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Checking In

In North Adams, art makes perfection palatable

Email|Print| Text size + By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2004

NORTH ADAMS -- We traveled to The Porches Inn with every intention of dropping our bags and running off to look at art. After all, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is directly across the street and the museums in Williamstown but a skip and short drive away.

Instead, our lofty cultural intentions were sidetracked by the amenities at the inn. "Which water activity should we try first?" we wondered. Outside, there was the heated pool with adjacent bubbling hot tub, and in our bathroom, a beckoning claw-foot tub and a monster-sized, glass-enclosed, walk-in shower with an eight-inch-diameter pie plate showerhead dangling overhead like a giant watering can.

We chose the hot tub first. Turns out, it was a perfect way to decompress from the stresses of the week and relax into a weekend of viewing art. We eventually stuck our toes into everything, including a sauna near the pool.

The Porches Inn is part of the revitalization of the northern Berkshire town of North Adams, which started in the 1980s with the idea of converting the 13 acres of abandoned Sprague Electric Co. buildings into a venue for contemporary art. In 2001, the Porches opened on a street behind the museum, in six renovated Victorian-era row houses that once provided housing for the city's millworkers.

In its brochure, the Porches calls itself "retro-edgy, industrial granny chic." We'd take out edgy, industrial, and chic (that would best describe MASS MoCA), which leaves the simpler "retro-granny." It is an apt description, not meant in a negative way.

Our room had sage green beadboard walls and a red wood floor with a checkered wool rug in warm tones of orange, green, red, gray, and yellow. Natural linen panels added privacy to the windows, and flower-painted plates were mounted on the wall in a grid. Two cushy armchairs had plenty of space near the wood cabinet on wheels that hid the TV, DVD player, and mini fridge. Two paint-by-number Gainsboroughs and a 1950s-era table lamp added wit and whimsy. The wood dresser and desk were made to look distressed; the mirror frames, though, are made from the building's original window frames.

At first, we loved everything. The staff was welcoming, the room large and lovely, the business desk had free Internet, and the fireplace near the check-in desk -- in a room with red leather armchairs -- was crackling. What's not to like? But then doubt crept into our minds, and in a Martha Stewart-ish voice, it whispered the word "perfection."

Take the breakfast room, for example, which could be a little larger to accommodate all the guests jockeying for the coffee carafes in the morning. In this cheerful room with Oriental rugs and marigold-yellow wainscoting, a high shelf rims the walls, displaying decorative plates in this exact order: large gold plate, small black plate, miniature white pumpkin, large gold plate, small black plate, miniature white pumpkin, and on and on. When -- eureka! -- we spotted an aberrant green plate, we felt a pang of rebellious glee, until we saw its mate on the opposite wall. Can you say "symmetry"?

To be frank, at some point we felt as if we were staying inside a Pottery Barn. The piped-in music at breakfast had an commercial-retail feel, with Elvis Costello warbling to "Aaal-li-son" and Cat Stevens wondering, "Where do the children play?" with a salsa tune mixed in between. Everything began to seem self-conscious, calculated to impart a feeling of aw-shucks casual chic, and yet the experience was overly managed so as to feel inauthentic, like a teenager slouching in $500 ripped denim jeans. We weren't at an inn; we were at "an inn."

Then we found the price list, announcing almost everything in our room was for sale, including the linens, bath towels, mirrors, hair dryer, bath mat, rugs, window treatments, duvet cover, pillows, and even -- is nothing sacred? -- the mattress and box springs of our beds. After chuckling at the notion, we had to admit we actually coveted these items, especially the 12-inch-thick mattresses and cushy 80 percent down duvet that made us feel like queens.

Which led us to the conclusion that perfection is actually soothing and quite comfortable. Once we surrendered to our inner-Martha, our inner-whiner disappeared.

After touring museums the next day, we had another relaxing soak in the hot tub that stays open all year. We stayed warm while chilly winds blew and the moon peeked in and out through fast-moving clouds. For dinner, we walked a few blocks into town where the renewal continues with restaurants and shops. We were lucky to find the Gramercy Bistro open with a table available. In a room that seemed more southern France than Western Massachusetts, we shared some Prince Edward Island mussels in a spicy Thai coconut broth, and were sated by possibly the most succulent seared scallops of our lives, accompanied by delicate pouches of leek and goat cheese ravioli.

Walking back to the inn, we pondered our next activity. Get a DVD from the concierge desk? Take a sauna? A claw-foot bubble bath? Read ourselves to sleep in our giant beds? The choices were many, and -- we had to admit -- perfect.

Necee Regis is a freelance writer in Boston and Florida. Contact her at neceeregis@earthlink.net.

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