Baby Grand Hotel

The New York Times Magazine, April 1, 2001

The serenity you experience when entering Wheatleigh, the buff-brick hotel plunked down in the Berkshires as startlingly as a Christ of the Andes, may at first seem at odds with the luxury of advance word. No interior-design details scream “Look at me!” No ornate chandeliers or flocked and moneyed Louis XVI wallpaper shrieks opulence. And mercifully, no rude minimalist deconstruction confronts you, either. Instead, Wheatleigh’s gracefulness seems effortless, like a turn by Astaire, a finger snap by Der Bingle or an illustration by Norman Rockwell (whose deceptively simple work is featured in a museum nearby). In fact, this hotel, which may be the most European small hotel in America, may–thanks to a recent renovation–also be the most self-effacing.

“It took us four years to find the right architects,” says Susan Simon, a former partner in a Chicago art gallery who bought Wheatleigh, an Italianate mansion in Lenox, Mass., in 1981 with her husband, Lin, a lawyer. They ran it successfully for more than 15 years as a somewhat fussy, back-to-quaint-style inn filled with chintz “and bedspreads from Sears,” but the canopied beds and florid (rhymes with horrid) wallpaper finally got them down. In early 1997, they chose the architec-tural firm of Tsao & McKown for the renovation “because they heard us,” Lin says.

Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown, those rare architects who exhibit a flair for decorating as well as for building and who have worked at every scale from small (Ian Schrager’s apartment) to huge (a six-million-square-foot commercial development in Singapore), began with the Berkshires themselves.

“These mountains have a unique light–moody in fall and winter that goes steel-gray blue in the summer–not like the bright hue of Miami or Los Angeles,” Tsao tells me. “First we studied how the light looked inside, how it went around corners.” And so moldings are simpler in the rooms facing north to emphasize shape, more articulated in rooms facing south so that the shadows are sharper. When I mention that I hadn’t noticed the shadows, he smiles. “Good. We think things shouldn’t be noticed. They should be felt and sensed.”

The building itself is “such a hybrid–a bastardization, really: an American spirit set in New England in a sort of Palladian- designed-by-Jefferson style. The interior is ecclectically Classical,” Tsao says. “And we approached it as if we were a family that had been living in it throughout the past century.”

The result is a transformation from 1893 (when a wealthy financier built it for his daughter) not just to the 21st century but into a sort of timelessness where nothing jars and all seems of a piece. Some hotels jerk the eye like jump cuts in a movie–outstanding object to outstanding object–but Wheatleigh floats you from space to space, welcoming you in each, as if filmed with a Steadicam.

The experience is not simply one of unwinding; it is aggressively withershins. You arrive on a Friday, but the following day could be Saturday or it could be the previous Thursday–you’ll never know unless you check an electronic something or other, and there aren’t many of them around.

The scale is pitch perfect. In contrast to the previous clutter, Tsao & McKown have created a consistent design theme in which just about nothing matches but everything fits, allowing for the juxtaposition of curved doors and contemporary planes, of vaulted plaster ceilings and stark smoked-glass fireplace screens, of lovely antique Venetian mirrors and the most Milanese of chairs. Some objects were designed by the architects; some are from a different period and place; all work together. Thick, oversize doors, hardware that clunks into place, shapely and unpredictable chandeliers and shades–if both God and the devil are in the details, God won out here.

The grand entry and hallways, filled with mountain light, force your attention out the enormous bronze-encased windows onto the grounds. You are so enveloped by glass, light and mountains that the outdoors is virtually indoors. In one strikingly Gaudí-esque room called the Aviary, so present is the enormous pine outside that you might as well be sleeping in its branches.

All the rooms soothe, controlled by a tight neutral color palette, with dark mahoganies used for tables, lamps and TV cabinets, all meant to work with, not combat, the vast Olmsted setting.

Some rooms fare better than others: some are larger and some have grand vaulted ceilings and matching six-foot gilded mirrors, but all have meticulously thought-out comforts. Lights bright enough for reading that can dim to seduction level or relax you into a perfect massage (recommended–ask for Suzanne). Thermostats in the bathrooms as well as the bedrooms. The most intense water pressure this side of Victoria Falls. Vintage soaking tubs from England that cloak you in water–deep and narrow enough to turn you into Ondine. Raw silk bedspreads and linen blackout curtains that actually keep the light out.

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