• Berkshire Garden Style

Berkshire Garden Style • A History of The Potting Shed: part 2

“Nothing happens in August,” a friend once said. I’ve been coming back to this comment lately. Because it’s August, but also because I’ve been pondering patience. It’s true that, for this fast-paced thinky-thinker who loves to get stuff done, the August work is quite unsensational. But you don’t usually spot a shooting star while rushing. (The Perseid meteor shower just happened!) Is it that nothing happens? Or is it that we’re suddenly challenged to work at a different speed, to slow to the crawl of the late summer garden?


Talking about patience, the drought this year has me looking at the landscape in a new way. It will take quite a bit of rain to get “caught up.” The damage has been done for this garden season. Yellowed leaves on our trees and shrubs will not recover. Desiccated Astilbes won’t “bounce back.” While I do adore a tawny-toned landscape, let me be clear: the browns belong to November, March, and April. A pop of brown via the reddish-brown seed heads of Yellow Dock in a summer-bronzed meadow? Sure. The parched, rocky, south-facing hillside where we’ve conscientiously cut off the irrigation and the Japanese Anemone and Annabelle Hydrangeas have withered? Not-so-much “hooray for brown!” happening in that situation. These real and extreme weather patterns have me rethinking our gardening practices. Rather than feeling down, I’m thinking about how to adapt. I am actually quite happy and in love with the gardens and landscape at large despite the drought. I am invigorated by the challenges that climate change puts forth. I must persevere and continue to cultivate joy and beauty even as I witness the deeply tangible changes.


For now, as I let August be its calm, unsensational self, while resisting the urge to push too hard, I choose to stay slow and to take in the beauty and exuberance that is the late summer garden. I gather the fruits and flowers of our labors so they seep in, make an imprint on my mind’s eye knowing that impression will nourish me in the depth of winter. As we wait for the weather to cool before beginning the fall planting, I have an opportunity to take in our gardens as they crescendo their way towards the cooler months. The Potting Shed gardens (which I brought you up close to in last month’s blog post) exemplify this so well as they are their most exuberant in August and September. All of our well-established plantings are doing delightfully well. In fact, this is the garden’s best year yet!


This month, I’d like to delve deeper into the history of the Potting Shed property. It’s just such an interesting one, and, unlike some of my properties, there’s a lot of history recorded about this piece of land. As I mentioned, the garden is built into the old stone foundations of the Wheatleigh greenhouses, Wheatleigh being a Gilded Age summer “cottage” first established in an era of great wealth, when railroad magnates and robber barons were creating new industry and coming into unimaginable amounts of money, often in ethically dubious ways. Much of that money came here to the Berkshires, where the wealthy purchased vast parcels of land and created mini-kingdoms amidst these bucolic hills.


[Lake Mahkeenac, ca. 1910.

Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association and accessed through Digital Commonwealth.]


But long before the Gilded Age, before Wheatleigh existed and the acres of manicured parks and gardens were created (by some of the greatest talents of the era), this land was home to the Stockbridge Mohicans, a group now called the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans and who currently reside in Wisconsin. This property, just a stone’s throw from the Stockbridge Bowl, was well trodden, the landscape shaped and tended to long before white settlers ever landed. The lake was called Mahkeenac (the original name has come back into common use), and the Mohicans were the first to dam the lake’s source. The Mohicans called the Housatonic River valley the “place beyond the mountains,” and the landscape was a mix of spruce, elm, pine, oak, birch, and maple. They did controlled burns to maintain open spaces, where they planted gardens of beans, corn, and squash, and they built domes out of saplings to sleep in and occasional longhouses for meetings and gatherings. When white settlers moved in, the Mohicans and white settlers co-existed for a time in the 1700s and 1800s in “Indian Town,” which later became Stockbridge. But eventually, feeling isolated and encroached upon, the Stockbridge Mohicans migrated to New York state where the Oneida people had offered them a tract of land. They were eventually forced to leave New York state, and they migrated again to Wisconsin, where the community thrives and where historians and archivists return to the Berkshires to stay connected to their ancestral lands.


[Lenox: Hawthorne Road near Wheatleigh, ca. 1893-1920.

Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association and accessed through Digital Commonwealth.]


