An Inspired Mountaintop Estate
An architectural aficionado moved buildings (and parts thereof) to Walpole, where they were reassembled in a home that showcases centuries of craftsmanship and history
What do you do if you want a mountaintop home? The path of least resistance would be to seek out an existing home atop a mountain. But if you’re Peter Van Dyk Berg and his wife Teddy, first, you buy a mountaintop, and then you spend the better part of thirty years acquiring, dismantling, transporting and reassembling magnificent structures of wood, brick and stone atop your aerie.
The result is what they simply call “The Mountain.”
“It’s not so much about restoration,” Peter says with a smile, “as it is about preservation. We call it inspired recycling.”
Other than the land beneath them—and the spectacular views of Mount Ascutney and Mount Monadnock— everything atop Rice Mountain in Walpole came from another place. Those items and places of origin are as varied as the wrought-iron gates from an estate in Harrison, New York; vast timbers from a barn in Sinking Springs, Pennsylvania; and a medieval stone fireplace panel from Dublin that ultimately came—much to Peter’s delight—by way of fifteenth-century England.
A Homeowner’s Detailed Vision
The saying “the devil is in the details” explains the devilish grin that adorns Peter’s face as he escorts a visitor around the rambling compound. He has astounding recall of everything that went into the discovery and the placement of the thousands of individual elements that provide the thread of the fabric that is his home.
“It’s always different,” he explains. “No two floor levels are the same, no two ceiling heights are the same, no two doors work the same. In fact, a lot of the doors don’t work at all. When you have a house like this, every joint is a special challenge, and as well as I know the home, I always get a special feeling when I’m going around.”
Bear in mind that, for all of his fascination with the minute details of his home, the man is not a decorating dilettante. That became clear—to him and to others—in 1979 when he was trying to explain his vision for the portion of his home that has come to be known as the Dudley Friedman House.
“I found I had a stronger sense of what I wanted to do than would permit me to work with someone who also has a strong design sense,” he says. “There was no question from the beginning that I wanted to do the designs. So, if I ran into someone who had his own ideas of how things ought to go, it just wasn’t going to work.
“This happened a couple of times, and eventually, the same thing happened with the architect Livingston Elder. He did some of his own drawings and showed them to me. Then after, he basically said to me, ‘You don’t want an architect; you want a draftsman.’”
And so this New York attorney—albeit an attorney who studied mechanical engineering in college—became the architect of a mountaintop compound that is highlighted by the main residence, a home with four distinct elements that are carefully woven into a seamless whole.
The Estate’s Homes
The four elements are the aforementioned Dudley Freidman House, the Peak House, the Norman Tower and the Tudor Tower. (Sadly, for reasons of space here, limiting the focus to the main residences requires giving short shrift to the estate’s magnificent outbuildings, such as the Howland Barn, the Marlborough House, the Merrimack House and the Hiram Halle Barn.)
The Cape-style Dudley Friedman House—so named for the family that once owned it in Madison, Connecticut—is the embodiment of eighteenth-century American domestic architecture, according to Peter, who admires it as “a building that was both sophisticated and simple.”
The reassembly of the building began in 1978, concurrent with the construction of the Peak House, which was modeled on a home first built in Medfield, Massachusetts, in 1651. The sixtydegree pitch of the Peak House roof is responsible for the name of the structure that the Bergs chose to employ as a “banqueting hall” with a soaring, three-story cathedral ceiling that showcases its dramatic interior framework.
By positioning the buildings at a right angle, Peter was left with an unresolved space, and he drew upon his deep love of Tudor and medieval English architecture to come up with an audacious use of that space. As a devout reader of the British magazine Country Life, Peter was long taken by the photo on the cover of a 1982 issue. That photo—depicting the Little Weston Church in Somerset, England— inspired him to head to his drawing board (in his case, an old piece of cardboard such as those found inside a man’s dress shirt).
“Every corner of the house appears somewhere on a shirt cardboard that I left for the craftsmen,” Peter says, laughing. “The work I do in New York demands total attention, so when I was down there, I’d come back up here with a fresh view. I just couldn’t wait to get back up here because there was always something going on, and I couldn’t wait to see how my shirt cardboard instructions had been interpreted and executed. It was always a pleasant surprise.”
Such is the case with the interior of the Norman Tower, which links the Dudley Freidman and Peak houses. It’s a striking vertical edifice with an intricate interior lacework of decorative post-andbeam fashioned by Chris Madigan—founder of the Timber Frame Workshop in Alstead—that also lends support to the brick exterior.
