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.