New resort in North Adams pays homage to past

Tourists pays homage to the  days when the Mohawk Trail was one of  the most traveled scenic highways in the Northeast.
Tourists pays homage to the  days when the Mohawk Trail was one of  the most traveled scenic highways in the Northeast. –Peter Crosby

On a rainy morning in late June, a month before its opening, tradesmen were putting the finishing touches to Tourists, the new, 48-room resort on Route 2 on the western edge of North Adams. Some rooms had yet to be furnished. The drone of a circular saw permeated the air, and you had to dodge a ladder to enter the rustic central lodge, which, with its bare, un-sheetrocked walls, looked unfinished, but actually was.

No matter. The parking lot was nearly full, and clutches of twenty- and thirty-somethings milled around, making plans. An array of poetry books was displayed in the lodge, left over from a gathering of poets the night before, part of the family and friends opening.

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The poets were heading out to do a reading at Mount Greylock, the state’s highest mountain, about five minutes away; they’d done another by an art installation in the woods the day before. It seemed a fitting introduction to a property that has its seeds nearby at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and offers guests the combination of hip design and deep connections to the local history, natural beauty, and arts of the northern Berkshires.

“We were going for something that’s of a place,’’ said Ben Svenson, a partner with the Cambridge-based development company, Broder, who oversees design and construction. He’s been coming to the Berkshires since he was young. “This place, years ago, drew so many tourists, and they came for reasons that are still here.’’

Four years in the making, Tourists is the first new hotel in North Adams since the opening of Porches, located next to MoCA, in 2001. While Porches’ architecture plays on the factory housing vernacular, Tourists updates the concept of the mid-century roadside motel, paying homage to the days when the Mohawk Trail was one of the most traveled scenic highways in the Northeast.

What started with plans for a 16-room hotel gradually expanded, and Svenson says the owners went from “turning the New England motel on its head to: Let’s build a great New England resort.’’

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Indeed, before a single real tourist checked in, Tourists had made the pages of Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Conde Nast Traveler last spring. While Broder is the developer and majority owner, the buzz reflects the pedigree and great expectations of the five partners, Svenson; John Stirratt, a founding member of the band Wilco; Eric Kerns, formerly of MoCA and cofounder of Bright Ideas Brewing in North Adams; Scott Stedman, founder of Brooklyn Magazine; and chef Cortney Burns, James Beard award-winning chef, late of the San Francisco restaurant Bar Tartine.

There are twists galore at Tourists. Those old roadside motels didn’t have high-tech air circulation systems, landscaping that conserved rainwater, or radios in the rooms with a weather-connected playlist curated by Stirratt. (Check it out on Tourists Radio on Spotify.) Stirratt, who lives in Maine, has been connected to MoCA since 2010, when Wilco launched Solid Sound, a three-day music and arts festival that has since become a local institution.

After decades of traveling with the band, he had some ideas about what he wanted to build. He liked the look and feel of a motel, and he wanted clean lines, what he calls “austere elegance.’’

“John said, let’s make the place that we want to stay at,’’ said Svenson. “Our goal was to find an existing motel and breathe new life into it, in keeping with the early history of motoring tourism.’’

And so they did. They found the old Redwood Motel (TripAdvisor ranking: 91 percent “Terrible!’’), and replaced it, keeping the one-story look, but adding a sleek exterior of clear vertical grain white oak. From the road, the result is striking: The front is solid wood, while in the back, rooms have almost floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook woodlands that lead down to the Hoosic River.

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The rooms have a clean, spartan look, with floors and headboards of plywood. Vintage Mohawk Trail postcards decorate a wall. Some rooms have second beds tucked into a window bump-out that looks out on woodlands, creating the effect of sleeping in a tree house. They even left out telephones and mini-fridges to limit noise. The idea, says Svenson, was to create spaces that are quiet and contemplative, and let the landscape take center stage.

While the rooms are modern and new, the central spaces are older and quirky. The team converted a 1962 ranch house into the central lodge, and an old tourist home next door is now a small event space. A wooden deck overlooks a new pool and the woodlands below, and a wooden walkway leads down to another small perch on the river.

Walking with Svenson and Stirratt through the project, you can see that this is a unique property, and not just for the Berkshires. Its reclamation and reuse of land and buildings could be a model for small, post-industrial cities. It’s ambitious, playful, and for all involved — five creative entrepreneurs looking to do something cool — it seems to be the right project at the right time.

Start with that 220-foot suspension bridge across the Hoosic, designed and built by Gerhard Komenda, who designed bridges at nearby Ramblewild in Lanesboro. The bridge connects to 30 acres of walking trails, one of which will lead to Burns’s new restaurant, Loom, when it opens next year. Until then, walkers can discover — and play with — Chime Chapel, a 25-foot-tall musical instrument/art installation Stirratt commissioned by the New Orleans art collaborative Airlift, which also has works at MoCA. It will serve as the setting for small concerts and special events.

You’d never know it, but Chime Chapel sits on the site of the city’s old wastewater treatment plant. It’s one of 30-odd parcels that Svenson bought from the state, the city, and neighbors, to assemble the 60-acre project, which includes parts of the old manufacturing neighborhood of Blackinton. In an old mill where fabric was once made for Union Army uniforms, workers for the Williamstown Theater Festival now build sets. Loom will be built in an old church nearby that once served as the Welch Temperance Society for those mill workers, many of whom immigrated from Wales in the 1800s.

For Burns, the project required a 3,000-mile move from a California growing season to a place where it’s said, only half-joking, that there are two seasons: July and winter. In an online piece called “Reverse Migration,’’ she writes about the immigrant groups who have moved to the region: “The foodways of Western Massachusetts chronicle a unique type of diaspora,’’ she writes. “Food is my lens to understanding this place and its people.’’

Like the other partners, Burns was motivated by the challenge of working in uncharted territory, Stirratt says as we walk through the woods back to the lodge.

“It’s been intriguing enough to people that they were persuaded,’’ he said. “It doesn’t really fit a mold. It’s a big blank canvas for people to fill in, so it’s an easy sell.’’

The common theme of Tourists is to create new experiences through the lens of the old. In fact, Svenson and Stirratt love the old stuff, right down to the kitschy matchbooks they found by the hundreds in the basement of the closed-up Airport Rooms & Tourist Home, next door to the hotel. They fixed up part of the kitchen, but left most of the 1940s style parlors with their upright piano and old-timey wallpaper intact. It looks and feels like a set from “The Road to Perdition,’’ and will serve as a small event space Stirratt calls a “speakeasy.’’

As Tourists nears its opening, a hotel boom is shaping up in the northern Berkshires. Two large hotels are going up in Williamstown, and the North Adams planning board recently gave early approval to the development of a 27-room hotel on North Adams’s iconic Eagle Street downtown.

For now, though, the partners do not seem too worried about competition.

“We’ve been working over the past few weeks and people have been stopping in to see it,’’ said Eric Kerns, as he worked through a punch list on the deck outside the lodge. “We’ve had people coming up to the desk and saying, ‘Holy cow!’ ’’

Said Stirratt: “We feel if we can draw people here once, we’ll create lifetime customers.’’

Tourists opens officially July 30. It is located at 915 State Road, Route 2, North Adams; 413-346-4933,www.touristswelcome.com. Room rates $202-$357 per night.

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