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SUNDAY AFTERNOONS are made for places like the Sycamore Bar and Flowershop in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, a section of detached Victorians that comes as a welcome relief from the relentless trendiness of the closer-in-to-Manhattan neighborhoods.
The Sycamore is kind of like an old-time speakeasy, hidden behind a storefront flower shop. The bar is dark and atmospheric, with 70 kinds of bourbon, below, and a pleasant garden behind, where raw oysters were being shucked yesterday by the traveling Brooklyn Oyster Party.
My sister and I found our way there (Q train to Cortelyou Road), sampled the bourbon, then headed across the street to Mimi’s Hummus for warm hummus with whole chick peas, Jerusalem-style; beet and cauliflower salads; and chocolate balls rolled in coconut, called Punchim.
We ended up at Mayfield in Crown Heights and ordered fried oysters at the bar, served with smoked salmon and horseradish sauce, washed down with a crisp white Rioja.
This could become a habit.
Right: One-of-a-kind $15 bouquets of roses, ranunculus and assorted greens by Stems, the flower shop that shares space with the Sycamore Bar.
Photos: Stacie Sinder
SEEMS TO ME THE FALL COLORS — peaking late after an unseasonably warm October — are more brilliant than usual this year. Here in Brownstone Brooklyn, there’s no sense one needs to go up to Vermont or the Hudson Valley to be fully satisfied on that score. Above, Underhill Avenue in Prospect Heights. Below, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — my favorite urban refuge –in its autumnal glory.
BACK-TO-BACK VISITS last month to Mount Vernon and Monticello upended my preconceived notions. Based on what I’d heard from friends before the trip — “Mount Vernon? Yeah, sure. But I loooovved Monticello!” — I expected the highlight to be Jefferson’s quirky abode in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As it happened, I found Washington’s Mount Vernon, below, no less beautiful or fascinating. Though they’re both 10′s as travel destinations (and it’s shocking that I’d never been to Monticello at all, and to Mount Vernon only as a child), the surprise was that I looooooovvvved Mount Vernon.
Neither is a McMansion by today’s standards, having relatively few small bedrooms (Mount Vernon six and Monticello eight) — and no bathrooms! Even in square footage terms, they are pretty intimate — definitely homes, not official buildings. At Mount Vernon, the famous two-story dining room was being renovated, so we were denied the sight, though I found the four or five ground-floor rooms that were open to view, one with kelly green walls and one with Prussian blue, highly satisfying (interior photography is not permitted, regrettably). The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which has owned the house since 1858, has acquired many of the original furnishings in Washington’s tastefully restrained style.
The view of the Potomac, above, and formal, English-style vegetable and flower gardens, are spectacular, and the dozen original outbuildings, each set up to illustrate the workings of the estate — carriage houses, smoke houses, ice houses, etc. — very well-done.
The house itself, of wood covered with a stucco-like material to give it the appearance of stonework, and in the style of 18th century English country houses, began as a four-room cottage built by Washington’s father. He inherited it from his half-brother in 1761 and expanded his acreage to 8,000, as well as building the house up and out, with a columned portico, below, that runs the width of the house in back, on the river side, and curving colonnades in front that welcomed visitors as their carriages came up the long drive.
The commentary was a bit perfunctory, with one docent in each room tasked with keeping the line of visitors moving along. In response to one question, a docent replied, “Google it.” Still, I learned a lot about hospitality and housekeeping in those days, and how it was accomplished with the help of 160 or so slaves who lived in rustic quarters some distance from the house.
We took the three-hour drive west to Charlottesville and Monticello partly along Route 20, the same route Jefferson and his friends James and Dolley Madison, who lived thirty miles away, took when they visited each other’s homes — a 9-hour journey in those days. It’s a two-lane road, unspoiled and scenic, unlike the big-box shopping horrors we encountered getting out of Northern Virginia, and came as a great relief.
