In the crunchy Seventies, no New England town was crunchier than Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The core population back then seemed to be made up of double-wide earth mamas in droopy skirts and ethnic ponchos. Secondhand-book shops did a brisk business in astrology guides, composting how-tos, and manuals illustrating positions found in the Kama Sutra. The dining-out culture was primitive.
"I vividly remember when even a coffee shop couldn't survive in Great Barrington," says Bradford Wagstaff, owner of the Old Inn on the Green in nearby New Marlborough. "You were hard-pressed to find someone to make you a grilled-cheese sandwich."
What a difference a quarter of a century makes. Like many towns swaddled in the chenille folds of the Berkshire Hills, including Stockbridge, Sheffield, and Lenox, Great Barrington has sworn off granola. At Verdura on Railroad Street you can order seared foie gras, vanilla-roasted fruit, and a salad of locally grown microgreens with the confidence that you will be eating at least as well as you would at any of Manhattan's pumped-up bistros of the moment, minus the side serving of hubris. Sidewalks are littered with twiggy Paris Hilton types wearing Juicy Couture cashmere tracksuits and far too much Bond No. 9 perfume. The same dog-eared bookstores that once did so well with ecology titles now blithely ask—and get—$150 for a fluffy Diana Vreeland picture book.
The evolution of the Berkshires from a locus of hippie-dippie-dom to a playground purveying the kind of surfacy values championed by the Empress of Fashion was vigorously under way during a number of recent visits I paid to the area, whose soft hills and open fields have the good taste not to look too tended. "The upscaling of the Berkshires," as the process is frequently but not always lovingly called, more than pleased me, for I should say right here that I was not a fan of the Old Berkshires, or OB, as I have come to call them. I have never owned a pair of Birkenstocks, never made a recipe from the Moosewood Cookbook, and never (at least not knowingly) assumed a position from the Kama Sutra. Call me a snob. You can even call me a princess. But give me the New Berkshires—NB—any day.
Driving the transformation is a wave of new or newly redone hotels whose influence is being felt far beyond the emerald limits of Berkshire County, a 50-mile-long corridor of western Massachusetts that shares borders with Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. After struggling for two decades to get it right—and battling a quaint OB aesthetic that had a stranglehold on lodgings in the region—Wheatleigh, in Lenox, has become the most modern, luxurious, tightly run country hotel in the United States.
"When we arrived in the Berkshires in 1981, everyone felt that you couldn't sell a country property without frilly canopy beds and a truckload of chintz," says Susan Simon, who owns Wheatleigh with her husband, Lin. "But we believed people would respond to good contemporary design."
Encouraged by the Simons, last summer Bob and Sonya Berle, a couple of blue-blooded ex-models, opened Elm Court, also in Lenox. Like Wheatleigh, the house is a "cottage," one of the dozens of summer showplaces built in the area in the late 1800's and early 1900'sby patrician New York and Boston families who could not take the social heat of Newport. Elm Court was commissioned by Bob Berle's great-great-grandparents: Emily Vanderbilt, one of the commodore's granddaughters, and W. D. Sloane, of the Sloane furniture dynasty. Its grounds were laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, co-author of New York City's Central Park. With rooms averaging an eye-popping $935 per night in the highsummer season, Elm Court may well be the most expensive bed-and-breakfast on the planet.
Down the road, former power-pop producer Tom Werman, whose ear-ringing acts included Twisted Sister and Cheap Trick, is marketing his handsome 1890 Stonover Farm as the anti-B&B, or NB B&B, as I prefer to think of it. As at Wheatleigh, if you like Victorian gewgaws, stay home.
"We're not big on antiques," Werman says, "and that includes four-poster beds. Guests love Stonover's streamlined look and the fact that so many museums, arts festivals, and spas are right at our doorstep."
