Time Travel

Blantyre Takes Its Guests to Another Place and Period

BlantyreWhile there are many words and phrases that have been used to describe Blantyre, the Gilded-age mansion in Lenox that is now a luxury resort coveted by business and leisure travelers alike, the most common refrain is that a visit there is like ‘going back in time.’

And guests will use such language to convey many different thoughts.

Commonly, it’s used in reference to the time, a century or more ago, when the Berkshires became the summer home for many of the affluent Americans who gave the Gilded Age its name and its lore, and ‘cottages’ like Blantyre dotted the landscape. Meanwhile, for the many fans of the PBS series Downton Abbey, a visit to the resort hotel provides an opportunity to see and taste the opulence and lifestyle of the Earl and Countess of Grantham — but without all the drama.

For those who know the story of Ann Fitzpatrick Brown, proprietress of the stately retreat for the past 33 years, a stay at Blantyre also provides a window into her childhood.

Ann Fitzpatrick Brown and Simon Dewar

Ann Fitzpatrick Brown and Simon Dewar have positioned Blantyre as a destination for discerning travelers and groups.

Due to the success of her entrepreneurial parents, John Fitzpatrick and Janes Hayes Pratt Fitzpatrick, Ann and her sibling had the opportunity to see the world when they were young, and their visits come to life through more than 2,000 novels and picture books shelved in Blantyre’s many rooms.

“My father was a traveler, and we always went to beautiful places,” Fitzpatrick Brown recalled of her childhood. “I remember as a very young child going to Italy and the Hotel Spendido in Portofino, and I saw those white canvas umbrellas [on the esplanade]; every June we’d go to a place in Ireland, and when I was 10, I went to school in Switzerland.”

Beyond travel, Fitzpatrick Brown also developed passions for art, books, music, and fine cuisine early in life, and Blantyre reflects all of those interests — through everything from the décor to the menu to the wine list.

And while visiting the past, guests at Blantyre are certainly enjoying the present. Indeed, the resort enjoys the distinction of being one of four Forbes 5-star hotels in the Bay State, and the only one not in Boston. It is also in the globally elite category of hotels known as Relais et Chateaux properties, which must pass the most stringent standards for excellence in the hospitality industry.

Such accolades — but mostly the track record for fine service that earned them — have made Blantyre a popular, and repeat, landing spot for corporate and leisure travelers and accepted destination for business meetings and family gatherings.

The octagonal breakfast room

The octagonal breakfast room is one of many opulent and intriguing spaces at Blantyre.

And when a business or group books the retreat, it books the entire retreat for what Fitzpatrick Brown calls “full-property takeovers,” meaning all 100 acres and every facility.

Corporate meetings and events at Blantyre include, well, everything. True to her strict rule of privacy, Fitzpatrick Brown would not say which corporations have taken their business there, but admitted they are “major” and usually in the Fortune-100 category.

The large music room is turned into a boardroom with the requisite AV equipment, large U-shaped table, and plush leather chairs, and the grounds and all amenities are available for the company’s daily use.

Aside from corporate meetings, there are also unique gatherings of the well-to-do. One example she cited, with very limited details, is that of a wealthy woman who flies her friends to exotic places every year to have their book-club meeting.

“Like her, our guests can go anywhere in the world, but they choose to come to Blantyre,” said Fitzpatrick Brown. Instead of, say, the French Riviera or the Swiss Alps, the book club will return for a second year to Blantyre.

As her vague comments suggest, guests also enjoy something else — privacy, before, during, and after their stay, something coveted by this discerning constituency.

“That’s the rule, said Fitzpatrick Brown, who was given the assignment of restoring the abandoned and derelict mansion when her father acquired it in 1980, and has considered it a labor of love.

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest visited Blantyre and talked at length with Fitzpatrick Brown and others about what makes this resort a true destination that guests return to year after year.

 

History Lessons

Blantyre’s main house was built at the height of the Gilded Age in 1902 by Robert Paterson, an association of the Vanderbilts. The mansion was built on the site of a more modest home known as Highlawn, an estate that included a carriage house and potting shed that were retained by Paterson and are still part of the current Blantyre complex.

The patio off the music room

The patio off the music room offers guests a place to enjoy Blantyre’s finest wines before dinner.

For more than 10 years, the mansion was the site of fabulous parties and opulence, but with the introduction of the income tax in 1913, the curtain came down on the Gilded Age. For the next 60 years, Blantyre went through several transitions in ownership and eventually fell into serious physical decline.

But while the historic mansion was falling into disrepair, the Fitzpatricks were writing a number of business stories.

The first was the now-famous Country Curtains window-treatment boutique, which they launched in 1955. As that business grew, the Fitzpatricks acquired the failing Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, moved Country Curtains there, and restored the inn to its former glory. The family also acquired the Porches Inn next to Mass MoCA in North Adams.

Fitzpatrick Brown was a vice president at Country Curtains in 1980 when her career took a dramatic turn after her parents decided to take on another reclamation project.

