- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — A few hundred miles north of Washington, in one of our original Colonies, stand the Berkshires, a gentle range of hills that have given their name to an area of western Massachusetts.

The Berkshires comprise delightful small towns and villages, beautiful scenery and a cultural scene bursting with music, art and theater all summer long. The area includes names from America’s Colonial history: Lenox, Stockbridge, Plymouth, Great Barrington, Adams and Lexington.

We are in Stockbridge, at one of America’s oldest inns, the Red Lion. Built in 1773 as a stagecoach stop between Boston and Albany, the inn has lost its Colonial look with several expansions and renovations over the centuries, as well as a fire in 1896 that destroyed the inn.

The inn’s 100-plus rooms and suites are scattered over several buildings; it is a whimsical hotel with rooms of different shapes and sizes and with an eclectic assortment of furniture ranging from antique to merely old. Bathrooms are modern and clean, with plenty of hot water. The rooms are air-conditioned, for the Berkshires can get hot and muggy. Throughout the inn are wonderful collections of rugs, china, teapots and other odds and ends.

Five presidents have been guests here. On a summer afternoon, the white wicker rocking chairs on the veranda are all occupied. Lemonade tastes particularly good on the porch as you rock gently back and forth, watching the tourists saunter past.

The Red Lion is owned by the Fitzpatrick family, who also own Country Curtains, a mail-order business with retail outlets throughout the East and one on the premises.

The Fitzpatricks also are proprietors of Jack’s Grill, located just outside Great Barrington in Housatonic. Nancy Fitzpatrick has decorated the little restaurant with crockery and whimsical folk art; a toy train runs around the ceiling, and a wonderful chair is made of bottle tops. It’s a great place for comfort food such as meatloaf, hamburgers and what surely must be the world’s richest chocolate pudding. The Red Lion Inn, on the other hand, has a first-class chef and offers more sophisticated dining.

Stockbridge is a quiet village with a handful of shops. It was made famous by Norman Rockwell, who lived here for the last 25 years of his life, when he painted the main street of the village — including the Red Lion Inn — in a winter scene called “Main Street, Stockbridge.”

The painting is in the Norman Rockwell Museum, a few miles outside town. The museum has the world’s largest collection of Mr. Rockwell’s paintings, as well as his studio, which was moved to the museum with its original contents. Many of the artist’s familiar Saturday Evening Post covers are on view.

Not far from Stockbridge, just outside Lenox, is the Mount, the splendid house built in 1902 on 113 acres of farmland by Edith Wharton, one of America’s popular and prolific Gilded Age writers. Wharton was born Edith Jones, of the prominent New York family about whom the expression “keeping up with Joneses” was coined. She wrote a book a year and 17 letters a day.

The Mount was built according to the architecture and design Wharton advocated in her books “The Decoration of Houses” and “Italian Villas and Their Gardens.” An interesting sideline on Wharton’s life and style are the frugal limitations she placed on the construction and decoration of her house.

She sold the Mount in 1911 and moved to France. The house subsequently became a girls’ school and then fell on hard times. It now is the property of a foundation that is restoring the house. The original furnishings have been sold and resold, but it is the lovely house itself and the beautiful gardens that make this one of the stately homes of America.

SHAKERVILLAGE

Pittsfield is the home of Hancock Shaker Village, a living-history museum comprising 20 original Shaker buildings used by the Church Family of the Hancock Shaker community from 1783 to 1960 on 1,200 acres of woodland, field and meadow. The village became a museum in 1961; its collection of historical objects is exceptional and includes objects from every aspect of Shaker daily life.

The Shakers, a Christian sect, originated in England, where they were known as the Shaking Quakers. They did not marry or cohabit and increased their numbers by converting new members or adopting orphans. Over time, converts were no longer attracted to the Shaker way of life, and members left. The community gradually died out. A few Shakers are left in a community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

The Shakers made everything they used — except bricks and glass — and invented such objects as the flat broom; windows put in with thumbscrews so they could be removed easily to clean; an early version of the circular saw; the sale of garden seeds in paper packets, and a system of water power.

The beautiful round stone barn in the center of the village, built in 1826 to house 52 milk cows, had a small raised edge behind the area where the cows stood to be milked so they would not step back into their dung. The barn had an innovative, cathedrallike central structure where 300 tons of hay could be kept, open to the sky to prevent spontaneous combustion.

