Art and Culture Set the Stage in Today's Berkshires: Art-Filled Mansions, Eclectic Galleries and Must-See Museums Await Visitors

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James Taylor, Edith Wharton, Norman Rockwell, Herman Melville, and the Shakers--what do they have in common? They knew a good thing when they saw it and settled in the Berkshires.

Picturesque villages, covered bridges, unexpected back roads, and quaint country inns are just a few of the amenities that make these rolling hills so enchanting. Plus there's haute cuisine, museums, fine art, classical music, dance, and theater for discriminating travelers. Located two hours west of Boston and three hours north of New York, the Berkshire Mountains serve as the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose stage, Tanglewood, attracts top entertainers. James Taylor, Garrison Keillor, and Yo-Yo Ma take the stage there this summer.

Late 19th century industrialists turned to the Berkshires as a mountain country alternative to coastal summers in Newport, R.I. Andrew Carnegie and George Westinghouse built "summer cottages" there, as did dozens of others. By the turn of the century, approximately 100 great mansions dotted the hillsides.

Art-Filled Mansions/Grounds

Ventfort Hall, built in 1893, can be toured today. Saved a few years ago by local preservationists, this 28-room cottage was built for Sara Morgan, sister of J.P. Morgan. The mansion offers first-floor tours and a one-woman play, "Yuki Morgan--A Gilded Age Geisha." It's the story of a prominent geisha who became an object of scandal when she abandoned her Japanese life to marry George Denison Morgan, Sarah Morgan's son.

Decorating Ventfort's grounds are lyrical bronzes created by Andrew DeVries. Though contemporary, the sculptures evoke spirit of the art Sarah Morgan would have placed in her garden, says Jeff Folmer, the museum's director. DeVries will demonstrate his bronze casting, at Ventfort Hall, on Aug. 12, 19 and 26. Additional work can be seen in his studio and gallery in downtown Lenox.

Naumkeag, built for Joseph Hodges Choate, is perhaps the most beloved mansion in the area, attracting some 11,000 visitors annually. New York City architect Stanford White designed it in 1885 in his distinctive American shingle style, adding European features--Norman-style brick towers, two-tone brick patterns, glass shards embedded in mortar joints, and wrought-iron details. Today the Massachusetts Trustees of Reservations maintains the property just as Mabel Choate (Joseph's daughter) left it. It's full of Gilded Age paintings, sculpture, fine furniture, porcelain, and treasures collected from worldwide trips. Visitors especially enjoy the gardens, featuring a set of stairs cascading through a tunnel of birch trees, known as the Blue Steps, designed by landscape architect Fletcher Steele.

'The Best': Stockbridge

Art has always figured prominently in the Berkshires landscape. Norman Rockwell, having set his eyes upon Stockbridge's town center with is wide Main Street, grand homes, stately trees, and gardens, called it "the best of America, the best of New England." In 1953, he set up an art studio above a cluster of shops overlooking the village green.

The scene looks more or less as it did when Rockwell worked and painted there. The only change is that many of the shops are now art galleries. Tucked into a side street is Holsten Galleries. A plain brick building on the outside, it's a glittering jewel inside, featuring master glass works by internationally acclaimed artists: Lino Tagliapietra, Christopher Ries, Sidney Hutter, William Morris and Dale Chihuly. Because the gallery hosts one-man shows of Chihuly's work each year, Kenn Holsten, owner of the 28-year-old gallery, added a second floor in 1996 to showcase Chihuly's chandeliers.

An American Craftsman, one of four galleries owned by Richard Rothbard, sits on Main Street. The gallery displays glass, wood and jewelry. Rothbard, a woodworker and maker of puzzle boxes, also runs several juried art events, including the Berkshires Arts Festival (July 1-3) at Ski Butternut, and Masterworks Art & Design Fair (July 8-9) at the Hancock Shaker Village. …