The Legacy of Brook Farm Inn, a Lenox, Massachusetts Bed and Breakfast in the Berkshires
In the year 1882, a German-born pianist named Frederick William Rackemann built a cottage on his property in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Mr. Rackemann and his wife, the former Elizabeth Dwight Sedgwick, lived in a house known as The Hive on a property that stretched from what is now Kemble Street to Old Stockbridge Road. The new cottage, that faced Old Stockbridge Road, was built for rental. The first tenants were Burton Harrison and his wife Constance Cary Harrison. The cottage became known as “The Burton Harrison House.”
The Harrisons were originally from Richmond, Virginia. Burton Harrison served as the personal secretary to President Jefferson Davis. Constance was a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson. After the Civil War the Harrisons moved north and became prominent members of New York society.
Like many of their contemporaries, the Harrisons chose to leave the city for the summer season. They rented the Lenox cottage and entertained their friends there. Guests included the Andrew Carnegies, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the poet Emma Lazarus. Constance was a popular novelist and playwright. She enlisted some of her friends to act out parts of her plays in the library of the Lenox house.
In 1883 Constance chaired a fund-raising art exhibition. A statue was being given as a gift to the people of the United States, from the people of France, and New Yorkers were busy raising funds to construct a pedestal for the statue. Constance joined in this effort by gathering a portfolio of original literary works by leading American authors, which she planned to auction at the art exhibit. Constance asked her friend Emma Lazarus to write a sonnet for the occasion. Lazarus, a member of the Harrisons’ New York set, had been doing volunteer work at a Lower East Side settlement house. Constance suggested that Emma use that as inspiration and several days later received a copy of The New Colossus.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp by the golden door.
In 1901 The New Colossus was installed on the pedestal of The Statue of Liberty. The seeds of poetry had been planted in a Victorian Lenox cottage, for later generations to discover.
Frederick Rackemann died in 1900, and his property was sold to John E. Alexandre. Alexandre razed The Hive, and built in its place Spring Lawn Mansion, which faces Kemble Street and is currently owned by Shakespeare & Co. In 1903, Alexandre apparently gave the rental cottage (now Brook Farm Inn) to his butler, James Whittenham. Whittenham was in the odd position of having the building, but no property on which to situate it. He purchased real estate on Hawthorne Street from Bertia Parsons, the widow of Julius Parsons. The cottage was moved down the hill, and found a permanent home at 15 Hawthorne Street.
Parenthetically, on its way down the hill, the house passed the famous elm tree where a fatal sled accident had occurred. Lenox resident Edith Wharton later based her novel, Ethan Frome, on the accident. The tree was eventually removed, but a grassy triangle still marks the spot at the intersection of Old Stockbridge Road and Hawthorne Street.
Whittenham sold his property at 15 Hawthorne Street to Charles Bleyman, an upholsterer, in 1914 for the princely sum of $2,800. It changed hands several times, but continued to be occupied as a home until 1949.
In 1949, 15 Hawthorne Street began its new incarnation when it was purchased by Lena and Max Rosenberg, and was named Shadowood Inn. Legend has it that Leonard Bernstein was among the first guests. Also legendary was Lena Rosenberg’s cooking. In a newspaper article from the 1950′s, touting Tanglewood and the Berkshires, Mrs. Rosenberg was called the “virtuoso of the kitchen, unquestionably the Beethoven of the Blintz.” A rate card from that era offers rooms at the weekly rate of $55, or $10 per day.
Shadowood Inn continued to attract guests under several owners, and eventually was purchased in the 1970′s by Ruth Backes, a direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her family history is important because Emerson was involved in the original Brook Farm, a utopian cooperative community of the 1840′s; Ruth Backes changed the name of the inn to Brook Farm Inn. Nathaniel Hawthorne was also involved in the original Brook Farm, and based his novel, The Blithedale Romance, on his experiences there. How ironic that the inn is located on Hawthorne Street!
The renamed property in Lenox, Massachusetts continued to thrive for the next two decades, changing hands several times. Among the innkeepers were Frank and Mary Newton, who added the outdoor swimming pool. They moved on to purchase both Gables Inn and The Summer White House.
The Newtons sold Brook Farm Inn to Betty and Bob Jacob in 1986. The Jacobs came to Lenox, Massachusetts with a strong interest in literature and poetry, and were to open a new chapter in the inn’s literary history. Bob designed the logo that has now become familiar to the inn’s guests. The Jacobs also gave the inn a new theme: “There is poetry here.” Indeed, they provided poetry by developing the library collection to include many volumes of poetry, inaugurating the Poem of the Day tradition, and most of all, by inviting well-known and highly regarded poets to stay at the inn and do readings. Among those who have read their works in the Brook Farm Inn library are Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Philip Levine, Galway Kennell, Stephen Dunn, and Robert Creeley.
Betty and Bob Jacob continue to inspire innkeepers and guests alike. They have returned under the current ownership to visit and read poems, and regularly contribute poems of the day.
In 2001, Linda and Phil Halpern, formerly of Maplewood, NJ, purchased Brook Farm Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts. Phil had been a candy broker, and Linda had been a school media specialist as well as professional storyteller. She contributes to the literary heritage by telling stories at teatime. The Halperns also enjoy continuing the tradition of inviting poets for readings; guest readers have included Barbara Wind, Alfred Corn, Bob Jacob, Richard Berlin, and Peter Bergman.
Since Linda and Phil became innkeepers, they’ve continued to enhance the property. In addition to major re-decorating in the main building, a carriage house was added in 2003, offering luxury accommodations and handicapped accessibility. The Halperns named the new building Shadowood, in honor of the inn’s original name. The completely redesigned gardens have won the Lenox In Bloom award. Brook Farm Inn recipes have recently been featured in the New England Bed and Breakfast Cookbook, A Taste And Tour of Northeast Country Inns, and have won a prize in North American Inns Magazine. The inn also has been accepted as a member of the prestigious Select Registry-Distinguished Inns of North America.