Recognizing that no turn-of-the-21st-century destination can make it without a fleet of spas, the Berkshires have become the bikini-wax capital of the Northeast. Cranwell Resortis betting a cool $9 million it can duplicate the cash-cow fortunes of its Lenox idol, Canyon Ranch, by adding a 35,000-square-foot facility and an exhaustive 40-treatment menu. "When we looked at all the things we could do to become a major player nationally, everything kept pointing to a spa," says general manager Lewis Kiesler. "It's made us competitive with the top resorts in the country." The Gedney Farm Spa, opening next month on the same compound as the Old Inn on the Green, is dime-sized by comparison, but significant for what it reveals about the way established hotels in the area are thinking. Nervously aware that snoozing could mean losing, even OB properties feel they must get into the well-being business if they are to be contenders in the NB.
Still, no amount of spa-hopping could have primed me for the parade of exquisitely exfoliated patrons at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Music, theater, and dance are of course very OB—Tanglewood and Shakespeare & Company, both in Lenox, and Jacob's Pillow, in Becket, were founded as far back as the thirties. But the 1999 opening in North Adams of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MASS MoCA, a racy model of NB thinking, redrew the cultural landscape in one stroke. The 13-acre site was developed in the late 19th century as the Arnold Print Works; the last things to come out of the factory before it closed for good in 1985 were electrical capacitors. One dividend of the museum is the easing of the gap between the Berkshires' blue-collar upper precincts, of which beleaguered but valiant North Adams is one, and the region's ritzier south.
Another dividend is Porches Inn, a string of dignified old row houses that provided homes for foremen of the printing plant opposite it. Perhaps because I am old enough to remember when boxes of dish detergent had bonus-with-purchase dinner plates buried inside them, Porches made me go all warm and fuzzy. The plates adorn the tongue-and-groove walls at the inn, alongside Mohawk Trail memorabilia and paint-by-number pictures reaped by the dozens from eBay.
"Porches had been a slum, feeding North Adams's huge image problem," admits the city's mayor, John Barrett. "As recently as 1996, an article in Yankee magazine's travel guide called the town 'a sorry gateway' to nowhere. But MASS MoCA saved us. It's been an amazing economic catalyst."
The "theme park for thinking adults" has one of the largest single exhibition spaces in the country—18,000 square feet. This gallery and others like it make the museum especially hospitable to often wild once-in-a-lifetime installations by marquee names like Robert Wilson and Joseph Beuys. As I crossed Courtyard A on my way to the ticket counter, I was put on notice by Tree Logic, a permanent work by Natalie Jeremijenko. Six live maples in stainless-steel planters are suspended 30 feet in the air from a metal truss attached to telephone poles. The trees are upside down.
It's a long way from 2 Furlong, the almost thousand-foot-long Robert Rauschenberg work in progress that put MASS MoCA on the map, to Aunt Ella Takes a Trip, in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. The town looks not so much OB as YOB (for Ye Olde Berkshires), with a tearoom, a country store dispensing maple syrup and penny candy, and a bakery famous for its house-made Oreo-style cookies. Anchoring Stockbridge is the Red Lion Inn, which may be the last place in America that offers a complimentary cheese-and-nut log with cocktails. Authentically old-fashioned, gloriously shabby, the Red Lion has no plans to alter its visage anytime soon.
"We go out of our way to change as little as possible, fixing things only when it's absolutely necessary," owner Nancy Fitzpatrick told me. "Yes, the hotel is creaky. But our guests like creaky." She might also have mentioned that her guests are creaky.
Many genteel denizens of Stockbridge, including the kind of women who favor black velvet headbands with their lettuce-green Ultrasuede jackets, insist on the innocence of the place. I hate to be the one to tell them, but they are deluded. Like its neighbors, Stockbridge is no naïf. Having awoke to the big retail appetites of the people who flood through it, the town makes sure nobody goes home hungry. Indeed, if the NB has learned one lesson from the Hamptons, it's that a shopping visitor is a happy visitor.
