The Gilded Age (a term made popular by author Mark Twain) swept across America, leaving its mark here and there. Many places still feel its presence today, among them the Berkshires where massive estates still catch your eye as you traverse our county.
The late 1800’s brought a time of both extreme wealth and desperate poverty to our country. Following the time of the Civil War, there was a period of brisk economic growth, when the industrialization of America took the forefront in the world economy. This wealth found its way to the Berkshires by way of successful businessmen who wanted to escape from New York City with their families during the summer months. These wealthy industrialists began building second homes in the region, in all more than 75 estates (or ‘cottages’ as they were known back then) were built in the Berkshires, each one more extravagant than the next. The most influential figures of the Gilded Age lived in these estates, from George Westinghouse to Andrew Carnegie, bringing the Berkshire landscape to life in dramatic fashion.
Shadowbrook, which burned down in 1956 and whose property is now home to Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, was the largest home in America when it was finished. Sitting high on the hillside, overlooking Stockbridge Bowl, this hundred room mansion was mammoth, even in comparison to its neighboring Berkshire Cottages. Ventfort Hall, now known as Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, was among the most expensive to build, with a cost of over $900,000 when it was erected in the 1890’s. Today it showcases what life was like back then, as a museum honoring the Gilded Ages. Just down the road from Ventfort Hall, be sure to make time to visit The Mount-Edith Wharton’s Home. This Gilded Age home has been restored and offers both home and garden tours. The Mount is also one of only five percent of National Historic Landmarks dedicated to women.
Blantyre, as well as a few of the other original estates such as Wheatleigh and Canyon Ranch, have become exquisite modern-day retreats. Blantyre was built to resemble castles in Scotland, that original owner Robert Paterson remembered from his youth. Many of these estates employed hundreds of housemaids and workers and Blantyre was no exception. Staying there today, you can imagine what it was like to live during the Gilded Age as Blantyre makes every effort to make you feel like royalty.
The Tappan estate lives on as perhaps one of the most iconic Gilded Age properties, as it is home today to Tanglewood, a world renowned music center and summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Just as the immense lawns held picnics and festive parties in the late 1800’s, Tanglewood’s lawn continues to hold picnics and merriment for those visiting this wonderful venue today.
Also, be sure to visit Naumkeag, a Trustees of the Reservation property. Here you can tour the home as well as the newly renovated gardens. Bequeathed in its entirety in 1958 – from furniture to garden tools to its intact dairy barn – Naumkeag, a National Historic Landmark, provides a special link to Berkshires history
Life for the wealthy during the Gilded Age was about enjoying the finest that life had to offer. Parties and cultural events were part of everyday life, and nothing was more splendid than the relaxed enjoyment that they found in taking in the beauty of the Berkshires. Not much has changed in the attitude of those who call the Berkshires home today. For those still looking for the Gilded Age splendor come and visit the many still existing estates, stop in at the Lenox Library to peruse Gilded Age artifacts from the area and be sure to take in the annual Lenox Tub Parade, which is a tradition of decorated horse and carriages, that has its roots in the Gilded Age.