When the bank president and railroad financier Henry Harvey Cook put his sites on this parcel of land in the 1890s it was likely cleared, as the spot was chosen because of its hilltop vantage that gave a view of the lake below. Cook purchased a 360 acre parcel and commissioned architects Peabody and Stearns to design a 33-room, Italian-style summer cottage. Though inspired by an Italian hillside villa, Wheatleigh was named for Cook’s ancestral home in Wheatley, a village in Oxfordshire, England. Wheatleigh was comprised of the ornate home, the formal gardens, park-like settings, and agricultural fields stretching out beyond that. In one historic photo that seems to tell a story not just of the Wheatleigh inhabitants but of the greater community, the house rises like a monolith in the background, and in the foreground are two draft horses and a farmer harvesting corn. The image evokes a scene of feudalism – the mansion looms high upon the hill in the background, the source of the wealth that both employed, and therefore fed, local laborers. Yet, it’s not hard to imagine the friction such local laborers might have felt in the shadow of such wealth, beholden to these landowners for their livelihood, their bodies bent around the endless labor that upkeep of such estates required.


[Wheatleigh: house with corn being harvested, ca. 1892-1920.

Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association and accessed through Digital Commonwealth.]


The gardens and park-like settings of the property were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned Central Park designer. (Coincidentally, Olmsted was celebrated this past weekend via the Olmsted 200, a nationwide celebration of the 200th anniversary of Olmsted’s birth – fitting, considering how much Olmsted’s visions shaped both public and private landscapes here in the Berkshires.) One-hundred and twenty years later, the pines planted as a part of his Wheatleigh design still “create drama in the neighborhood,” as Nancy said. According to Nancy, there were eight original glass greenhouses, and they were massive, ornate structures grand enough to house fruit trees and grape arbors (photos of which can be seen in Carole Owens’ The Berkshires: Coach Inns to Cottages.) A gardener named George H. Thompson managed the gardens and greenhouses, seeing that Georgie, Cook’s daughter, had the flowers needed to decorate tables and appease the expectations of her many guests. She entertained on a grand scale, 80, 100 guests at a time, and also permitted local charitable organizations to use her gardens for events.


[Wheatleigh: garden paths, 1912.

Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association and accessed through Digital Commonwealth.]


[Wheatleigh: front entrance with fountain, ca.1907-1918.

Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association and accessed through Digital Commonwealth.]



Georgie Cook de Heredia (she was a countess, but this was how she was generally referred to) inherited Wheatleigh upon Cook’s death in 1905. She had an established life in Lenox, was involved in the community, and she helped to establish the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, which would eventually become Tanglewood. Having no children, the estate went to two of her nieces when she died in 1946. They sold it, and for a brief time it housed students at Berkshire Music Center, the precursor to the Tanglewood Music Center, Tanglewood’s music school. Upon its sale, the house retained 21 surrounding acres. The rest of the land was sold off in parcels.


In 1950, the Wheatleigh stables and some of the other outbuildings were purchased by Phillip and Stephanie Barber (Stephanie being a jazz singer) who started the famous Music Inn – “a groundbreaking stage for jazz and blues performers, and the short-lived but culturally significant Lenox School of Jazz,” as Clarence Fanto, writing for the Berkshire Eagle in 2017, put it. Local artist Lee Everett, who later lived on the Music Inn grounds for a short period in 1969-70 and who now helps maintain the Music Inn Archives, described the Barbers’ project as “groundbreaking.” They “made it a goal to make a venue that jazz musicians could come to that had some respectability, and they did it,” he said. It was a place where black and white musicians were allowed to play together, despite it being the 1950s in a very small, very white town. The musicians got to get out of the smoky bars and the nasty hot city, to spend time in a bucolic setting, jamming outside, under the trees and next to the pool. There were serious roundtable discussions, and then, eventually, a concert series. Right here where my garden of chaos now stands, or at least a stone’s throw from it, some of America’s greatest talents performed and experimented. It’s where gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was introduced to the world. Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, and other classic blues and jazz artists performed here. The Potting Shed – the antecedents to Nancy’s house – was a cocktail lounge. The greenhouse foundations, filled in and smoothed over, were its parking lot.


