This region of western Massachusetts abounds with art, history, and nature.
By Anna Lee Braunstein, F351629
Bejeweled in the spring, lush green in the summer, and ablaze with reds, oranges, and yellows in the fall, western Massachusetts is a must-see destination for nature lovers. But it has even more to offer: art, history, theater, and music. A drive along the north-south U.S. Route 7 will enchant, entertain, and educate visitors to the Berkshires region. It’s typically snowy in winter but abuzz from spring through fall with an abundance of activities.
This drive through the Berkshires begins at Great Barrington, at the junction of U.S. 7 and State Route 23, and meanders north along U.S. 7 to the Vermont border.
Back in 1967, Arlo Guthrie sang about Alice’s Restaurant. People wanted to know if it was a real place. Well, the lyrics explain that Alice didn’t live in a restaurant. She lived in the church near the restaurant. If you visit Great Barrington, you can find it — Trinity Church, built in 1829 as St. James Chapel. Today, Old Trinity Church is home to the Guthrie Center.
Ray and Alice Brock, who worked at a private school in town, purchased the church in 1964. They befriended local students who appreciated their outlook on life, and Guthrie was one of them. In 1991 he purchased the building and established the Guthrie Center, where the Troubadour music series (folk, rock, and bluegrass) is presented. Hootenanny shows are offered each Thursday night. For the concert schedule and more information, visit www.guthriecenter.org.
The most famous artist of the Berkshires is Norman Rockwell, whose depiction of everyday life in America made him popular and beloved. The Norman Rockwell Museum displays the largest collection of his wonderful paintings. His final studio, formerly located in the backyard of his Stockbridge home, was moved to the museum grounds in 1986.
Often criticized for being “just an illustrator,” Rockwell was proud of his chosen field. His art reflected the charm, simplicity, and humor that are traits of Americana. He described his work in these words: “Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
At 19 he became art editor of the magazine of the Boy Scouts, Boys’ Life. At 22 he painted his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post, a magazine he regarded as the “greatest show window in America.” In 1943, the Post published his most famous work, The Four Freedoms, over a four-week period. His relationship with The Post lasted 47 years and included 323 covers.
In 1963, Rockwell went to work for Look magazine and presented his views on the positive and negative aspects of American life for the next 10 years. The Problem We All Live With, his depiction of a black family moving into a white neighborhood, depicts both the tension and the hope that integration offered.
Visitors can study and appreciate the work of this important artist in the museum gallery building designed by Robert A.M. Stern, the architect who also designed the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Just steps from the visitors’ desk, in a room of their own, are the full-size paintings of The Four Freedoms. These inspiring paintings set the tone for viewing more of his work.
Visitors can take in free orientation talks. Audio tours narrated by Norman’s son Peter Rockwell are available for rent. On the lower floor of the museum is ArtZone, a collection of all of the Post covers. The terrace café is a pleasant place to get a bite to eat. Bronze and stone sculptures by Peter are interspersed throughout the grounds.
Up a path from the museum stands Norman Rockwell’s studio, shown as if he were still at work. It depicts a day in October 1960 when he was working on his painting Golden Rule. His easel and paintbrushes at the ready, all that’s missing is the man who created the iconic works. To learn more, go to www.nrm.org.
Rockwell frequently asked his neighbors to be models in his works, and he used locations around Stockbridge in his illustrations. Some of the places can be spotted on a stroll around the area. Excellent restaurants and tempting shops line the streets of the town.
Among other attractions in Stockbridge is Berkshire Botanical Garden. Started in 1934, it’s one of the oldest community gardens in the United States. A stroll along the trails leads to areas with different themes, with emphasis on local plants. The trails are wheelchair-accessible. Garden souvenirs and snacks can be purchased at the welcome center. It’s open daily, and admission includes a free guided tour every day but Sunday. For more information, go to www.berkshirebotanical.org.
Stockbridge has many more museums and sights to see; for more ideas, visit www.stockbridgechamber.org.
North of Stockbridge is Lenox, home to a large and historical mansion once occupied by Edith Wharton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ethan Frome and many other books and short stories. The Mount is considered her “autobiographical house,” because of the personal touch she put into its construction, décor, and gardens. She said of this classical revival home, “The Mount was my first real home . . . and its blessed influence still lives in me.” Built on a rock outcropping, the house blends with its natural surroundings. It is furnished with art objects from her travels. For information on self-guided or group tours of the house and garden, visit www.edithwharton.org.
Lenox is also known for the famed Tanglewood Music Center. It was founded in 1940 by conductor Serge Koussevitzky as the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Noting the growing tension just before World War II, he said, “If ever there was a time to speak of music, it is now in the New World.” That “speaking” has continued at Tanglewood ever since. Besides performances by the Boston Pops, the summer schedule includes concerts, operas, and master classes for musicians. For details, go to the Boston Symphony’s website, www.bso.org, and click “Tanglewood.”
