Stockbridge — Passersby might scarcely notice that the year-long project to transform the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s historic Center House is now complete. Save for the striking crimson facade, visible from Route 102, the landmark changes to one of the oldest buildings in Stockbridge — dating back to the 1790s — are evident only upon further examination. “It is emotional and exciting,” said Michael Beck, Executive Director of BBG, of
the Friday (December 1) ribbon-cutting that officially opened the newly renovated space to the public. After five years of planning — two of those intensely — and one year of building, BBG is poised to provide expanded programming to inspire visitors’ love for the natural world thanks to the $2.3 million Center House restoration and expansion, the most transformative project the Garden has undertaken since its inception.
“We wanted this to be a real experience on all levels,” said Matt Larkin, president of the Board of Trustees. In the new, modern entry, an extravagant living wall welcomes guests; this visually impactful addition — installed by Mark Prescott of Spencertown, N.Y. — features two 9-by-8-foot walls, flanking the building’s “center hall,” each sporting over 200 individual containers of varied botanical specimens. The modular system is capable of being interchanged; last week, the varied hues of green were punctuated with red cyclamen to evoke a festive feel.
The idea behind the project, Larkin said, was to remain within the 18th century building’s original footprint while extending the organization’s influence in the county, becoming a year-round destination. Three gallery spaces, featuring restored wide-plank flooring, expand the Garden’s gallery experience with the addition of open and flexible exhibition space in the most historical section of Center House; this will allow BBG to host artists and shows that focus on the beauty and the science of the living world. The addition of a well-equipped reference library will afford members the opportunity to peruse the Garden’s extensive collection; and a state-of-the-art kitchen with adjoining teaching classroom will satiate youth and adult learners with myriad opportunities to study the many facets of horticulture, sustainable agriculture and healthy living. Larkin has a hunch that this particular addition will attract the attention of celebrity chefs and says the space is already being highly sought after for special events and community activities.
The barn motif was carried throughout the building, including upstairs where shed dormers punctuate the lofty — albeit more contemporary — space. Office space was added to address the Garden’s growth in both the education and horticulture departments; an open plan provides shared space for eight full-time employees — most of whom were working in disparate spaces around the campus — and was created in response to the millennials on staff who are geared toward collaboration. The remodel captures Old Stockbridge views — through ancient hedgerows — previously inaccessible. Finally, a full walk-out basement provides ground-level access for the maintenance department as well as several cold rooms dedicated to forcing out-of-season bulbs.
In short, the project reflects what Larkin (himself an interior designer who spearheaded the project) calls the “masterful” work of Mark Smith, architect, and Greg Schnopp, contractor; thoughtful details abound and, as a result, the spirit of the original 18th century building is alive and well — including many of the tilts and leans inherent to the original construction. In the teaching kitchen, a series of 3-by-3-foot modular tables were crafted from the former exterior siding in hemlock, red oak and chestnut; there is mouth-blown restoration glass in the library — a nod to the building’s original windows — and several portions of visibly charred beams in the gallery that recall a long-ago fire. In the gallery, adze marks –reflecting the process necessary to trim round logs into square beams — echo a bygone era. In short, no detail was overlooked. And, from Larkin’s perspective, “[these details] show how the building was not only built [but also] used.”
The historic Center House — used for myriad purposes over the Garden’s rich history — is once again the true center of the campus. And, according to Larkin, there will be a “big, splashy opening” in May 2018. The Berkshire Botanical Garden, one of the nation’s oldest botanical gardens, is situated at the literal crossroads of Routes 183 and 102 in Stockbridge; originally the Berkshire Garden Center, BBG was established in 1934 by the Lenox Garden Club. Its original commitment as a nonprofit, member-supported educational organization will only be amplified by the expansion. “This is a space that is for the community — not just tourists,” emphasized Larkin. For more information, visit www.berkshirebotanical.org.