The Berkshires is so chock full of cultural and historic attractions that a few years back the official visitor’s bureau began billing these pastoral hills of western Massachusetts as “ America ’s Premier Cultural Resort.” It’s a moniker that appears to fit. Packed within this roughly 25 x 50 mile rectangular county (bordered by New York, Connecticut, and Vermont) are Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival, Williamstown Theatre, The Berkshire Theatre Festival, Clark Art Institute, and MASS MoCA.




Norman Rockwell painting "Stockbridge
Main Street at Christmas."
1967 photo by Louie Lamone, courtesy
of Norman Rockwell Museum.

Here you’ll find the former homes of artists Norman Rockwell, and Daniel Chester French, writers Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. From the mid-19th Century through the Gilded Age, when some twenty five “summer cottages” for The Vanderbilt’s and other industrial barons were constructed, right up through the Bohemian '50s and hip '60s to today, there is a tradition of artists, actors, writers and musicians living and working in these Green Mountain foothills.

Recently, we visited The Berkshires from Boston, an easy two-hour drive along the Mass Turnpike, on a mission to discover how much of the legendary cultural and historical region we could comfortably absorb in just 24 hours.

4:00 P.M, — Friday —The Red Lion is the "King" of country inns.




Guests enjoying afternoon tea in the
lobby of the Red Lion Inn.

We've driven ahead of rush-hour traffic and checked into The Red Lion Inn. Made famous by Norman Rockwell’s 1950s painting “ Main Street, Stockbridge,” the Red Lion is a rambling, white clapboard structure that anchors the corner of Main and Route 102 and it is a landmark for travelers. Originally built as a stagecoach stop in 1773 the inn is a gracious gatekeeper of this southern entrance to The Berkshires. It’s here almost all travelers to the area come, some for a stay in one of the 108 guest rooms, others for a dressy dinner in the elegant dining room, still others for a draft and song in one of taverns.




Classic styling is evident
in every Red Lion guest room.

At this hour we are winding down in our top-floor, two-room suite aiming toward full-relaxation mode. Every room at the inn is individually decorated and furnished with antiques, oriental carpets, period wall hangings, and luxurious linens. Many feature lace-draped canopy beds or classic four-posters. Our bath has an old claw foot tub; scented soaps and shower amenities are neatly placed in woven baskets. The long hallways connecting the inn’s several wings are filled with old paintings, colonial-era maps, and framed embroidery.

In 1968 Stockbridge residents Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick purchased The Red Lion, and the Fitzpatrick family continues to operate the inn today, with daughter Nancy Fitzpatrick as President. The Fitzpatrick family also owns The Porches Inn in North Adams and Blantyre in Lenox, and has become something akin to the First Family of The Berkshires through its patronage and support of myriad cultural, historic, and artistic projects.

5:00 P.M. — Rock an’ roll on the Red Lion porch. (View the video.)




The Red Lion front porch is a
well-known people watching spot.

We’re sitting on the expansive front porch of the inn rocking away in the soft light of a Stockbridge summer sunset. Streaming in from points south, mostly New York City and its environs, are weekenders: SUVs with all manner of floating craft mounted on top, coupes with bike racks, sports cars with tops down, and trunks strapped on, motorcycles with leather-clad couples astride. Slowly they approach the corner stop sign on Rte. 102, turn right on Main Street, and parade past us in a steady flow. The Red Lion porch is the ideal setting to meditate on the blissful feelings we’re having right in this moment; even better, it’s a grand vantage point for people watching.

Just next door to the Red Lion you can find the original Alice’s Restaurant, the one celebrated in Arlo Guthrie’s Thanksgiving saga of the same name. A block in the other direction is Austen Riggs Center where former client James Taylor penned the song Fire and Rain, commemorating a sad chapter in his young life. And just past Riggs is the Stockbridge cemetery where Edie Sedgwick, formerly of Andy Warhol’s Factory, rests among several Sedgwick headstones that face inward in a large circle. As the legend goes, the family is buried in this circle so when they rise up on Judgment Day, they don’t have to look at anyone else but Sedgwicks!

7:00 P.M.  — Searching for a celebrated chef.