At Holsten Galleries on Elm Street in Stockbridge, you can buy a piece of Dale Chihuly trophy glass for the price of a Mini Cooper. The town of Sheffield is gorged with antiques shops. After bagging a pair of Georgian silver candlesticks and some charmingly mismatched Chinese export porcelain at Centuryhurst, I continued on to Cupboards & Roses, where my take was a lovely bamboo whatnot. Sienna Gallery in Lenox sells jewelry by contemporary artists with cult followings,such as Sofia Calderwood and Robert Ebendorf. Around the corner, the Lydia Mongiardo Collection showcases Lauren Mundy's marbleized redware and scrupulous re-editions by Mongiardo's husband, Nicholas, of lacquered furniture by the big guns of French Art Deco: Frank, Ruhlman, Chareau. A tour of the Mount, Edith Wharton's legendary 1902 Lenox cottage, funnels visitors into an excellent decorating and gardening bookshop. The estate is doing turn-away business these days, thanks to Wharton's newly restored bedroom suite and a show that puts an amusing literary spin on the designer showhouse. A-list talents like Bunny Williams and Thomas Jayne were asked to imagine that Wharton was alive today and had hired them to redo the Mount according to the principles set out in her book The Decoration of Houses.
One NB shopkeeper told me that she says a little prayer every day for Wheatleigh, "because I don't like to imagine what business would be like without it." As many locals do, the woman dates the definitive shift in the Berkshires to the hotel's makeover three years ago by the architectural firm of Tsao & McKown, the fashionable and chameleonlike team behind Manhattan's Tribeca Grand Hotel and Singapore's $1.6 billion Suntec City, the largest convention and exhibition center in Southeast Asia. Until 2001, Wheatleigh had limped along, first under the direction of Mel Brooks's first wife, Florence, and then under the stewardship of Susan and Lin Simon. Susanhad been a modern-art dealer in Chicago before acquiring the property, Lin a Harvard-trained lawyer.
Though they were unable to realize it themselves, the couple did have a vision. They imagined the hotel cleansed of every OB cliché and with a borderline-brittle level of sophistication that would make people sit up and listen. Free of the long, wrenching involvement with Wheatleigh that weighed down the Simons, Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown had no trouble purging the place of every petticoated night table and turned plant stand. Determined to prove that "contemporary country hotel" is not an oxymoron, the men loved the 1893 Italianate cottage enough to also get rid of the ditzy bed hangings and florid china, replacing them with dead-plain rectilinear headboards and dead-white soup plates. The plate color is consistent with those used throughout the hotel, which is seldom dressed in anything more bumptious than khaki, pewter, olive, stone, sage, or greige. For the first time in my life I understood what is meant by color therapy. I did not feel merely relaxed. I felt unbent.
Tsao and McKown did not reject Wheatleigh's past altogether. In the Great Hall they elected to keep a bulbous 16-arm brass chandelier—but only just; it now peeks out from under a giant pleated linen shade, a layered moment of decorative theater. Chippendale dining chairs and pedestal tables with lacy galleries are stirred in ever so gently with the designers' own stylized wing chairs (the wings have right angles) and sexy benches that looked to me at first glance like single blocks of limestone but that are, in fact, upholstered. Miles of shimmering distressed velvet contribute to a comfort level that is off the charts. Tsao and McKown even get involved in the flowers. Arrangements by digitalis divas like Ken Turner and Robert Isabell have nothing on those at Wheatleigh.
The hotel doesn't just look good. Its restaurant is a high-wire act, with a challenging $115 tasting menu that elegantly surfs from fluke sashimi with water chestnuts to exotic clams with fennel gelée. The service throughout Wheatleigh is an easy match for that of any of France's palais hotels and untainted by the usual hint of obsequiousness. Handpicked by general manager FrançoisThomas on hiring trips to Europe, the personnel have a palpable intelligence—there wasn't one staffer I would have minded taking to lunch. The Simons poached Thomas from the Hôtel Montalembert in Paris, where his boss was Grace Leo-Andrieu, one of the hospitality world's toughest taskmasters.
