The Best in the Berkshires

Town & Country, October 2001

Shortly before the birth of our second child, my wife and I decided that we were going to leave New York City–and our three-year-old son–behind for one last weekend escape. My wife was far enough along in her pregnancy that we knew a lengthy car trip was out of the question, and we were both sufficiently picky that we weren’t going to settle for just any bed-and-breakfast or chintz-filled country inn. So where did we end up? Unable to think of a new (at least to us) world-class destination within a short drive of Manhattan, we booked two nights at the Four Seasons Hotel on East Fifty-seventh Street.

It wasn’t until after our daughter arrived this spring that we heard about Wheatleigh, in Lenox, Massachusetts. Actually, we’d known of the Berkshire Hills landmark for a while–the 19th-century Italianate villa had been the slightly less pulled-together rival of Blantyre, the very proper Relais & Chateaux property just down the road. What we didn’t know was that longtime owners Lin and Susan Simon had subjected Wheatleigh to a rigorous four-year makeover by New York architects Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown that had, by all recent accounts, transformed the place into the coolest, calmest and least cliché-ridden luxury hotel in New England. With general manager François Thomas, formerly of the Montalembert in Paris, overseeing a young, Continental staff, the experience was reported to be utterly European–at once Old World and modern. As Thomas himself quips, “While the Concorde was not flying, we were the only European hotel within three hours of New York City.”

So in early May, my wife and I attempted another weekend escape, except that this time it was with two children and a baby-sitter in tow. (Although the management doesn’t encourage young visitors, it will make exceptions on a case-by-case basis.) A few scenic hours later we headed up a long gravel driveway and pulled into Wheatleigh’s walled front courtyard. Talk about first impressions: an ornate fountain splashes its welcome in front of the hotel’s classically detailed brick facade; two gracefully massed wings reach out on either side to embrace arriving guests, while an equally handsome pair of uniformed porters waits in greeting under an intricate ironwork canopy.

As the porters began to unpack our overstuffed station wagon, an assistant manager led us inside to the hotel’s inviting foyer, which is known, somewhat deceptively, as the Great Hall. What a relief: nowhere in evidence was the self-important or self-consciously hip design typical of most “boutique” hotels. In fact, if Edith Wharton, once a Lenox neighbor, were to write The Decoration of Houses today, she might illustrate it with Tsao and McKown’s pitch-perfect interiors. With its carved mantelpiece, walls of glass open to rolling green vistas and mix of antique and contemporary furniture all done up in beiges and browns, the Great Hall feels like the unerringly chic living room of cosmopolitan friends. Tsao admits that he and McKown conceived of the public spaces with an imaginary client in mind: a family that had lived in the house for generations, casually accruing furniture and art over the decades from around the world. “So pieces from Morocco, Antwerp, Paris and China happily coexist, as does furniture from the 1930s, the ’50s and the present day,” he explains. “It’s the sympathetic colors and textures–really, the sensibility–that unifies the mélange.”

The house was originally commissioned in 1893 by H. H. Cook, a New York City financier, as a gift to his daughter upon her marriage to a Spanish nobleman. Designed by Boston’s Peabody and Stearns, Wheatleigh was one of dozens of such extravagant confections that went up during the golden age of this summer watering hole. Set on a particularly pretty hilltop, it also had gardens created by the great Frederick Law Olmsted. Today all that remains of Olmsted’s touch on Wheatleigh’s twenty-two acres are century-old specimen trees that frame views of the Stockbridge Bowl (a local lake) and the mountains beyond. (The swimming pool and tennis court were added later.) The house, however, has fared better. “We never had any doubt that the building was a jewel,” says Susan Simon, who bought the property, already an inn, in 1981, when she was running a Chicago art gallery and her husband, Lin, was still a practicing attorney. “We also new that eventually we’d have to do a big makeover. The problem was finding the right architect who’d hew to the old adage ‘First do no harm.'”

Enter Tsao and McKown, known for their sophisticated color palette and pure forms. With a few hotel projects already under their belt (the guest rooms of the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas and New York’s Tribeca Grand), the partners were eager to get their hands on this historic structure. Their work was extensive, but you’d never know it: old and new mesh seamlessly. The nineteen guest rooms were reconfigured (each has its unique appeal), bathrooms were renovated (some feature decadently oversize claw-foot tubs salvaged from an English spa) and new mechanical and electrical systems were installed throughout. A portico off the dining room was refitted with glass panels set within a bronze framework to create a delightful year-round dining space. And in every room, original decorative details were either restored or eliminated because, as Tsao explains, “much of Peabody and Stearns’s design was ersatz Italianate–we’re much more savvy about architectural styles today. So we simplified things.”

Our junior suite, located in a quiet corner of the second story, was streamlined elegance at its best. Filled with cool beiges and rusty reds, the room had vaguely Moderne chairs upholstered in velvet, a tall paisley headboard of the architects’ own design and, at the windows, layers of curtains and Roman shades, which created the kind of middle-of-the-night darkness you’d ordinarily be lucky to dream about. There was a wood-burning fireplace, a bathroom large enough to have housed our entire traveling party had we not booked a second, smaller room, and a colonnaded balcony offering one of Wheatleigh’s signature views.

Other special touches: Frette linens and robes; complimentary baskets of biscuits and sweets; Maison du Chocolat turn-down treats; and, if you’ve still got an appetite, room service that takes the genre to new heights. We had arrived near sunset (and bedtime) on Friday evening, so we quickly ordered up dinner for the group–artfully arranged salads, halibut served in huge Asian-style bowls, sirloin steak garnished with potatoes that miraculously retained their crunch to the very last frite. Dinner was so delicious, in fact, that the next night, my wife and I descended to the dining room with high expectations…. we were not disappointed….

…I’d say Wheatleigh’s cornered the market on perfection in this neck of the woods.

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