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The New Berkshires 2004

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.


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