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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

November 6, 2013: Berkshire Stories: Lenox

[Last month, I had the chance to visit the beautiful Berkshires of Western Massachusetts for the first time. The area’s as full of American history as it is of gorgeous fall foliage, and so in this week’s series I’ll highlight five such Berkshire stories, leading up to a special weekend post!]
On three very distinct stages in a small town’s evolution into a social and cultural center.
Lenox, Massachusetts has a resident population of just over 5000 people, about 1/10th that of its neighbor (and the region’s largest city), Pittsfield. Yet over the course of the last two centuries this small Berkshires town has become a significant New England and American community, through a series of distinct but equally telling stages. The first stage was driven by a few culturally significant individuals who identified the town and area’s beauties and chose to make it a seasonal home: novelist Catherine Maria Sedgwick and actress Fanny Kemble in the 1820s and Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family in 1850, to cite three prominent examples. Through such individual choices the town became a kind of seasonal art colony, and thus at the same time (thanks as well to the 1838 completion of a railroad line into the area) a cultural tourist attraction for all those interested in this relatively new concept of artistic celebrities.
These artistic and cultural identities continued to evolve in Lenox over the next half-century, with the most prominent turn of the 20th century addition being Edith Wharton and her estate The Mount. But over the same period, the town was becoming not just a tourist attraction but a Gilded Age resort community, one in which New York and Boston elites competed to purchase suddenly exorbitant tracts of land and hired architects such as Charles McKim to build lavish summer homes there. Exemplifying this period is Ventfort Hall, build in the 1890s by Boston architects Rotch and Tilden for Sarah Morgan (J.P. Morgan’s sister) and her husband. Or perhaps the most exemplary detail would be the summer’s annual Tub Parade, which transformed Lenox’s small Main Street into a sea of fancy carriages competing to out-decorate each other (and which is historically re-created to this day). In any case, whether we see this resort stage as an organic outgrowth of the art colony starting points or a significant shift away from those origins, turn of the century Lenox was a thoroughly Gilded Age community.
The same questions would apply to the next and still ongoing stage in Lenox’s cultural development: starting in 1937, the elaborate Tanglewood estate (which is partly located in neighboring Stockbridge) has served as the summer home for the Boston Symphony Orchesta, hosting a series of artistic performances and events throughout the summer months. The Tanglewood performances certainly draw from each of the communities I’ve discussed: artists and other residents living in the area; tourists traveling to it (perhaps still on the train); wealthy urban families summering in the Berkshires. Whether we see those performances as (among other possibilities) a unifying artistic endeavor or an elitist cultural tradition depends in part, of course, on what we think of the role of classicial music in 21st century America. But it also depends on how we understand and analyze the complex and multi-part history of little, influential Lenox, Mass.
Next Berkshire story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

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