I am a country person, but not one who owns or rents a summer house. I go to other countries all the time. Obviously, I haven’t been going much of anywhere since early March. A few months ago I decided that even though I love New York City and have been all over town exploring it during the shutdown, it might be nice to take a break. We had wanted to rent a house near Millbrook for a week as many friends live there. Everything there was gone. Remembering that Tanglewood had just been cancelled, I decided to look a little further north. I have always loved the Berkshires, and my guess was right as there were many houses to be had. I correctly assumed that many people who had rented for the festival had cancelled and so I found a small, real mid-century modern house outside of Lenox, Massachusetts. We were set.
Lenox is about a two and three-quarter hour drive from Manhattan. And the traffic problems that make the Hamptons so difficult do not exist up there. I figured that even if restaurants were not open, there is a foodie culture in Great Barrington; plus we had a barbecue grill behind the house. The Northeast had been very good about following all safety protocols during the crisis, and Massachusetts was phasing in opening up a bit more quickly than upstate New York (and was of course ahead of New York City). The idea was to chill, i.e. hike, swim, relax, and do a little bit of work.
Outdoor dining was permitted, and ten days before we were supposed to leave some museums in the state were allowed a soft re-opening. That was a game changer as the Berkshires have always been culture-centric, and there were excellent museums that we could now visit.
The Red Lion Inn is in Stockbridge, one of the many towns and villages that are scattered around the Berkshires. The site has been in continuous operation since 1773, when it was a stage coach stop. It has changed hands several times and been rebuilt and updated. It embodies Americana and the New England way of life. It is the last of the 19th century hotels in the Berkshires. And it has a sense of humor. We had a wonderful dinner in one of the many outside spaces now open. The Inn is also again taking guests, like many other properties in the area.
The Berkshires were settled in the mid 1700s. And in The Gilded Age many newly wealthy denizens built interesting mansions. There were about 75 of them originally. One is Edith Wharton’s The Mount. This house is smaller than many of the other estates, but it was designed and built by Wharton herself. She wrote the influential The Decoration of Houses with Ogden Codman, Jr. in 1897, and her taste was informed by her travels in France and Italy while she was growing up.
Mrs. Wharton had grown tired of life in Newport and decided to build here in 1902. She brought Codman into the project, and created an interesting pastiche of the interiors she loved. She and her husband Teddy Wharton were not exactly suited to one another, but shared a love of dogs. The house sits in a great park — much smaller than the original 113 acres — but still incredibly beautiful. The grounds were open to the people and their dogs throughout the pandemic.
Tickets for timed visits are available online now. We were there on the first day it opened. It was wonderful to be in a public cultural institution again.
Much of the house is reminiscent of places visited in Europe, though slightly rearranged. After Wharton, it passed through several hands eventually becoming a private girl’s school. It was saved by Edith Wharton Restoration, Inc. in 1980. None of the furniture is original to the house, but many decorators have contributed their time and taste to give a feeling of what the house looked like when Edith Wharton lived there.
In the new normal, the larger guided tours do not exist, but there is a map of the house and docents monitoring the interior who are happy to answer questions. Small groups can now book a private guided tour by appointment. This is Edith Wharton’s formal library, but not where she wrote. The library is located on the ground floor beneath her bedroom. The Mount owns about 2,700 books from her original library, giving insight into her personality and intellect. And it is the darkest room in the house.
The large drawing room is light and airy. The moldings and ceiling decorations are decidedly European, while the choice of color is strictly hers. There are signs in all the rooms that explain and decipher them.
The dining room is very Wharton. She did not like overhead lighting, as she found it unflattering. And her tables were always round. There was art on the walls, but none of it was “important” art. The art was chosen to evoke the spirit of the room. Bunny Williams was involved in restoring this room. And signs at each chair indicate who might have sat in them. Mrs. Wharton on the left, with a small dog bed at her feet, and Henry James to her right. The pale pink walls cast a warm and flattering glow.
You are guided through the visit by signs and floor stickers so the visit is one way only, and the number of people per room is limited for safety’s sake. The study is where Mrs. Wharton greeted friends, tended to business and wrote letters.
Her bedroom is across the hall. She wrote all her books while in bed in the morning, and would drop the finished pages on the ground for her maid to pick up. The bedroom itself is rather simple.
From her bed she had a wonderful view of her garden, which must have provided much inspiration. She wrote many books including House of Mirth, The Custom of The Country and Ethan Frome at The Mount. Teddy’s suite was adjacent. Henry James, a great friend, also had a dedicated bedroom down the hall.
The original butler’s pantry on the main floor adjacent to the dining room is now used for the Terrace Restaurant, and is thoroughly modern. Downstairs one can see the original scullery and kitchen, rather smaller than one would think. You exit the house these days through the kitchen into the gardens.
The Flower Garden is to the left of the house. The corner of the house visible on the main floor is the Terrace Cafe. The formal gardens are surrounded by manicured grounds, and some wild fields leading to a lake. You used to be able to rent The Mount gardens and the Terrace for weddings and other celebrations. Hopefully, you will be able to do so again soon.
