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I AM INCREASINGLY FOND of Japanese gardens, and quite unreasonably proud (as if I had something to do with it), of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden‘s Japanese garden, constructed 100 years ago and opened to the public in June 1915. It’s a masterpiece of Japanese garden design — the premier work of its creator, Takeo Shiota (1881-1943), who came to the U.S. in 1907.

The garden is a combination of two Japanese garden traditions: hill-and-pond style (self-explanatory), and the ‘stroll’ garden, in which different vistas are gradually revealed as you meander along winding paths.

Japanese gardens are floriferous when cherry trees, azaleas and irises are in springtime bloom. These photos were taken in high summer, when I found the garden green and shapely, its evergreen structure at the fore, conveying the intended sense of permanence.

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Compare the century-old historical photos, above, with the much greater lushness of the present day. Seventy years after its creator’s death, the garden’s beauty and integrity remain. It’s nothing short of a national treasure, IMO, and I feel fortunate to live nearby, where I can pop over on a weekday morning and have it practically to myself.

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Hiss Studio, Tim Seibert

CERTAIN PLACES ON THE PLANET — often unexpected places, like Columbus, Indiana, and Tel Aviv, Israel — have been blessed with impressive inventories of important 20th century architecture. One such place is Sarasota, Florida, on the Gulf Coast. I was there once many years ago, so many that all I remember is collecting seashells on Sanibel Island (they’re also blessed with an impressive inventory of seashells).

Umbrella House, designed by architect Paul Rudolph, 1953, photo by Bill Miller Photography, New York Umbrella House, designed by architect Paul Rudolph, 1953, photo by Greg Wilson

Umbrella House, Paul Rudolph, 1953 

Now I’m getting another chance. The weekend of October 9-12, I’ll be in Sarasota for Sarasota MOD Weekend, a celebration of the area’s 1940s through ’60s architectural heritage, when architects like Paul Rudolph, Ralph Twitchell, Victor Lundy, Tim Seibert, Gene Leedy, Carl Abbott and others produced a stock of residential and commercial buildings responding to local climate and culture with great modernist style.

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Photos: Ezra Stoller

This group, which became known as the Sarasota School of Architecturefound its initial inspiration in the philosophies of the Bauhaus, but soon incorporated regional Southern features, “using patios, verandas, modular construction and raised floors to open up buildings for greater ventilation in pre-air conditioning days,” as the website of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation puts it. “They added a play of light and shadow, and the color and texture of indigenous low maintenance materials softened the cold machine aesthetic of the Bauhaus. This approach… allowed Sarasota School buildings to respect and blend well into their sites. The result was a regional modernism which blurred the distinction between the indoors and outdoors and accommodated the lifestyle and climate of southern Florida.”

Healy Guest House, aka Cocoon House, designed by architects Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph, 1950, photo by Greg Wilson

Healy Guest House, Ralph Twitchell/Paul Rudolph, 1950

In other words, cool modern beach houses with architectural pedigree. Some are even on the market. What could be better? Perhaps a weekend full of lectures, tours (walking, trolley, boat) and parties celebrating same?

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Jet Blue flies direct from NYC to the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. I’ll be on one of those flights. You in?

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THE LADY IS VERY HAPPY with her new deck. What the contractors didn’t know, as they worked for four days right outside my windows, is that I could hear every word they said, and even understand the ones in English. I’m the Lady, as in “Did the lady see it yet?” and “What did the lady say?”

See the happy lady, below.

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See the new deck in all its fresh-smelling cedar glory.

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See the new storage shed for beach chairs, grill, etc.. I’ll need more, for garden tools and whatnot, but it’s a good start.

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Time now to start planting around the deck, to integrate this large new feature — probably 500-600 square feet — into the landscape.

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Yesterday I drove to my favorite nursery, Fort Pond Native Plants in Montauk — it’s not really all natives, but it’s got an interesting, healthy selection — and bought some ornamental grasses (Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ and a very cool-looking plant called Purple Love Grass, or Eragrostis spectabilis), and interplanted them along the walkway, below, with Amsonia hubrichtii (blue milkweed), Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ and bloody sorrel. Got a purple/chartreuse thing going.

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I’m coveting some new shrubs and trees, including a hinoki cypress and perhaps a magnolia. For that, I await the post-Labor Day sales.

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MAJOR PROJECT UNDERWAY HERE at my Long Island beach house, one I’ve been drawing and thinking over and consulting about for many months now. I’m replacing the old, rotting L-shaped deck (above, the “before”) with a new cedar deck, more complicated and larger. That is, Howard Kaye of East End Deck is doing it; or rather, his workmen are. This is the same builder who built the deck and shower platform at my previous house, which had what I considered a very successful outcome.

My friend Jifat Windmiller, an architect whose work I much admire, conceived the general idea on a napkin sketch last winter, and has generously consulted with me throughout (and is not responsible for any wrong-headed decisions or mistakes later made by me, of which more below).

The main change is that the long platform that ran almost the length of the house, and the brick patio, top at left, are being bridged by a new 13’x14′ platform that ‘floats’ two steps up. Other proportions are being tweaked as well. The platform at the far end is being extended out two feet beyond the end of the house, and the long platform, below, made shorter by about fifteen feet, to be replaced by a narrower walkway.

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All this past weekend, while the workers were off, I stared at the proportions of the major deck elements and liked them. 

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The situation regarding the walkway — the entry point to the new deck system — has been a design challenge, one I hope will be resolved by my latest decision. Part of the issue is that, in years to come, there will be a whole other parking area and system of paths leading to the house. The current living room and kitchen will be down the other end of the house, and the main entry will be changed as well. So the entry to the deck that leads from the presently-used driveway to the presently-used door in the middle of the long front facade is essentially a secondary one, though it still needs to be functional and welcoming.