By 1960, the Barbers, who by now also owned the Wheatleigh estate, now an inn, felt they had their hands full managing the big house alone. They sold the Music Inn to Don Soviero, who owned Bosquet Ski Resort and is reputed to be the first to introduce snowmaking to the Berkshires. Soviero transformed the main barn so that it opened out onto the lawn, making it possible for audiences of 5-6,000 people. The Potting Shed went from dingy cocktail bar to a northern Italian restaurant, one that Nancy remembers visiting. It was, she said, a cavernous room stretching the length of the two buildings on her property, including an area that is now a breezeway, 100 feet long by 24 feet wide. Soviero ran the place until he left in 1967 to run a cooking school in Tuscany.


When David Rothstein, Nancy’s partner at the time, took over the Music Inn in 1969, the buildings were in disrepair. He started to shore them up. Lee Everett, who had just moved to the Berkshires from New York, found David via a series of introductions from local artists, which landed him at the newly evolving version of the Music Inn. Lee got work doing light carpentry to help with the renovations and was offered housing on the premises. He said there were maybe a dozen people living in various buildings on the property. “David just packed them in,” he said. The Music Inn grounds included the barns, a tower, the old ice house, and the potting shed from the original Wheatleigh estate. Lee called David “a marvelous architect,” saying his style was about “bringing the indoors outside and the outdoors in.”



[Olmsted's pines, featured prominently in the background of this photograph of Music Inn (the Potting Shed) 1975-76 photograph courtesy of ©Christy Butler berkshirephotos.com]



David Rothstein’s reinvented Music Inn opened in 1970. This time, it became a legendary rock ‘n roll venue, a Woodstock-esque scene. “It was, in the language of the time, a happening scene. Crowds would gather hours, or even days, before concerts, anticipating the Deadhead-style gatherings of more recent vintage. The place boasted an art gallery, a head shop, a music shop, a movie theater and a couple of bars, one with live bands that kept hotel guests housed in the same building awake deep into the morning,” wrote Seth Rogovoy in a history of the Music Inn, which has been reprinted on the Music Inn Archives. That decade, these grounds witnessed performances by the Byrds, Tom Rush, Joan Baez, Taj Mahal, John Prine, Bob Marley and the Wailers, and so many more.


Though he had never planned to be a photographer, Lee, encouraged by David, started shooting performances, beginning with a Bonnie Rait concert in 1973. From that point on, he was hooked. In his photos on the Music Inn Archives, throngs of visitors fill the fields. In the background of some photos, you can see the same towering white pines, the ones that were originally planted as a hedge during Cook’s time, and that still stand today. “The early days there were marvelous,” said Everett. “It was peaceful. Big crowds. Everybody was just happy and having a good time, maybe smoking some pot or whatever. But it was always a peaceful, nice crowd.”


My mother, Khat, attended many concerts there in the early 1970s. “All the bands were amazing. It was this small place and there were huge crowds. People sat on the lawn and just listened to the music.” It was always well-attended and always a good time. She remembers in particular experiencing John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. “It was spacey, high energy jazz fusion, and it was a beautiful early evening. Their style of music is really ecstatic, where you can really feel uplifted by the energy of the music. It felt exhilarating and yet peaceful at the same time.” She has even found herself in a few of Lee’s photos. “So many of the faces were familiar to me, even though I didn’t know everyone’s name. We all were united in an appreciation of fine music of the times.” She has been witness to the progress of the Potting Shed gardens since I started working here. “Seeing how Nancy’s vision and Jenna’s creativity and masterful work have manifested – I can feel the music and the history through these colorful, riotous flower gardens.”


When I asked Lee why he thinks this region draws such famous musicians, he said, “I think there’s something in the land itself.” He called it a “magnetic energy” that draws creatives. “It sounds like hocus pocus,” he said, “but in a way, there’s energy in the land. Some medians or crossing or something. I don’t know how to explain it. If you look at it, it has always attracted a creative crew.”


In the late 70s, however, the mood began to turn sour. Lee credits this to a new booking agent who started booking acts that drew a rowdier, heavy-drinking crowd. The Hell’s Angels were hired as security and they would throw people over the fence, beat them up. It became violent. Neighbors complained, and the town decided to shut the venue down.

[Crowd at Music Inn, 1973. Photo courtesy of Lee Everett, Fine Line Media.]


[Concertgoers at Music Inn, 1973. Photo courtesy of Lee Everett, Fine Line Media.]


