BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va., May 25, 2012 – If it’s Memorial Day weekend, it must be time for the semi-annual Berkeley Springs / Morgan County West Virginia Spring Studio Tour. Running from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May 26 through May 28, 2012, this is, quite literally, an art tour, so make sure your car or SUV is in top shape, gassed, and ready to go. That’s because you’ll be wandering around the entire county, ranging from quaint, downtown Berkeley Springs, the county seat, to twisting and challenging mountain roads to visit each studio on the tour.
A jaunt out to Morgan County—the westernmost of the three tiny counties that comprise West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle—takes roughly two hours from Northern Virginia, slightly longer from the District, and, if you’re lucky, a trifle shorter from the western DC suburbs of Maryland.
The drive is likely to be easy and enjoyable this weekend, as most of the heavy traffic will be headed for Maryland’s beaches. So, in addition to getting a chance to encounter a variety of art and artists, both the drive and the road rally aura of the tour make for a delightful day trip and possibly even an offbeat overnight.
A little historical background on the town and the springs
Literally “discovered” by George Washington, who surveyed this onetime Virginia territory when he was a teenager, Berkeley Springs—then and now known to the locals as the “Town of Bath—was and is one of the country’s lesser-known spa destinations which is what first drew a modest but loyal entourage of health-seeking tourists to the town over the years. It’s never had the name, the cachet, or the glamor that better-known spa-towns like Hot Springs, Arkansas have enjoyed. But that’s allowed it to develop its own rep as the spa town for the rest of us.
Smack in the center of town, Berkeley Springs State Park—the tiniest state park in West Virginia and maybe anywhere—is just the size of the average small town square. But within its tiny confines are public baths that anyone, whether locals or tourists can easily enjoy.
Why public baths? Simple. Right at the edge of the park, flowing from a sudden, steep hillside, are both warm and cold mineral springs that even the once indigenous Indian tribes in the area regarded as healthful. The warm springs emerge from the hillside at a constant temperature of 74+ degrees F. They’re given a heat boost before entering the baths, and baths are heated to 100-102 degrees, a range regarded as the maximum safe temperature.
George Washington took the waters here and even bought some property after the original town was surveyed and staked out. Over the years, various bathing facilities were erected and, in the 1930s, the Federal government helped build the current main bathhouse. It became a little the worse for wear by the time the new century rolled around, so it was completely renovated recently with the job completed in 2010.
Baths here—and Swedish massages if you wish—need to be reserved in advance. Prices are quite inexpensive when compared to similar DC area services. Most unusually, masseurs and masseuses are actually licensed by and employed by the State of West Virginia, so standards for the services here are high and the value is reliable. For more information, click here. Other non-state facilities are also available in the town.
A little background on modern Berkeley Springs
Berkeley Springs has had its ups and downs over the years. Business ebbed and flowed as mills, leather tanneries, and, in the early to mid-1900s, tomato-canning plants functioned as the area’s major industries. These are long gone now, and the last really large businesses remaining are the U.S. Silica plant north of town and the Tom Seely-Gat Caperton furniture factory to the south.
Fires were problematic in Berkeley Springs from time to time, destroying many of the town’s once large and well-appointed spa hotels, which has given the downtown area a bit of a hollowed out look in places. The most recent fire destroyed the county’s late 19th century courthouse a few years back, although it’s been replaced by a handsome new one since then which echoes the look and feel of the former edifice.
But the main corner of the town, bounded by the Park at the intersection of Fairfax Street east and west, and Washington Street (U.S. 522) north and south, still retains an authentic 19th century feel to it, and the area is well maintained.
Although the ongoing Great Recession has noticeably drained the town of some of its joie de vivre, it’s still a great place to encounter surprisingly high quality local and national art, particularly at the Mountain Laurel gallery, right at the town’s main intersection. Other shops focus more on local artists and the creativity and professionalism of the artists’ work impresses nearly everyone who encounters the town for the first time.
The Studio Art Tour
As is obvious to nearly anyone who visits Berkeley Springs and Morgan County, things are a lot more reasonably priced than they are closer in to DC. And it’s this salient fact, coupled with breathtaking mountain vistas, picturesque streams, and sweeping valleys, that’s attracted an increasing number of artists to relocate out here over the years. Given West Virginia’s and Morgan County’s relatively low real estate prices and laissez faire attitudes toward zoning (i.e., we don’t want any), artists over the years have found the atmosphere, the zeitgeist, and the economics to be just right for setting up homes and studios either in town or further out off Morgan County’s quiet, isolated, and occasionally very rough roads.
Given the Berkeley Springs’ small size, it’s not readily apparent what a hotbed of the arts Morgan County really is, so it’s still an undiscovered secret for many. Some of the artists banded together years ago to display and sell their wares at the Ice House, a former apple storage facility that’s been transformed into a gallery, theater, and studio and classroom space over the years.
As a logical outgrowth of the Ice House, many of the area’s artists band together twice a year now and open their studios and/or homes to visitors who simply want to explore the area’s rich arts offerings, see demonstrations of various crafts ranging from jewelry-making to blacksmithing, and, of course, purchase artworks available for sale. Venues on the tour are located right in town and in and around the county.
Although Morgan County is small by comparison to, say, Loudoun County or Montgomery County, the terrain is sometimes rough and always hilly. Since this is mainly a driving tour, make sure your car is in pretty decent shape before you start.
