“I said yes to something I had no intention of saying yes to,” she said. “And thus far, I’d have to say it’s one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life.”
Such is the attraction of Berkshire County, more commonly known as the Berkshires, a destination that mixes bucolic landscapes, organic farms, hiking trails and ski hills with a bevy of top-tier cultural attractions. Stretching across the western edge of Massachusetts, the county is roughly equidistant from New York and Boston, with most towns about a two-and-a-half- or three-hour drive from either city.
That is slightly farther afield than the areas most popular with New Yorkers and Bostonians in search of second homes, including the Hamptons, the Hudson Valley, Connecticut and Cape Cod. But those who discover the comparatively quiet, unbuttoned Berkshires frequently talk about the place with reverential wonder, as though they have been let in on a secret.
“It’s like nowhere else,” said Ben Svenson, 36, a partner at the Boston-based development company Broder, which is collaborating on the 48-room Tourists hotel, scheduled to open this summer, with creative entrepreneurs like the musician John Stirratt, of Wilco. “It’s almost like being in an urban setting in terms of the level of cultural attractions that you can find, and yet you’re also set with this beautiful ecology.”
Beyond Tourists, Mr. Svenson has been buying and renovating local houses for his own family, business partners and other urbanite friends.
For his own use, Mr. Svenson bought a two-bedroom, one-bathroom 19th-century house in North Adams for $116,900 last winter and gut renovated it for about $67,000, exposing the original wooden posts and beams. It now serves as a second home, but he plans to move to North Adams full time in August with his wife and sons, 3 and 5, after the arrival of their third child this summer.
A short stroll away is another 19th-century home he owns: a four-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bathroom house he got in a foreclosure auction for $77,700, and then spent about $40,000 renovating. Ms. Burns now lives there.
Mr. Svenson is at work on a number of other houses in the area, and has helped find second homes for dazzled friends. He has the growing sense that they are not the only ones interested in putting down roots in the Berkshires. “You feel it and see it everywhere now,” he said. “There’s something brewing here.”
Figures from the Berkshire County Board of Realtors back up that assertion. Last year, the total number of single-family home sales in Berkshire County rose to 1,374, the highest number since the organization began tracking sales in 1997. The average sales price of those homes jumped 8 percent over that in 2016, to $279,557. And in February, the number of active listings for single-family homes declined to 872, the lowest inventory has been in 13 years.
There are marked differences, however, between the affluent southern part of the county, which includes the manicured estates and picturesque towns of Great Barrington, Lenox and Stockbridge (literally Norman Rockwell country — the artist lived in Stockbridge from 1953 until his death in 1978, and his museum remains), where the average home price was $426,600 in 2017, and the rest of the county, where some cities are still struggling to recover from the departure of manufacturing jobs decades ago.
In the slightly scruffier central part of the county, including Pittsfield, the largest city in the Berkshires, the average sales price last year was $197,667. In the northern part of the county, anchored by North Adams, where 18.9 percent of the population is living in poverty and the median household income is $32,804, according to United States Census Bureau data, the average sales price was lower still, at $186,388.
A NEW CULTURAL CORRIDOR
The northern part of the county, though, is in the midst of a significant transformation. In North Adams, the enormous Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MASS MoCA, inhabits a series of 19th-century industrial buildings once occupied by the Sprague Electric Company. The museum roughly doubled in size last year by expanding into previously shuttered structures on its 16-acre campus to offer expansive, long-term exhibitions of artists like James Turrell, Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson and Louise Bourgeois.
The museum also functions as a performing arts center that holds film screenings; concerts with headliners like The National, Dinosaur Jr., Bon Iver, The Decemberists and Blondie; comedy festivals with performers like Mike Birbiglia; music festivals, including the biennial Solid Sound Festival held by Wilco; and a host of other events. There is also Bright Ideas Brewing, a craft brewery and taproom where patrons can watch bartenders can 32-ounce Crowlers to go.
Thomas Krens helped conceive the museum in the 1980s, when he was director of the Williams College Museum of Art, before he became director of the Guggenheim in 1988. Since opening in 1999, MASS MoCA has flourished under director Joseph C. Thompson, Mr. Krens’s former colleague at the Williams College Museum of Art. A study prepared last September by the Center for Creative Community Development, a Williams College research center, estimated that the museum was responsible for increasing local economic output by about $51 million in 2017.
