By Kara L. Thornton
The Berkshires, a popular Gilded Age vacation destination, offers a wonderful way to experience this time in American history through unique tours of many preserved and unique historic mansions and gardens. Over the last decades of the 19th century, some of the country’s wealthiest families summered and lived in the Berkshires. Prominent financiers and industrialists, as well as artists and writers, were drawn to the fresh mountain air, natural scenic beauty, pristine valleys, hills, and lakes. Several of these Gilded Age mansions called “cottages” have been preserved and are open to the public allowing your group to experience how these well-known socialites spent their summers. Many also have incredible gardens for your group to enjoy while there.
Naumkeag, located in Stockbridge, is the estate of Joseph and Caroline Choate. Joseph Choate was the premier courtroom late 19th-century lawyer and his wife Caroline was a trained artist and co-founder of Barnard College. Naumkeag, a 44 room “cottage” served as a summer retreat for three generations of Choates. It offers breathtaking views of the Housatonic River Valley and magnificent gardens designed by the famous landscape architect Fletcher Steele. The entire estate including furniture, artwork, intact dairy barn and even garden tools was bequeathed to the Trustees of Reservations in 1958 and allows a unique glimpse into a brief period of American history. Naumkeag is known for its gracious house, stunning collection of gardens, sweeping lawns, and panoramic views of Monument Mountain. Enjoy the beauty and tranquility that surrounds in all directions; walk through the beautiful afternoon garden, tree peony terrace, rose garden, evergreen garden, and Chinese garden. Don’t miss the famous blue steps, a series of deep blue fountain pools flanked by four flights of stairs climbing up a gentle hillside and overhung by birch trees.
The Mount, in Lenox, is the home of author Edith Wharton (1862-1937), one of America’s greatest writers and the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Built by Wharton in 1902, the 113-acre estate embodies Wharton’s spirit and includes her gracious main house and expanded terrace, historic stable, greenhouse and gatehouse and three acres of formal gardens surrounded by extensive woodlands. While there she wrote some of her greatest works – The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome. There are no velvet ropes at the Mount, instead, you are invited to sit and interact with the rooms in a personal way. The Mount also houses Edith Wharton’s personal 2700 volume library replete with her personal notes, inscriptions, and markings in the author’s hands. While there, enjoy the surrounding easy walking trails, guided group house and garden tours and even after dark ghost tours.
Chesterwood is the former summer home and studio of Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), the foremost 20th-century public sculptor. Chester French is best known for the Minute Man (1871-1875) and Abraham Lincoln (1911-22) for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. D.C. Daniel Chester French produced more than 100 works of public sculpture and executed much of the work at Chesterwood, his summer home for 33 years. French found inspiration in the natural beauty found in the Berkshires and views of Monument Mountain. He also enjoyed time spent at Chesterwood with the artistic and intellectual luminaries of his day, including Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Isadora Duncan. While here, enjoy the studio containing hundreds of his preliminary models and final works, main rooms of the residence, and explore the formal studio gardens and woodland walks. There is also an outdoor contemporary sculpture show every summer along the extensive grounds.
Ventfort Hall, in Lenox, and open year-round is an imposing Jacobean Revival mansion with 28 rooms sitting on 11 acres built in 1893 for Sarah Morgan, the sister of J.P. Morgan. In addition to house tours, Ventfort Hall is home to the Museum of the Gilded Age that interprets the great changes that occurred in American life, industry, and society during the 19th century.
While you’re in the Berkshires be sure to visit the many other historic homes open for group tours, including Herman Melville’s Arrowhead where Melville wrote Moby Dick, the Ashley House, the Bidwell House Museum, Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum, William Cullen Bryant Homestead, the Edna St. Vincent Millay home and gardens, and Frelinghuysen Morris Home and Studios. Come and step back in time #intheberkshires!