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View to the Future

Eastover, a Blast from the Past, Has a New Owner and New Vision

Two inexpensive Adirondack chairs sit side by side overlooking the Mt. Greylock range and October Mountain on one of the highest points of the 550-acre Eastover Hotel & Retreat campus in Lenox. They were put there by the facility’s new owner and head chef just to grab a few minutes to relax whenever they can.

“But every time we look, guests are sitting in them, and we never get a chance,” laughed Josh Mouzakes, executive chef for the recently purchased 100-year-old Gilded Age mansion and retreat property. “We picked them up at BJ’s … it’s kind of our joke.”

The fact that these two haven’t had many opportunities to sit and enjoy the stunning view bodes well for Eastover. For starters, they haven’t had the time, because they’ve been busy with a massive restoration effort that is still a work in progress. And when they have found a few minutes, paying customers have beaten them to it.

There haven’t been any of those at Eastover for some time. Indeed, this resort with an intriguing though somewhat checkered past that included rock concerts and get-togethers for nudists (more on all that later) had fallen on hard times — make that very hard times — in recent years, and is now looking at a future dominated by vast potential but also question marks.

That’s because the new owner, Long Island resident and former software engineer Yingxing Wang, doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do with the place. She has some ideas, mostly involving education, science, and nature — her original vision was for an international student exchange and destination for teens to learn about farming and gardening —  but the vision is still coming together.

While work continues on the mansion, which Wang acquired for just under $5 million, the facility has reopened and hosted a few events, such as a fashion show — Wang and Mouzakes both call this summer a “test run” — with more on the docket, including a weekend rock festival later this month, a mini-Woodstock aptly named BerkshireStock.

After that, well, it’s probably up to the imagination of people who see and read about Eastover and imagine the possibilities, said Wang, who did essentially that, only on a much grander scale, when she first saw the mansion. Curiosity eventually led to speculation, and a rehab job she couldn’t have imagined when she signed on the dotted line.

“I was curious about what was behind the brick and iron fence on East Street,” she told BusinessWest. “But I didn’t comprehend the extent of the structural work at the time.”

The intensively private Wang, who declined to be photographed for this story, deferring to staff instead, didn’t say how much she and her husband, a partner in a computer firm, have sunk into this restoration, but hinted that it’s more than the purchase price.

From a business perspective, she’s not sure when or even if she can recover those costs, but for now she’s content to let her imagination be her guide and business partner.

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest ventured to Lenox to chronicle the emerging next chapter in the story of Eastover. No one knows how it will unfold — not even the people writing it.

Donna Zsofka

Donna Zsofka says the Old Stable, featuring a new sound system, is spacious enough to host up to 475 guests.

Past Is Prologue

That story begins in 1910, near the end of the Gilded Age, when Harris Fahenstock, a founding member of the First National Bank of New York, built the estate as a summer cottage, one of many that were built in Lenox during that period.

Sold by Fahenstock’s heirs in the 1940s, the property was eventually acquired by Stamford, Conn. resident George Bisacca at auction for a mere $41,500. He founded Eastover Resort in 1947.

Bisacca, a former clown in the Ringling Brothers Circus (which explains the strange primary ‘clown colors’ painted all over the mansion basement walls), made his money in a tire-repair shop. According to local legend and some published reports, he was entrepreneurial, a free spirit, a forward thinker, and a partier. Blending those traits, he created a then-rare resort for singles, which thrived in the ’50s and ’60s. He later added family-oriented activities as the young Baby Boomers shifted their leisure-time needs.

A Civil War buff, Bisacca had an extensive war-memorabilia collection, and kept a herd of bison on site, which, in addition to the unique ‘lifestyle-themed’ weekends (for bikers, nudists, non-drinkers, and women only), made Eastover a one-of-a-kind destination in the Berkshires and the Northeast in general. Bisacca’s daughter and granddaughter, Dorothy “Ticki” Winsor and Betsy Kelly, respectively, continued the resort theme after his death until 2003.

Wang admitted that she knew little of this history when she first encountered Eastover, and “fell in love with the place.”

Josh Mouzakes

Josh Mouzakes brings not only culinary expertise to Eastover, but also experience opening hotels.

Actually, what she loved was its potential, the location, and the views. The mansion itself was in very tough shape following years of neglect, both before and after it ceased being a resort destination.

Indeed, while reports say the mother-daughter team that operated Eastover after Bisacca’s death proudly boasted that little had changed since the resort first opened in 1947 (which was a plus for a strong following who happily returned year after year), that phrase also applied to the 20-plus buildings and the entire infrastructure. In short, there was no upkeep.

“There really wasn’t any infrastructure,” said Wang, adding that recent, and costly, renovations include new slate roofs on the stately stable, which houses the giant dance hall, the largest of its kind in Western or Central Mass.; a water main and sewer main; fiber optics and cable TV; a completely renovated indoor pool and slate walkways; all new, ADA-required handicapped ramps and bathrooms; working exit signage; sprinkler systems; and much more.

Wang admits that most developers would have bulldozed the place and started over, but she was able to look past all the work and see the beauty and potential that was clearly there. And she thanked town officials for facilitating her efforts.

“I have to say that the board of selectmen are pro-business, and considering the amount of work that we have done over the past three years, it would be nearly impossible in this time if we didn’t have their help.”

