Bringing Joseph Pilates' memory - and studio - back to Becket

Gallagher hopes to revive Pilates' former Berkshire property

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BECKET — A spring-loaded Bednasium leans against a back wall in the studio. An upside-down Reformer is covered in the garage. And black-and-white, step-by-step exercise posters are all over the place.

Joseph Pilates wasn't famous when he taught at Jacob's Pillow and spent weekends at a modest Becket home with his wife, Clara, in the middle of the 20th century. But the equipment that remains on the property more than 50 years after his death has since become legendary. Along with mat exercises, Pilates' apparatus were central to his "contrology" method, which started strengthening cores and challenging assumptions about aging long before such things were in vogue. Eventually, celebrities and others started using a system that, today, is simply called Pilates, practiced in group gatherings and solo sessions just about anywhere you can find an active fitness community.

"His name is known around the world," property owner Sean Gallagher said during a Monday morning tour of the grounds.

His former Becket property, however, isn't. Though interest in Pilates' life has grown over the years, his bygone Berkshire getaway has never been a destination for his method's enthusiasts, changing hands multiple times before Gallagher, the current owner of Pilates' original New York City studio business and the former owner of the controversial Pilates trademark, bought its 21 acres in 1997. But if Gallagher has his way, that obscurity won't last. By September, he is aiming to reopen the Berkshire property's 400-square-foot studio as a workout space and miniature museum. On one side, some of Pilates' original equipment will be on display. On the other, visitors can engage in Pilates as its creator intended.

"You can't do what I'm doing anywhere else like this for Pilates because, first of all, this is his studio. This is where he worked people out. This is where he did this stuff," Gallagher said.

The physical therapist had just finished leading his weekly Pilates mat session at Jacob's Pillow's Ruth St. Denis Studio that morning, part of his 21st summer at the Pillow. Pilates himself taught the same class at Jacob's Pillow after founder Ted Shawn invited him to join the institution's faculty in the early 1940s. During some of his years at the Becket dance center, Pilates would bring students back to his nearby studio to work on his personal apparatus. Located less than a mile up Route 20 from Jacob's Pillow, the entrance to Pilates' former property is marked by a white stone and two lions atop pillars. The animals are a fitting representation for Pilates, whose obituary in The Eagle described him as a "white-maned lion of a man with steel-blue eyes and mahogany skin" who "kept as limber in his 80s as a teenager."

"His philosophy was to be able to do at 80 what you could do at 20," Gallagher said, "and he could."

Pilates' original Becket studio is perched on a hill above a sinuous driveway and the site's other structures: a house built by a subsequent owner, a garage and Pilates' original house, which is in disrepair. Hidden in the woods, the former hunting shack's roof has caved in, and its walls and floor are riddled with gaps.

"The house has to be rebuilt," Gallagher said.

Eventually, Gallagher hopes that people can stay at the one-bedroom structure, but finishing the studio is his current focus. Its renovation began when Gallagher acquired the property but has intensified over the past couple of years, aided by a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $9,000. The structure's windows and door needed to be replaced, and Gallagher must still sand the floor and add panels and lights before opening. Ultimately, he'll hang photographs from Pilates' original studio and move many of Pilates' original apparatus from a garage to the studio, including a Reformer. Perhaps the most famous Pilates apparatus, the Reformer consists of a flat carriage on wheels and springs.

"Muscles are like springs, so there's a relationship there, and that relationship isn't anywhere else," Gallagher said of Pilates' frequent use of the device.

Some of Pilates' creations were already occupying the studio on this particular morning. His multiuse chairs segmented the room, and multiple metallic Bednasiums rose above the clutter. The spartan structures facilitated exercises in bed — users could reach backwards to grab arm springs attached to a headboard frame — and provided a more comfortable slumber experience for many.

"When you lie down, it goes into a 'V,'" Gallagher explained. "When you sleep, a lot of times when people have a bad back, they'll be told to put a pillow underneath their knee. But when you sleep in this bed, you don't need a pillow because it's built into the bed."