The next two days were spent in the Charlottesville area, never out of sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We rolled into Charlottesville ready for a cocktail, and stumbled upon the C&O Restaurant, left, so named for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad whose trains run nearby. This little haven of hipness became our spot; we returned the next night for dinner.
Our accommodations at the High Meadows Vineyard Inn, below, a brightly painted Victorian in nearby Scottsville, seemed at first to suffer from the B&B curse: an excess of knick-knacks and dried flower arrangements. But I quickly came to love our yellow, bay-windowed room with a claw-foot tub, the working vineyard outside the window, and Henry, the resident peacock.
Our Monticello tickets, for the “Behind the Scenes” tour ($42) that includes the upstairs bedrooms, were for 2:30PM, so we took the following morning to explore Charlottesville, especially its 6-block pedestrian shopping area, below, created from mostly Deco-era storefronts, with half a dozen independent bookstores, fashionable clothing and shoe boutiques, and local food shops.
We also took in Jefferson’s magnificent University of Virginia campus, below, where we got a foretaste of his infatuation with columns, pediments, domes, and other elements of classical Greek architecture. It was heartening to see students actually studying in the inspiring rotunda.
Monticello, below, a couple of miles up a wooded mountain studded with apple orchards and the c.1784 Michie Tavern (where we hoped to have lunch but found nothing remotely vegetarian), is extraordinarily well-organized, with a museum/shop/cafe complex below and a frequent shuttle bus up to the pinnacle.
My first sight of the house came as slight shock, though I’d seen images (notably on the nickel!) I’d admired the classical architecture at UVA, but the oversized pediment and columns used on a home appeared pompous. I tried to remember that Jefferson was the first to do it, and that Monticello is considered an outstanding architectural achievement — but initially the red-brick house looked to me like nothing so much as a bank.
Our good-natured docent, left, a John Updike lookalike, answered every question patiently and thoughtfully.
More beautiful from this angle…by the end of the day, the architecture grew on me.
Inside the front hall, the expected staircase is absent. Instead, there’s a square room surrounded by a balcony and hung with replica Native American artifacts representing those brought back by Lewis and Clark. Jefferson kept such items in that reception room, where he greeted members of the public who traveled to see him; he was intent on educating them as they waited for their audience. The most elegant room is a semi-octagonal parlor with long French windows, one of the country’s first parquet floors, and about fifty portraits and copies of paintings by European masters hung floor to ceiling.
Jefferson didn’t believe in grand staircases, we were told, considering them a waste of space. The only way to the upstairs bedrooms is via two steep, narrow, winding rear staircases, like those of an Amsterdam canal house, which women carrying babies and perhaps candles, and slaves carrying firewood and perhaps babies and candles, were forced to use. Jefferson had his own mancave — a library, study, and bedroom — on the ground floor.
The house has a couple of doors to nowhere, windows at floor level, and other architectural quirks, including a hard-to-access dome room at the top of the house, below. It is beautiful and harmonious but was apparently almost never used, except for storage and by some Jeffersonian grandchildren as a hideout.
In short, I ended up admiring the uneducated Washington’s architectural skills more than the highly educated Jefferson’s. Monticello is a good place to ponder the irony of the man who wrote “All men are created equal” owning some 300+ slaves who lived in outbuildings and chambers beneath the house, a whole subterranean world of utility and organization which is also open to the public. I was moved by his personal struggles, though; Jefferson had some six ‘official’ children, only one of whom lived to reproduce. Many of his offspring, including some descended from Sally Hemmings, a slave in his employ, as well as Jefferson himself, are buried in an atmospheric cemetery partway down the mountain.
One of my favorite parts of the estate is the one-room mini-Monticello, below, where the young Jefferson and his wife lived for two years before the main house was built. With bed, dining area, and study desk, the civilized cottage looks like almost all a couple would need.
We ended the day with a 45-minute grounds tour, admiring the extensive vegetable gardens, below, restored to resemble how Jefferson laid them out. The perennial flower gardens around the front lawn were curiously bedraggled at end of the season, but also perhaps because the caretaking is in transition. The longtime gardener who supervised Monticello’s landscape for several decades recently retired, we were told, and is in the process of being replaced by someone new.
