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I’VE JUST RETURNED from a four-day vacation in Virginia, taken with my wasband to commemorate our 40th unniversary and shared interest in American history, old houses, gardens, and many other things. We both recently read Founding Gardeners, Andrea Wulf’s story of the early founders’ vision of the U.S. as an agrarian society, full of fascinating details such as Thomas Jefferson experimenting with 40 kinds of rice on a Philadelphia windowsill and George Washington planting trees in January (they failed, but he just couldn’t wait). Each owned thousands of Virginia acres planted in tobacco and wheat, and hundreds of slaves, the irony of which became clearer and more bitter as our trip unfolded.
Our first stop was Alexandria, a convenient base for visiting Washington’s Mount Vernon a few miles to the south. I had a single distant memory of Alexandria from a long-ago visit — a rose bush climbing out of the sidewalk to arch over the doorway of a tiny brick row house. I knew there had to be more to Alexandria, and indeed there is.
Founded in 1749 by Scottish merchants, Alexandria’s Old Town has an extensive collection of 18th and 19th century townhouses on a grid of streets surveyed by, among others, a young George Washington. You can walk along streets named Prince, Princess, Duke, Queen, and King reading commemorative plaques (Robert E. Lee grew up here, and Washington kept a pied-a-terre), glimpse Colonial-style gardens down alleys and over fences, and tour the c.1750 Carlyle House, below, for a real sense of gentrified life in that era.
Unlike at Mount Vernon and Monticello, photography is permitted in the Carlyle House, modeled on an English country manor and painstakingly restored with bold wall colors and fine antique furniture. The house is currently decked out for Halloween, set up to look as if John Carlyle had recently died. His coffin is in the main parlor, below, and mirrors and portraits are draped in black. Mannequins of slaves in livery kept startling me as we traipsed through the rooms with a docent and one other visitor, a woman veiled and draped in black herself (she had just attended a witches’ tea on the back porch).
John Carlyle 1720-1780
The wonderful yellow entry hall
The bed in which John Carlyle died, predeceased by two wives and all but two of his eleven children
Carlyle’s manservant, Moses, above
A bed set up on the floor of an upstairs landing for the physician who attended Carlyle’s death, part of the Halloween display
More of what Alexandria has to offer the history- and/or architecture-obsessed visitor, below. (These are private homes, closed to the public.)
Replica of George Washington’s townhouse on Cameron Street, above, based on a sketch done by a neighbor
The John Douglass Brown house, above, a farmhouse that may date in part to the 17th century
Alley, above, was used for walking horses through to the backyard
The c.1806 Patton-Fowle House, above, possibly by architect Charles Bulfinch, considered one of the country’s best examples of Federal architecture
Above: Elegant 19th century townhouses in styles from Gothic to Italianate to Greek Revival
Above, “Captain’s Row,” a street sloping down to the Potomac River, paved with stones originally used as ships’ ballast
We stayed at the 42-room Morrison House, left, a comfortable boutique hotel built in the 1980s but passable at a glance as a Federal building. We missed the lantern tour and the view of the ballroom at the c.1790 Gadsby’s Tavern, but enjoyed our dinner in one of four candlelit rooms (the fried oysters and porter stand out). In any case, I can see the original ballroom woodwork here in New York City; it was removed in 1917 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
PART OF THE FUN OF BLOGGING is getting the occasional bead on a great subject from a reader. I met Dorothee van Mol and her husband Paul a year ago when they came to look at my East Hampton cottage as a possible year-round rental. We spent a pleasant hour chatting on my deck, but ultimately, they decided to rent in Southampton, closer to their primary home in Brooklyn. Dorothee continued to follow my blog, and when she saw the unconventional modernist house I bought in East Hampton last spring, she knew I’d be interested in seeing the sprawling complex she and Paul have been renting.
The site: now that’s a tale. As is the house itself, which began as a 1920s industrial dairy building. It’s unclear whether cows were actually housed there, but refrigerated compartments, concrete floors, a pass-through marked “Milk and Package Receiver,” and other quirky elements are clues to its origins. The acre-and-a-half spread, on the fringe of Southampton village, was owned at one time by a garden designer, some of whose landscape architecture remains, and then by three partners who began an ambitious expansion of the house with cinderblock construction and casement windows, covering many thousands of square feet, before feuding and parting ways. The property came up for rent, and that’s when Dorothee and Paul, who have two college-age kids, stepped in. They decorated resourcefully, on a shoestring, with furnishings they had in storage, items they found on the property, and a few fill-ins from IKEA. I love its casual Bohemian air.