And now Mr. Krens, who transformed the Guggenheim into a global art powerhouse with projects like the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao, has returned to the Berkshires and believes he can do more in North Adams. “I put it under the heading ‘unfinished business,’” he said, explaining that he hopes to remedy the area’s financial woes by turning it into even more of a cultural destination that encourages visitors to stay for multiple days.
In a ground-floor office at a former railroad yard a stone’s throw away from MASS MoCA, he elaborated on his vision, showing a reporter models of proposed structures that amounted to a radical redevelopment of downtown North Adams, linking it to neighboring Williamstown in what his marketing materials described as a “cultural corridor.”
There was a 110-room hotel, a motorcycle museum and a virtual reality museum, all designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. There was a museum of time that would exhibit intricate industrial clocks, a craft distillery and restaurants, all designed by Gluckman Tang. These projects have preliminary designs, but no construction timeline yet.
But then there is the centerpiece, a project for which his organization signed construction agreements with Skanska USA and Gilbane Building Company earlier this month: the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, being designed by Mr. Gehry with a target opening date of June 2021.
Mr. Krens’s proposal is to construct an 83,000-square-foot, 45-foot-high structure containing 1,256 scale models of buildings animated by 107 O-Scale model trains running on 12 lines. The interior walls would be wrapped by a seamless, 1,440-foot-long video screen, providing a background of shifting landscapes, time and weather conditions.
An economic analysis by the Center for Creative Community Development estimated that the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum alone would create between 1,300 and 2,000 new jobs in the Berkshires, and increase economic output by $113 million to $169 million a year upon completion.
NATURAL BEAUTY AND NEW DEVELOPMENT
Although Mr. Krens’s projects have yet to break ground, it is possible to see many other components of a cultural corridor already taking shape when driving west from North Adams on Route 2, or Mohawk Trail. Past MASS MoCA there is Greylock Works, a former textile mill from 1870 sprawling 240,000 square feet over nine acres, which is being redeveloped by Karla Rothstein and Salvatore Perry, the husband-and-wife partners of the Manhattan architecture firm Latent Productions.
The couple first visited the Berkshires in the summer of 2014, while traveling to pick up their daughter from summer camp in New Hampshire. During their road trip, “We passed by this incredible campus of buildings and turned around,” said Ms. Rothstein, who also teaches architecture at Columbia University. “We were blown away by the buildings we encountered, and the cultural intensity and natural beauty of the region.”
They bought the mill for $750,000 a year later, and have since spent about $10 million, from private investment and public grants, cleaning up the contaminated site and renovating the buildings.
The first phase of the project, a vast 26,000-square-foot event space with a sawtooth roof of skylights, opened last summer and is now a venue for markets, weddings, yoga classes and dance parties. The next phase, currently under construction, will create work spaces for artisanal food and beverage companies. Ms. Rothstein and Mr. Perry plan to convert other parts of the campus into a hotel and condominium.
Farther along Route 2 is a small airport, the site of Mr. Krens’s proposed Global Contemporary Art Museum, designed by Gluckman Tang. Across the road is Tourists.
Rolling into Williamstown, there is the Williams College Museum of Art and then the venue for the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which serves as summer camp for Hollywood and Broadway stars. (This year’s participants include Matthew Broderick and Mary-Louise Parker.) And just off a quiet traffic circle is the Clark Art Institute, a museum and research center with a world-class collection of French Impressionist paintings, along with British and American art; it was recently expanded with new buildings by Tadao Ando and renovated structures by Selldorf Architects.
Although it is difficult to say whether these developments are having a direct effect on the residential real estate market, there is anecdotal evidence that things are heating up. Jodi Joseph, the daughter of a former Sprague Electric employee who grew up in the area and is now MASS MoCA’s director of communications, has spent a year trying to buy a two-family house in North Adams as an investment property, only to find her efforts stymied.
Last fall, she made a cash offer at the full asking price of $75,000 for one newly listed property, only to be outbid by $10,000. In February, she found herself freezing outside among snowdrifts with four other house hunters and their agents, as they each took turns touring a newly listed property, priced at about $149,000.
“By that point, I knew something was happening here,” said Ms. Joseph, 42, who is still looking. “It wasn’t even two years ago that you could not get your asking price for a house in North Adams.”
BROOKLYN DISCOVERS THE BERKSHIRES
In the southern part of the county, cultural institutions have also been expanding. At Tanglewood in Lenox, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, construction of a new four-building complex designed by William Rawn Associates, with a performance venue, cafe and rehearsal studios, is underway and scheduled to open next summer.
