Rockwell Christmas Scenes Come Alive at Historic Berkshires Inn

The 235-year-old inn, featured in one of Norman Rockwell's paintings, has welcomed such guests as Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The 235-year-old inn, featured in one of Norman Rockwell's paintings, has welcomed such guests as Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Kristian Septimius Krogh)
By Hilary Krieger
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 14, 2008

It came as something of a shock when I discovered that many people use "Rockwellian" as a pejorative. To those critics, Norman Rockwell's paintings are both naively sentimental and out of touch with how real Americans live. But not to me.

I take exception to the unpleasant assessment of his scenes of everyday life because I know the truth of what he paints: I have experienced Christmas at the Red Lion Inn. And that rambling, 108-room Massachusetts landmark, quite simply, does Christmas as Rockwell intended it.

There, inside the wreath- and icicle-bedecked white clapboard structure, as ruddy-faced children bounce on their grandparents' knees beside a towering Christmas tree, even the most committed Scrooge would have difficulty uttering a "Bah, humbug!"

Rockwell included the historic inn in "Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas," his homage to the picturesque Berkshires village that he called home for the last 25 years of his life. True to Rockwell's depiction, Stockbridge still contains a general store and a single-story library, and not so much as one traffic light.

Of course, the 235-year-old inn (self-described as the Berkshires' oldest in continuous existence) has been welcoming guests since well before Rockwell chose it for his regular Thursday lunch. Both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt stayed over, as did Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (and, later, Bob Dylan). And it has also hosted the odd historical disturbance, including gatherings opposing England's Intolerable Acts and organizing boycotts of British goods.

That was way back in 1774, right after the property's start as a small tavern along the road connecting Boston and Albany. It had long since expanded to a proper inn when a fire broke out in 1896 and destroyed the building, though most of the extensive collection of antiques and collectibles was saved. Quickly restored, hand-carved tables and tapestry armchairs back in place, the inn reopened within a year and has been delighting visitors with its nostalgic Victorian air ever since.

Indeed, if you're searching for Christmases past, you need look no further. That's what my family has encountered every time we've made our near-annual pilgrimage.

The proud plaster lions standing sentry in front of the sprawling veranda welcome us first. The click of the large front door behind us officially announces our arrival while shutting out the icy chill beyond. (Stockbridge has just enough altitude and latitude to greatly increase the odds of a white Christmas.)

Upstairs, we are greeted by not just the spirit of Rockwell's images, but by the works themselves. Dozens of his artist's proofs inhabit the narrow, cluttered halls leading to the antiques-filled chambers where lacy arched canopies cover comfy, overstuffed beds. Porcelain bathtubs perch on lions' claws. Floral wallpapers decorate the walls, and some windows still boast thick rope for escaping fires the old-fashioned way. (Signs tell guests not to use the vintage ropes; the inn is equipped with fire escapes and a sprinkler system that is hard-wired to the local fire department.)

Indeed, the Red Lion Inn retains plenty of old-world flavor, not all of it welcome. The heavy glass windows, for instance, can let in a healthy (or unhealthy) draft, the thermostats sometimes need prodding and the shower heads don't all feature the latest in pressure-regulating options -- and some of those shower heads are shared. (Make sure to inquire upon booking whether your room includes a private bath.)

But there are plenty of modern amenities. Most rooms have free wireless Internet service, as does the communal library. There is a fitness center complete with elliptical, rowing and weight machines. And the new outdoor hot tub and pool are heated year-round, as is the stone patio surrounding them. Winter wonderland takes on a fresh meaning when you jump from the piled-up snow into the foaming aqua water.

The main dining room strikes a balance between the old and the new with its contemporary interpretations of traditional New England fare, many of the ingredients locally grown. Amid Colonial pewter and 18th-century teapots, with a pianist playing soft classics in the background, the menu gets a special Christmas upgrade to a $49 four-course prix-fixe dinner ($24.50 for children younger than 12). Oyster stew with scallops and fennel and Equinox Farm field greens can be followed by roasted breast of pheasant and topped off with maple pecan bread pudding in bourbon sauce.

Cheaper and simpler fare (such as potato, cheddar and Barrington ale soup, $7, and macaroni and cheese with apple-wood-smoked bacon, $16) can be consumed in the next room over, at Widow Bingham's Tavern, named for a former owner, believed to be the first woman to appear in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Downstairs, the Lion's Den offers pub grub (bowl of New England clam chowder, $5; chicken pot pie, $9.95) along with free live music, such as folk, reggae and blues, every night of the year.

But my family's favorite Red Lion sustenance is the inn's rich hot chocolate topped with whipped cream. We sip it as we sit on soft velvet sofas by the blazing fireplace, playing chess and checkers on round mahogany tables while a harpist plucks out "Greensleeves" and "Silent Night."

Some might call it Rockwellian.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company