By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
We’ve been as guilty as anyone of barely slowing down as we’ve driven through Pittsfield on our way from Tanglewood in Lenox to Mass MoCA in North Adams.
In years past, Pittsfield seemed to be merely a crossroads with shuttered retail shops and all the untidy business of Berkshire County government. The handsome Beaux Arts commercial buildings along North Street may have hinted at the city’s flush past, but we couldn’t even find a place to get a decent cup of coffee.
These days, Pittsfield surprises everyone who stops by. While the rest of us have been whizzing past, the city has been quietly but busily reinventing itself. Here are 10 good reasons to find a parking spot and take a look around.
1. Even old is new again
“The Berkshire Museum was the only thing that kept downtown Pittsfield alive in the dark old days,” executive director Stuart Chase says, only half joking. “The only other reasons to come downtown were to go to court or go to the bank.” After more than a century as Berkshire County’s only public museum combining art and natural history, the institution recruited Chase from the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown to lead the charge into a new era.
Now the museum is hatching the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, named for the local donors who founded General Systems and pioneered Total Quality Management. Twin galleries are being reclaimed from offices and storerooms to showcase Berkshire firsts. But the museum hasn’t forgotten its eclectic past. What other institution, Chase asks, has “a mummy, Hudson River school paintings, shells, Alexander Calder’s first public commission, and even a small aquarium?”
2. Street life is back
Old-timers reminisce about North Street on Thursday nights, when people walked shoulder to shoulder with paychecks burning holes in their pockets. Today, the old department stores may be gone, but the people have returned. They frequent spots such as Wild Sage, with its tiny gallery in back and “antiques” and used books out front, and the fiber arts and gift shop Twin Hearts Handworks. Pittsfield native Cara Carnevale lived in the bohemian enclave of Madrid, New Mexico, and returned home with Southwest tongue in cheek. Twin Hearts “is where the fun people come to do fiber arts,” she says — and buy Boss Lady and Dirty Girl personal care products (made by local company Blue Q). Pittsfield, Carnevale says, has become “the cool place for people tired of paying South County prices.”
3. There are fun places to hang out
Also on North Street, Bellissimo Dolce has a classic see-and-be-seen scene with vast plate-glass windows and big mirrors. The folks behind this Italian bakery-café set aside Saturday nights for alternating programs of jazz sets and tango classes, and they even host the occasional weekday poetry night. (The strawberry cream cheese Bundt cake is no slouch, either.)
And when you need something more bracing than coffee, head to Brix Wine Bar. Owner Patrick McGinley relocated from Hartford, Connecticut, to open this very Parisian spot in 2005. Get there early for a seat, or stand at the zinc bar with glass in hand.
4. Something’s cooking
The Lantern, a classic American bar and grill with local art on the walls and ’40s jazz on the sound system, serves an exceptional burger. And for lunch with aspirations, it’s hard to beat the swordfish BLT at On a Roll Café.
Pennsylvania craft brewers Christine Bump and Bill Heaton stumbled onto Pittsfield on a road trip a few years ago and fell for the town. They revived a moribund brewery in 2005 and, as Pittsfield Brew Works, have been crafting 10-keg batches of artisanal ales ever since.
Top choice for pre- or post-theater dining is Spice, a temple of imaginative, seasonal comfort food in suave surroundings carved from the former Besse-Clark department store. Tucking into a plate of pasta and Maine lobster with spinach, bacon, and chive cream banishes forever the days when all you could wish for in Pittsfield was a decent cup of joe.
5. The show goes on
Summer 2006 was the Big Bang for culture in Pittsfield as two historic theaters reopened.
“We think of Pittsfield as a big artists’ colony,” says Julianne Boyd, artistic director of the Barrington Stage Company (BSC). After 11 successful seasons in the southern Berkshires, BSC decamped to Pittsfield to renovate a circa-1910 former vaudeville theater into a permanent home. BSC mounted three main-stage productions last summer while also operating a second-stage incubator for new musical theater. (This company developed the Tony-award-winning Broadway hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.) Boyd hopes to expand BSC’s season over time. The reception in Pittsfield has been overwhelmingly positive, she says: “I feel energized.”
The 1903 Colonial Theatre operates all year, with up to 250 nights of classical, popular, and country music acts mixed with comedy, dance, and children’s productions. After decades of fund-raising and two feverish years of restoration, this turn-of-the-20th-century palace reopened triumphantly after standing dark for more than 50 years. “People who have spent their lives in town were awestruck,” executive director David Fleming says of the unveiling of the gleaming Rococo Revival interior.
6. Artists scout the best turf
To take in the pulse of Pittsfield’s visual arts scene, stop at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts. You can catch an exhibition in the center’s gallery and pick up a map for the city’s annual outdoor sculpture display. You’ll likely encounter Megan Whilden, head of the city’s Office of Cultural Development, who explains that since Pittsfield was the manufacturing center of the Berkshires, it once left the arts to neighboring towns. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when General Electric closed some of its operations and cut thousands of jobs, “Pittsfield felt like a jilted lover,” she says. Now it’s rebuilding on a base of the arts. Whilden says that about 160 visual artists live or work in Pittsfield now; at least 50 have studios in the central business district. “To attract new businesses, we have to make Pittsfield a desirable place to live,” notes Mayor James Ruberto.
7. The city has curb appeal
Wherever artists go, real estate agents are always right behind them. Pittsfield has a big stock of affordable housing, ranging from live/work factory conversions for artists to urban lofts and in-town condos. Sprawling old Edwardian and Victorian homes on leafy side streets lure big families. Prices have refugees from Boston and New York wondering if the agents missed a digit.
8. It might be the only place in the Berkshires where you can find Chanel shoes
Last time we stopped at USBluesware, co-owner Linda Mitchell had just finished shipping an entire fall wardrobe to Paris. Yes, the one in France. She runs her category-killer eBay business selling used and new designer clothing, shoes, and handbags from a big Pittsfield storefront, where you can try on the goods. A former New Yorker who loves designer duds, Mitchell literally sizes you up when you walk in and sends you out with a touch of elegance at below-bargain-basement prices.
9. You can get pampered
As a gauge of civilization and sophistication, some folks rank a day spa above even a latte bar or taxicabs. With the opening of Sante Skin Therapy and Spa next door to USBluesware, you can look as though you should be wearing designer clothes. Treatments range from simple facials to a turn under a magical light machine said to minimize fine lines and wrinkles. Mother/daughter team Carolyn and Joan Clevenger got their training at Canyon Ranch.
10. There are neat places to sleep
The White Horse Inn, about a mile south of downtown, is one of those spacious circa-1900 homes that make such fine B&Bs. New owners wisely chose clean, modern decor. Fabulous gardens out back are a plus for summer visitors. The Thaddeus Clapp House is an easy stroll from downtown. This 1871 industrialist’s mansion was a rooming-house wreck until Harvard MBA Becky Smith (who dropped out of her California corporate career to return to western Massachusetts) transformed it into a B&B with eight luxury suites. She’s a big booster of Pittsfield’s charms and is as plugged into the city’s revival as any nonelected official can be.