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HomeLife In the BerkshiresCONNECTIONS: A tour...

CONNECTIONS: A tour of Berkshire abodes

Berkshire County is particularly interesting as an architectural exhibit. Given New England practicality or parsimony or respect for our history, we didn’t always tear down and build new: We save our old houses.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

My mother spent many Saturdays not in the shops, not in a museum or theater or movie house — my Mother went to open houses. She was not looking to buy a house; she was just looking. A unique hobby, you say? Perhaps — or perhaps Mama was onto something.

House and Garden has an entire television network (HGTV) dedicated to an audience looking at other people’s houses. Archeologists dig in the ground, expose and interpret the dwelling places of long ago. They consider it the best way to understand ancient cultures. If you learn how they lived, you learn a great deal about their development, their economy, even their beliefs and values.

The Gilded Age cottage Shadowbrook on the cover of ‘Coach Inns to Cottages’ by Carole Owens

Consider the smart home. It tells us about the development of 21st century science and technology. Look closer: It also tells us what we value. It is an exposé of what we can do and what we choose to do.

Berkshire County is particularly interesting as an architectural exhibit. Given New England practicality or parsimony or respect for our history, we didn’t always tear down and build new: We save our old houses. From Williamstown to Sheffield, you can walk through 18th-, 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century houses. As you do, you better understand three centuries of Berkshire life.

Beginning in Williamstown, on a small village green, is the Regulation House. Even before we were a country, under British rule, the first buildings were erected in Berkshire County. In the 1700s, the General Court of Boston laid out 63 10- to 12-acre lots in Hoosac (Williamstown today). On horseback, in carts, on foot, through woods, over muddy tracks and rock outcroppings, the settlers came.

In exchange for free land, settlers promised to clear 5 acres for cultivation and build a house that met the regulations of the General Court. Regulations stipulated a house 18 feet by 15 feet clad with split shingles. Stand inside the one-room house with a chimney on one wall. Imagine that fireplace as the single source of food, light and warmth, and you can imagine a way of life. The house was intended for a family of two. As the family grew the house could be enlarged by adding another 18-by-15 section creating a home 18-by-30. You could “see” the population of Hoosac by counting the rooms in the houses. By 1753, the population was 25 in 13 Regulation houses.

In 1953, residents of Williamstown built the replica you can visit today. They used the same materials and the same tools as the original settlers. One of the builders, Henry N. Flynt Jr., remembered “the experience of doing that with our hands – building a shelter for your family – produced a feeling of great satisfaction. It was like creating a three-dimensional explanation of a way of life.”

The Mission House in Stockbridge

On Main Street, Stockbridge, there is a house of the same period, but not built for settlers of the same socio-economic class. Built between 1739 and 1742, the Mission House was the home of John Sergeant, Yale graduate and first missionary to Stockbridge. Even as you approach, the Connecticut River Valley front-door pediment announces: This is the home of gentle folk.

The Mission House is “a standard Georgian center-hall plan, with fireplaced rooms on either side of a central hall, which has a stairway to the second floor … A diversion from the typical Georgian plan is the presence of a second entrance on the right side of the house, and a narrow hallway running from that entrance to the office. This made it possible for Sergeant’s Indian visitors to reach his office without passing through the front of the house.”

Another Georgian is a symbol of another period in American history. Elm Tree House at Mount Hope Farm is a brick and marble Georgian with 72 rooms. It was built in 1910, more than 150 years after the Mission and Regulation houses when America was a very different place.

Col. E. Parmelee Prentice and his wife, Alta Rockefeller Prentice, built on 1,400 acres in Williamstown — an unimaginable “plot” to the Hoosac settlers before him. Alta was the daughter of John D. Rockefeller Sr., reputedly the richest man in the world. Prentice, a Chicago lawyer, intended to create a model farm demonstrating modern techniques.

Elm Tree House at Mount Hope Farm. Photo courtesy Williamstown Historical Museum

With 168 in help and machinery, both unimaginable in days gone by, Prentice succeeded in developing cattle bred for milk production in his million-dollar cow barn; raised chickens and Dorset sheep; grew apples, grains, vegetables and flowers; kept bees; and tapped for maple syrup. Today the estate is owned by Williams College.

The house is grand. It is a clear and wordless articulation of the lifestyle of the economic elite in Gilded Age America.

Further south in Sheffield, the town displays the dates of the houses along Main Street so a visitor can “see” the village in earlier times. Pittsfield imbedded plaques in the sidewalks so pedestrians can look at buildings and learn their year built and original purpose. They are almost open-air exhibits.

From Arrowhead, on the outskirts of Pittsfield, home of Herman Melville, to the Mount in Lenox, home of Edith Wharton, houses are open to the public and explain ways of life just by looking. This weekend, be like my Mama: Go look at houses.

On Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, the Thursday Morning Club of Great Barrington is presenting its second annual house tour. You will see five fab houses and help support the TMC Scholarship Fund.

Get your tickets by sending $20 to: Thursday Morning Club, P. O. Box 422, Great Barrington, MA 01230 or pick up tickets at Barnbrook Realty at 271 Main St. or Kwik Print at 35 Bridge St., both in Great Barrington.

Join us, help support our local college-bound students, have fun and remember what Henry Flynt said: a house is “a three-dimensional explanation of a way of life.”

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