Each person had an assigned duty; men worked in the fields, and women worked in the laundry room, the ironing room or the kitchen. Everyone rose at 4:30 a.m. in the summer and 5:30 in the winter.

The heart of the village is the brick dwelling in which the men lived on the east side and the women on the west, a line never crossed. Chairs were hung on the wall when not in use; everything was put away. The dwelling has a children’s room, a pharmacy, an infirmary and dining rooms. The basement kitchens are particularly interesting with their bread ovens and cooking paraphernalia. Some of the rooms were painted in brilliant colors, but the furniture is simple yet beautiful, and Hancock Village has preserved many of these original furnishings.

In the smaller houses, the broom workshop and the workshop where the elegant Shaker boxes were made are re-created; demonstrations explaining the historic techniques are held throughout the village. Outside, the herb garden contains more than 100 varieties of plants listed in the Shakers’ “Druggists’s Handbook of Pure Botanic Preparations.” A picnic area under the shade trees is open to all visitors.

Hancock Village sponsors special events, such as a country fair and festival, an antiques show and several Shaker meals in which four-course Shaker-style candlelight suppers are served in the dining room of the 1830 brick building.

Hancock also takes part in an annual five-day seminar held at various Shaker communities. This year, the seminar will be held at the Whitewater Shaker Settlement in New Haven, Ohio.

CLARKARTINSTITUTE

Williamstown, home of Williams College and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, is a 45-minute drive from Stockbridge. The college has its own art museum, but it is the Clark that is outstanding — a beautiful building with large, light open spaces and a fine collection of paintings, including several by John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer and an exquisite 15th-century Dutch Madonna and Child.

Opened in 1955, the museum developed from the Clarks’ private collection of impressionist paintings as well as examples of European and American paintings and sculpture, prints and drawings, English silver and early photography. The institute has an extensive library, open to the public. It is one of the major art reference and research libraries in the country, focusing on post-medieval art. The library’s resources include about 200,000 books, bound periodicals and auction sales catalogs.

In addition to its growing permanent collection, the Clark has temporary exhibits. A major exhibit of Jacques-Louis David’s paintings, titled “Empire to Exile,” is scheduled to open June 5 and run through Sept. 5. An exhibit of folk art portraits of children opens July 4.

The Clark offers fellowships that bring leading figures in the academic art world to Williamstown, and it sponsors a master’s program in art history in conjunction with Williams College.

A few miles up the road from Williamstown lies North Adams, home of Mass MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). When the Sprague Electric firm’s North Adams factory closed in 1985, it left wide unemployment and an empty 13-acre industrial site stretching over a third of downtown North Adams. It is within this complex of 25 19th-century mill buildings that Mass MoCA was created.

This extraordinary museum has no permanent collection, and half the exhibits change every six months. Since it opened five years ago, the museum has mounted 45 exhibitions, including the creation of 54 major new works of visual art, and presented 300 performances, films and works in progress. Dance, theater, music, film, photography and sculpture are important parts of MASS MoCA. At summer festivals, enthusiastic music lovers, old and young, listen to avant-garde compositions played by equally enthusiastic young musicians.

The first thing a visitor sees on approaching the entrance to the museum are six upside-down trees, a 1999 creation of artist Natalie Jeremijenko. Hanging downward from metal containers suspended on wires, in which the trees are planted, the branches make a U-turn and grow toward the sun. The effect is curiously unsettling.

The exhibition space is monumental — huge rooms, with walls of windows, that once held machines have become magnificent spaces for avant-garde exhibits. Now showing, among other exhibits, are paintings from the New Leipzig School in a show titled “Life After Death.”

The painters incorporate imaginative narratives and surrealistic undercurrents into the East German tradition of social realism. Artists in residence have included Laurie Anderson, who had two work-in-progress showings last fall, and Basil Twist, who is presenting his full-scale puppet opera of “Sleeping Beauty” before its premiere at the Spoleto Festival in Italy in summer.

Aside from offering the community avant-garde art, music, dance and theater, Mass MoCA has been instrumental in revitalizing a dying city. Unemployment is down, thanks in part to the 800 jobs created on-site; 180 hotel rooms and eight restaurants have been added; storefronts that were shuttered are reopening. Property values are rising.