A couple of intellectuals at the cutting edge of the late 1930s national and international art scene lived in Lenox. Abstract artists George L.K. Morris and Suzy Frelinghuysen built the first modern-style home and studio in the Berkshires. It is now known as the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio.
Morris first built his open studio on his parents’ estate. After his marriage to Suzy Frelinghuysen, he added a two-story stucco and glass block house. Both husband and wife added their artistic touches to adorn rooms. Walk through the home to see their furniture and art, which includes paintings by their contemporaries, too: Picasso, Braque, and others. Hourly guided tours are offered. For directions and information, visit www.frelinghuysen.org.
Hiking, canoeing, birding, and strolling are activities enjoyed at the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. Special programs for nature lovers of all ages are offered; they are listed on www.massaudubon.org/pleasantvalley.
Locomotive lovers young and old will delight in visiting the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum. The museum and grounds are located in the 1903 Lenox Station and are open only on Saturdays in the summer. The working railway line associated with the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum has moved a few miles north of there. It now takes passengers between the towns of Adams and North Adams on Saturdays and Sundays. See www.hoosacvalleytrainride.com for details about riding the train this summer.
A 26-foot-long fiberglass replica stegosaurus named Wally greets visitors outside the door to the Berkshire Museum. The museum was created in the early 1900s to give local residents a look beyond their rural world. Inside are exhibits of art and sculpture; items from other cultures; natural history displays; an aquarium; special mineral collections; and even a cinema.
The museum’s recently reopened Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation emphasizes creativity in science, culture, business, and the arts. Fourteen one-tenth-scale dioramas of plants and animals around the world are on view in the World in Miniature.
To learn about all the exciting things to do at the museum, visit www.berkshiremuseum.org.
Also in Pittsfield is Arrowhead, the home of Herman Melville and the place where he wrote his famous book, Moby Dick. Guided tours of the house and stables are offered. The grounds, farm, and Arrowhead Nature Trail welcome visitors. (Places of special importance to Melville are situated along the Melville Trail, which weaves through this part of the Berkshires.)
Parking and admission to the Arrowhead property are free; a fee is charged for a guided tour. For information, visit www.mobydick.org.
Drive a few miles west of Pittsfield on U.S. 20 to see Hancock Shaker Village, one of the few remaining Shaker villages in the United States. Following the tenets of Mother Ann Lee, founder of the movement, Hancock Village was established in the 1780s with 100 believers “gathered into order.” It grew to about 300 members in the 1830s and declined to about 50 in the early 1900s.
The Shakers, who considered Jesus the head of their order, were democratic, industrious, and celibate. As a “City of Peace,” the village offered unique support for its members. For widowers overwhelmed by the burden of raising children, Hancock offered security for the kids, but at the price of declaring the children illegitimate, because celibacy was a requirement of the order. Women willing to forego having children found a place where their voices were equal to men’s and where they could live without the health risks of childbirth. Shaker communities have all but vanished, but in their day, they offered support and succor for members.
A tour of the communal homes, school, workshops, barn, and farm provides a view into this unique culture. The village consists of 20 buildings where visitors can learn about the Shaker way of life from exhibits and demonstrations. On display are many unique and useful furniture pieces, baskets, and tapestries. Docents, dressed as Shakers, explain the philosophy that covered spiritual, secular, and economic matters within the community. Educational presentations and craft demonstrations are offered throughout the day.
An audio guide is available at the visitors center. The gift shop has a broad selection of Shaker-inspired items, and a café serves tasty lunches and snacks. For a schedule of special events, see www.hancockshakervillage.org.
Our final stop is 21 miles north of Pittsfield on U.S. 7: the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Called simply “The Clark,” this collection is an outstanding resource of American and European paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts from the Renaissance to the early 20th century.
Newly reopened after extensive remodeling, the museum has more than 30,000 square feet of permanent exhibit space and another 11,000 for special exhibits. Permanent exhibits include works by American artists Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Frederic Remington, and British artists Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner. Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec are among the European artists represented.
Next to the museum, water tumbles down granite stones into a reflecting pool. Trails run from the pool through the woods. One trail leads to the Lunder Center at Stone Hill, a place of peaceful contemplation with two small galleries and a café. Another trail goes to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, providing an opportunity to watch restorers work on pieces from museums and collections throughout the Northeast.
A free multimedia guide that offers information about gallery talks and lectures can be downloaded onto your smartphone. Two cafes are open for refreshments.
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, and discount combination tickets for both The Clark and the Norman Rockwell Museum are available. Visit www.clarkart.edu for more information.
The riches of the Berkshires are both nature-made and manmade, and visitors can fill days with the area’s unforgettable enchantments.
Berkshire Visitors Bureau
66 Allen St.
Pittsfield, MA 01201