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A museum shelter for art - and snowshoers

Tadao Ando designed the wood and concrete Stone Hill Center at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. The building frames the surrounding landscape - mountains on all sides - and walking trails (left) of varying difficulty cross the institute’s 140-acre campus. Tadao Ando designed the wood and concrete Stone Hill Center at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. The building frames the surrounding landscape - mountains on all sides - and walking trails (left) of varying difficulty cross the institute’s 140-acre campus. (Photos By Bill Regan/For The Boston Globe
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By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2009

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WILLIAMSTOWN - The surprising thing about the Stone Hill Center at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is not that it keeps a humble profile to blend in with the fields and forest around it, but that it puts those natural surroundings on display. In another time, this site, on a north-facing hillside squeezed among the Hoosac Mountains, the Taconic Range, the Berkshire Hills, and the Green Mountains, might have been chosen for a monastery.

The gray wood-and-concrete building focuses on its northern panorama, where a sloping meadow, planted with scattered trees (by local landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand Associates), drops away, yielding center stage to the rippling foothills of the Green Mountains. But step out onto the terrace, climb the exterior staircase from the lowest elevation, or gaze down an interior corridor, and the building presents abstract slices of sky, slope, and forest. I-beams, overhangs, low walls, stairwells, and cutouts are among the devices Japanese architect Tadao Ando employed to draw these scenes into the structure.

In short, the landscape is on permanent exhibit here, which means that, especially for outdoor types, it is not a complete loss to find the center’s two intimate art galleries - well worth visiting in season - closed for the winter.

By longstanding tradition, the Clark has welcomed visitors to roam its 140-acre campus free of charge. Since the Stone Hill Center opened last year, the museum has invited year-round hikers, cross-country skiers, and snowshoers to use it as a sort of high-end warming hut. The entry-level floor offers restrooms, a drinking fountain, and lockers.

Nodding to the boom in geocaching - a GPS-assisted hunt for a cache of trinkets hidden in the landscape - the Clark even loans out GPS units at the main museum’s front desk. Like museum admission, the devices are free to use from Nov. 1 to May 31, along with a set of coordinates, which can also be downloaded from the museum’s website. (“I went out with one of our GPS units at lunchtime this fall, and our cache is very cool, one of the best I’ve seen,’’ says Sarah Hoffman, the Clark’s public relations and marketing assistant.)

Whether or not they try geocaching, New Englanders will find the entire Clark Art Institute complex to be a hidden treasure. Largely because of its summer theater festival, Williamstown, although almost equidistant from Boston and New York, is culturally part of the Berkshires. The elegant main museum building, less than a quarter-mile from the new Stone Hill Center, houses the Clark’s permanent collection, the core of which belonged to Robert Sterling Clark (1877-1956; heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune) and his wife, Francine. The couple concentrated on collecting mainly American, French Impressionist, Italian, and Northern Renaissance paintings. They opened the museum to the public in 1955.

Since 1972, the Clark has partnered with Williams College to offer a master’s degree program in art history, making it both a public art museum and a research and academic center. The Stone Hill Center marked the end of the first phase of an expansion that will eventually include an upgrade and internal expansion of the Clark’s main galleries and another building by Ando for special exhibits, classrooms, and conferences.

The two small galleries at Stone Hill Center occupy only a fraction of the building, which provides new quarters for the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, the largest regional facility of its kind in the country, which outgrew its old quarters on the museum campus. (Works that the conservation center has restored include Vincent van Gogh’s “Irises,’’ Thomas Hart Benton’s “America Today’’ murals, and “Number 2, 1949,’’ by Jackson Pollock.) During the week, visitors strolling outside the Stone Hill Center can peer in at conservators wielding long, dangling hoses and other mysterious tools of their trade behind the two-story glass walls on the north and east facades.

Two new walking paths, called Howard and Nan, connect the Stone Hill Center to the Clark’s main building, bringing the total length of the campus trail system to about 3 miles. Although the new paths are gradual in slope and wide enough for walkers to stride side-by-side, a few shallow steps along the way prevent wheelchair use. (People who have mobility issues should drive to the parking lot and enter the building through the accessible main entrance, although the unusually tall glass doors there also are unusually heavy.)

With a little snow cover, the steps pose no obstacle to cross-country skiers and snowshoers, who will enjoy the bridges over brooks and swales. The Howard path traces the edge of the woods, while the Nan passes through thicker woodland.

Anyone who wants to savor the landscape and the building’s playful interaction with it should start by taking in the northern panorama from the open terrace off the entry hall, opposite the main door. Outside, an architect-designed rack accommodates bikes, skis, and snowshoes. The main routes are the Pasture Trail (0.7 mile) and the Stone Bench Trail (1.5 miles), which share a segment through the stunning hilltop meadow. Older connector trails link portions of all the main trails.

The Pasture Trail cuts west across the slope behind the center’s parking lot, following the course of least resistance for an easy climb. The first several hundred feet pass through deciduous hardwoods sprinkled with hemlock and white pine. It soon intersects the Stone Bench Trail, which traces a more precipitous north-south course up (or down) the slope. Continuing west, the Pasture Trail meets the pasture at a cattle fence. A gate here - with a sign asking hikers to close it behind them - signals the presence of cattle and horses in the summer and fall.

Before snow falls, the traverse to the top of the meadow passes through tall grass. At the crest of the hill, scattered picnic tables overlook the main museum and the surrounding mountains. Several pairs of birches and maples, curiously entwined, seem to dance down the western slope. From the tables, the trail makes a right-angle turn and descends steeply northeast through pasture before ending at the Clark’s main parking area. Or, hikers can follow the opposite course, heading southwest on the Stone Bench Trail on a looping route back to the Stone Hill Center.

The Stone Bench Trail, after climbing south up a forested slope, makes a sharp right turn at the edge of a clearing. From here it traces a wide southeast arc along the property’s boundary. The stone bench stands in a clearing overlooking a forested western hillside. After this, the trail makes another sharp turn east, then swings south to cross the meadow, leveling out and joining the Pasture Trail at the start of the northern slope to Clark’s parking lot.

For those who didn’t pack a lunch, this is a good place to end up, because the cafe in the main museum serves salads, sandwiches, and pastry. There’s some world-class art here too, on view at no charge through the end of May.

Jane Roy Brown can be reached at regan-brown.com.

If You Go

Stone Hill Center

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

225 South St., Williamstown

413-458-2303

www.clarkart.edu

Museum winter hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day. Admission: November-May free. June 1-Oct. 31 $12.50 adults, free for students and children 18 and younger.

Galleries open June 1 to mid-October. Campus and trails open free, year-round, dawn to dusk. Restrooms, lockers, and water fountain open year-round. Trail maps available at the admission desk at the museum’s main entrance.