The Old Inn on The Green is a pleasant
country drive to New Marlborough.

It’s an off-the-beaten-path, 30-minute country drive to reach The Old Inn on The Green in New Marlborough. The exact history of the inn is sketchy, but according to “A Little Inn History”, the pamphlet placed on every table, it was built circa 1760 and over the next two centuries passed through a succession of owners and uses including post office, tavern, store, and private home. A wing that housed the store deteriorated to the point where it was torn down in the 1960s. Restoration work that began in the 1970s led to a new life for the old inn and guests once again returned for lodging in the eleven now elegant rooms, and for fireside meals in the dining rooms and tavern.

In 2002 Peter Platt joined the inn following a twelve-year career as executive chef at Wheatleigh in Lenox. Last year his position solidified through an acquisition of the inn, making him both proprietor and Chef d’cuisine. Platt has enjoyed a reputation among the best in the region — being celebrated in reviews by Zagat’s, Wine Spectator, New York Times Magazine, Food and Wine, Town & Country, and others.




Candlelight dining provides the right
ambiance for Chef Peter Platt's cuisine.


Tonight we want Platt to really show his stuff, so we order the Chef’s Tasting Menu, a seven course epic complete with French, California, and Oregon wines to match.  He warms us up with a glass of Grand Brut Champagne, accompanied by Wianno oysters with Malossol caviar followed by sliced squab breast and wild mushroom ravioli. Next we savor the seared La Belle Farm foie gras with truffled lentil salad and fresh huckleberry sauce complemented with a 2002 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer from Amity Vineyards, Oregon .

We shift gears from farm to sea with Maine diver scallop, butter-poached lobster in a caramelized fennel and lobster sauce, together with a 2003 Macon from Bourgogne, Vins Auvigue. Phew! Platt’s presentation is flawless. All the same, I am convinced the next course reveals the most delightful taste sensations of our soirée. We have sautéed veal sweetbreads with foie gras flan, black truffles and carrot sauternes sauce combined with a 1999 Porter Creek Pinot Noir from Creekside Vineyard, Russian River Valley.

Platt continues to dazzle us with his dry-aged sirloin steak au poivre and crispy Italian goat cheese polenta in red wine sauce, complemented by a 2000 Insignia from Joseph Phelps in Napa Valley, then adds a petit salad of Bailey Hazen blue cheese with rosemary poached fruits before concluding with bittersweet chocolate mousse torte with brandied cherries and raspberry ice cream.

C’est bon! C’est Magnifique! Say what you will, but a trip to the country is worth the drive when the road leads to Chef Peter Platt at The Old Inn on The Green. The Tasting Menu is US$70, US$130 with wine, tax and gratuities not included. Route 57, Village Green, New Marlborough. Call for reservations 413/229-7924. On the web at www.oldinn.com

11:00 P.M. — Get down in the Lion’s Den basement.




Widow Bingham's Tavern is one
of two taverns at the inn.

Back at the inn for a nightcap we are in the Lion’s Den, an authentic, rouge-walled, tin-ceiling tavern that, while located down in the inn’s basement, is very high on atmosphere. On stage is Shakespeare in the Alley, a folk trio leading the late-night audience through rollicking renditions of traditional sea shanties. A few songs and we are headed toward the Red Lion’s century-old “birdcage” elevator and up to bed toting a mystery selection borrowed from the hall library. In our room a turned-down top cover and sweet mint await our repose.

9:00 A.M. — Saturday — A fast paced day starts with a slow breakfast.




The inn specializes in contemporary
regional cuisine and has received the
Wine Spectator Award of Excellence
six consecutive years.

A full breakfast is included in the room fare and we indulge over quantities of coffee, fresh juice, French toast and The Berkshire Eagle during a leisurely morning in the main dining room. The inn is abuzz with guests’ chatting up plans for the day’s outings to mountain, field and stream or to museums of modern or classic collections. Others will take flight for antique shopping sprees or turn-of-the-century mansion tours. With plans to continue our 24 hour cultural quest we bid adieu to the Red Lion Inn. Weekend rates in high season: B&B rooms from US$105, Twins or Queen with private bath from US$210, Suites from US$310. For reservations call 413/298-5545. On the web at www.redlioninn.com

11:00 A.M. — Norman Rockwell is living large in the country.




