Before Tanglewood, there was the Beckwith Estate — later home to the Berkshire Symphonic Festival — an outdoor escape for city dwellers seeking music and relaxation in the sweet fresh air and sunshine. By the 1930s, the estate’s mansion had taken its place among the region’s growing number of “cottages” peppering the wooded lanes of Lenox and Stockbridge, during what became known as the “Gilded Age.”
How did this all begin? In the late 19th century, a wave of growth and prosperity washed over the United States. The country’s wealthiest families looked around and, seeing little more than hope and opportunity, began building palatial estates – particularly in the Northeast – as marks of pride and promises.
The Gilded Age was a romantic time span of time that saw construction of hundreds of mansions, from the bluffs of Newport, Rhode Island to shores of Bar Harbor, Maine, and the hills of the Berkshires. The Berkshires became home to more than 75 such estates with names like Bellefontaine, Ventfort Hall, and The Mount.
The expanse between 35-37 Interlaken Road in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, has been known by many names in its 125-year existence, but first joined the landscape of “cottages” in 1892 as Bonnie Briar. Boston-based architect Leonard Forbes Beckwith, also the estate’s first occupant, built a 30-room villa on more than 1,000 acres that went on to join the ranks of the country’s most opulent homes. Frederick Law Olmsted designed the gently rolling grounds.
Beckwith’s ownership began a legacy of stewardship of the surrounding natural landscape. By securing water rights from Lake Mahkeenac (now known as the Stockbridge Bowl), for instance, the body of water was protected from drawing for manufacturing uses. In 1904, the Beckwith family sold the property to Samuel and Mary Hill, who renamed it Shaughlin–Mary’s maiden name. They remained in the Berkshires for a decade, while at the same time championing the Good Roads Movement, which promoted the importance of road-building in rural areas across the country.
In 1916, Dan Hanna purchased the estate as a wedding present for his fourth wife, Molly Covington, who hearkened back to its beginnings by naming it Bonny Brier Farm. Hanna built what was New England’s largest barn at the time at Bonnie Briar, to house more than 100 Percheron and Clydesdale horses and a full-size show ring. The Hannas divorced in 1921, but Covington remained at Bonnie Briar until her death in 1933. Prior to her passing, she donated a 600-foot beachfront to Stockbridge, still owned by the town today.
Three years passed before a new owner took on the estate, and this period marks the arrival of the Berkshire Symphonic Festival. The festival’s first performances were held in the former horse ring, leading to the eventual creation of Tanglewood, the historic outdoor performance space in neighboring Lenox, and the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A handful of concerts were held on the property until its sale to Elisabeth C.T. Miller, who hoped to create a spiritual center for the New Thought religious movement and, in the process, planted several rows of ornamental trees throughout the grounds.
Miller sold the property to the Wheeler & Taylor Realty Company in 1945 – a business still in operation in the Berkshires.
In 1948, educator Hans K. Maeder acquired the property, at this time estimated to include 1,100 acres of land, to create The Stockbridge School. The school only used a small portion of the open land available, and remained in operation until 1976 as a progressive, integrated boarding school for adolescents. Michael DeSisto assumed ownership and control of the school in 1977, renaming it The DeSisto School. The facility closed in 2004 and remained vacant until 2009, when it was purchased by Patrick J. Sheehan, principal of Sheehan Acquisition LLC.
Patrick has maintained the grounds since and removed several decaying buildings. He and his team hope to restore the property to its original elegance, honor the land on which it sits, and create a new, vibrant destination in the Berkshires that honors the past and is focused on the future.
The Berkshire historian and author Carole Owens has chronicled the history of numerous Great Estates in the Berkshires. In a recent two-part series in The Berkshire Eagle, Ms. Owens tells the story of the former Desisto/Beckwith property.