Revival of George Westinghouse’s theater space by a solar entrepreneur
Photos by Billy Keane Portrait by Joanna Chattman
Despite its sorry state, it was the largeness of it all that drew Daniel Dus to the building in Lee known as “The Playhouse,” originally a theater space. “When you’re six-foot-three, you tend to want to have high ceilings, although this is probably a little higher than necessary,” he says.
And when he learned about its history, there was no going back. Dus, a solar-energy entrepreneur, felt a sense of connectivity with the original owner, George Westinghouse (the inventor and entrepreneur whose name is associated with kitchen appliances). So this large building, also a testing ground for electrical invention, is now a minimalist, contemporary refuge with a nod toward innovation and creativity.
The Berkshire property where this building is located, once called Erskine Park, is graced with majestic pines, lagoons, and marble bridges. Westinghouse became interested in the area because his wife, Marguerite Erskine Westinghouse, suffered from respiratory issues from living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Doctors advised her to take in the country air. In 1887, they bought the Henry De Bois Schenck farm of 100 acres overlooking Laurel Lake, at the Lenox-Lee line.
By 1911, they had amassed 600 acres, according to Houses of the Berkshires 1870-1930, written by Cornelia Brooke Gilder and Richard S. Jackson Jr. On the estate, Westinghouse built an electric plant that powered 1,700 lights and brought the first electricity to Lenox village.
“When you think of innovators at the time, you think of these huge egos,” says Dus. “But Westinghouse wasn’t. He was an engineer who was extraordinarily effective.”
After a two-year search with realtor/musician Billy Keane with Jan Perry Realty & Associates, Dus purchased The Playhouse in October 2014 for $340,000. An estimated six months and $350,000 in renovations turned into two years and $1 million. Born and raised in Richmond, Dus made the remodeling a family affair. The general contractor is his cousin; the plumber, his uncle; the electrician, his cousin; the painting contractor, his brother. The architect is Paul Privitera, whose father owns Steve’s Barbershop in Lee and cut Dus’s hair when he was a kid.
Dus gutted the building, leaving intact the impressive archways that weren’t intended to be the main structural support, but in fact kept the building from collapsing. “It’s amazing how ornate things were then, and the handiwork that was done,” he says. The biggest challenges were structural. The Playhouse’s two lofts were removed and their staircases salvaged; they now lead up to new lofts that are three times larger. To keep the space as open as possible, a contiguous steel beam runs the width of each end of the home to support the lofts, embedded in the walls and anchored in the ground, forming an H.
Then there are the aesthetics: Contemporary metal artist and longtime friend Kamil Peters from Holyoke crafted the large dining-room table. He also sculpted a stallion bust that is the home’s centerpiece. All vanities, 16-seat dining table, benches, kitchen shelving, and butcherblock are made of heartwood removed from decommissioned warehouses in Hadley and Northampton.
Important pieces of history were retained in the home, including most of the fixtures installed by Westinghouse. Dus had them removed, rehabilitated, and rewired to code. Only four of the 52 weren’t salvageable. He becomes even more animated when he talks about the technology used in the home—the lighting, along with the HVAC system, TV, and speakers, are now web-enabled.
Dus is chief development officer at Dynamic Energy based in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and owner of Berkshire-based SunFutures. Eleven years ago, he entered the renewable-energy business, when talk of climate change was confined to environmental circles. “The only thing they had seen a solar cell in was a calculator,” says the 39-year-old. “They said you can’t produce electricity from thin air.” For a year and a half, he had no sales because people didn’t trust what he was saying was true. “When I sold my first project to the city of Santa Monica, California, I ran around my office screaming because I was about to run out of cash,” he says.
Dus has overseen solar-panel projects for public schools in California and Colorado, decreasing their annual energy costs by tens of thousands of dollars. Some 70 percent of the town buildings in Breckenridge, Colorado, is powered by his projects. In Berkshire County, he has worked with Guido’s in Great Barrington and is installing solar panels at Williams College. In Southbridge, he did one of the first utility-scale projects in the state, powering more than 30 percent of the township. It’s one of five similar projects he has built across Massachusetts. Although his focus is primarily solar energy, Dus’s portfolio is diverse. He once imported grand-prix horses from England, and he now has a medical device startup company based in the Berkshires.
The main reason he moved back here was to be close to his large family. His stepmother, Lisken Van Pelt Dus, teaches English at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, and his sister, Lisa Baldwin, is a science teacher there. He has 50 first-cousins who live within 15 minutes of town, and he’s expecting all to converge in his home for Thanksgiving. Engaged, he has plans to get married in the home.
Dus offers short-term rental of The Playhouse through HomeAway. Visitors can take in the view across the street of High Lawn Farm, once part of the Vanderbilt estate. And every time Dus steps into his home, he is reminded of its history—the entry staircase is made of Italian marble slabs, imported by the Westinghouses. More modern touches are coming: solar panels with 10 kilowatts of power that he will place them on the south-facing roof, toward the road, visible to passersby. And that visual doesn’t bother him in the least. “I like the look of panels,” he says. “They look like intelligent technology.”
A Modern perspective It took Daniel Dus two years to renovate The Playhouse in Lee. Its ten-inch exterior envelope is the maximum amount of space that can be insulated, so Dus ended up buying an insulation company to curb that cost when he filled it with bio-based spray foam. Renovations cost $1 million, with original lighting fixtures and beams intact. Artistry of Holyoke-based Kamil Peters is found throughout, such as a horse sculpture and chandelier creations.
Dreamscape The Playhouse was part of an estate created by George and Marguerite Westinghouse, and after his death, his son sold it to the Vanderbilt family. It subsequently was a girls school (Foxhollow), yoga center (Kripalu), and a nonprofit spiritual spot (EnlightenNext). Daniel Dus bought The Playhouse in 2014. One of his dreams was to wake up under the cupola, so he had his master bedroom, above, built in a loft. The Lee home can accommodate Dus and his many family members.