I returned to New York with a better understanding of both men’s multi-disciplinary genius and cultural sophistication, and a sense of how far we’ve come in a mere couple of centuries.
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.
I LEARNED MANY NEW THINGS on Classic Harbor Line‘s architecture-focused “Around Manhattan Now” cruise last Friday, and was reminded of others I once knew but had forgotten. For example: the Statue of Liberty never gets old.
She just doesn’t. Every time you see her, no matter how frequently, your heart leaps a little. Especially from the deck of a mahogany-trimmed 1920s-style yacht, with a mimosa in hand.
A seafarer I am not, but the trip was smooth, exhilarating, and overall a class act. It didn’t hurt that the day was perfection, the skyline crowned blue with cartoon clouds. We embarked on the luxury yacht Manhattan at Chelsea Piers on West 22nd Street, and for the next three hours, American Institute of Architects docent Arthur Platt provided non-stop narration, emphasizing what’s new — and there is plenty — on the waterfronts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, New Jersey, Governor’s and Roosevelt Islands.
The Manhattan is one of five boats, all replicas of vintage vessels, including two schooners — the Adirondack, above, and the America – and two smaller, more intimate motorized yachts, the Beacon and the Kingston. There’s a full slate of cruises, some narrated, some not — including a specialized infrastructure tour just for bridge nerds- – 7 swing bridges! 3 lift bridges! 4 arch bridges! — and the boats are available for private charters as well. Lest you think I’m shilling for Classic Harbor Lines because my daughter works for them as a crew member on several of their vessels, know that my enthusiasm is shared by many others.
I began in the cabin of the Manhattan, lured indoors by the plush atmosphere and air conditioning, and took my first photo through a window, below, of the Empire State Building, Jean Nouvel’s modernistic 100 Eleventh Avenue, and the mesh screen of the Chelsea Piers golf driving range, as we pulled away from the dock. Then I ran out to the deck and stayed there for the remainder of the cruise, trying to follow the rapid-fire narration as Arthur pointed out buildings of interest on all shores. The boat moved fast, and it was hard to take in all the images and information as we steamed along (though we did linger pleasantly for a while at Liberty Island, and again in the Harlem River, waiting for the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge to open and allow us back into the Hudson).
Soon we were out in mid-river, above, gazing back upon the city, and being struck once more by its monumentality.
The Chelsea High Line — a mile-long public garden planted atop a once-derelict stretch of elevated railway — and the related explosion of new construction around it, streamed past on the West Side, above.
Above, Richard Meier’s Perry Street towers were among the first modern buildings in the West Village, and remain among the few.
Cruising past SoHo, Arthur treated us to the unsavory details of Donald Trump’s machinations to get the city to allow him to build an out-of-scale glass tower on Spring Street, above, claiming it would be a hotel, then selling the “suites” as apartments.
Goodbye to Midtown, above, as we headed south on the Hudson…
Hello to Downtown, above – Battery Park City, the curved facade of 200 West Street (Goldman Sacks) by Pei Cobb Freed Adamson, and the new Freedom Tower (now apparently called World Trade Center), helping make up for the loss of the Twin Towers and making lower Manhattan look almost normal again.
I marveled at how good Jersey City, above, is looking these days…
and wondered when Ellis Island, that great Victorian pile, and its immigration museum will reopen (it’s been closed since Sandy).
We sidled along Governor’s Island, but the piles of rubble along the waterfront were not picturesque enough for my camera (they are demolishing old Coast Guard barracks, and there are great plans for new landscaping in the works). We rounded Battery Park and entered the East River, below…
appreciating the distinctive yellow William Beaver building by Tsao & McKown, above, like a splash of sunlight in the canyons of the Financial District.
