Bascom: A Venerable and Democratic Lodge Celebrates A Diamond Jubilee
By Shawn Hartley Hancock
Visiting a stone lodge at the top of a mountain appeals to everyone, even the not-very-outdoorsy. The delicious smoke and crackle of a campfire, the bracing fresh air, or maybe just the absence of a TV and a break from the quotidian all seem to conjure happy memories and simpler times. Bascom Lodge, a quintessential mountain retreat, was designed by Pittsfield architect Joseph McArthur Vance in the rugged Craftsman-style, and built from red spruce and schist stone harvested from the mountain. It opened in 1937, one of many such lodges built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in state parks across the country during the 1930s, and is now celebrating its 75th anniversary with special activities all summer.
An army of young men ages 18 to 24 populated the CCC—- 100,000 in Massachusetts alone—improving the nation’s forests, parks, and recreational resources, building bridges and roads – basically setting a standard for park development—as one of President Roosevelt’s social programs designed to keep people working (and alive) during the Great Depression. The Corp also improved access to the summit with road improvements, and built hiking trails and lean-to shelters throughout the park.
The main lodge is one large room, with a fireplace at one end, check-in at the other, and an enclosed porch at the back, facing the breathtaking south view. The lodge’s wings, angled like welcoming arms, house the kitchen and dining room on the left, and public facilities and guest rooms on the right. Remaining guest rooms are on the second floor, above the main lodge room. It is well-used by the visiting public, including the many tired, wet, and hungry thru-hikers traveling the Appalachian Trail, which passes a few feet from the front door. Others come just for the view, or to pay their respects at the Veterans War Memorial Tower a few hundred feet away.
Various groups ran the lodge over the years, but none took much responsibility for maintaining the actual building, and weather and hard use took its toll. Fortunately, Bascom Lodge got an extensive facelift beginning in 2009 when two multi-talented brothers from North Adams by way of New York City, took it over through an ingenious program run by the state. The Dudek brothers, Peter and John, and their third partner, Brad Parsons, have updated and upgraded its spaces, increased functionality, especially in the kitchen, and decorated it all in keeping with its Craftsman roots.
“The lodge had been boarded up for two years before we got the lease,” says Peter. “We had a ten-year plan to break even, but we’ve almost gotten there in half the time.” The brothers are calm, even sanguine, when they talk about their venture, probably because they’ve experienced everything by now and survived to tell the tale — burst pipes, road-closing snow storms, whacko guests — you name it. They’re in the hospitality industry with a capital H, in an extreme environment, and they know it.
While Mount Greylock State Park is open year-round, the lodge operates seasonally from June 1 to October (the actual closing date is driven by the weather). Peter, who runs the lodge’s programs and oversees its ongoing renovation projects, is a sculptor who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and the former director of the Storefront Artists Project in Pittsfield. He’s put together a series of programs and lectures (every Wednesday evening at 6 p.m.) that are free and open to the public.
He’s also designed a special 75th-anniversary weekend on July 13 and 14, with a full schedule of family-oriented programs, beginning with a Native American tepee raising and drumming to bless the mountain (noon to 4 p.m.); a fly-casting workshop (3 to 5 p.m., and repeated on Sunday); a children’s program highlighting bugs, bones, and birds; and an evening Jazz festival. The history of the lodge itself will be featured in the program on Wednesday, July 10, with author Lauren Stevens, and the legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corp will be explored on July 24. (See the full schedule of anniversary events and regular Wednesday programs at the lodge’s website.)
John Dudek, Peter’s brother and a private chef in New York City, has transformed the kitchen at the lodge, making the dining experience worthy of the view. Food is now one of the main draws, which means three meals a day, seven days a week through the season. At the same time, partner Parsons is responsible for the native alpine garden out front, as well as decorating the lodge, a process now complete except for two public bathrooms. The building can accommodate 34 overnight guests in four private rooms (simple but charming), four family rooms (with a queen bed for mom and dad, and bunk beds for the kids), and two large bunk rooms, each of which sleeps up to ten people. The rooms are simple and relatively small — more Laurence Rockefeller than Holiday Inn — but possess a rustic elegance typical of the Craftsman style. There’s Stickley furniture in every room and William Morris wallpaper above white-painted paneling. Simple white subway tile and 1930s-style marble patterned floors in the generously sized bathrooms sweep you back in time.
“It’s funny how much difference the right furniture makes,” Peter says, as he gazes around the main lodge room. “Not only does the lodge look better, but it changes people’s behavior. When we first took over the lodge, there would be thru-hikers sitting on the floor eating a three-day-old hamburger. Now, no one would think of doing that.”
The lodge continues to welcome thru-hikers, of course, along with wedding parties, Boy Scout troops, veterans groups, a steady stream of international travelers, and over the course of a season, thousands of day trippers looking to hike a bit and enjoy the view from 3,491 feet; a 360-degree visual feast of the neighboring Taconic, Hoosac, and Green Mountains, Berkshire Hills, and further out to the Catskills, Adirondacks, and White Mountains. Look down in any direction and you can easily identify local hamlets and landmarks, such as lakes Onota and Pontoosuc in Pittsfield. Granite “maps” located around the summit (there’s one just outside the west wing) help identify less-obvious landmarks. A stroll around the summit takes you past stones inscribed with passages from Hawthorne and Thoreau, too, whose words seem to have been written specifically about Mount Greylock. Indeed, the park is a natural wonder and the heart of the northern Berkshires, offering 70 miles of open field and forest hiking trails, 11-and-a half miles of Appalachian Trail, remnants of old farms, shelters and lean-tos, primitive camping, and other potential adventures.
In extreme environments, everything beautiful can easily become a hazard, making the everyday tasks associated with running a mountain lodge more complicated. John recalled the days last year following Hurricane Irene. Wind scarcely damaged a twig on the mountain, but torrential rain proved a problem. The park’s charming waterfalls gushed out onto the access road for days on end, making the drive up and down the mountain scary and treacherous. And as late as Memorial Day this year, there was still snow at the summit, which kept the roads closed until a just a few days of the official opening, robbing the brothers of the time they needed to get the lodge and restaurant open and ready for business.
The reward for being at nature’s mercy, however, is the opportunity to commune with nature in such a unique and glorious setting. John Bascom, one of the park’s earliest commissioners and the namesake of the lodge, expressed appreciation for the mountain best in his 1906 dedication of the park: “Greylock, our daily pleasure, our constant symbol, our ever-renewed inspiration, for all who have fellowship with Nature.”