Art amidst the mills of North Adams

November December 2013 104

Fall leaves and outdoor swimming go great together!

A decaying mill town on a gray November weekend in an isolated corner of Massachusetts might seem an unlikely destination, but North Adams had been on my radar for a while.

The  Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art (Mass MoCA) offered intriguing, colorful and large-scale modern art likely to engage a 12-year-old non-artsy boy.  The Porches Inn provided a 24-hour outdoor heated pool and hot tub.  And Spruce Hill, just outside of town, is listed in Jeffrey Romano’s book, 100 Classic Hikes in New England.  Plus, right above town, we could experience the hair-pin turn on Route 2.  Why go to Disney World when North Adams awaits?

North Adams is a classic New England mill town, with acres and acres of massive red-brick empty mill buildings. Manufacturing in North Adams dates back to the Revolution, but now industry is all but dead, the final nail in the coffin coming with the 1985 closure of the Sprague Electric Company plant on Marshall Street (previously the home of the country’s largest textile print mill).  The Sprague plant was much more than a small-town components factory; it had state-of-the-art equipment and served as the company’s research and development center.  Employees included physicists and electrical engineers as well as line workers making electrical components.  At its peak in the 1960s, the company employed more than 4,000 workers.  The 1985 closure struck a massive blow to the community.

In the 19th century, sheep farmers in the hills around North Adams abandoned their fields for the relative comforts offered by row houses in the town.

In the 19th century, sheep farmers in the hills around North Adams abandoned their farms for jobs in the mills and the comforts offered by the row houses in town (on the Spruce Hill hike).

Soon after plant’s closure, town officials set their sights on reviving the town. In 1999, Mass MoCA opened at the sprawling Sprague complex to become the world’s largest contemporary art museum.  Although it’s unlikely that art will ever replace Sprague’s 4,000 jobs (plus the related jobs in other businesses), Mass MOCA has served as the cornerstone of the town’s revival, with other art galleries opening in its wake, along with restaurants, shops, and The Porches Inn.

Mass MoCA is fun – the perfect art outing for families with tweens or teens (and many were wandering around the place). Kids who might be bored with the portrait galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts will find much here to intrigue them.  The exhibits are constantly changing.

When we visited, Jason Middlebrook’s monumental hanging water fountain sculpture, Falling Water, packed a big “wow” factor. Mark Dion’s Octagon Room offered an intriguing bunker-like space to explore.  The colorful patterned paintings of Sol Lewitt (more or less on permanent exhibit) provide hope to non-artists that they too can create something beautiful, as Lewitt allows others to use his patterns to recreate his art.

The marble bridge, unique in North America, offers another sort of sculpture at Natural Bridge State Park, just outside of town.

The marble bridge, unique in North America, offers another sort of sculpture at Natural Bridge State Park, just outside of town.

European sculptor Joseph Beuys’s three-dimensional montage, Lightening with Stag in Its Glare, intends, per the catalog, to evoke “the spiritual power of animals and nature” while celebrating “the victory of socialist warmth and self-determination over materialist greed and alienation.”  For kids, however, the most interesting question is whether the irregularly shaped brown objects lying on the floor are lacquered turds or primordial worms (or perhaps both).

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Just getting up to see Michael Oatman’s Airstream trailer repurposed as some kind of exotic aircraft (titled “The Shining”) is a unique museum adventure.  Visitors have to climb a few flights of stairs past old boilers and pipes to reach the outdoor platform where the trailer is perched.  The rusted pipes and equipment, which probably clanked and boiled well into the 1980s, now seem ancient.

A chilly November dawn in North Adams.

A chilly November dawn in North Adams.

Across the street from MASS MoCA, the Porches Inn is laid back and easy-going, with 24/7 access to the hot tub, sauna and pool. Visitors can order happy hour drinks at the small bar and sip them in the living room.  We decided to catch the sunrise each morning from the hot tub, although we kept forgetting to get up early enough due to the recent “fall back” switch to Eastern Standard Time.  Although we missed the official moment of the sun rising, we enjoyed sitting in the hot tub sipping fresh coffee and watching the pink sky.

The 3.5-mile loop hike up to Spruce Hill provided a good opportunity for leg-stretching and views of North Adams and Mount Greylock.  The loop trail through the forest took us along a massive beaver swamp, with many freshly chewed trees. The beavers remained hidden.

View from the summit of Spruce Hill, with Mount Greylock in the background.

View from the summit of Spruce Hill, with Mount Greylock in the background. The ledge was slippery, with a steep drop-off on one side. I lost my footing and fell hard on my behind, but at least I was on the right of the ledge!

In Mass MoCA, I took plenty of photos of the art, but I can’t publish those shots online. So when I was in North Adams, I tried to make my own art by shooting artsy photos. If you don’t know what they are, then I guess I have succeeded in creating modern abstractions (see below).

By the way, last year, on this same November weekend, we made our first-ever trip to Orlando to visit Harry Potter world at Universal Studios.  Jeremy rated that trip as a five-star adventure.  Our weekend in North Adams:  4.5 stars.  A pretty good rating, I’d say, for a place that exemplifies “November” in New England (i.e. gray, barren, and chilly).  Chamber of Commerce, take note:  with the right spin, marketing North Adams as the alternative destination for families weary of roller coasters just might work.

What kind of monster beavers can fell a tree this thick?

What kind of monster beavers can fell a tree this thick?

 

Stream in fall.

Stream in fall.

 

Modern art in the forest: the exposed veins of a tree.

Modern art in the forest: the exposed veins of a tree.

About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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