There was a time, not too long ago, when I was considering an arched Japanese-style bridge, but I’m glad I gave that up. I now realize it would have looked like something off a miniature golf course. I went instead with a 4-1/2-foot-wide boardwalk one step up, and had them flare out the sides to create what I felt would be a sort of entry gesture, below. But after living with it framed out this past weekend, I decided it looked awkward and unwieldy.

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“The wings” are now gone and so is the step; it’s going to be just a plain wooden ramp, Fire Island-style. The change added man-hours; the builder has been totally chill about it. 

“Howard,” I said last week, when I added the ‘wings,’ “this will be the last change.” “No, it won’t,” he replied. Evidently a voice of experience.

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THE FIRST THING I DID when I got to my casita at Rancho La Puerta last month was take off my clothes. All of them. Outside. That’s how private the patio was at my villa-for-a-week, below, at the 70+-year-old wellness resort in Baja California. I lowered a chaise and stretched out flat on my back, staring into the cloud-swirled blue sky like the kid in the opening shot of Boyhood. I smelled bougainvillea, heard distant traffic on the Tecate-Tijuana Highway. My long day of travel, and my real life in New York City, receded. A formation of turkey vultures soared above, scouting for carrion. “Hey, don’t look at me, guys,” I said. “I’m alive.”

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In fact. I rarely feel so alive as at Rancho La Puerta, which explains why I’ve been 11 times and am looking forward to making that an even dozen at my next opportunity. The lynchpin of their program is daily hiking in the Sierra Juarez mountains, a 3-5 mile group exercise that’s the best way I know to start a day off right. Yep, the hikes are scheduled before breakfast, partly because it’s cooler then, and partly because, as the Ranch’s 92-year-old founder Deborah Szekely said in a talk she gave one evening, “We know we wouldn’t get you out for a mountain hike at 4 in the afternoon.”

Certainly not after a day such as the ones I scheduled for myself, which typically included — after a fortifying breakfast in a brick courtyard — Sculpt and Strengthen at 9, Abs and Cycle at 10, Wave (water aerobics, no laughing matter) at 11, then lunch and perhaps a mini-siesta or soak in a hot tub. Then on to dance (Zumba, Hooping, Cardio Drum) at 2, and a stretch or yoga class thereafter. These were some of my choices, of at least five options offered every hour at a dozen gyms and studios.

I tried a few things I’d not done before, including Foam Roller and Crystal Bowls Sound Healing (which I could do without). I didn’t make it to Design Your Own Jewelry or Sketch the Landscape, as I had in previous years, or Feldenkrais, or cooking classes, and I can never be bothered with meditation while I’m there. Too much else to do! I even missed Popcorn Bingo, though I attended a travel-photography talk, an astrology workshop, and wouldn’t dream of skipping the ever-popular Organic Garden Breakfast Hike, a 4-miler to and from Tres Estrellas, the Ranch’s 6-acre organic farm, where the buffet is as spectacular as the scenery. (A few images from that hike, below.)

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At Rancho, you’re never without a view of Mt. Kuchuuma, top, sacred to native peoples and Ranch guests alike, and 32 acres of exuberant gardens, which blend at the property’s edges into the surrounding scrubby chaparral. The exquisite surroundings are, for me, one of the chief pleasures of the place. As always, I enjoyed the Landscape Garden Walk with botanist Enrique Ceballos, who is responsible for the management of the gardens, and the Chaparral Walk, with the Ranch’s resident naturalist. I missed the Arroyo Walk, however — it probably conflicted with a massage or facial.

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At Rancho, people walk around looking at their schedules instead of their cell phones. I met nice people and made new friends, though Rancho La Puerta is an excellent place to visit solo. You’re seated at dinner, served in the grand Spanish Colonial dining hall or on one of two glorious patios, at a different group table every night, so there’s little chance of feeling lonely. Of my 11 visits, this was the third on my own, and I don’t mind not having conversations like one I overheard: “So we’re both gonna do Foam Roller at 4?” “No, I was thinking of trying Kettlebells… if I’m not too tired.” (For that very reason — late-day fatigue — the Stretch and Relax instructor got a big laugh, after a shocked pause, when he arrived at 4PM to find his class already laid out on their rubber mats in Montana gym, practically snoring, and announced in a loud, cheery voice, “Welcome to Cardio Muscle Blast!”)

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Every time I go to Rancho, there are new classes, new buildings, maybe a new swimming pool. Rancho La Puerta is not a place that rests on its considerable laurels (it’s often been voted #1 spa in America by major travel magazines). This time, there was something new, surprising, and very much to my liking: a wine bar. Since I first visited Rancho in the mid-1980s, the only wine available was a glass at the festive farewell dinner, bottom, on the final night. But guests often brought their own wine or went into town for it. Against the wishes of Deborah Szekely, who wanted to keep the Rancho booze-free, employees (and presumably Board members) prevailed to convert a casita near the edge of the property, one with a particularly stunning mountain view, below, to an indoor/outdoor gift shop/bar serving wines local to the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja’s wine region. Every night at 6PM then, it was off to the Bazar del Sol with new friends to taste every white, red and rose they had. All were good, and I enjoyed this new aspect of the Ranch immensely.

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IMG_4830The wine didn’t wreck my fitness goals. I got back to Brooklyn on a Saturday night, and Sunday morning I was at my usual Y for a reputedly brutal class I’d always hesitated to take. I’m here to report I sailed through it.

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To read about my previous visit to Rancho La Puerta, with more photos of the gardens and the grounds, go here.

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