I felt sad seeing the hulk of South Street Seaport, abandoned since Sandy. Supposedly it’s to be replaced with something altogether different and hopefully more successful, but that all seems uncertain and wasn’t it only about thirty years old anyway?
Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street, with its innovative wavy facade, above, out-marvels the once-marvelous, century-old Woolworth Building, briefly the tallest in the world.
Above, another ageless icon that needs no naming…
and a close-up of Jane’s Carousel at Brooklyn Bridge Park, a restored vintage merry-go-round in its ultra-modern Jean Nouvel housing.
In short order, we’re passing under the Manhattan Bridge, above, and alongside the revitalized-at-lightning speed DUMBO neighborhood…
then looking back toward those two bridges, near-age siblings (1883 and 1903, respectively), as we steamed north.
Here comes the Williamsburg Bridge, above…
hard by the now-closed Domino Sugar factory, soon to be converted to glitzy residential units by SHoP Architects.
I’m skipping (for blog purposes) the dull visuals of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village on the East Side of Manhattan. Above, the ever-inspiring Chrysler Building and the 1950s UN Headquarters, sparkling and stunning after its recent refurbishment.
We pass under another of New York’s monumental bridgeworks — the Queensboro/59th Street Bridge, in whose shadow I spent my early childhood (though you can’t see my old Long Island City neighborhood from here because of subsequent massive building on Roosevelt Island, below).
Happily, the Pepsi sign is landmarked…
Plenty of new apartments to go around on Roosevelt Island, above, it would seem. There’s also the husk of a Victorian hospital, below, which I explored with two college friends in the late 1960s, finding unspeakable things in jars. Why it has not been demolished, I can’t tell you. [NOTE: These photos are a little out of order]
We’re now in the upper East River, heading toward the Bronx. Below, part of the Upper East Side of Manhattan…
and the Triborough Bridge, below, evocatively named for its construction linking the Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan (but recently and pointlessly renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, which pisses me off).
Now we’re in the narrower Harlem River, below, between upper Manhattan and the Bronx, passing such landmarks as Yankee Stadium and the Tuckitaway Storage company, which Arthur mentions (twice) as an example of how businesses and people were forced out of Manhattan and into the Bronx when parts of the former were reassigned to the later — and how they resented it.
The turret, below, belongs to the Third Avenue rotation bridge, one of 13 (!) bridges linking Manhattan and the Bronx. I love the old curlicued cast iron light post, and the fact that it remains.
Below, the Peter J. Sharp Boathouse by Robert A.M. Stern…
And the embankment, below, where Columbia University graduates should feel a swell of pride.
Above, a surprisingly natural marshy cove in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan, with a recently installed floating art piece made of discarded umbrellas…
and Washington Bridge, another of the of 13 mostly walkable bridges across the Harlem River.
Finally we reach the Spuyten Duyvil (“spouting devil” in Dutch, as this is where the waters of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers meet, their different tides and compositions creating a treacherous whirlpool). The captain of the Manhattan called for the bridge to be manually opened for us, giving us time to catch our breaths before…
entering the wide waters of the Hudson River.
The change of direction got people up into the bow with their cameras as the George Washington Bridge approached…
its little red lighthouse of children’s book fame still standing proud, saved when threatened with demolition in the 1930s by its children’s book fame.
We cruised past Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Church, and the classic, elegant apartment buildings of the old Upper West Side, above…
which transitioned rapidly to the glassy towers of the new West Side, south of 72nd Street.
Above, a place I’d like to go for lunch one summer day, whose name I didn’t catch…
and the fabulous, shiplike Starrett-Lehigh Building on West 26th Street, an Art Deco monument that now houses Martha Stewart Omnimedia and other design-oriented companies.
Shortly thereafter, we disembarked at Chelsea Piers, exhausted from the sun and the wind and just being out on the water. Though I hadn’t actually done anything but run from one side of the boat to the other, snapping unsteady pictures of just a few of the 156 sites on the map we were given, I slept very well that night.
Since then, I’ve realized anew that New York is more than merely a city. It’s a civilization.