Things to do in the Berkshires
Looking for a culture-packed autumn trip? Consider these sure-to-please historic homes, museums, and art collections.
Pittsfield’s Berkshire Museum wows visitors with a Native American exhibit of contemporary artworks and historic objects. The show runs until January 6.Ventfort Hall in Lenox offers a bonus for fashion lovers: an exhibit of haute couture dolls. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge showcases the artist’s works; the studio was relocated to the museum from his nearby home.Contemporary art fans should set aside a few hours to explore Mass MoCA in North Adams; those interested in older treasures can visit the 1885 mansion Naumkeag in Stockbridge.The Mount photograph by David Dashiell; Native American photographs from Berkshire Museum; Ventfort photograph by Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff/file; Norman Rockwell Museum exterior photograph by Art Evans; Norman Rockwell Studio photograph by Jeremy Clowe; Mass MoCA photograph by Mark Wilson/Globe staff/file; Naumkeag photograph from The Boston Globe/file
LESS GRANDIOSE THAN NEWPORT AND MORE CIVILIZED THAN THE ADIRONDACKS, the bucolic Berkshires have been home to artists, writers, and wealthy society folk since the mid-19th century. Visiting the historic residences of its famous denizens is quite an eye-opening experience. Throw in a variety of crackerjack museums and drool-worthy art collections, and you have yourself one culture-packed fall weekend.
If you can leave work early on a Friday afternoon, head straight to Edith Wharton’s home The Mount (edithwharton.org, 413-551-5111) in Lenox. In addition to the splendid mansion and beautiful gardens of the Age of Innocence author, the Friday night ghost tours at 5:45 and 7 will really get you in the Gilded Age “spirit.” (And for movie fans, don’t miss the entertaining exhibit of movie clips and other materials called “Dramatic License: Wharton on Stage and Screen.”)
Ghosts give way to authors on Friday evening September 14, when the literary Berkshire WordFest weekend commences at The Mount. This year’s theme is, appropriately enough, “Channeling Edith Wharton,” with acclaimed writers like Adam Gopnik and Francine du Plessix Gray set to speak.
Another noted author’s home is nearby Arrowhead (mobydick.org, 413-442-1793), the 18th-century Pittsfield farmhouse where Herman Melville and his family lived for 13 years. Inside the beautifully preserved home is Melville’s study, where Moby-Dick sprang to life. Keeping with the whaling theme are two intriguing exhibits: one of historic artifacts, the other a life-size contemporary art installation, Ahab and the Whale.
Considering the breathtaking views, it’s not surprising that numerous artists were drawn to the Berkshires. Celebrated sculptor Daniel Chester French (creator of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Minute Man statue in Concord) spent more than 30 summers in the same Stockbridge spot, continually expanding and modernizing his property. The high-ceilinged studio is a wonder, with a 45-foot set of railroad tracks on which French’s enormous works in progress could be moved outdoors, for the light and to gain perspective. Visit Chesterwood (chesterwood.org, 413-298-3579) and the magnificent sculpture-filled grounds through October 8.
Stockbridge also boasts the Norman Rockwell Museum (nrm.org, 413-298-4100), a testament to the artistic talents and astute observational skills of the quintessential American artist, who lived and worked nearby. In addition to many iconic images — and Rockwell’s working studio, relocated from his home — all 323 of the artist’s famous Saturday Evening Post covers are currently on view, along with a sports-themed show with plenty of guy appeal.
For abstract art lovers, the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio (frelinghuysen.org, 413-637-0166) in Lenox is a mid-century-modern masterpiece of architecture, furnishings, and paintings. The husband-and-wife owners, George L.K. Morris and Suzy Frelinghuysen, were part of the talented patrician painters’ group known as the “Park Avenue Cubists.” The couple filled their strikingly original summer home with paintings by themselves and other artists such as Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger.
For anyone with delusions of grandeur, Naumkeag (thetrustees.org, 413-298-3239) in Stockbridge is what you might call a manageable mansion — less ostentatious than the Newport “cottages” — but pretty darn grand, with rooms luxuriously furnished much as they were when the Choate family of New York summered there. Designed in 1885 by renowned architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White, the house has killer views of the surrounding hills and gardens. We can all dream, can’t we?
Though probably once as impressive, Ventfort Hall (gildedage.org, 413-637-3206) in Lenox is still undergoing restoration to its Gilded Age magnificence. (The Jacobean Revival estate served as the exterior set for the 1999 film The Cider House Rules.) Already brought back to its original splendor is the charmingly quirky first floor featuring rich, carved wood and Victorian finery. A bonus for fashion lovers: “Les Petites Dames de Mode,” an exhibit of 59 haute couture dolls wearing historically accurate gowns.
Got some restless kids along for the weekend? Head to Pittsfield’s Berkshire Museum (berkshiremuseum.org, 413-443-7171), home to an aquarium, dinosaur fossil room, and mesmerizing “World in Miniature” wildlife dioramas. For hands-on fun, check out the interactive exhibits “Alexander Calder: An Artist at Play” (cool toys) and the “Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation” (a 3,000-square-foot exploration of the past, present, and future). A Native American exhibit of contemporary artworks and historic objects is another highlight.
And why not give the youngsters a taste of pre-technology life? The pastoral Hancock Shaker Village (hancockshakervillage.org, 413-443-0188) in Pittsfield features 18 restored or replica buildings, including a meetinghouse, school, laundry, and the only circular barn ever built by the Shakers. Artisans and docents are on hand to demonstrate Shaker crafts. The village’s annual country fair will be held September 29 and 30.
Clearly, you could spend the entire weekend in the Lenox/Pittsfield/Stockbridge area, but a day trip to Williamstown is a must for art enthusiasts. It’s about a 50-minute drive from Lenox to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (clarkart.edu, 413-458-2303). Thanks to the Singer sewing machine family fortune, Sterling Clark amassed an outstanding collection of paintings — from European old masters and Impressionists to Americans Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Also on view are fine examples of period silver, along with special exhibitions like the current “Unearthed: Recent Archeological Discoveries from Northern China.”
A short drive takes you to the Williams College Museum of Art (wcma.williams.edu, 413-597-2429) with its own exceptional and wide-ranging collection. The galleries are set up to teach and broaden understanding of the diverse holdings, everything from ancient Egyptian and African artifacts to modern works by Picasso, Maurice Prendergast, Andy Warhol, and Cindy Sherman. Five special exhibitions examine the role museums play in shaping our understanding of art.
Last, but certainly not least, Mass MoCA (massmoca.org, 413-662-2111) in North Adams provides 110,000 square feet of exhibition space (one gallery alone is the size of a football field) dedicated to showcasing avant-garde and cutting-edge contemporary art — including some rather colossal pieces — all sure to engage, enrage, or just puzzle. A multidisciplinary performance center is also on site.
The Williamstown museums are open year-round, but note that many of the Lenox attractions close for the season after Columbus Day. And be sure to check out the various budget-friendly combined-admission tickets.