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LAST FRIDAY, having spent a couple of days in my adopted community of Springs (East Hampton), N.Y., and filled with Long Island pride, I resolved to stop at the Parrish Art Museum on my way back to the city. I’d been sucking up a lot of received opinion (overwhelmingly positive) since the contemporary art museum opened in its long-awaited new digs last November, and I wanted to see for myself.
I liked it, too. The museum relocated from its former cramped quarters in a Victorian brick building in the Village of Southampton to a startlingly elongated shed-like structure with a double hipped roof, set in a vineyard off Montauk Highway in Water Mill. Just looking from the outside at the 34,000-square-foot museum, designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, was enough to give me “museum legs” (that tired feeling you sometimes get from schlepping around looking at art), but in fact, its galleries comprise only 12,000 square feet and are so stimulating and open that it wasn’t fatiguing at all.
I found the art bracing, including the many abstract works, though my conservative preference is for local landscapes and paintings by realist Fairfield Porter and American Impressionist William Merritt Chase. The Parrish has extensive holdings of both in its permanent collection, and each has a dedicated gallery.
Howard Kanovitz’s airbrushed 1974 Hamptons Drive-In is easy enough to appreciate.
Local artist April Gornick’s 1984 Light Before Heat puts me very much in mind of my beloved Louse Point and Accobonac Harbor.
Fairfield Porter’s depiction of rural Calverton, L.I., in the 1950s.
With a pleasant cafe overlooking the grape arbors and an easy-to-swallow admission fee of $10, the Parrish is well worth the stop, coming or going.
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
The discreet 9-room Hideaway, my Palm Springs home for three nights
GOOD MORNING from Palm Springs, California, where I am, instead of the woman taking yard waste to the dump or running to catch the Flatbush Avenue bus, a minor celebrity. It’s because of a book I wrote in the 1980s, Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, that launched many collecting and merchandising careers and helped spawn a huge revival of interest in the design of the period that continues to this day.
Guest lounge at the Hideaway, looking very much as it did in the 1950s
Palm Springs was an epicenter of adventurous custom architecture in the post-WWII years, and the town’s stock of homes by architects like William Cody, Albert Frey, William Krisel, Donald Wexler, and E. Stewart Williams has become one of the area’s main draws. I’m here to write about it for Endless Vacation magazine.
My room at the Hideaway, known as Ray’s Retreat (Ray Eames, I presume)
I’m comfortably ensconced at the discreet and well-named Hideaway (there’s no sign; I was told to look for three tall skinny palm trees rising out of a thick hedge) — a low-slung 1947 mini-resort by architect Herbert W. Burns, whose rooms, arrayed around a pool, feature authentic mid-century decor and Palm Springs’ ever-present, stunning mountain backdrop.
Bill Manion, manager of the Hideaway at its sister property, Orbit In
A real California breakfast: broccoli rabe frittata and cheddar hash browns at Cheeky’s
Palm Springs is a cohesive collection of mid-20th century residential and commercial architecture, sprinkled with a few remaining examples of the earlier Spanish Colonial Revival style that pre-dated it. Yesterday I took a comprehensive 3-1/2-hour tour with architectural historian Robert Imber of Palm Springs Modern Tours, who stuffed our heads with information and images as we drove through neighborhoods like Las Palmas, The Mesa, Little Tuscany, and Indian Canyons. He filled us in on where real celebrities, including Sinatra, Elvis, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Kate and Spencer, and on and on and on, owned homes or spent time, opening our eyes to unusual roof lines, innovative layouts, modern materials, and desert landscaping.
Tramway Gas Station (now Palm Springs Visitors Center), 1965, Albert Frey and Robson Chambers
Richard Neutra’s 1946 desert house for the Kaufmanns, also owners of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater
William Krisel’s 1962 House of Tomorrow designed for Palm Springs’ most influential developer, Robert Alexander; also known as Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s honeymoon cottage (they lived here for about a year as newlyweds)
I’m also checking out vintage modern shopping opportunities for the magazine at numerous stores whose inventory ranges from Good Design to unabashed kitsch.
Modern Way, where designer names abound
Above, Dazzles, where I relived my life in collecting, from rattan furniture to bottlecap figures to Lucite grapes (that’s Mike, the proprietor — the store has been here 14 years after 20 in L.A.)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my morning swim…
FOR ONE REASON AND ANOTHER, I found myself in Midtown Manhattan three times last week and — to my surprise — enjoyed it. Even when I lived in Manhattan eons ago, I was a downtown person, rarely venturing north of 14th Street. After I moved to Brooklyn in the late ’70s, my visits to “the city” grew more and more infrequent. Weeks could go by without my having any need or desire to cross the river (especially after Brooklyn got a few shoe stores).
