, the final decision was to keep the environmental studies building on campus. Ultimately, the estate was used for large conferences occasionally, and, sixteen years later, due to lack of College funds, it was sold to August Mansker.

“Mt. Hope Farm has caused controversy ever since the College acquired it, largely to prevent Williamstown being subjected to a massive housing development, over 3 decades ago,” said Art. “Williams College’s history of tenure on the property has been characterized by a quest for appropriate use of what at most times has been viewed as a white elephant. Numerous ad hoc committees and administrative efforts have failed to provide the ultimate solution for the property which in the interim has become subdivided into large-acreage house lots owned by the Purple Mountain Partners, more or less open space, public access fishing waters along the Green River, with the residual Elm Tree House, roads, and Million Dollar Cow Barn owned and maintained by Williams.”

The Purple Mountain Partnership, comprised of Williams alumni, put forth the funding to buy the $1.64 million property back and divided parts into building lots and donated the mansion, other buildings and 11 acres back to the college.

Finalized plans for the use of Mt. Hope Farm are still in the planning stages, but alumni are already excited about sponsoring activities.

“I expect we may start slowly, but build toward a wide variety of uses at this very special location,” Payne said.

“I find it gratifying that the College is formulating concrete plans for the use of Elm Tree House and that members of the Purple Mountain Partners are making resources available to enable the structure to be used appropriately,” Art said.

However, there are no attempts to support the use of the Mt. Hope Farm trails for the Williams Men and Women cross-country teams, according to Kristin Morwick, the Women’s cross-country coach.

“Our use of the area is going to be severely limited,” Morwick said. “We used to have a lot of practices and meets up there, but the property owners say that we are destructive to the property, although we are just running on the trails and the team doesn’t use any of the buildings at all.”

Morwick added that she had given the Vice President of the College David G. Healy notice of the dates the team would be using the property before the school year started. However, despite this prior notice, the team was prevented from utilizing the property for training during most of the season.