Stockbridge, Mass., is an illustration of life as the artist saw it A Norman Rockwell Experience

March 05, 1995|By Jack Severson | Jack Severson,Knight-Ridder News Service

Childhood is filled with mysteries and countless questions about the world. What holds birds up in the air? How come you can't see wind? Stuff like that.

One of the enduring mysteries of my early life was: If they call it the Saturday Evening Post, how come it comes in the mail on Thursday? Why isn't it the "Thursday Evening Post"?

The Post was a staple in the coffee-table pile when I was growing up. But there certainly never was any mystery about the magazine's covers, so frequently bearing illustrations by Norman Rockwell. Each of the 321 Post cover images Rockwell executed over a 46-year relationship with the magazine conveyed a message -- often humorous, sometimes poignant -- that was unmistakably clear.

Now there are those who argue that "America's Favorite Artist" was not an artist at all, that he was an illustrator and what he produced was not art. Other critics of Rockwell's work say his illustrations presented an idealized version of American life that never really existed.

I'm no art expert, but to Rockwell's critics I would simply say: Come to Stockbridge.

In many ways, this Berkshire Mountain village, where Rockwell lived and worked for the last quarter-century of his 84-year life, seems an ideal -- an unreal version of a small New England town. But it's no ideal -- it's the real thing.

And a weekend visit to this attractive hamlet and the Norman Rockwell Museum on its outskirts is enough to convince almost any cynic that charming, small-town New England life does indeed exist and that Rockwell's portrayals of it are, in fact, art.

Beyond Rockwellian pursuits, however, the Stockbridge area has enough going on any time of year to make the trip worthwhile. For outdoor types, winter offers skiing; the rest of the year you can hike, bike, sail, fish and swim. Those whose interests lie in less active areas will find this part of the Berkshires full of art galleries, antiques stores, boutiques and plenty of concerts and stage performances to attend.

Now is a particularly good time to visit, since the Norman Rockwell Museum is in the midst of a centennial exhibition, marking 100 years since the artist's birth.

On a recent weekend, I stayed at the venerable Red Lion Inn on Main Street and explored Stockbridge before stopping by the museum.

The town began life as little more than a wide spot in an 18th-century road through the Berkshire Hills. In the latter half of the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th, however, its picturesque setting was discovered by wealthy Easterners who built "cottages" in and around Stockbridge.

Friendliness, 'family values'

The village of today easily merges its small-town feel with the more cosmopolitan atmosphere of an upscale vacation and tourist destination. There is an air of sophistication, but it is tempered with the kind of friendliness and, for want of a better term, "family values" so commonly found in Rockwell's illustrations.

It's the kind of town where you are almost embarrassed to lock your car when you park it on the street; where a kid can leave a bike on the front lawn overnight and it will still be there in the morning.

Downtown Stockbridge consists largely of a two-block stretch of Main Street and the block-long Elm Street, which meets Main at the eastern end of downtown. The center is anchored by the Red Lion Inn, a rambling, white, four-story hostelry that has been accepting guests since 1773 and is a favorite of concert-goers attending the summer presentations at Tanglewood, just a few miles north of town in Lenox, Mass.

The inn features a cozy basement pub, the Lion's Den; an informal bar off the lobby; and an estimable restaurant with menu offerings that include traditional New England cuisine and international fare. The Red Lion is jammed with an eclectic collection of antiques and reproductions, and the atmosphere and service are homey without being cloying.

Just down Main Street is the 1884 House, once the town hall and now a boutique offering men's and women's clothing in traditional styles and fabrics from here and abroad. Next door is a pedestrian walkway called, almost too cutely, the Mews, where shops such as Heirlooms, Hodge Podge and Currier & i purvey antique jewelry, contemporary crafts and gifts.

Continuing east, at the corner of Main and Elm stands the Old Corner House, former home of the Rockwell Museum. The building, dating from the 1790s, now houses medical offices.

Main Street is lined with magnificent homes, some remnants of the "cottage" era. Also on Main, half a block west and across the street from the Red Lion, is the Mission House, the restored home built in 1739 by the Rev. John Sergeant, who set up housekeeping there while he served as missionary to the area's Mahican Indians. (The house is open daily from Memorial Day through Columbus Day.)

The Norman Rockwell Museum is a short drive up Route 102 from the heart of Stockbridge. The museum entrance is on Route a half-mile west of the intersection.

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