The Gilded Age to the Next Gen: Summer in the Berkshires

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Toronto Star, July 2, 2014, Lenox, Massachusetts–Dozens of pink roses spill over each other in the middle of the table, hiding the silver salt-and-pepper shakers, as we sit down to lunch at Blantyre, a grand old mansion in Lenox in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.

This is one of dozens of “country cottages,” built by the enormously wealthy industrialists of Boston and New York during the Gilded Age in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A few of these magnificent homes managed to stay in private hands for private use, Most endured difficult histories before they were turned into expensive hotels.

We’ve popped in for lunch, which starts with our server carefully tipping a silver jug full of leek-and-potato soup to surround the lobster that’s waiting in our bowls.

Most people come for a weekend, a week or, in some cases, the entire summer.

The guests, mostly this century’s well-heeled from Boston and New York, stay at Blantyre to “experience the life and service of a bygone era” and play croquet in their whites on the lawn.

Up the road, guests are more likely to be swinging from a zip line or doing a Zumba class at the Bellafontaine Mansion, now home to Canyon Ranch, a health-and-wellness resort that offers dozens of activities for the body and mind to help guide “lasting life change.” Guests come for athleticism or serenity or a combination of the two, and they don’t get any salt or wine with dinner as neither is on the menu. They can get a coffee in the morning before the Gratitude Gathering.

Whether they want Oprah-ness or opulence, thousands come to the Berkshires every summer to soak up art and music in galleries, festivals and museums. The area has long attracted creative types along with the very wealthy, or, in the case of Edith Wharton, both. The Pulitzer prize-winning author, interior designer and architecture aficionado, designed and built her country retreat, the Mount, in Lenox, in 1902.

“We have to make things beautiful,” she wrote in The Decoration of Housing in 1897, “They do not grow so of themselves.”

A century later, New York interior designers donated their skills to update the Mount and added animal print carpets that thousands of visitors walk over every year to see Wharton’s library and letters. Visitors also wander through the spectacular gardens Wharton designed, enjoying the modern sculptures that have been added to the grounds.

Meanwhile, in nearby Stockbridge, Norman Rockwell’s studio has been restored to resemble the state in which he left it, when he died in 1978. The little red building was moved from behind his house to the grounds of the nearby Norman Rockwell Museum, where, along with all his Saturday Evening Post covers and dozens of his iconic paintings of American life and values, you may be lucky enough to encounter his son, Jarvis Rockwell.

The day we stopped by, the younger Rockwell, 82, was installing his own piece of art: tiny toys and big eyes linked together with drawings on the wall.

Every summer, music lovers come to the Berkshires to attend Tanglewood, the vast grounds, outdoor stages and studios that are the summer home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The outdoor concerts started in the Depression on the grounds of an estate in Lenox. Tanglewood has added two adjacent estates and a full line-up of symphonic and other music, including an annual show by James Taylor, which sells out every year. People pack picnics, candles, and, in some cases, bring butlers, to help themselves enjoy live music on the lawns.

If this is not your style, you can watch the likes of Beck and Wilcoplay outdoor shows at MASS MoCA, up the road in North Adams. The site of industry that dates back to the 1700s, MASS MoCA has restored a hodgepodge of very old factories and filled them to the brim with new art and outdoor performance venues.

Here, there are trees suspended roots-up in giant pots outside. They aren’t the only thing that MASS MoCA has turned upside down; this latest infusion of music, art and artists has helped North Adams beat out Austin and Portland to be named one of Policymic.com’s “15 Cities for Creative 20-Somethings That Aren’t New York or Los Angeles.”

That cool has taken over more than the factories that dyed European fabrics in the 1800s and made electrical components in the 1900s. Across the street from MASS MoCA, some old row housing, where factory workers lived, has been turned into a delightful new hotel called Porches. Describing itself as of “industrial granny chic,” Porches is a nod to the thousands of workers who helped create the wealth of the Gilded Age.

The little houses date back to 1850 and have been lovingly restored into charming and comfortable rooms. Muslin curtains are hung with airplane wire, and, next to the bathroom sink, a little bottle with a single daisy in it welcomes visitors to the Berkshires.

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