Yet, there I recently was, three days in succession, suddenly feeling my eyes had been opened to something immeasurably rich, complex, and vibrant I hadn’t noticed before. I found myself searching for signs of vintage Manhattan, for remnants of the pre-skyscraper era, dwarfed now by towering neighbors but still standing proud, like the little house, top, in Virginia Lee Burton’s children’s book of the same name, that got gradually engulfed by new construction.
On Day 1, I had a doctor’s appointment in the East 30′s. I noticed a brick carriage house I had never seen before, below, and wondered how long old tenements with fire escapes, cornices, and storefronts at street level could possibly remain in place, unprotected by Landmarks and subject to the relentless march of commercial development.
There are some gorgeous intact rows of 19th century townhouses on the side streets of Murray Hill, but I also noted surviving row houses here and there on the avenues. The grimy pair on Lexington, right, have that forlorn look of Burton’s little house, but you know they won’t be moved to the country (as the fictional cottage eventually was) but likely torn down when the economy commands it.
I took pleasure in noting old one-story structures like the two, below. By sheer coincidence, I ended up having dinner with a friend two nights later in the Art Deco building on the right, which now houses Tokyo, one of the first sushi restaurants in New York when it opened in 1969. A welcome discovery, it will become my go-to sushi place in midtown from now on, with mostly Japanese patrons and bartenders in kimono who have clearly been there from the first.
The following day, I met a friend for lunch at Schnipper’s on East 23rd Street, but our timing was off. It’s fine when quiet — a cafeteria-style burger place with a self-consciously retro vibe — but this time, it was a madhouse. We couldn’t hear ourselves over the din and repaired instead to Turkish Kitchen on Third Avenue for authentic, scrumptious, and well-priced food. But I was still seeking signs of Olde New York, and later — for future reference when in need of a quiet, unpopular lunchtime spot — walked around in search of a place I had happened into one day last year, whose name I couldn’t remember. It was decidedly old-fashioned; I was one of the only customers, and I ate something like mushrooms on toast.
I found it under scaffolding on East 28th Street: a British pub called The Churchill, above, with a menu of fish’n'chips, shepherd’s pie, mushy peas, and so on. It was even quieter than I remembered; there wasn’t a soul in the place. It probably does better at happy hour.
The following day, early for a dinner date, I emerged from the B train at the corner of 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, looking forward to a walk through Bryant Park. Below, my favorite warm-weather outdoor lunch spot, The Bryant Park Cafe, shuttered for the season.
I found the park itself transformed for the holiday season. Instead of the quietude and fall plantings I expected, there was a tacky Christmas fair, with merchandise a half-step up from that on Canal Street, set up in booths around a temporary ice skating rink, below, over the expansive lawn. It was lively and possibly even “magical,” there in the shadow of the New York Public Library. But the music (think Frank Sinatra singing ‘New York, New York’) was hokey and I wondered when ice skating in the heart of Manhattan’s business district had become so popular that the nearby Wollman Rink in Central Park and the one at Rockfeller Center weren’t enough. (The Bryant Park rink is free; skate rentals $14.)
Then, naturally, I stepped into the library and spent the next hour leisurely enjoying its always-worthwhile exhibits. The current “Lunch Hour NYC,” open until February, is great fun. I actually learned a lot, including the origin of the term “lunch” (from the Spanish lonja, meaning a chunk or piece you can hold in your hand). There are etchings of Victorian-era Wall Streeters in top hats and derbies wolfing it down at an early lunch counter, and menus from diners to Delmonico’s. I watched all five film clips of scenes set in Horn & Hardart’s automats. and then signed up for my first New York Public Library card in decades (the last one didn’t even have a bar code).
My friend and I intended to meet up at one of New York City’s genuine hidden treasures: The Campbell Apartment, above, on the mezzanine at the back of Grand Central Station, a coffered-ceiling, intricately painted relic of the late 19th century, when railroad barons had their whiskey and cigars there. It being Friday night at 6:30, we were unable even to enter, so thick were the crowds. That’s when Barbara suggested Tokyo, where we sat for two hours at the bar sampling odd dishes that both the menu and waitress stated were “not recommended for first time.” But as we are old sushi hands, we loved them, as we did the Japanese rice vodka.
Altogether satisfied with my Manhattan experience, I’ve decided I am not bored with Manhattan. There’s still a lot for me to discover. Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson about London, that must mean I am not, after all (as I’ve sometimes feared), bored with life.