Let’s circumnavigate the property first, and then we’ll go inside…
Walls around the gravel parking court and elsewhere on the property are made of stacked stone in wire cages called gabions.
Charcoal gray-painted trim against brown vertical clapboard siding, looks chic and ties together disparate windows and doors.
One of two kitchens — yes, that’s right — is in an extension at the front of the house.
Around the side, you sense the building’s utilitarian origins.
Old perennial beds and self-seeding annuals soften the unfinished walls of the never-completed extension.
There’s a lap pool around the back, of which I’m terribly envious, surrounded by ornamental grasses and an allee of trees.
Long gravel walks punctuated by cypress trees and lined with flagstone packed in wire cages have a classical Mediterranean feel.
A wall of glass windows and doors opens to a gravel courtyard. The parking court and entry gate are in the stone wall at left.
The long west-facing entry hall gets afternoon light. Kitchen #1, below, is down the end.
There’s a small dining area in that same kitchen, above…
and a rustic bar.
The main living space has one spectacular window and a wood ceiling.
Wire grids found around the property were pressed into service as bulletin boards.
There’s a sophisticated contemporary bathroom with a marble vanity and the world’s smallest sink, below.
Kitchen #2, below, looks out into the heart of the abandoned construction project, which, as greenery overtakes it, seems a bit like an ancient archaeological site.
Below, the enormous master bedroom.
Two additional bedrooms, one with the curious cubby-hole.
The future of the site and the couple’s tenancy is uncertain, so — though they put in a fair amount of work painting and decorating — the whole project has a casual, spur-of-the-moment feeling about it. Thanks, Dorothee, for letting us have a look.
NEW YORK HAS BEEN CHANGING FAST, in large part due to the soon-to-end 12-year reign of the not-entirely-beloved but undeniably greenery-conscious Mayor Bloomberg. Under his tenure, 750,000 trees have been planted and there have been innumerable improvements to the city’s public spaces, especially along the long-neglected waterfront. So the appearance this month of the 288-page Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes by Robin Lynn and Francis Morrone (W.W. Norton) is well-timed.
The book highlights 38 masterpieces of old and new landscape architecture, including such venerable favorites as Greenwood Cemetery, Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, and so on. There are midtown plazas and atriums, and newer sites that have quickly become high-profile tourist draws, like the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park. But what pleases me most is the book’s inclusion of many unusual suspects.
Concrete Plant Park, the Bronx
For instance: Brooklyn’s leafy Eastern and Ocean Parkways, two of the most attractive and civilized boulevards in New York City (or anywhere), which rarely get their due. There are detailed descriptions of such obscure sites as the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint, along a formerly waste-strewn industrial waterway; Erie Basin Park in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where IKEA built a 7-acre waterfront access facility on the site of a historic dry dock, and did it so well the critics were silenced; as well as new parks and sites in all five boroughs and on Roosevelt, Governor’s and Randall’s Islands.
Paley Park, Manhattan
I found the photography disappointing, a lost opportunity to romance some strikingly beautiful places. Edward A Toran’s photos are mostly overalls, lacking in intimacy, and often shot with harsh shadows or in dappled light. But the writing, including a stirring, nostalgic foreword by Pete Hamill and a reprint of a very funny 1914 New York Times article by critic James Huneker about Manhattan’s parks, which he called our “lungs,” help make up for it.
Columbus Circle, Manhattan
Quirky suggestions for eating and drinking near the featured landscapes include the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens (NYC’s last remaining outdoor beer garden) and the café at Fairway in Red Hook, whose dramatic harbor view is surely unique among supermarkets.
Going forward, a blog will keep the book’s info up-to-date.
Bryant Park, Manhattan
JUST BACK from a few days visiting a friend in Western Massachusetts, where I was amazed at the number of Victorian villas. The area is a catalogue of 19th century styles including Second Empire and Italianate, with details like arched, porthole, and bay windows; porches, balconies, and cupolas; and all manner of decorative molding.
Sadly, these grand dames of yesteryear are often located on now-busy roads, and they mostly look like white elephants — enormous and drafty and difficult to heat without servants to stoke the many fireplaces. Some are in sorry shape. Others, like the blue- shuttered example here, in the town of Lee, seem well-maintained.