The Norman Rockwell Museum
has been home to the Rockwell
collections since 1993.
(c) Peter Aaron/Esto

Norman Rockwell died peacefully at his Stockbridge home on November 8, 1978 at the age of 84. In the following three decades his stature and fame grew to proportions unimagined in his lifetime. His first commission was a series of four Christmas cards done before he turned sixteen. Still in his teens he was hired as art director of Boys’ Life, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America. At 21 he produced work for Life, Literary Digest, and Country Gentleman. In 1916, at 22 years old, he painted his first cover for Saturday Evening Post, the magazine that would be synonymous with Rockwell’s all-American style.




Triple Self-Portrait," Oil on Canvas
"Saturday Evening Post," 2/13/1960
(c)1960 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing.
Over the next 47 years he would produce another 321 Post covers, a number that stands alone among major magazine illustrators. In 1963 he began a ten-year association with Look magazine creating some of his most provocative paintings on subjects of abiding interest to Rockwell, including civil rights, America’s war on poverty, and the exploration of space.

A block down from the Red Lion on Main Street is The Old Corner House. After many years of cramming an increasing number of Rockwell paintings into its tiny spaces, a new museum three miles from the center of town on 36 scenic acres overlooking the Housatonic River Valley was finally opened. The Norman Rockwell Museum is a delightful, unimposing, town-hall-inspired design that has been home to the Rockwell collections since 1993.

Today, it holds the world’s largest and most significant body of works by the artist, including more than 570 paintings and drawings and an archive of more than 100,000 photographs, letters, and materials. The museum’s campus includes his original Stockbridge studio, moved from the center of town, set up with easel, brushes, and books to look much as it did in his lifetime
.



One of the galleries that houses the permanent collection.
Photo by Art Evans (c) Norman Rockwell Museum.

Rockwell's original Stockbridge studio. (c) Brownie Harris, courtesy of GE.


We arrive in time for a docent’s tour of the main galleries where we learn the stories behind Rockwell’s most compelling works. We hear how he chronicled 20th century American life reflecting our society during times of peace and prosperity, war and depression. Known for his attention to detail, Rockwell labored to create authentic images. Look closely and influences of Dutch masters Vermeer and Mondrian can be found, yet he also admired Picasso and Pollack. He used props and photographs working through at least five preliminary steps, including thumbnail sketches and charcoal drawings before making the final image.




."Freedom of Speech," Oil on canvas "
Saturday Evening Post,"
2/20/1943
(c) 1943 SEPS: Lice
nsed by Curtis Publishing.

In a gallery dedicated to moving illustrations of the Four Freedoms, articulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, we are told that posters produced from the art sold over four million copies raising $132 million for the war effort. Still, according to art critic Dave Hickey, “Rockwell painted a society grounded not in the wisdom of its elders but in the promise of its youth.” Evidence of this idea can be found everywhere in his work. It is intense, inspired, enthusiastic, and very, very often it’s just plain fun.

The Norman Rockwell Museum is the most popular year-round cultural attraction in The Berkshires. Open daily 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. An admission fee is charged. Call 413/298-4100. On the web at www.nrm.org

1:00 P.M. — Edith Wharton built a beauty at The Mount.




Edith Wharton's home in The Berkshires is
undergoing a multi-million dollar restoration.

2005 marks the 100th anniversary of The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton’s novel that established her reputation as a major American author.




The Mount as seen from the gardens below.
Nearly 3,000 perennials and annuals
will be planted this year.

The Mount in Lenox is Wharton’s elegant 42-room estate where she created a world of beauty and calm and where she wrote some of her finest works. Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born into old New York society at a time when the expectation for women was that they would achieve nothing more than a proper marriage. Essentially self-educated, she authored 40 books in 40 years, including works on architecture, interior design, and gardens. She penned such best-selling novels as The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome and was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, receive an honorary Doctorate from Yale University, and be awarded full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.




The library was one of
Wharton's favorite rooms.