Between 1973 and 1980, David and Nancy renovated the Potting Shed, turning part of it into their home. They excavated the old greenhouse foundations in order to create the garden. Nancy still has a pastel drawing that David drew some time in the 1970s – a vision of what they imagined the garden to be, which included a water feature. When they dug, the ground was extremely stony and full of shards of glass. Berms were added. The vision changed based on what the earth revealed. Two early gardeners were Valerie Locher and Kip Sheridan, and then, around 2008 the gardens came into my care.


“I find hugely satisfying the rigid boundaries it has, then the riotous almost chaotic array of plants that just do their thing inside those rigid boundaries,” Nancy said, when prompted to describe what the garden does for her. “It’s something I find really satisfying. It’s almost a philosophical thing.” Nancy isn’t a gardener. She doesn’t know the names of plants. But she knows their colors and understands their beauty. Her favorite thing to do with the garden is bring it inside, creating colorful bouquets that light up tables and shelves and nooks throughout her home. Long after the concerts have ended, the outside and inside spaces still seem to complement each other, to inspire.

[Emmy Lou Harris on stage at the Music Inn, 1976. Photo courtesy of Lee Everett, Fine Line Media.]


On a quiet summer day, tending to the garden, it’s hard to imagine this place’s rowdy other life. It’s so peaceful now. The Music Inn closed in 1979 – perhaps because the chaos couldn’t be contained, or so some neighbors felt. After the Inn’s closure, David Rothstein eventually turned the grounds into White Pines Condominiums – through it all the white pines have stayed – which is what still exists today. Nearby, you can duck under a strip of trees and emerge at the edge of the Wheatleigh field and see it there in the distance, across a stretch of manicured grass, a looming stone mansion that reigns over the hilltop.



Sources:


“Brief History,” Stockbridge Munsee Community/Band of Mohican Indians website, www.mohican.org


Drew, Bernard. “Our Berkshires: Lake Mahkeenac’s bowl of woes not new,” Berkshire Eagle, December 21, 2018. https://www.berkshireeagle.com/opinion/columnists/bernard-a-drew-our-berkshires-lake-mahkeenacs-bowl-of-woes-not-new/article_580b442d-3d09-5c2a-a17f-66dbe6b8bffe.html


Everett, Lee. Personal communication. August 27, 2022.


Fanto, Clarence. “‘Life and Times of the Music Inn: A look back at venue’s history,” Berkshire Eagle, August 13, 2017. https://www.berkshireeagle.com/archives/life-and-times-of-the-music-inn-a-look-back-at-venues-history/article_a34505ab-27f4-529d-84cf-835d2f68d67f.html


Fitzpatrick, Nancy. Personal communication. August 19, 2022.


Jackson, Richard S. and Cornelia Brooke Gilder. “Wheatleigh,” Houses of the Berkshires. Acanthus Press, 2011. 135-143.


O’Brien, Khat Joan. Personal Communication. August 25, 2022.


Owens, Carole. “A Gilded Age Resort: Great Estates.” The Berkshires: Coach Inns to Cottages, Arcadia Publishing, 2004. 115-116.


Rogovoy, Seth. “The Life and Times of the Music Inn.” Originally published in Berkshire Magazine. Reprinted in full on the Music Inn Archives. https://musicinnarchives.org.


“Wheatleigh,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheatleigh.


“Wheatleigh,” House Histree. https://househistree.com/houses/wheatleigh.


For further reading:


There are just so many great sources out there, especially when it comes to the Music Inn. I couldn’t use them all. So here are a few recommendations for a deeper, richer history than I could ever provide here.


A great Berkshire Eagle article from 2016 by Jennifer Huberdeau that gives a detailed glimpse inside Wheatleigh during the Cook/de Heredia eras as well as a contemporary look inside the inn as it is today.


A nice collection of historic photos of the original Wheatleigh estate.


A detailed retrospective of the beginning stages of the Music Inn, including the Barbers’ purchase, the Berkshire Music Barn, and the Lenox School of Jazz, by jazz journalist Lew Shaw.


A detailed look into the roundtables that happened at the Lenox School of Jazz by Michael Fitzgerald.


A comprehensive history of the Music Inn on the Lenox History website.


Lee Everett generously allowed us to reprint some of his photos here. There’s a trove of additional historic photos, including many from the Music Inn’s earliest days, on the Music Inn Archives site. Oh, and there’s a documentary film, too.


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