“My father was at a bank meeting, and Blantyre, which had gone bankrupt for a second time, came up for sale,” Fitzpatrick recalled. “He said, ‘I’ll buy it.’”

The purchase price was $257,000, but the family knew that it would have to invest millions to bring it back to its former elegance.

Fitzpatrick Brown and her mother would invest more than money in this venture — they would also inject their imaginations and collective love of the arts, travel, music, and more.

Fitzpatrick Brown, who was formerly trained in sculpture — she earned a bachelor of arts from the University of Colorado —  said Blantyre has become her canvas.

“A room to me is a piece of sculpture, and every room is all about not having one focal point,” she explained of her decorating style. “Some people like to decorate with one focal point, but I think it’s more relaxing to have all the rooms just flow together.

“Not everyone is going to like Blantyre, décor-wise. Minimalists will go running — they’ll run out the door quickly,” she went on, adding that perhaps the one word she would use to describe Blantyre is ‘romantic.’

Using a few more words, Travel and Leisure magazine called Blantyre the ‘Best Value over $550’ in 2007. Fitzpatrick Brown said she and her guests laughed at that designation, because a stay at the resort is very expensive, starting at $600 and ranging up to $2,000 a night year-round (two-night minimum), not including dinner.

But Fitzpatrick Brown and Simon Dewar, the resort’s general manager, say there is value that comes in many forms at this destination — from the no-tipping policy to the depth of the wine list,to the elaborate dinner menu.

 

Advice — on the House

When Blantyre opened year-round in 2005, the addition of a new spa in the 19th-century Potting Shed made Blantyre a more attractive option for the meeting and leisure travel industry, said Fitzpatrick Brown, noting that it has played host to a number of corporate retreats.

Guests can choose from among 21 opulent rooms, eight in the elaborate main mansion (many with fireplaces), 10 in the quaint Carriage House, and three more in cottages.  The main house has a lavish music room with its Steinway piano, used for corporate meetings and weddings, in addition to the glass-enclosed conservatory and the octagonal breakfast room. Blantyre is adorned with fresh flowers in every room, every day, and is known for its award-winning French cuisine and deep wine cellar.

“Everyone says that they feel like they’ve been transported back in time to a bygone era of gentler times; romance and elegance,” said Fitzpatrick Brown, noting that, since Downton Abbey made its debut in 2011, she’s heard many guests compare the resort and its amenities to that stately English manor.

“What that show has done is give us a category to compare to,” she said with a laugh, adding that the point of reference has become another marketing strategy in some respects, although Blantyre thrives almost entirely through word-of-mouth referrals.

Meanwhile, Dewar’s British accent and engaging personality help put guests in that Downton Abbey state of mind.

He became general manager in March 2012 after retiring as a British Army major, ending a career that included duty in the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and other stations around the world.

He oversees a staff of 70 full- and part-time employees in the summer, and one that is somewhat smaller in the winter, and told BusinessWest that it’s not a stretch to go from the business of the military to the hotel industry.

“It’s not that dissimilar from commanding and managing soldiers, perhaps a few less bullets and grenades, and no need to wear a helmet every day,” he said jokingly. “And guests are demanding; they expect a very high level of service.”

Dewar’s foray to a new career in retirement led him to a culinary school in Connecticut and work at Blantyre, but Fitzpatrick Brown saw the leadership qualities that fit the resort perfectly.

Dewar joins the husband-and-wife team of Arnaud Cotar, Blantyre’s executive chef, who has been with the hotel for several years and focuses his French cuisine on local fruits and vegetables, and his wife, Christelle, who started as a server and is now the sommelier.

When the retreat opened year-round, the wine became important as a marriage to the food, said Fitzpatrick Brown, adding that Cotar’s extensive knowledge of wine, through her past education in Europe, led her to her current position.

Now with a 12,000-bottle wine cellar, Blantyre’s select vintages have taken center stage, and have prompted well-attended wine-tasting dinners that have introduced many people to the landmark and given it another source of business growth.

Fitzpatrick explained that some of those events in winter include outdoor ice skating in the ‘rink’ that is created by flooding the four Har-Tru tennis courts, and the “Sno Bar-B-Q,” which offers oysters on snowballs and shrimp cocktail, with Cointreau hot chocolate marshmallow floats.

In summer, when not visiting Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, or walking to the Mount, guests can enjoy the heated outdoor pool or play on the formal, whites-required tennis courts and tournament-rated croquet lawns.

Parting Gifts

Fitzpatrick Brown said she’s never felt competition, locally or otherwise, because Blantyre is so different.

“We’re a house more than a hotel,” she said. “And that’s one thing my parents always lived by, because you can’t always be watching the other guy; it’s so destructive. So you just go full force, do the best you can, and it works out.”

It has worked out at Blantyre for many reasons — from that wine list to the views of the Berkshires; from the cuisine to the works of art created by Fitzpatrick Brown as she put her stamp on every room.

But mostly because a trip to this resort really is a journey back in time.

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at taras@businesswest.com

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