Last summer, Jacob’s Pillow, the dance festival and school in Becket, opened a new studio designed by Flansburgh Architects.
And the number of food-focused establishments is growing, from the Six Depot coffee roastery and cafe in West Stockbridge to the Bistro Box, an artisanal roadside burger shack on the outskirts of Great Barrington.
Mark Firth, 50, a restaurateur who helped define the Brooklyn dining scene of the aughts as a co-founder of Diner and Marlow & Sons, bought an 82-acre farm in Monterey, just east of Great Barrington, for about $600,000 in 2010, with his wife, Bettina Schwartz, 47.
That first year, Mr. Firth made the weekly commute back and forth to the city, while Ms. Schwartz stayed in the Berkshires with their two young children, now 11 and 14. But eventually he realized something wasn’t right.
“When I left Brooklyn, I had a big smile on my face,” he said. “And when I had to drive down to the city, I was not so happy.”
He permanently relocated to the farm in 2011, and opened the Prairie Whale restaurant in Great Barrington with Ms. Schwartz in 2012, after buying a building to house it for about $500,000.
Since then, Mr. Firth, an avid cyclist, hasn’t looked back. “I can leave my house in Monterey and ride up to Beartown Mountain, where it’s beautiful and there are flippin’ hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and ramps growing,” he said. “I can go on a foraging bike ride and come back with dinner for 20 people.”
Many of his friends and acquaintances have also made the move. “A lot of my old customers from Diner and Marlow have houses up here,” he said. “Now I see them more than I did in Brooklyn.”
FOLLOWING IN EDITH WHARTON’S FOOTSTEPS
Christian Deckert, a real estate broker with Berkshire Property Agents in Great Barrington, estimated that New Yorkers now make up about 90 percent of his clientele.
And after a blockbuster 2017, he said, real estate is getting more competitive. “When something comes on the market, it gets bombarded with showings,” said Mr. Deckert.
Likewise, Jared Kelly, a real estate broker with William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty in Great Barrington and Lenox, said that among people looking for homes priced over $400,000, “the majority are New Yorkers.”
He added: “I had three listings last year that had multiple offers, which is just really unusual for the Berkshires.”
But homes still need to be priced realistically to move, he said. One that he sold last year was an 8,200-square-foot, five-bedroom, five-and-a-half-bathroom Queen Anne-style house built in 1892, which was listed for just under $1.5 million in 2016 by another agent. It sat on the market for nearly a year before Mr. Kelly sold it last April for $879,000 to Andrew Berens, a biotechnology analyst at Morgan Stanley in New York.
Dr. Berens, 52, a former physician with two sons, 9 and 11, has had a weekend house in the area since 2006, and was upsizing. “We like the proximity to Tanglewood and the proximity to the mountains,” he said, noting that his sons ski every winter weekend at the nearby Butternut resort. “I thought it would be a great place for the kids to grow up having access to, rather than playing video games.”
New residential developments are also beginning to creep into downtown Great Barrington, with projects like Powerhouse Square on Bridge Street, a mixed-use project under construction that will house the Berkshire Co-Op Market and 22 condominiums priced from $325,000 to $925,000.
There is also 47 Railroad, designed by the Manhattan-based INC Architecture & Design, with five commercial spaces (including a new restaurant for the British chef Annie Wayte) and 13 luxury rental apartments with big-city prices, ranging from $1,900 to $3,500 a month. It will welcome its first residents next month.
“For the 13 apartments, I’ve got a waiting list of 49 people,” said Ian Rasch, 41, a former New York developer who co-founded Framework Properties, the Great Barrington-based company that is developing 47 Railroad. “Probably 65 to 70 percent are New York City people.”
Mr. Rasch and his wife, Jade-Snow Carroll, 39, a graphic designer, left New York for Hillsdale, N.Y., in 2009, but are now working with INC to renovate a farmhouse and build a new home for their family in the Berkshires town of Egremont.
They are part of a new generation of urban transplants and second-home hunters who are following in the footsteps of Herman Melville, Edith Wharton and Daniel Chester French, all of whom had homes in the Berkshires more than a century ago, which can still be visited today. The difference, this time around, is that there is so much more to see and do.
“There are new distilleries, breweries and farm-to-table restaurants — it’s such a movement,” said Mr. Firth, of the Prairie Whale. “People are doing this stuff because it makes them feel good. And feeling good is the new rich.”
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