"The Berkshires are seeded with incredible people who trained at Wheatleigh," Thomas says. "One of our former pastry chefs, Joshua Needleman, just opened Chocolate Springs Café, a luxury chocolate shop up on Route 7. Alumni of the hotel are everywhere."
Elm Court offers a completely different cottage experience. In the lean, take-me-or-leave-me tradition of classic B&B's, there's no turndown, no velvety robe waiting to be lifted off the bathroom shelf, and a limited choice at breakfast (though the compose-your-own omelettes, accessorized with pomegranate seeds, can be filled with fancy ingredients like pancetta and leeks). The fact that guests also feel a certain pressure to perform for their hosts, to always wear a smile, also makes Elm Court true to type.
The good news is, if you're as stuck-up as I am, all of this matters less than a pomegranate seed. Given the choice between turndown and pedigree, what thinking man wouldn't choose pedigree—not to mention grandeur, glamour, and history?Elm Court is one of the largest Shingle Style houses in the country, with 106 rooms, a precious four of which are to let. It was designed with delirious asymmetry by Boston-based Peabody & Stearns, the blue-chip company that also built Wheatleigh and the Breakers in Newport and jockeyed for some of the same jobs as the better-remembered McKim, Mead & White. (Robert Peabody and Charles McKim learned their École des Beaux-Arts basics together as Paris classmates.) Still, Peabody & Stearns's place in history is secure. Architectural historian Wheaton Holen calls the firm "one of the chief wellsprings of...inspiration in [its] time."
W. D. Sloane wasn't in the home-furnishings business for nothing—a fair amount of the hopelessly clunky robber-baron appointments in the mansion today are things he chose for it. Emily Vanderbilt's second husband, Henry White, was a former ambassador to France and Italy. Thanks to his diplomatic maneuverings, Woodrow Wilson, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, General Pershing, and Marshal Foch convened at the estate in 1919 for what became known as the Elm Court Talks, which led to the creation of the League of Nations. In 1948 Bob Berle's grandparents began operating the property as the kind of inn that served jellied madrilene at lunch, booked bands with names like the Bel Air Trio for Saturday nights, and catered to chauffeured ladies traveling with their maids. The French maître d'hôtel was filched from the Taboo Club in Palm Beach. If these walls could talk...
As the mansion's new owner, in 1998, Berle found in the exterior walls holes big enough to drive a car through. "When the inn shut in 1957, having never made a profit, the house was closed for good," he says. "My grandfather fully expected that if he simply locked the door behind him, nothing would happen to Elm Court. But he didn't count on institutionalized harvesting. By the early eighties vandals and dealers had stripped the place of every doorknob, marble tile, and light fixture. All of the original items we have today either had been put in storage by my family or were returned to us mysteriously. People leave spindlesfrom the Colonial Revival staircase on the lawn in the middle of the night and even send them anonymously by FedEx. After it rains my wife and I go into the garden to hunt for pieces of marble—from bathrooms and mantels—that literally rise out of the earth."
The Berles bring in NB chef Laura Shack for romantic dinners, corny but irresistible, staged for moon-eyed couples in the grandiose dining room. Shack, who trained privately with James Beard, ran the all-American Roseborough Grill in Lenox for a dozen years before scratching the itch to reinvent it. Reborn last May as Firefly, the restaurant has a sleek mahogany-and-copper bar and a very convincing Spanish accent (garlic shrimp, potato tortilla, chicken zapped with lemon and green olives). Down the road, Zinc keeps the NB mood going with steak frites and croque-monsieurs, and something I am almost tempted to call a scene. Like nearly every new restaurant in the area, the bistro owes a debt to the architects of modern Berkshires cooking, Dan Smith of John Andrew's in South Egremont and Peter Platt of the Old Inn on the Green.
