The Gilded Age Lives On At Wheatleigh In The Berkshires

In the Gilded Age, Boston and New York grandees flocked to western Massachusetts. They built scores of homes called Berkshire Cottages that were, in fact, cottages in name only. Many of these impressive villas and grand estates are thankfully still there, some thriving under new guises.

Built more than a century ago on a rise outside of the towns of Lenox and Stockbridge, and with Berkshire peaks in the distance, the property of Wheatleigh is today a Leading Hotels of the World member. If the look and dimensions of the Wheatleigh landscape feel Olmsted-ish, that’s because it was indeed graced by the hand of the legendary Frederick Law Olmsted. As was the norm for grand estates of the day, what is today woodland seen beyond the great lawn was originally farmland. Some things haven’t changed though: A commanding marble fountain in the horseshoe entrance is still there.

As for the home itself in which you’ll lay your head over several days, Wheatleigh was built in 1893 by the notable Boston architects Peabody and Stearns, and was added almost a century later to the National Register of Historic Places. From front to back and at every turn, it’s a villa imagined right out of Italy—decidedly Palladian, and part Florentine, or a slice of Lake Como, depending on how you choose to interpret its mien.

In a wise and welcome aesthetic choice for the hotel, designers Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown eschewed a lobby reception desk in their 2002 restoration. Much as those Gilded Age Brahmins would have, you simply enter under the weathered Parisian Beaux Arts-looking glass, wrought iron- and copper-canopy and the main hall opens right up. It might not look as it once did packed with chintz and tchotchkes and thick rugs from a fussier era, but neither did the 19-room hotel get burdened with any fancy schmancy modernization rethinking. The Tiffany stained glass windows, with their curious central bulges that counter cold weather contraction, are still there on the stairway.

If he was a lesser known of the Gilded Age railroad and banking barons, the property’s original owner, Henry H. Cook, is known to aficionados of those long lost Fifth Ave mansions for his fine home that stood for a mere 28 years at 78th Street, before it was replaced by a Duke heir villa. Cook’s daughter Georgie, with her Cuban (supposedly) aristrocratic husband in tow, inherited Wheatleigh, but by the time of her passing in the 1940s, the estate had moved out of Cook family hands.

Then things got really animated. Briefly in the fifties, outbuildings were turned into an inn and a jazz school, while a music barn hosted legends like Armstrong, Ellington, Monk, and Gillespie. Ella Fitzgerald and Mahalia Jackson sang too, while Langston Hughes read poetry and Dave Brubeck spent a whole summer. A later folk period with Seeger, Dylan, and Baez gave way to the ’70s rock of the Kinks and Springsteen, with thousands of fans routinely flooding the grounds until it all ended with all hell breaking loose at an Allman Brothers concert.

You would sense none of that frenzy today when you lie by the small oval heated pool that is set off a copse, and reached by going through the western garden, adorned with moss-covered stone sculptures of classical themes. Nor, when you walk to the pond or hit the tennis courts. While there’s no spa, you can luxuriate in a massage treatment in your room, or on your terrace…or why not outdoors?

Among the rooms, all in muted colors, the Aviary was just that in Georgie Cook’s day. It’s now a bright two-story suite with a glass-enclosed circular staircase up to the bedroom. The ground floor Terrace Suite feels like you own the whole terrain out back. Other upper floor suites and deluxe rooms, some balconied and with fireplaces, always come with grand mountain views (if you’re lucky, the Berkshires will be shrouded in mist). A few snug mini-rooms make up the nineteen in total. Whenever you decide to finally step out of your deep clawfoot soaking tub, Frette slippers await you.

On your way downstairs to the dining rooms, look for the magnificent collection of blue Chinaware displayed in the parlor. Enormous antique mirrors and a marble fireplace with a cherubim mantel frieze stand out in the main dining room. Breakfast is a treat in the sunlit portico that has been enclosed with enormous plate glass windows.

In the kitchen, new executive chef Nate Grant comes from California’s San Ysidro Ranch and pastry chef Elizabeth Grant from the Rosewood Miramar Beach (whose team earned a Michelin star). The pair are preparing a fresh menu concept for fall in the soon to be renamed restaurant.

Weather permitting, Wheatleigh puts on a weekly summer barbecue looking over the great lawn. You may well watch deer or a turkey family sauntering across the vast green space while you sip cocktails.

The Berkshires area around Lenox have long been known for their cultural might. Wheatleigh owner Georgie Cook was involved with the forerunner to Tanglewood, located next door. Edith Wharton’s home called Mount, where she wrote The House of Mirth, is a popular nearby site to tour, while Ventfort Hall is another Gilded Age survivor open for visits in Lenox proper.

In the early ’90s, Steven Spielberg and others supported the creation of a new Norman Rockwell Museum which was designed by Robert A.M. Stern, and which moved the last and favorite of the master illustrator’s Stockbridge studios to its grounds.

Anyone of a certain age will remember their parents’ or grandparents’ Saturday Evening Post covers, but such is the Rockwell reputation that everyone knows his 1943 Freedom From Want Thanksgiving dinner tableaux and perhaps his 1967 Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas. Among the nearly one thousand works in the museum, you’ll also find the famous 1964 image of Ruby Bridges in The Problem We All Live With.

The museum has also currently mounted Tony Sarg: Genius At Play, a large and delightful exhibition of a German-born illustrator who is largely forgotten today, but was once known as the father of modern puppetry. You can thank him for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. (Through Nov. 5.)

Minutes from Wheatleigh and tucked away in the woods, the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio is a ’40s Modernist home owned by an artistic couple of collectors from old money families. In the middle of the Berkshire woods, you’ll find Picasso, Braque, Léger and Gris.

In some ways, not much has changed at Wheatleigh since your Gilded Age precursors were wearing corsets and morning coats, except that you’ll be infinitely more comfortable today taking in Olmsted and the iconic Berkshire scenery beyond.

Leading Hotels of the World

Established in 1928, the LHW collection is made up of more than 400 hotels in a plethora of design and architectural styles. With 95% of the properties independently-managed, the company’s mission is to empower them to maintain that status.

A full 85% of the collection’s hotels are family-owned as well, many run by the third, fourth or fifth generations. To join, hotels must be referred by an existing member, with roughly five percent out of 500 inquiries ultimately joining annually.

Leading Hotels’ tiered Leaders Club loyalty program provides members with benefits such earning free nights, exclusive rates, upgrade opportunities, complimentary breakfast and Wi-Fi.

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