Berkshire County, Massachusetts – A Rich Artistic and Literary Heritage

What Travel Writers Say - Kelsey Maki - During the Gilded Age (1870s – 1900), many of the wealthiest people in the US built summer cottages in Western Massachusetts’ Berkshire County. For this reason, the area was given the nickname of “Inland Newport.” And while both the Berkshires and Newport boast architectural moments to the excess of the age, the difference between these two towns lies in the rich artistic and literary heritage of Berkshire County.
     The whole of Berkshire County encompasses roughly thirty towns, most of which are small. The unpretentious small-town environment coupled with an artistic and literary legacy that could rival that of any city make this destination unique. Lenox, a town that best captures the authenticity and devotion to art so prevalent in this area, has only 6,000 residents, yet it contains about 80 historical cottages, of which Hampton Terrace, is one. Hampton Terrace, built by the Struthers in 1897, has operated continuously as an inn since 1937. Among the Struthers’ sometimes-neighbor was the literary luminary Edith Wharton, who wrote about Mrs. Struthers’ risqué parties in her novel, The Age of Innocence.
     In Lenox, Wharton later designed and built her most famous residence, The Mount—an elegant Palladian-style home, a short distance from Hampton Terrace, and one of the few official landmarks devoted to women (5% of total US historic landmarks). For additional insight to the styles of Wharton’s times, Ventfort Hall is another popular destination. Constructed in 1893 for the sister of J.P. Morgan, Ventfort Hall now operates as The Museum of the Gilded Age. Also located in Lenox is Tanglewood, a performing arts complex where the Boston Symphony Orchestra resides and performs (three times a week) during the months of July and August.
     Those who wish to venture a few minutes outside of Lenox will find additional cultural gems. One might visit Arrowhead, the home where Herman Melville penned his most famous works, or hike the steep “Monument Mountain” trail (off Route 7). En route to the majestic lookout point, hikers can venture into the cave where Melville and Hawthorne sought respite during a rainstorm: a place where the men exchanged ideas, ideas that resulted in the creation of Moby Dick. Legend has it that this two-hour conversation in a cave on “Monument Mountain” was an exchange that solidified Melville and Hawthorne’s long-lasting friendship.
     Close to Melville’s own residence in Pittsfield is the Norman Rockwell Museum, which is located in the town of Stockbridge. At this museum, on the beautifully maintained grounds where Rockwell spent the last twenty-six years of his life, one can visit his original “red barn” studio (transported to Massachusetts from Vermont) or wander through the main museum to view the icon’s step-by-step artistic process—from idea, to photograph, to charcoal drawing, to a final incarnation on canvas. Here in the main museum, Rockwell’s artistic goal—wrapping an image around a story—becomes evident.
     For those who appreciate a more avant-garde style of art, MASS MoCA (The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) is a must-see. Less than an hour from Lenox (in the northwest corner of Berkshire County), MASS MoCA is set in a series of nineteenth-century factory buildings, unified by a series of bridges and elevated steel-grate walkways. This haunting complex encompasses fourteen acres and includes over 200,000 square feet of gallery space. The exhibits rotate annually and the museum hosts 40 weekends of performing arts events throughout the year. The museum also hosts resident artists who work to actualize ambitious and otherwise improbable visions in MASS MoCA’s mind-boggling space. In a time of increasing standardization, MASS MoCA makes visitors believe that ours is still a culture concerned with daring ideas writ large.
     But residents of the Berkshires are not just artists, writers, and dreamers: They understand the intersection of art and economy, a fact evidenced in the use of a local currency called “Berkshares.” The currency, which offers an incentive to keep money circulating in the local economy by giving people an extra 5% purchasing power on each dollar, can be obtained at many of the local banks and is accepted in and around Berkshire County. The currency helps protect and preserve the rich history of the area by keeping money in the local economy. The presence of a small-scale currency is indicative of the residents’ fiercely protective attitude toward their home—a noble and warranted response to chain hotels and cookie-cutter attractions, indeed.