Fifty of those hotel rooms are across the street from the museum in seven 19th-century frame houses that originally housed millworkers and have been turned into a delightful inn, the Porches. The Victorian facades remain in place, but the interiors are new, with marvelous state-of-the-art bathrooms; spacious, comfortable rooms; a combination of retro and contemporary design; and a small swimming pool at the foot of a hill covered with trees and wildflowers. Porches offers extended stays in suites with kitchens by the week or month, as well as daily accommodations.

Autumn is beautiful in the Berkshires as well as spring and summer, though the concerts are over. Still, the museums are open, and so are the antique stores. In winter, there are snow and skiing.

TANGLEWOOD

The music festival at Tanglewood made the Berkshires the summer wonderland it is. The origins of Tanglewood go back to 1934, when a group of summer residents organized a series of three outdoor concerts at Interlaken, to be performed by members of the New York Philharmonic. In 1936, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky gave concerts in a tent.

In 1937, the concerts were moved to Tanglewood, the estate of the Tappan family, as a gift to Koussevitzky and the orchestra. A huge storm in the second week of the 1937 festival precipitated a fund-raising drive, and the following year the Shed was built. Since 1938, the Boston Symphony has performed at Tanglewood except for three years during World War II.

In 1986, the Boston Symphony acquired the estate adjacent to Tanglewood, and new performance spaces were built.

The Seiji Ozawa Hall was designed and built in 1994 by architect William Rawn of Boston. The concert hall is magnificent: wood, blending in with the landscape, with latticelike grids on the balconies and reddish hues above the stage. Behind the stage, long, cathedrallike rectangular windows resemble geometric Vasarelli paintings, turning gradually from deep blue to black as night falls.

The back of the hall is open to the hillside, where families sit on the grass and listen to the music. Open or shut, the hall has splendid acoustics.

And the music: What splendor. On a warm summer evening last season, the stage was filled with more than 100 young musicians for one of the student concerts. These students come from all over the country to spend the summer at Tanglewood, and they play with wondrous enthusiasm and precision.

The conductor takes his place on the podium, raises his baton, and the brilliance of Richard Strauss takes over. The young violinist, Carrie Kennedy — a name to be remembered — plays the solos with heartbreaking emotion and technique. At the end, there is an instant of silence before the audience applauds and cheers.

Tanglewood has concerts, including chamber music, recitals and opera. It sponsors talented young musicians in several programs that offer individual and ensemble instruction.

DANCEANDDRAMA

The Berkshires are rich in other performing arts: Jacobs Pillow in Lee is one of America’s premier dance venues. From mid-June to mid-August, dancers and companies from across America and abroad perform and present exhibits.

The Berkshire Opera Company performs in Pittsfield and in Williamstown. In 2004, it performed Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and a trio of American operas: “A Hand of Bridge” by Samuel Barber, “A Game of Chance” by Seymour Barab, and “Trouble in Tahiti” by Leonard Bernstein. Traditional summer-stock companies blossom in the area, including the Berkshire Theatre in Stockbridge.

• • •

The driving time from Washington to Stockbridge is about eight hours. The closest airport is Albany, N.Y., 45 miles from the Berkshires. Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn. is 70 miles away, and Logan International Airport in Boston is 135 miles away.

The Red Lion Inn, 30 Main St., Stockbridge, MA 01262; phone 413/298-5545; fax, 413/298-4130

Porches, 231 River St., North Adams, MA 01247; phone 413/664-0400; fax, 413/664-0401

Norman Rockwell Museum, P.O. Box 308, Route 183, Stockbridge, MA 01262; phone 413/298-4100; fax, 413/298-4142

The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox, MA 01240; phone 413/637-1899; fax, 413/637-0619

Hancock Shaker Village, P.O. Box 927, Routes 20 and 41, Pittsfield, MA 01202; phone 800/817-1137 or 413/443-0188; fax, 413/447-9357

Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, MA 01267; phone 413/458-2303

Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, MA 01247; phone 413/664-4481

Tanglewood, 297 West St., Lenox, MA 01240; summer phone, 413/637-5240, off-season, 617/638-9245; information, 888/266-1200

Jacobs Pillow, P.O. Box 287, Lee, MA 01238; box office, 413/243-0745; www.jacobspillow.org

Berkshire Opera Company, 297 North St., Pittsfield, MA 0120; phone, 413/442-0099; www.berkshireopera.org

Jack’s Grill, Main Street, Housatonic, MA 01236; phone 413/274-1000

Berkshire Visitors Bureau, Berkshire Common Plaza. Plaza Level, Pittsfield, MA 01201; www.berkshires.org

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