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Society to preserve Millay’s Steepletop home perseveres

Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eugen Boissevain c. 1923. Photo courtesy of millay.org

AUSTERLITZ—Last May, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society at Steepletop announced the Save Steepletop campaign, an effort to raise $1 million to keep the house, visitors’ center and grounds open to the public next year.

Press coverage, including an article in The New York Times, was widespread and sympathetic.

Nevertheless, a second letter went out this fall from Vincent Elizabeth Barnett, president of the Millay Society Board of Trustees, announcing that despite an “outpouring of support from poetry, culture and history lovers,” the board had made the “painful but responsible decision not to reopen Steepletop to the public in 2019.”

Steepletop was the home of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, from the time they purchased it, an abandoned berry farm, in 1925, to her death (Boissevain died in 1949). They transformed the property into a country estate with gardens, tennis and badminton courts, and a spring-fed swimming pool.

After their deaths the poet’s sister, Norma Millay Ellis, lived in the house for over 30 years, a steward of the property and of Ms. Millay’s literary legacy. When Ms. Ellis died in 1986 the Millay Society took ownership of the property and the poet’s personal artifacts, from her library to her clothing.

The Millay Colony for the Arts, which offers residencies to artists on its site, was founded in 1973, adjacent to Steepletop. It is a separate, independent nonprofit organization, not affected by the Millay Society decision.

That decision was not a snap one, but “measured, thoughtful and responsible,” Holly Peppe, a Society trustee and Millay’s literary executor, said in an interview last month. “We need to protect the house and the property. This decision allows us to keep them intact, to shift our focus from house tours to long-term solutions, which we are now exploring.

“We received a tremendous response, with donations and ideas and resources,” she said. “We followed up on everything, but we are still unable to reopen next year. We need money for restoration.”

Ms. Peppe would not say how much Save Steepletop raised. Annual expenses average $225,000, while income, from visitors and donations, is $75,000. Photos on the Millay Society website (millay.org) show the deterioration of the swimming pool and the success of the dining room restoration.

Ms. Peppe describes the Millay Society trustees as a “small, dedicated, working board. We have no funds, no endowment, just our love for Millay and our goal to keep Steepletop intact.”

Ms. Peppe met Ms. Ellis in 1983. She lived in the Steepletop home while she wrote her doctoral dissertation on Ms. Millay. “Norma asked me to join the board in 1986,” she said. Until 2010 the estate was closed, and then “with help from volunteers and donations, we opened the doors.”

From 2010 to 2018, “we made great progress,” Ms. Peppe said. “It was a true house museum.” In a farmhouse across the road from the home, a visitors’ center, with an exhibition and gift shop, was established.

As literary executor, Ms. Peppe still hears from those seeking permission to use Ms. Millay’s work. But while royalties and permission fees from the poet’s estate were a major source of Ms. Ellis’s income and helped her maintain the property, this income has dwindled as more of the work goes into the public domain.

In recent years, the Society has relied on grants and donations, as well as tour and event fees, to maintain and protect the site, said Ms. Peppe. The site averages 1,500 visitors per year, she said.

The academic world is still interested in Ms. Millay’s work, said Ms. Peppe. In 2016 Yale University Press published the first scholarly, annotated edition of Ms. Millay’s poetry. The press plans two new collections of the poet’s letters, diaries and journals, in 2021 and 2022. Ms. Millay’s papers are held by the Library of Congress, which leaves Steepletop off the immediate scholarly route.

Looking around, local cultural sites that are thriving are those that have diversified their offerings. For example, Olana State Historic Site offers a twice-monthly program for those with early stages of dementia, not a problem one associates with Frederic Church, the artist who created Olana.

Steepletop seems to have made some effort at diversification, with hikes on the grounds and a listing with Lisa Light’s Chatham-based Destination Bride.

The Society is looking at joining with another group, but here location may be a problem. The Emily Dickinson house, in the middle of Amherst, MA, gets 10,000 visitors a year. Austerlitz is more remote, and Steepletop harder to find.

The NYS Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts have given the Society project grants, “usually $5,000 to $10,000, but those don’t cover operations,” said Ms. Peppe. “We need help with operating expenses.

“We could decide to fund-raise year by year, but what we really need is more staff and an infrastructure,” she said. “We need to go for a higher figure. With a larger figure, we could hire an executive director, but our priority has been to put money into the house and estate.”

Ms. Barnet’s letter, which announced the decision not to reopen, was also an annual appeal letter, with the goal of raising $50,000. Online giving is available at millay.org or by phone at 518 392-3362.

“The Millay Society is not going anywhere,” said Ms. Peppe. “We’re still here.”

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