The hills of Lenox and Stockbridge are also home to a plethora of elaborate estates that began to spring up at the turn of the twentieth century, a period known as the gilded age of the Berkshires. Most of the estates, once owned by wealthy families, are now open to the public in some form, thanks to the historic preservation initiatives and private investments that have morphed the stone mansions into luxury resorts, restaurants, and museums. Some of the most famous include Naumkeag, a 44-room Stockbridge country house designed by noted architect Stanford White; Wheatleigh, a cottage inspired by sixteenth-century Italian villas and built by railroad baron Henry H. Cook in Lenox; Blantyre, a 220-acre Lenox estate-turned-hotel; and Chesterwood, the former home and studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French, whose famous sculpture of a seated Abraham Lincoln is the centerpiece of the Lincoln Memorial. Edith Wharton’s former home, the Mount in Lenox, is currently undergoing restoration and is one of the few National Historic Landmarks dedicated to women.
The Berkshire Museum has paid tribute to Berkshire County’s large creative aggregate with a permanent exhibition called “Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation,” which showcases generations of artists, inventors, and other pioneers who have sprung from the region. Among those featured in the exhibit are Ted Shawn, who forged male dance as an art form in the early twentieth century; sculptor and painter Nancy Graves, who is known for her nature-inspired work; and Douglas Trumbull, a master of motion-picture special effects whose talent helped bring Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture to life.
“It’s a permanent exhibition designed to constantly evolve and change, just as innovation does,” says Chase. “We wanted to showcase great minds who have come out of the Berkshires and who have also had an impact globally.”
In addition to featuring dancers, artists, and special-effects wizards, the museum spotlights a number of theatrical performers, since many thespians have settled among the maple-lined streets and grassy knolls of the Berkshires. Countless other actors -- including Alec Baldwin, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Walken, Mary Tyler Moore, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman -- have visited the area to perform at the Tony Award– winning Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Actress Karen Allen, who is best known for her role as Marion Ravenwood in two of the Indiana Jones films, spent the summer of 1981 in town performing at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. After her seasonal run was through, she quickly realized she couldn’t stay away.
“I fell instantly in love with the area and returned almost every summer to work at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and at Shakespeare & Company,” Allen says. “I came initially for the beauty but settled here for my son’s education and for the creative community that has nurtured so many of my passions. I built a yoga school in 1995, started my fiber-arts boutique in Great Barrington, and teach in the theater department of Bard College at Simon’s Rock. I enjoy day-to-day life here enormously.”
Noted musicians have also been drawn to the Berkshires’ pastoral hills for decades. After James Taylor visited the area years ago, he decided to make it his permanent home. Taylor is so fond of his backyard, he chose Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre as the location for James Taylor: One Man Band, a 2007 concert/theater performance of his greatest hits that was broadcast on PBS stations around the country. The Boston native moved to Berkshire County in early 2000 with his wife, Kim Smedvig, and their twin sons, Henry and Rufus.
“For a rural destination, the Berkshires have a remarkable variety to offer, culturally,” Taylor says. “The lovely landscape and the history of the region all combine to make this place the place for me. Now the boys are in school here. … It’s definitely the family home.”
It’s also the family home, at least from July through early September, of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), which has performed every summer for more than 73 years at Tanglewood, a private estate that was gifted to the BSO in 1936. Mark Ludwig, a violist with the BSO who has spent his summers at his home in the Berkshires for the past 27 years, says it was the peaceful glory of the surrounding countryside that first lured him -- and so many other artists -- here.
“Experiencing the seasonal changes upon the landscape here has a profound effect on me as an artist. The sounds, colors, play of light, and the contour of the mountains provide one with a deep sense of sanctuary,” Ludwig says. “It is definitely a haven for inspiration and introspection.”
But Taylor credits something else with keeping the charm of the Berkshires alive. “Above all, it’s the people who call the Berkshires home,” he says. “I’ve never met finer folks.”