Pilates' method placed a great emphasis on the spine.

"If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young," Pilates wrote in his 1945 book, "Pilates' Return to Life Through Contrology."

In Gallagher's mat class, the instructor often urged participants to roll one vertebra at a time in different exercises. But that is hardly the only part of the body being worked in Pilates. In various exercises, participants must raise their legs and arms simultaneously while keeping their backs against a surface, working their abdominal muscles considerably, among other areas.

"Eye candy is about, 'Let me pump this muscle. Let me pump this muscle group.' With Pilates, you're working the whole body all the time in every exercise," Gallagher said. "And when you have trouble — if you can't do this exercise — well, his genius was inventing apparatus that would allow you to do similar things on different apparatus in different configurations."

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Gallagher has devoted much of his life to preserving Pilates' principles. Along with Pilates' original business, Gallagher acquired the trademark rights to "Pilates" in the early 1990s. He had been taught by Romana Kryzanowska, a direct Pilates disciple, and was wary of those misusing the moniker in their practices and equipment. His strict interpretation of the method's application didn't ingratiate him to some in the Pilates world, and in 2000, he lost a four-year legal battle to keep his trademark rights, as Pilates was deemed a generic term by a federal court in Pilates Inc. v. Current Concepts Inc. and Kenneth Endelman.

"The manufacturers won, and now everything and anything can be called Pilates, and ... it's not what Joe taught," said Gallagher. "Maybe it's good, maybe it's bad, I don't know, but Joe spent 50 years developing and fine-tuning a methodology and a system of exercise, and it works."

Gallagher continues to promote that method in sessions around the world and, in collaboration with Elaine Ewing of Rhinebeck Pilates, he hosts a biyearly international conference at Jacob's Pillow that reintroduces lost Pilates apparatus. In September, he anticipates that roughly 40 Pilates instructors from around the world will attend the conference's latest edition.

Pilates hailed from Germany. Born near Dusseldorf during the early 1880s, he began developing his method in his native country after a youth spent admiring animals' movement.

"Contrology is complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit," he wrote in "Return to Life."

Pilates refined his method during World War I before immigrating to the U.S. in the 1920s. He opened a New York City studio with Clara that soon hosted plenty of dancers.

"Starting with a strong core from which you can do so many other things is certainly also fundamental to dance," Jacob's Pillow Dance Director of Preservation Norton Owen said of the method's appeal.

Ruth St. Denis has a positive experience as one of Pilates' clients, which eventually led Shawn to invite Pilates to Jacob's Pillow. In 1942, students had to take his mat class every day, according to participant Ann Hutchinson.

"Joe was rather stern, not always so pleasant. `Up the leg!'" Hutchinson recalled humorously at a 2010 PillowTalk.

Prior to that event, Owen had solicited recollections from many of Pilates' former students. Hutchinson's description mirrored many of those received.

"His persona was pretty gruff," Owen said of Pilates.

Pilates had a falling out with Shawn that reduced his Pillow involvement for several years before he made a substantial return to the site in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. (He also directed a "Return to Life" club in Lee in 1954, according to The Eagle.) By then, Pilates had acquired his Becket home. Gordon Hyatt of Stockbridge helped him tidy up the property one week. At that time, Pilates was focused on a Bednasium at the site — and getting Hyatt to do some abdominal exercises.

"You have no stomach muscles," Hyatt recalled Pilates telling him.

Pilates often walked around with a cigar and was no stranger to drinking, but his physical figure was a testament to his method.

"I was greeted by a jovial aggressive figure, the power of his muscles rippling with every movement," an Eagle reporter observed after a visit to Pilates' property in 1951.

As he prepares to open his studio and museum, Gallagher is on the hunt for more firsthand accounts of Pilates' time in the Berkshires. Specifically, he would like to hear from those who took classes from Pilates or would be willing to share equipment that he gave them. (Those interested can email him spgpt@pilates-studio-ny.com.) They would be contributing to a project that mirrors Pilates' desire to make the property an exercise hub.

"He had a real hope for that spa," Hyatt recalled.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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