Ruth Bass: From houses to objects, Berkshire treasures its treasures

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RICHMOND — Developers had their eye on Hancock Shaker Village a few decades ago when the number of Shakers had dwindled to the point where a massive layout of big buildings and gardens could not be kept up. The last Shakers in Berkshire County could move to another village, so the bulldozer engines were revving. And then came Amy Bess Williams Miller of Pittsfield, wife of Berkshire Eagle editor Lawrence K. Miller and sister-in-law of Eagle publisher Donald B. Miller. No way, she said, and she meant it. Diminutive in height, she was a giant in preservation. And so we have Hancock — a survivor of down years, a celebrator of good years.

A few miles south, Mable Choate apparently loved spending summers at Naumkeag, coming here from Salem (Naumkeag was the Native American name for Salem) and when her parents died, she went for preservation of the shingle style house that overlooks Stockbridge Cemetery. The house is much as they left it, but Ms. Choate and designer Fletcher Steele had a blast changing the setting - a white birch archway with blue steps and running water, a Chinese nook with a circular entrance, a minimalist, serpentine rose garden and one of the first outdoor living rooms ever.

In the cemetery below the Choate house stands the fascinating "Sedgwick Pie," concentric circles of gravestones that surround the monument to Theodore Sedgwick, one of the lawyers who freed a Berkshire woman, Mumbet. She was the first black slave to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts. Congressman, Speaker of the House, U.S. Senator and judge, Sedgwick took Mumbet into his household as an employee and when she died, continuing her role as a history maker, she was buried within the Sedgwick circle. That may not be the place hundreds of tourists go, but it's a Berkshire landmark.

When churchgoers in Township No. 1, now Monterey, wanted the Reverend Adonijah Bidwell to lead their church, they built a house for him that was far nicer than their own. It still stands, historic, beautifully crafted and open to the public, although most of the homes of his parishioners are gone. A classic Georgian saltbox with four fireplaces, the house is lovingly tended and supported by a small staff and loyal volunteers. It's a solid reminder of how far back Berkshire history stretches.

We have Arrowhead, home of Herman Melville; Chesterwood where Daniel Chester French realized his Lincoln Memorial and planted zinnias when he emerged from his studio; Ashley House where the revolutionary Colonel Ashley discussed freedom while the slave Mumbet worked in his kitchen; the Dan Raymond House in Sheffield, preserved home of a more ordinary citizen; Ventfort Hall, the Gilded Age house in Lenox that was saved from the wrecking ball that would make it a site for a nursing home; the Allen House in Pittsfield, secured and boarded at the moment, but still a gleam for preservation in a number of eyes.

Consider commercial conversions: Old City Hall has its restored and handsome face on one side of Park Square while bankers work within; the Victorian Gothic facade of the former Berkshire recently regained splendor — while property owners' deeds are recorded digitally inside.

There's more, like the Colonial Theater and The Mount. But these are enough for a week's tour and clear evidence that many of us who live here treasure the stories told by places that have lasted a long time. The shift in focus at the Berkshire Museum may be the best thing that's happened to Pittsfield in decades, but the process of creating the vision was secretive, even to the point where the museum at first refused to say what paintings would be sold. Why? Because they wanted no questions asked. That, it could be said, is not the county where Alexander Calder received his first commission, where wealthy white men helped W.E.B. Dubois get an education, where Mumbet was freed, where Leonard Bernstein bloomed.

Shifts in focus don't necessarily involve changing the architecture within and without. The museum has been flexible always — remember when half a room was dominated by shells? So it hurts, really hurts, when those of us who feel Norman Rockwell's works should be here — preferably in the front lobby all the time — are considered negative and judgmental. Why should supporters of the Van Shields plans think we are automatically against whatever they're proposing? We believe in a museum with a future so strongly that we also believe that whatever is needed there could be financed without jettisoning our heritage. Take time to talk.

Ruth Bass recently enchanted Chicago relatives with The Mount. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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