As Platt has learned in nearly 15 years as a chef in the region, a restaurant's success is no more easily won here than it is in the trenches of Manhattan. Among people who have swanned in and hoped to make a killing, none tanked more spectacularly than Richard Bennett in Great Barrington. Before investors pulled the plug last year, Bennett had spent $350,000 of a projected $800,000 mounting a ryotei, a Japanese version of a private dining club, where dinner would cost a minimum of $150 per person—without drinks and tip. Many residents have remarked that the failed restaurateur simply got what was coming to him: the town did not need another sushi palace, they argue. Still, that view may prove a little shortsighted. Five years ago no one in the Berkshires thought they needed heirloom garlic, either.
CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
The Berkshires have two peak seasons: July and August, when the arts calendar is fullest, and October, for the leaves. Unless there's snow, the winter months can be brown and dreary.
WHERE TO STAY
Cranwell Resort & Spa DOUBLES FROM $315. RTE. 20, LENOX; 800/272-6935 OR 413/637-1364; www.cranwell.com
Elm Court DOUBLES FROM $650. 310 OLD STOCKBRIDGE RD., LENOX; 413/637-1556; www.elmcourt.com
Old Inn on the Green DOUBLES FROM $195, DINNER FOR TWO $100. RTE. 57, NEW MARLBOROUGH; 413/229-3131; www.oldinn.com
Porches Inn DOUBLES FROM $125. 231 RIVER ST., NORTH ADAMS; 413/664-0400; www.porches.com
Red Lion Inn DOUBLES FROM $130, DINNER FOR TWO $70. 30 MAIN ST., STOCKBRIDGE; 413/298-5545; www.redlioninn.com
Stonover Farm DOUBLES FROM $250, INCLUDING BREAKFAST. 169 UNDER MOUNTAIN RD., LENOX; 413/637-9100; www.stonoverfarm.com
Wheatleigh DOUBLES FROM $545, DINNER FOR TWO $230. 11 HAWTHORNE RD., LENOX; 413/637-0610; www.wheatleigh.com
WHERE TO EAT
Chocolate Springs Café RTE. 7, LENOX; 413/637-9820
Firefly DINNER FOR TWO $75. 71 CHURCH ST., LENOX; 413/637-2700
John Andrew's Restaurant DINNER FOR TWO $80. RTE. 23 AT BLUNT RD., SOUTH EGREMONT; 413/528-3469
Verdura DINNER FOR TWO $80. 44 RAILROAD ST., GREAT BARRINGTON; 413/528-8969
Zinc DINNER FOR TWO $80. 56 CHURCH ST., LENOX; 413/637-8800
WHERE TO SHOP
Centuryhurst 173 S. MAIN ST., SHEFFIELD; 413/229-8131
Cupboards & Roses 296 S. MAIN ST., SHEFFIELD; 413/229-3070
Holsten Galleries 3 ELM ST., STOCKBRIDGE; 413/298-3044
Lydia Mongiardo Collection 51 CHURCH ST., LENOX; 413/637-0809
Sienna Gallery 80 MAIN ST., LENOX; 413/637-8386
WHAT TO DO
Canyon Ranch 165 KEMBLE ST., LENOX; 800/742-9000 OR 413/637-4100; www.canyonranch.com
Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival JUNE 23-AUGUST 29. 358 GEORGE CARTER RD., BECKET; 413/637-1322; www.jacobspillow.org
MASS MoCA 87 MARSHALL ST., NORTH ADAMS 413/662-2111; www.massmoca.org
The Mount 2 PLUNKETT ST., LENOX; 413/637-1899
Shakespeare & Company Theater workshop. 70 KEMBLE ST., LENOX; 413/637-3353
Tanglewood Festival JULY 1-SEPTEMBER 5. 297 WEST ST., LENOX; 413/637-5165