The Lime Walk centers the gardens. Edith Wharton designed the gardens as well as the house and was inspired by the gardens of Versailles, though executed on a much smaller scale.
The center of the gardens provides a small view of the house.
You pass through a garden of conifers at the end of the Lime Walk.
And you then end up in a Walled Garden with its pampered ruins that look out over the fields. After the visit you can wander through the main park, perhaps visiting the Pet Cemetery, stop at the bookstore and see the stables, and the display of the paranormal activity viewed at The Mount. Wharton sold the house in 1911, and moved to Paris where she spent the rest of her life. She and Teddy were divorced in 1913, an unusual move at the time. She kept writing and working until 1937.
Lenox is a small and pretty village. The Lenox Academy was built in 1802 as a private school, later becoming the town’s high school, and now houses offices. If you are tempted to visit the Berkshires, Lenox is home to some 5-star luxury accommodations that are open for safe limited occupancy stays. All of them are Gilded Age mansions. Blantyre is currently hosting a Cafe Boulud branch. Wheatley is nearby and the health-centric Canyon Ranch is also an option.
Lenox has interesting shopping. Ceri, a store with its main location in Newton, MA, near Boston, has opened a branch in Lenox. The selection of casual women’s clothing and accessories is sophisticated and interesting. I picked up a pair of shoes, and was tempted by a few bags. It is located at 21 Housatonic Street, off main street and near where the Farmer’s Market is located.
Design Menagerie is around a bend at 26 Housatanic Street. The store is full of men’s and women’s clothing surrounded by lots of accessories.
You also find furniture, items for the kitchen and the table, food, and rugs, books and other things. They specialize in well designed utilitarian products.
Berkshire Classic Leather and Silver is at 74 Main St. The owner supports local artisans, and has filled the shop with sterling silver jewelry, belts, wallets, luggage, handbags, tee-shirts, men’s clothing and hats, and so many other things. They have clever home decor items, including vintage pocket watches hanging from a specially made stand so you can use a pocket watch as a clock. All of it is quirky and original.
Stockbridge is near Lenox. The two villages are where the Tangelwood Festival is located. Main Street is the main drag. As mentioned before, The Red Lion Inn is open for guests, and is a more affordable option when you come for a visit. The Berkshires are very popular in the fall, as the hills are filled with beautifully colored leaves. It is even popular in the winter for skiing. There are so many options for staying and dining.
The General Store at 40 Main Street is a cafe and ice cream parlour, with a large selection of novelty goods. In all the stores in the Berkshires everyone is masked up, and proud of it.
Most of the shops and smaller restaurants in Stockbridge are tucked into alleys off Main Street.
In this courtyard is a a yarn store owned by the Barcenas family, Prado de Lana. They have a farm nearby and grow all the wool that is sold in the store. This one-of-a-kind store sells pure bred wool in natural colors. They also offer classes and workshops. Find them down the alley at 44 Main Street, and really shop local.
The Williams & Sons Country Store is at 38 Main Street. It has pretty much anything you might want, but never knew you needed. There is one section that is filled with childhood penny candy that tempts. They have beauty and bath products, home decor and tableware, and much more.
Much of it is tongue in cheek, like these amusing rulers, and other childhood faves like gliders, kaleidoscopes and fake snakes. A little bit of everything.
Seven Arts Gift Shop is a music lovers’ dream. Vinyl, including rare recordings, CD’s, turntables and other equipment are sold here. Classical music and show tunes are here as well as rock, punk, folk, country and progressive music. I found a nine-volume CD set of early Stax-Volt releases from Atlantic. Upstairs is a vintage clothing store with a funky feel. Every village seems to have its own vibe for shopping.
MASS MoCA in North Adams is about a 45-minute drive from Lenox. We were thrilled that it was open, and were glad to be visiting it again. MASS MoCA is located on 16 acres in 19th century mill buildings and sits on the National Historic Register. They show well known and not so well known artists, as well as performances (though not just now). And in normal times, they do art residencies.
Williams College Museum of Art, located nearby, was where the idea for the museum started. The staff and its director director, Thomas Krens, who later went on to lead the Guggenheim in New York, were looking for a space to display large scale pieces in 1986. After much hard work, the Massachusetts legislature supported the idea. And with lots of support and donations, and with the help of many interesting architects, the museum opened in 1999.
All timed appointments are booked online, and you have to show up for your time slot. With 16 acres, and many outdoor spaces, this unusual institute is a must visit. And it feels very safe, and with such spacious galleries, open and free. There are signs in the smaller galleries with a cap on the number of people allowed in the space. Everyone is masked and happy to be so.
This courtyards houses one of the many small cafes on the property. There is absolutely no crowding here. There are so many buildings that you need the map to know where you are and where you are going. That’s part of the fun.
The first gallery we found was the one displaying the art of Blane De St. Croix. With How to Move a Landscape, the artist was inspired by the history of landscape in art, and reflects on some of the areas of the world that are threatened by climate change.
Another gallery housed Ladelle Moe’s concrete memorials. The scale of the pieces is monumental, and touching at the same time — reflecting many cultures. In this space, you start to get a sense of the scale of the rooms in the museum, and how the art is enhanced by the light pouring in through the old industrial windows.
