Tourist isn’t a dirty word in North Adams, Mass., a slice of the Berkshires that sightseers and explorers have traversed for centuries, from the Native Americans who fished and traded in the Hoosic River Valley, to 1910s motor-car drivers taking in the scenery from the sinuous Mohawk Trail, to modern culture travelers viewing installations by Sol LeWitt and James Turrell at Mass MoCA. Indeed, the business of welcoming visitors is the linchpin of North Adams’s ongoing economic revival, its escape route from the hollowed-out fate of so many other Massachusetts mill towns.
So it felt only natural that the partners in a new, forward-looking hotel here decided to call it, simply, Tourists. Opened this past summer, Tourists has the bones of an old-fashioned roadside motel but the design sophistication and sense of place of a lifestyle resort. “We wanted to build something that was part of the place,” says lead partner Ben Svenson, who also designed the property. “So when you’re there, you feel like you’re connected to both the ecological and cultural roots of that particular piece of dirt.”
Svenson, a self-described building geek whose firm is acclaimed for its adaptive reuse projects, was looking for investment opportunities in North Adams’s stock of 1890s-era structures but landed instead on the Redwood Inn, a rundown mid-century motor lodge on the highway to Williamstown. He and his partners—who include Wilco bassist John Stirratt, local brewery owner Eric Kerns, Brooklyn magazine founder Scott Stedman, and chef Cortney Burns (an alum of San Francisco’s Bar Tartine)—then acquired adjacent lots, ending up with a 60-acre parcel straddling the Hoosic River. The property will eventually include a network of hiking paths that connect to the Appalachian Trail and will repurpose several existing buildings: An 1813 rooming house will host live music and cocktails, and, as of next spring, a century-old Welsh temperance hall will house Burns’s restaurant, Loom.
The main hotel buildings are mostly new builds, with a look that’s refreshingly spare but still feels organic and connected to its surroundings. Svenson was inspired by Sea Ranch, the quasi-utopian community of redwood-clad houses on California’s Sonoma Coast, and he and architect Hank Scollard stuck to simple structures and natural materials, arranging the site to prioritize nature. The rooms comprise a U-shaped complex of long, shedlike cabins clad in untreated local white oak, with large picture windows and patios overlooking the river, forest, and subtle landscaping by the firm Reed Hildebrand. Interiors are pared-back—lots of plywood and poured concrete—but airy, thanks to vaulted ceilings and built-in window seats. Decoration is limited to a few vintage postcards on the wall and colorful woven rugs (Julie Pearson, formerly of Austin’s Spartan Shop, supplied the soft goods.) “The only visual interest is what’s out the window,” Svenson says. “We tried to prioritize the landscape as the work of art, and not try to compete with it.”
As for actual art, the area has plenty of that on offer. In addition to Mass MoCA, whose 2017 expansion nearly doubled its exhibition space, Tourists is within a short drive of the Clark Art Institute, which unveiled its own expansion by Tadao Ando and Annabelle Selldorf in 2014; and the well-regarded Williams College Museum of Art. And there’s more to come: Thomas Krens, the former Guggenheim director who had a hand in establishing Mass MoCA, recently unveiled ambitious plans to create new cultural institutions in North Adams, including the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum (yes, both in one) designed by Frank Gehry and planned for 2020, followed by a motorcycle museum by Jean Nouvel, and a museum of time by Gluckman Tang.
“There’s a decided uptick in North Adams,” says Joe Thompson, Mass MoCA’s longtime director, of the town’s accelerating fortunes. In the past 18 to 24 months, he says, “artists and artisans are moving to town, plus people interested in food and micro-agriculture.” He also sees a demographic shift: It’s not just the gray-haired Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow set coming to the Berkshires nowadays, but younger couples looking for a variety of experiences—an invigorating morning hike, a challenging bit of contemporary art, a farm-to-table dinner. With the arrival of Tourists, this corner of the Berkshires will become a destination for a new generation of, well, tourists.