Studios are easy to find, with each being marked via easy-to-find yellow directional signs staked out at key turns. The one notable exception to the “easy” rule is Bev Klippan’s Arran Art Glass.
Perched high atop the somewhat misleadingly named Short Mountain Road off WV 9 near Morgan County’s eastern border with Berkeley County, Arran Art Glass is best reached by driving straight up this rough country road in either a torquey front wheel drive vehicle or, better yet, an all-wheel drive SUV—all in mostly low gear. The seemingly straight-up drive is wicked at times, but the spectacular view from this memorable studio, perched on the mountaintop is breathtaking.
On a clear day, you can see all the way to the dramatic Sideling Hill cut on westbound I-68 when looking west from the studio grounds. Inside the studio, the artist conducts continual demonstrations of the techniques for designing, cutting, and assembling stained glass windows.
Driving to the other studios is almost equally picturesque although somewhat less of an adventure. In addition to other glass studios, jewelry, pottery, ironwork, and painting predominate on the tour. Stops we’ve personally enjoyed on the tour, in addition to Arran Art Glass, are Amingo Glass (specializing in the Art Deco period), Frog Valley Artisans (glass, pottery, ironwork), Glenn Horr’s Highland Forge ironworks, and the Magic Mountain studio, the weekend home of Maryland resident Richard Kaufman whose breathtakingly Japanese-style Sumi-e watercolor originals are worth going out of your way to add to your collection. Jewelry fans may also want to check out the Hsu Studio, just off U.S. 522 south. Frequently offered for sale in galleries and even museums nationwide, the Hsus’ unique, anodized aluminum jewelry is colorful, lightweight, and easy to wear, not to mention reasonably priced.
Heath Studios, located downtown, are not listed on this year’s tour. But they may be exhibiting at the Ice House and their Washington Street gallery is likely to be open during the tour.
It’s best to give yourself a day to do the tour. Thought the county is small, the winding, wandering drive can take you awhile to complete, and you may find it impossible to visit all the galleries anyway.
While some studios offer wine and/or finger foods, you may need something more substantial after a morning or afternoon of touring. The place where all the locals gather is Tari’s, right downtown not far from Fairfax and Washington. Another up-and-comer is the nearly new Ambrae House, located nearby on the east side of the main drag. There are plenty of additional restaurants nearby, and, if you want to save money and indulge in Dairy Queen or Mickey D’s, they’re right outside the town proper, again on the ubiquitous U.S. 522 just south of the town proper.
For a splurge, you might also want to consider Lot 12 Public House, located on a hilly side street not far from the southern intersection of U.S. 522 and WV 9, close to the ubiquitous and somewhat out-of-place Sheetz. Situated in an old Berkeley Springs home, this fine-dining destination would win favor even from picky, finicky DC diners.
Lot 12’s menu is eclectic, makes frequent use of local ingredients, and could very well offer the best dining experience in the Eastern Panhandle, surpassing even the more popular and trendy but often spotty restaurants that make Shepherdstown, WV (Jefferson County) popular with day trippers and attendees of the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) which opens each year in early July.
Headed west towards the town of Great Cacapon on hilly, winding WV 9, you’ll suddenly run into Panorama on the Peak, another fine restaurant whose windows look out onto a spectacular view of three states, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. The trip is worth the view alone, and it’s also on the way to a couple of the studios on the tour.
Getting there and doing the tour
Directions and a map are essential. To download the latest brochure on the tour, click here. Note: we recommend the map and brochure (which you can usually obtain in hard copy at Mountain Laurel and the Ice House). GPS can disappear in them thar hills and cell service can also be spotty, particularly if you’re not on U.S. Cellular or Verizon, so don’t count on these services being continually available as they are in the DC Metro area.
Also note: some venues may not be open Monday, so if you’re particularly interested in one of them, call ahead just to make sure.
Directions from Northern Virginia: To reach Berkeley Springs from Northern Virginia, take the Dulles Toll Road / Greenway to the end, intersecting with VA 7 bypass and heading west to Winchester. Just before entering Winchester proper, take a right to I-81 and head north for one exit only, getting off at the sign that directs you to U.S. 522. Hang a left and you’re briefly on U.S. 11. Going straight past the Liberty station stay straight and the road becomes VA 37 south, the “Winchester bypass.” (Don’t worry about the illogic of the direction. We have the same issue on the Beltway.) Again, the very next exit is the actual exit to U.S. 522. Head north, and, in about 30 miles, you’re there. The 4-lane road narrows to two as you enter WV. From downtown Berkeley Springs, the map will take you wherever you want to go, although you’ll pass directions to a couple studios—notably the Hsus’—as you are driving toward the town from Virginia.
Directions from DC and suburban Maryland: Best bet here is probably to get on the Beltway and head to the I-270 exit. Take I-270 to I-70 west and stay there for a long time, as in nearly all the way, going past Hagerstown and Frederick until you near tiny Hancock, MD. There, look for the exit for U.S. 522 south. Get off there, drive over a couple of bridge ramps (careful, the road narrows and speed slows). Go over the two-lane bridge crossing the Potomac and you’re already in wild, wonderful West Virginia. It’s about 10 miles to Berkeley Springs which you’ll enter from the north, after passing the large and fairly unsightly open U.S. Silica sand mine which abuts 522. As above, if you have a map, you’re good to go.
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.
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