Reimagining a Gilded Age Home

Thinking Outside of the Box to Meet Our Housing Needs

Berkshire Magazine — By Laura Mars

I arrived at Cassilis Farm in New Marlborough on a snowy February afternoon, excited to explore the Gilded Age mansion that is to be transformed into affordable housing. What a worthy new life for this impressive estate! First, though, the property will host a spectacular Designer Showcase—a fundraising event to show off the Berkshire’s history, the building’s beauty, and the region’s talented interior designers. It will also raise awareness of the need for more housing, as well as raise money for its new owner, Construct, Inc., the leading nonprofit provider of affordable housing in the southern Berkshires.  

The Designer Showcase, themed “Nature in the Berkshires,” will be a timed, ticketed walk-through and will be open to visitors through five weekends in June. Additional events surrounding the fundraiser include a New Marlborough community day, as well as a special opening night tour and reception at Cassilis Farm. When the show is finished, the rooms will be dismantled, and Cassilis will begin its transformation into a place where 13 families will call home.

Laura Jordahl, Construct’s site manager for the Designer Showcase, led me into the Annex, where voices rang out from the top of the staircase. Valerie Winig of Wingate Designs was measuring windows for lace curtains and points to the walls where botanical wallpaper will hang. She is one of 15 area designers who are donating time and resources to reimagine spaces in the Main House, built in 1890, and Annex, built in 1900.

“It’s such a beautiful home,” says Winig, who is working on the staircase as well as the first and second floor hallway and a powder room. “It’s unimaginable that everyone is putting in all this unbelievable gorgeousness and it will be ripped apart. It’s like a stage set. But it matters not. It’s for a good cause, and we want to participate in making it an exciting event.”

“Support for the Showcase has been incredible, from the town of New Marlborough to designers and artists, community members, businesses, even Construct’s staff and volunteers are reenergized,” says Jordahl, who came up with the idea with fellow board members Betty Farbman and Hinda Bodinger.

“It will not only showcase the incredible design talent we have in the Berkshires,” says Bodinger, the event’s co-chair, “but also present a way to start a conversation about affordable housing with those who might not be aware of the issue. The fact is that nonprofits need to raise money, and we knew that having a Gilded Age mansion at our fingertips offered a unique opportunity, an opportunity made even more attractive by adding the talent of local designers working within a ‘Nature in the Berkshires’ theme.”

Visitors will enter the showcase from the Annex’s stone patio, stepping into a wood-paneled space that will be designed by Hammertown. (The room has one of eight fireplaces found in Cassilis.) The kitchen will be Construct’s mission room. Danielle Sweet has space beyond the kitchen, Harry Heissmann and Tillett Textiles are collaborating on the upstairs nursery, and so on. Rooms are reserved for each designer’s interpretation of the theme through their unique artistry.

Jordahl explains that after the event, Construct will create three affordable housing duplexes in the Annex—moving walls and adding staircases and separate entrances. A screened-in patio at the back of the Annex offers views of the three-story Main House, which will become eight apartments, and renovation of two separate houses on the property brings the total to 13 affordable housing units. Construction will start in late-summer, assuming funding needs are met, with apartments ready for tenants in 2026 and the houses earlier than that.

Jordahl leads us into the Main House, noting that the façade of the buildings will not change—a stipulation from the town. Gilded Age details abound, including antique hardware, impressive wood-work, and, of course, gorgeous fireplaces. The center hall will become a Gallery Hall, with artwork loaned by Berkshire artists, including Shawn Fields, Kathryn Freeman, Maurice “Pops” Peterson, Gail Gelburd, and Laura Christensen. Local landscapers are donating time and resources to create an outdoor space worthy of what lies within.

It’s not clear at this point how Cassilis’ two large barns will play into Construct’s future housing plans, but it’s easy to imagine more transformation, as well as new construction at some point down the road.

Construct and the New Marlborough Housing Development Committee bought the 27-acre property in 2022 at an auction. The town currently has no affordable housing, so this is a step to meeting the state mandate that requires all 351 towns and cities in the Commonwealth maintain at least 10 percent of their total year-round housing stock as affordable. According to the Citizens Housing and Planning Association, 71 communities in Massachusetts currently meet that goal, including Pittsfield, Great Barrington, and Stockbridge.

The Cassilis Farm Designer Showcase launch party takes place on May 29 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Partygoers will meet the designers as they tour the house, enjoy appetizers and drinks provided by Old Inn on the Green, and listen to an impressive lineup of speakers. Tickets are $250. General admission is $40, Fridays to Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the month of June.