Wharton designed and built The Mount in 1902 as a writer’s retreat and place for entertaining guests such as long-time friend and fellow author Henry James. Tucked into the woodlands away from public view, the house and gardens overlook Laurel Lake with a panoramic view of the Berkshire Hills beyond. Wharton created The Mount based on the design principles articulated in her book, The Decoration of Houses, co-authored with architect Ogden Codman. Still in print today, the book is credited with establishing interior design as a profession in this country. The Mount’s gardens and grounds were Edith Wharton’s labor of love and were designed and constructed between 1901 and 1907. This year the flower garden will be planted with nearly 3,000 annuals and perennials capping off a four-year $3 million restoration.

Today’s visitors will find restoration work in progress. After Wharton moved to France in 1911 The Mount passed through six owners beginning in 1912 with the Albert Shattuck family who lived here for 25 years. Between 1942 and 1976 it was home to The Foxhollow School for Girls. Shakespeare & Company housed their resident theater group from 1978 until their move to another Lenox estate in 2001.




Teddy Wharton, Edith Wharton,
Henry James and Charles Cook
arrive at The Mount in their
turn-of-the-century motorcar.
Courtesy, The Lilly Library, Indiana University.

The Edith Wharton Restoration (EWR) was established in 1980 under an agreement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but the comprehensive restoration of the buildings and landscape did not begin until 1992. In May of 1999 the federal Save America’s Treasures program channeled a $2.865 million matching grant to EWR. Of the $5.73 million total, $2.5 million went into the landscape restoration. They have since received an additional $500,000 grant from an anonymous Boston foundation to be used in the gardens and surrounding landscape.




Edith Wharton at her desk in the
library. Although she spent much of
her time here, she wrote more
often in her upstairs bedroom.
Motorcar and Library photos reprinted by
permission of the Estate of Edith Wharton
and the Watkins/Loomis Agency.



Wharton designed the entrance
hall as a "place of transition"
as described in her book
The Decoration of Houses.

Our tour is led by Erica Donnis, a young curator actively involved in the restoration. It’s a painstaking process of researching and accurately identifying historical elements including everything from wallpaper, carpets, tapestries, furniture, and objets d’art to fixtures for the dining room, bath, and kitchen. She points out a rare photograph of Edith Wharton at her desk in the library. She explains how they will attempt to locate the actual desk and lamps that appear in the picture. If that proves impossible they will purchase the closest looking antiques from the same period.

Ms Donnis leads us through the main floor starting in the entrance hall, designed as an extension of the house into the landscape. We move through the gallery, a space inspired by galleries Wharton had admired in Italy, Teddy Wharton’s study, her library, and the large drawing room with three conversation areas. The dining room with its view of the terrace and gardens below is set as if waiting for Wharton and her guests to arrive for dinner. The adjacent service wing with butler’s pantry, scullery, laundry, and offices for the chef, housekeeper and butler is also being restored.

Each of the main floor rooms has been temporarily filled with period furniture, carpets, lights, wall-hangings and accessories through a special program in which six leading designers donated their work and installations which will remain on display until such time as the actual décor is sufficiently restored. The result is imaginative, giving visitors the impression that, perhaps, the Wharton’s are still in residence.

The Mount Estate & Gardens at 2 Plunkett Street on the corner of Route 7 in Lenox is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., April 30-October 30. Admission for adults is US$18, students with ID US$9, children under 12 free. For tickets call 413/637-6900. On the web at www.edithwharton.org


Take the Mount Photo Tour

To continue a tour of The Mount click on the photo above.
Except where noted all photos of The Mount by Kevin Sprague

3:00 P.M. — Heading home with a promise to return.

Back on the Mass Pike, driving east, we have satisfied our craving for a hearty helping of the most excellent cultural and history The Berkshires bestows. But there is more to discover in this enchanting region tucked in its cozy corner of southern New England. So we agree to get back soon for a leisurely stay of, well, at least another 24 hours.

— Feature by Jim Hollister, New England Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent. Photos courtesy of The Berkshire Visitors Bureau, Red Lion Inn, The Old Inn on The Green, Norman Rockwell Museum, and the Edith Wharton Restoration.