We stopped in Lee for lunch at the Cakewalk Cafe, then checked out a couple of thrift/antique stores on the intact 19th century main street, below.
Then into nearby Lenox, where my friend had managed to dig up the one historic house in the area — of some 75 such Berkshires “cottages” — open on a mid-winter weekday: Ventfort Hall, below, a 28,000-square foot Jacobean Revival mansion with 54 rooms, designed in 1893 by the Boston architectural firm Rotch & Tilden for Sarah Morgan, sister of financier J.P., and her husband George.
Like so many unwieldy mansions of that era, it had been abandoned for some time and fallen into ruin. As recently as the 1990s, the floors were ice-covered and littered with chunks of fallen ceiling plaster. Oak wall panels were missing, and the exterior was crumbling.
Docent Marsha McDermott, above, showed us ‘before’ photos — that is, before a small group of concerned locals formed the non-profit Ventfort Hall Association and purchased the property, then raised $4million in private and public funds to restore it and open it to public view. Then she sent us off to explore, giving us carte blanche to open doors and poke around.
Being avid Downton Abbey watchers, my friend and I could well visualize the family that lived here, enjoying such amenities as indoor plumbing, electric and gas lighting, radiant heat in the basement ceiling, a burglar alarm system, internal fire hoses, copper speaking tubes in the walls, and an electric elevator. Above, the Great Hall. Newly carved American red oak panels were left unstained, below, to distinguish them from the original woodwork. Unfortunately, there are no original furnishings left in the house; they were sold off long ago.
Below, the dining room, which suffered a great deal of water damage. The Cuban mahogany ceiling was restored with new Honduran mahogany.
Below, new plasterwork recreated from molded casts of the original ceiling.
Delicate plasterwork and an onyx marble fireplace in the drawing room, below, which was used by Sarah Morgan and her daughter Caroline to entertain guests. It’s now a gift shop.
We exited onto the rear verandah, below, made of wood painted a ruddy color to match the stone facade. (If this elevation looks familiar, it’s because it was used as a set in the film The Cider House Rules.) The breeze coming off Stockbridge Bowl Lake, now obscured by trees, gave the house its name: Ventfort means “strong wind.”
Open 360 days a year, Ventfort Hall is available for weddings, receptions, dinners, parties, corporate meetings, and Victorian teas — not to mention picnicking on 12 acres of surrounding park. For more info: 413/637-3206, www.GildedAge.org
MY WHIRLWIND TRIP TO PALM SPRINGS on assignment for Endless Vacation magazine took place the week before last, though it seems forever ago. I’ve been bouncing around since — from Long Island, where I packed up two-thirds of my furnishings and turned my cottage in Springs over to renters for at least the next year (and am inching forward on the purchase of another property), and my apartment in Brooklyn, where I’m coming to terms again with life in two rooms. The warm sun and crystalline air of southern Cali are a distant memory, but I feel compelled to post more photos before I resume blogging about life on the East Coast.
I certainly enjoyed waking up each morning to the view, above, from the Hideaway, a low-key inn in a 1947 compound formerly known as the Town & Desert Hotel
You see, professional travel journalist here left an important gold mesh bag on her dining table when she departed at 5AM for LaGuardia Airport [slaps self upside the head]. In the bag: my camera battery and charger and the cord that enables me to download photos to my laptop. Once again, it was iPhone to the rescue; at least I was able to do one blog post from there, though the photos hardly did the place justice. I did have the camera itself with me, and I used it, sparingly, to the full extent of its battery power, capturing some of Palm Springs’ exceptional mid-20th-century architecture and the vintage-inspired hotels and design shops that have blossomed around them.
Herewith, a few more images from the trip.
Below, houses in the Las Palmas neighborhood by the enormously influential developer Robert Alexander.
Below, three of seven surviving all-steel houses by architect Donald Wexler, c. 1962
Below, Hedge, a shop in nearby Cathedral City whose owners can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. Their taste in mid-century art and design is impeccable.
A grouping of Danish pottery at JPDenmark, below, which shares strip-mall space with Hedge and several multi-dealer vintage modern shops
At the trendy Ace Hotel, below, scooters at the ready
Below, Norma’s, a popular brunch spot at the Parker and public spaces decorated by the inimitable Jonathan Adler