“This is the most important era for these grand estates,” says Cassilis Project Manager Nichole Dupont, “and Construct sees the opportunity to develop a new meaning.”

Construct Executive Director Jane Ralph sees Cassilis as a win-win. “Not only are we going to transform a Gilded Age mansion to affordable housing while keeping the Gilded Age Mansion look, but I hope we’re also going to transform people’s understanding of what affordable housing is and who we serve. It is a better visibility opportunity than I could have imagined.

“We have over 385 households on our waitlist for about 90 units of housing that we own or manage. What we hope to achieve through the Designer Showcase is to raise the rest of the private equity that we need for the project, about $600,000. What would be really great is if we not only raised the money for Cassilis, but also an opportunity fund so that when a property became available, we could move quickly.” That opportunity could be another Windflower, the Great Barrington inn that Construct bought in 2018 and turned into 13 living spaces.

According to Ralph, most of Construct’s housing is for people with incomes 30 to 60 percent of Area Median Income (AMI). Anyone at or below 80 percent AMI is eligible for Affordable Housing, and Workforce Housing is usually for those earning between 80 to 120 percent AMI. “Affordable is relative,” notes Ralph.

Indeed. Leigh Davis, vice chair of the Great Barrington Selectboard who is running for the state representative seat to be vacated by Smitty Pignatelli, agrees that the Berkshires needs housing for everyone—not only affordable housing, but housing for those earning a decent wage, including teachers, firefighters, and nurses. While the average Great Barrington resident can afford a $350,000 house, the town’s median home price is $783,000.

Countywide, it’s around $475,000, up from $250,000 in 2020.

Davis is encouraged that people are paying attention. “There is a lot of good work happening,” she says. “People are digging in and rowing in the same direction.” Governor Maura Healy’s recently proposed Affordable Homes Act (AHA)—$4.4 billion for housing—is a game changer for the Berkshires, adds Davis.

Beyond Beacon Hill, groups in the Berkshires are pulling together, raising awareness, and finding creative solutions that will make a difference.

The Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire recently completed Windrush Commons—49 affordable apartments on the south side of Great Barrington—and purchased Thornewood Inn on the town’s north end to create 18 Workforce Housing units. And Great Barrington Affordable Housing Trust Fund member Bill Cook proposed a tiny homes development, based on what he saw in Martha’s Vineyard. Small (averaging 750 square feet) but affordable ($225,000) tiny homes are not for everyone, but a piece of the puzzle.

Eagle Mill Redevelopment is creating 128 units of mixed-income housing on the site of Eagle Mill in Lee, one of 25 paper mills that once operated in the town. It was built in 1808, saw eight additions over the years, and closed in 2008. The multi-phased, $80 million project includes replacing, renovating, and building new, for a variety of housing and recreational opportunities.

In addition to physically digging in to create much-needed living space, the solution to the housing crisis includes raising community awareness. How did we get here, and how do we create permanent solutions? To that end, 1Berkshire—the county’s official regional economic organization and regional tourism council—put together a 24-member Berkshire Housing Practitioners Working Group that compiled a 36-page Housing Vision for the Berkshires document. They identified several strategies, including education, creating a supportive environment, advocating, and securing financial resources.

“The idea behind the report,” says 1Berkshire Executive Director Jonathan Butler, “is to understand that different organizations have different missions, but at the end of the day, we all impact each other. A lot has been done to create a common level of understanding, to understand what barriers housing developers are facing, for example.”

Butler is also quick to point out that the governor’s AHA tackles several issues identified in the report—like permitting, state funding, and market-rate development. All are pieces of the puzzle.

Peter Taylor is executive director of Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, a public charity whose goal is to improve the region by encouraging philanthropy, pooling and investing resources, addressing urgent needs, and supporting individuals and nonprofits through grants and scholarships. Taylor explains philanthropy’s role in solving the housing crisis. “One big thing we do is partner with nonprofits like Construct and 1Berkshire,” he says. “Our program Neighbor to Neighbor, for example, supports Construct’s Housing Assistance Fund, allowing them to be nimble in helping to keep people in the housing they are currently in.

“A lot of our donors are self-directed, they are living in our communities and know what they want to support. Others work with our staff to connect with issues they care about, including housing affordability. One sector alone is not going to solve this issue.”

The hard work of state government, cities, town, housing and community development organizations, philanthropy, and individual citizens are all pieces of the housing puzzle. To learn more about the Cassilis Farm Designer Showcase, or how to become a corporate sponsor, visit constructberkshires.org. More on 1Berkshires’ housing report at 1berkshire.com.



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