One person she credits with a majority of that help is Lenox Building Inspector William Thornton Jr., whom she has leaned on considerably after realizing the full extent of the money pit she’d purchased.

“I joke that Bill was our most affordable consultant; he knows code by heart, and I call him on his cell phone when I have a question instead of some expensive consultant,” she said, adding that her professional association is very serious.  “Yes, he is strict, but very fair, and he is demanding of everybody.”

Thornton isn’t the only one Wang leans on as she dives into a business venture and an economic sector — hospitality — that she admittedly knows little about.

She’s also relying heavily on Mouzakes, who brings not only culinary expertise to the equation, but also experience with opening hotels.

The reason he is now the chef at Eastover is due to his connections to well-known master chefs in the New York area and Europe, and as a quasi-hotel consultant, based on his experience in opening hotels on Long Island, New York, and, most recently, the five-year, $20 million rehab of the Lord Jeffery Inn in Amherst.

He said his cuisine style is contemporary American with French-influenced techniques (picture food creatively arranged on a plate that not only offers phenomenal flavor, but looks like art).

“The easiest way to categorize it is with local, sustainable, modern ingredients,” he explained. “If we can get the best food we can get, as close as possible, and use properly rained skills, that will be our signature.”

“That’s what we treat food here like — art,” added Wang. And the fresh ingredients for  that art will soon start growing right outside the slate patio with an herbal garden on the site of the former outdoor pool area, which was in such distressed condition, it had to be filled in.

 

Looking Forward

When asked if Eastover is or will become competition for neighboring exclusive destinations such as Cranwell Resort Spa & Golf Club and Canyon Ranch, Wang paused and then offered some levity.

“The reason we have no competitors is because no idiot in this world would invest so much money in this,” she told BusinessWest before turning more serious and noting that Eastover won’t be like those resorts in many respects. “We are different; the focus on nature is what sets us apart.”

She stressed again that she doesn’t know exactly what the resort will become, but she knows what it won’t be.

“I’m not exactly sure how we will end up, but we are not a fancy hotel with room service,” she explained. “We are a retreat to enjoy nature, and if you are looking for that other type of place, then it’s not here.”

She also knows that her original vision — of a destination for foreign-exchange  students — is not economically viable. But she and her staff of nearly 30, including Mouzakes and Donna Zsofka, the event coordinator, are letting clients and potential clients help shape what Eastover can become.

Things started with a grand-opening weekend in June, which both Wang and Mouzakes say had its share of successes and small disasters. Shortly thereafter came an international fashion show that brought young people from the New York City area. On the calendar are a  fund-raiser later this month for the Berkshire Grown project, which supports local farmers and food pantries, as well as BerkshireStock.

Wang said that two-day event will present 30 local and regional bands (who are all selling tickets) and could attract several thousand concertgoers and overnight campers to the property. “We can handle up to 5,000 easily because that field is a natural amphitheater,” she noted.

“Aside from our opening weekend, people have come to us with events they want to do here,” said Mouzakes, pointing to BerkshireStock as a prime example of how the venue will likely be become popular for people looking to stage events and get-togethers that would be considered beyond the ordinary.

Now open for business, said Zsofka, is the Tally Ho Pub, which offers unique seating in the former horse stalls (10 per booth), and is open to the public Fridays and Saturdays. Weddings, family reunions, and corporate events can be booked in the wood-paneled library or two other lavish mansion rooms that can accommodate 25 to 40 people, while the light-drenched Terrace Room can seat nearly 150.

Big enough for any event, said Zsofka, the Old Stable, with its new sound system, allows seated dining for 350 guests with a total capacity of 475, and at some point, Mouzakes will be refining the plans for a fine restaurant that will draw produce from local farmers as well as that soon-to-be-added herbal garden.

In the mansion, Wang is adding high-end bathrooms to each of the large second-floor former bedrooms (all have original fireplaces), which will reduce the guest rooms from 15 to 12, but offer at least one floor of exclusive quarters.

For now, marketing has been limited and understated (there is a Facebook page), said Mouzakes, adding that word-of-mouth is helping people discover — or, in many cases, rediscover — Eastover. Both he and Wang believe curiosity on the part of many who came here decades ago is helping to fill hotel rooms, generate inquiries about future events, and, yes, fill those aforementioned Adirondack chairs.

And it is the resort’s early success in attracting young people that has Wang encouraged — and on a number of levels.

She said her many visits to Lenox have convinced her that the area needs an infusion of youth — not that aging Baby Boomers are not welcome; they certainly are — but she is also encouraged by the younger demographic’s interest in the environment and getting in touch with nature.

“I am surprised to find that the upper-middle generation is not appreciative of the environment; it’s the young people who are,” she noted. “They have been taught about nature since they were young in school, and we need to figure out how to bring more young people here.”

 

Time Will Tell

While Eastover is officially open for business, there is still considerable work to be done at what could be called a resort-in-progress.

“I tell my staff to just follow your heart — everything will follow,” said Wang. “I also tell them to appreciate the process.”

That process won’t actually end, said Wang and Mouzakes, noting that the vision for the new Eastover, if it can be called that, will probably take years to become reality.

It might just be that long before these two can actually get to sit in one of those Adirondack chairs. But they’re certainly not complaining, because that means they’re very busy, and that people are once again discovering Eastover.

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at taras@businesswest.com