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The Briarcliff Motel: Not Just Another Roadside Attraction

Rural Intelligence Road TripsLondoners Clare Weatherall and Richard Proctor first came to the Berkshires 15 years ago as tourists on a whirlwind tour of New England, staying mostly at bed & breakfast lodgings. Motels were out of the question. Like many Europeans, their impression of the quintessentially American roadside accommodation had been informed by a Hollywood pantheon that includes Psycho, Natural Born Killers, and Leaving Las Vegas. “To me, a motel is what you see in the movies,” quips Weatherall. “It’s where you go to get murdered or get laid.”

So it may come as a surprise to discover that the couple now owns the Briarcliff, a quintessential 1960s motel set back on Route 7, across from Monument Mountain, in Great Barrington. But anyone who takes a peek inside will find it’s no longer quite so quintessential. Since their purchase of the property in 2011, the Briarcliff has undergone a transformation that sets it apart from other motor lodges in the region. Weatherall and Proctor have given the formerly forlorn flophouse a fetching retro-modern makeover that has earned the motel glowing reviews on Trip Advisor as well as accolades from national magazines ranging from Outside (which in December named the Briarcliff to its list of “The 9 Best Adventure Lodges of 2011”) to Food & Wine.

Rural Intelligence Road TripsTheir concept: to create a contemporary, value-priced, authentically Berkshire lodging option that provides the privacy and convenience of a motel with the personality and conviviality of a B&B. To that end, they reinvented the standard, impersonal motel check-in room, where, as Weatherall puts it, “They dispense keys from behind a high counter and don’t really look at people; you get a feeling that you’re not very welcome, like Get your key and get out of here.”

By doing away with the barrier-like counter – as well as the industrial carpeting, the wallpaper, and a few of the walls – they created an inviting, rustic-luxe lounge with a long communal table where they serve breakfast, including farm-fresh yogurt and Barrington Roasters coffee, plus Proctor’s homemade granola and Weatherall’s signature scones.

Rural Intelligence Road Trips

Opening up the lounge enabled them to build a gathering space with comfortable seating nooks filled with light and views of the surrounding mountainside, thanks to three walls of windows and a slider that leads to a back deck.

Rural Intelligence Road Trips

The lounge is warmed by a high-style Wittus pellet stove and a muted palette (Elena Letteron of the chic Great Barrington shop Germain helped select the colors and fabrics) rich with felted-wool cushions in aubergine, earthy greens, and soothing grays. There’s also a large, wall-mounted flat-screen TV which, Weatherall notes, is rarely switched on. “People want to sit and have breakfast and talk to other people,” she says with evident pride. “We can’t keep people out.”

Rural Intelligence Road Trips
Also gone is the standard motel room décor. Says Weatherall, “Nearly everything went to Habitat for Humanity or the dumpsters.” The rooms are now clean, crisp, and comfortable, with sleek Euro-style furniture and linens from Ikea. The couple invested in high-quality mattresses and showerheads, and kept the motel’s original vintage sinks (in pinks and blues) and heavy wooden headboards, which they had spray-painted in high-gloss, soft blues and beiges – at Baldwin’s auto repair shop in West Stockbridge – to match the walls.

Personal touches, including pinned-up clusters of old photographs, postcards and other found art, enliven the rooms. Hair dryers are stowed in drawers, not tethered to the walls, and Weatherall hasn’t lost a single item to theft. “People really appreciate what we’re trying to do here,” she says. “People are incredibly and genuinely nice.”

Proctor and Weatherall were well equipped to take on the challenge of transforming the Briarcliff. Back in London, both had long worked in the twin realms of magazines and design.  “I worked on various women’s magazines as a writer and copy editor, before ultimately editing interiors titles,” says Weatherall. “Richard was an advertisement director and publisher of women’s magazines, notably Hello!  Then in 1995 we started, a small independent agency producing magazine-style content for brands across Europe. Our main client was the world’s largest paint company [AkzoNobel], for whom we produced a magazine about trends in color, which was distributed to consumers in countries all around the world.”

Rural Intelligence Road TripsTheir work required extensive travel; having logged many hours in hotels they became de facto experts on the lodging industry. In 2005, ten years after they fell in love with the Berkshires on their initial visit, they bought a vacation home in Lee and cast about for a business that would facilitate year-round residence in the region. A hospitality venture seemed a natural fit.

They first considered buying a B&B, but, explains Weatherall, “You kind of become a custodian. We wanted something we could make in our own image.” She also recalled her own trepidations about the forced intimacy of the B&B experience: “We did spend a lot of time wondering whether we’d be judged if we went back to the room at lunchtime to have a nap!”

Once the couple got over their Hollywood-instilled image of the creepy motel, they began to appreciate the egalitarian nature of the accommodations. “It’s not like a B&B where someone gets a broom cupboard while someone else gets the honeymoon suite,” notes Weatherall. “Everyone gets the same size room.” Having brought the décor up to their standards, they’ve developed a formula for success. “People want a good bed, a good shower, and a great cup of coffee. Their needs are simple. If you get those things right, you can’t go wrong.”

Rural Intelligence Road TripsBut it’s more than that; the savvy couple also realized that the type of traveler they wanted to attract to the Briarcliff requires free high-speed internet – a priority in their upgrades to the motel, which only had local phone service – and that they had to develop a web presence for the motel, which not only had no website or internet service, but was not listed on any web-based travel sites, such as Orbitz or Trip Advisor.

Those issues remedied, the motel’s transformation from hapless to hip has been met with appreciation from guests – both old-timers, who are happy with the upgrades and the still-gentle prices (rooms range from $90 - $115 in low season;  $170 - $200 at peak, breakfast included), and newcomers, who appreciate the design sensibility and the personal touches. Business was brisk this summer, with all rooms booked every weekend, and they remain fully booked into the autumn, with plenty of repeat business and advance reservations into next year.

Rural Intelligence Road TripsAlas, an innkeeper’s work is never done. Only since summer’s end have they given themselves the luxury of time off. (“Every Wednesday afternoon, like Mary Poppins,” says Weatherall.) This fall the couple is focusing on the exterior, giving it a new blue paint job, and trying to figure out what to do with the landscaping, which is notable for its spiral-cut dwarf evergreens, something of a kitschy local landmark. “I can’t stand them,” says Weatherall. “I feel that if you turn your back on them, they’ll creep up on you. I’d happily give them to anyone who cares to turn up. I really want the landscaping to be part of the mountain, much more natural and loose – native trees and grasses.” They also plan to add a firepit to the front of the property.

Rural Intelligence Road Trips“We want the Briarcliff to feel very ‘Berkshires;’ we want it to feel rustic, but modern at the same time. In our mind the Berkshires is having a moment; there’s a whole new cool generation who want to spend their weekends doing the stuff that locals have been doing round here forever — being in the great outdoors, furnishing with nature and found objects, feeling part of small town life in the shops and bars. Picking apples. Drinking craft beer. Ice fishing…” Perhaps having a first encounter with the region that causes them to fall in love with the place, like a certain pair of ex-pat innkeepers. — Bess Hochstein

The Briarcliff Motel
506 Stockbridge Road (Route 7)
Great Barrington, MA 01230

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