Madigan was brought to the fore once again when Peter decided to make use of a “ruin” chimney at the northern end of the Peak House. With the ruin as a jumping-off point, a massive oak frame was created—the Bergs carefully documented the project with photos—and when the rhapsodic brick, marble and granite façade was complete, the Tudor Tower became a capstone to the couple’s vision of a home.
The scope of that vision is almost too much to comprehend in a single visit, which is why a microview of the Berg home can be less daunting but no less satisfying. Thankfully, Peter is an enthusiastic tour guide—a docent in his own home, if you will—who doesn’t need notes to show the way.
He gestures to a wooden beam from the Sinking Springs Barn that runs overhead in his den within the Dudley Friedman House. It is ornately carved, and there is a story to be told.
“When we got this beam up, we noticed a soft spot here in the wood,” Peter explains, “so we looked around for someone who could do some carving for us. A man named Michael Langton came and interviewed with us, and he brought some of his work.
“Michael was the man who made the wooden doll in On Golden Pond—that was his claim to fame—and he came here with his little dog. He put up his scaffolding, and he lay on his back for most of one summer carving the beam. We just left him alone to do it, and we were very pleased with the result.”
The result is an ornate, leafy image of the female East Wind. The carving adds, in Peter’s words—and this is a direct quote from The Accidental Architect, a sumptuous, photo-laden book by Jeffrey Simpson that chronicles Peter’s Rice Mountain exploits— “a note of Gothicky whimsy.”
There is more whimsy to be found in the Peak House, where two terra-cotta figures are posed on opposite sides of the fireplace (one of the many Steve Moore masonry masterpieces in the Berg home). One of the statutes is a kneeling wise man; the book he clutches is clear evidence his wisdom. The other a kneeling fool who sniffs a flower.
“And they are, I would guess, almost priceless now,” Peter says. “At the time I got them in New York, maybe I paid one hundred dollars apiece for them. I don’t know what building they came from, but because they are unique, my guess is that some day, I’ll open a magazine, and I’ll see them on the pages in front of me.
“And this dark grit you see on them”—he continues, as he waves his hand before the wise man—“is real New York grime.”
Dedication to the Past
It is a crime, however, that Peter—a man who decries the loss of architectural artistry and who lives and breathes preservation—sees when he ponders the New York treasures that have been lost to the wrecking ball.
“At one point, I went down when they were demolishing the Singer Building in downtown New York,” he says. “I tried to get some of the cut stone from that building, and they didn’t even want to talk to me. They just wanted to plow it under. Same with Penn Station. They just wanted to cart it over to the Meadowlands and dump it in the swamp.
“I think now people realize what a terrible loss it is when you do that. Somebody cut that stone and made it fit, ” he says before pausing and looking away. All the better then that his home and grounds are filled with marble cut by Italian landscape architect Ferrucio Vitale, all of which was once strewn haphazardly about the grounds of an estate in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Peter also was able to preserve the long white marble shelf that forms the bar top in the tavern in the Tudor Tower. The marble slab was rescued from Norlacka—Rudyard Kipling’s home near Brattleboro, Vermont. Similarly, thanks to crafts- men such as Gordon Hayward and Dan Snow— with Teddy’s guiding hand—the hand-cut granite incorporated in the gardens on The Mountain was originally in a decommissioned church in Cambridgeport, Vermont.
“I love texture,” Peter says. “The old stone up here was all cut by hand, and it all has the marks of the workmen on it. That Cambridgeport church must have been a community activity. How the devil they cut and transported the stone, I don’t know, but you can see the marks on it where they worked and how difficult it must have been. So we saw it as not just stones, but something that should be preserved, something that belonged and shouldn’t simply be plowed into that same hole where we consign so much of our past.”
There may be more than five centuries of “past” in the medieval stone fireplace panel that holds a place of honor in the Tudor Tower; as with so many of his acquisitions, Peter savors the serendipitous way things come together on The Mountain.
“I drove to a shop in Dublin, and this was in their front yard,” he says, with a nod toward the exquisitely carved seven-foot panel of gray stone. “It fit the fireplace perfectly. Later, I was going through one of my books and noticed that the fireplaces in Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, England, were identical to this.
“I wrote to the architectural editor of Country Life, and he wrote back and said, ‘All mantles are in place at Tattershall Castle but it is possible it might have come from some other once-existing building on the grounds. With some certainty, the editor added, ‘it can be said to be of English origin, and mid-fifteenth century.’”
For a man who has devoted his life to preserving the elements, the components and, in fact, the very ideals of fine architecture, those words were received as if they came from on high. And so the Bergs press on, high atop The Mountain.