A smaller gallery shows Fantasia Modulares by Ad Minotti. It’s a colorful evocation of fairy tales re-imagined with non-human characters.
There is a small Louise Bourgeois exhibit, and a funny take on a game of chess.
Jenny Holzer has a huge space full of her Truisms. She started putting up posters with her sayings in 1977, then kept moving. The LED sculpture at the right flashes more Truisms, and in another large space many other of her works are displayed.
Here is a close-up of some of the panels. She also does limited editions of tee shirts, hats and other pieces that are in the exhibit. You can find a limited edition selection in the Museum gift shop done specifically for this exhibit.
As you walk from building to building different artworks are displayed, making use of the well designed space.
There are three floors of the works of Sol Lewitt. These monumental pieces are wall paintings done in a collaboration between the artist and a team of assistants. Another floor houses very intricate black and white panels. The pieces were originally intended for Yale University Art Gallery, but were transferred to MASS MoCA when Yale did not have the space for works of this scale. Some of these pieces are from the Pinault collection.
Before Covid, visitors were free to play with these pieces by Sarah Oppenheimer. The beams rotate and the glass offers different reflections as it is twirled. A docent now moves the pieces. This was the most crowded gallery we visited. And everyone was socially distanced. There are so many more exhibits, not included here. You really need to see them in person, and experience this large and experimental museum.
The Clark Art Institute is a few minutes away in Williamstown. The original building (photo courtesy of Jeff Goldberg) opened in 1955 to house the collection of Sterling and Francine Clark. Mr. Clark was one of the heirs of the Singer sewing machine fortune. He settled in Paris, married Francine Clary, and the two of them created an amazing private collection. They decided to share their collection with the public, and we are very lucky that they built the museum.
Again all visits are timed with tickets purchased online. Although this is a smaller space than MASS MoCA, the galleries felt very safe and uncrowded. Actually this was the best visit I have ever had at The Clark, as you really had the art to yourself. We were there during the week, and there were guards to make sure everyone was safely spaced out. Again, it felt natural to be back, as if the past four months were just a bad dream.
Over the years there have been additions to the museum, and it has grown as other collectors have donated their collections over the years. There is currently a special exhibit on view of French Drawings from the Diamond Collection. All the grounds of the museum are open to the public for strolling.
The Clark’s eyes did wander to many different genres of art. Their mix of artists makes the collection very special. The have some superb Frederick Remingtons, mixed in with the Impressionists.
There is a large mix of Winslow Homer, as well as John Singer Sargent and other American painters.
A Peselino tempera of King Melchior Sailing for the Holy Land is vibrant still.
There is also a Gallery of American Decorative Art where these two portraits by itinerant artist Ammi Phillips are located. She worked in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York in the 1800s.
There are several galleries of French paintings, with many Impressionists represented. I love this Pissaro painted on the artist’ palette, certainly an original.
These Monets are special, too. What is interesting in this museum is that every gallery seems to be painted a different color, one that will enhance the art.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting of the followers of Bacchus stands out on the dark plum-colored wall.
And the Turner shown on a red wall heightens the colors. The artistic take on displaying a collection is wonderful.
The Little Dancer Age Fourteen by Degas, and his Portrait of a Man gazing at the Dancer are highlights. What fun the Clarks must have had putting this collection together.
You can see that The Clark takes everyone’s safety seriously. There are so many masterpieces in this museum, and so many other cultural institutions in the area like The Gilded Age Museum in Lenox, and the Norman Rockwell in Stockbridge that we did not get to visit. It is a very special part of our country.
Great Barrington, along with Sheffield and the Egremonts, are at the southern end of the Berkshires. Every town and village seems to have a different personality and look. Great Barrington is where the foodies go for local and Hudson Valley artisanal products.
There are craft stores here too, showcasing local artisans. Great Barrington is less of a strictly New England town, and is laid back. Evergreen Fine American Crafts is located at 291 Main Street.
The T.P. Saddle Blanket boutique has been here for many years. Started by a Ralph Lauren alum, is has a rustic Western look in both the clothing it sells and the home decor pieces on display. Located at 304 Main Street, it is a must visit.
This bright yellow house is filled with many surprises. A used book store, Yellow House Books, is located on the ground floor and Boho Exchange is upstairs. Both stores, at 252 Main Street, have the Great Barrington vibe — slightly counter culture, but well-educated.
The Bookloft, on the outskirts of town, has a large selection of all sorts of books. Located at 63 State Road, this is one of the largest bookstores in the Berkshires.
There are books on pretty much every subject. Children have their own large section. They will order something if you cannot find it, and the store is full of light.
Many of the sidewalks are Rainbow inspired, as is the town. Diversity is a big thing here. The variety of experiences to be found in the Berkshires is vast. If you are into antiquing, there are dozens of stores with everything from early American and European antiques to mid-century. Too many to include here.
If you are a nature lover, you will find tons of trails and mountains. Want to get out of New York? This is a great area to visit, no matter your budget. Social distancing and mask wearing are mandatory, and everyone is polite about it. It is open and waiting to see you.
Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn