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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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LAST WEEK, I FINALLY ACHIEVED ENTRY into a pair of restored 18th century houses in Philadelphia that had eluded me for years. The modest 1776 Todd house, above on left, and the elegant 1786 home of Bishop William White are on the same block in Center City, Walnut Street between 3rd and 4th. They’ve always been closed when I’ve tried to visit in the past. They’re only open in the summer months; sometimes they’re understaffed; they only allow 10 at a time inside; you call for information and can’t get through — so a certain mystique had built up for me around these sites. Then there’s the ticketing rigamarole: you have to first pick up a (free) ticket at the Visitor Center at Independence National Historical Park, a few blocks away at Market and 6th, and sign up for a scheduled half-hour tour, which happen once or twice a day.

On Friday morning, however, I did it. Five showed up for the tour, including people from Missouri and Washington State. First we visited the middle class house where John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, his wife Dolley Payne Todd, and their two children lived (with just a single servant). It’s very much a Philadelphia row house of the late 18th century, with narrow twisting wooden stairs, a tiny kitchen, a dining room and parlor, small bedrooms, and an office in a prime corner where Todd practiced law. He died here in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, as did 4,000 other Philadelphians , including one of their young sons. Dolley went on to meet another young lawyer, James Madison, in that very house two months later, and eventually became the 4th First Lady of the U.S. The house is furnished with period pieces, though they’re not original to the house — and well done as the restoration is, it is just a warm-up for the Federal-style Bishop White house a few doors down.

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Above: The side of the Todd house is more impressive than the front, which is only two windows wide. We entered through a door behind the picket fence.

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From top: kitchen, dining, study in Todd house.

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The 4-inch-wide door to the left of the stairs is a candle closet(!)

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Above: Fire buckets hang from the ceiling in the Todd house.

IMG_0100When Kevin O’Neill, the National Park Service ranger who led the tour, opened the fanlight door to the Bishop White House, left, we all gasped. It is grand, especially by comparison to the Todd house: the plaster archway in the front hall, the diamond-patterned floor cloth, the wide stair landings and turned balusters, the painstakingly reproduced Scalamandre (or did he say Schumacher?) wallpapers in every room. This house is filled almost exclusively with furnishings that belonged to the original homeowner, a bishop in the Protestant Episcopal Church just around the corner. The artifacts were rounded up in the late 1940s and ’50s from as far away as Texas and South Africa; they’d been sold off after the Bishop’s death in 1836, but their provenance was apparently traceable down to the silver and china. The Bishop had 11 children and quite a few servants; Washington, Jefferson and Franklin were among the elite guests. He seems to have been an admirable guy — an abolitionist, of an ecumenical bent (rabbis dined here as well), a charitable fellow who never turned a beggar away empty-handed from his door, the story goes.

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Above: The very wallpaper patterns in place in the late 18th/early 19th centuries.

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The painting propped on a stand, above, commissioned by one of the Bishop’s children shortly after his death, is of this second-floor study. It greatly enabled an accurate re-creation of the room, even after the house had been occupied by an insurance company for decades (happily, they did no damage to the house’s architectural integrity).

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Above: The Park Ranger peering down the hall to where I was lagging behind to take a picture. He’s hoping I’m not some kind of stealth graffiti artist, or perhaps just anxious to keep to his schedule.

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Above: All the mod cons in a room at the back of the hall — from here straight into an alley that ran behind the house.

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Above: A kitchen much larger than those in other houses of this period. Below: The Bishop’s mosquito-netted bed.

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Some of the Ranger’s statements were questionable, such as that Philly went into decline after the 1790s (when the nation’s capital was moved to D.C. and the founders, who had gathered there as a central point while the Constitution was being written and the nation formed, repaired back to their Virginia plantations and homes elsewhere), and that the city’s reputation and vitality didn’t return until the Bicentennial of 1976. Huh? What about the Industrial Revolution? The 1876 Exposition? American Bandstand?

But it may be true that nothing that came later — not even the current real estate boom, which makes Brooklyn’s look sleepy — ever quite recaptured the glory and opportunity of those post-Revolutionary years, preserved for our consumption in a pair of brick row houses.

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Above: On the same Center City block as the Todd and Bishop White houses, a park in the style of the late 18th century, always worth a look.

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GRAVEL, ROCKS, PALMS AND TOPIARY, that’s what Las Vegas landscaping is made of. My wasband just got back from a visit there with these images in his pocket, taken in Paradise Palms, a neighborhood of mid-century houses by architects Palmer and Krisel, best known for their Palm Springs developments, that are pretty swell in their own right. (The houses, by the way, are real bargain by East and West Coast standards. One in fairly good condition might go for around $230,000. Others need a complete makeover.)

Something about these freewheeling front yards makes me want to laugh. Is it the anthropomorphic look of the pruned hedges, the casual strewing of boulders, the symmetrical line-up of mini-cacti in gray gravel? It’s so different from what we call a garden here in the East. Scroll down for a look at what can be done under pretty arid circumstances.

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Photos: Jeff Greenberg

 

 

 

 

 

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ONCE-MIGHTY TROY, N.Y., one of the nation’s wealthiest cities in the glory days of the Industrial Revolution (iron, steel, precision tools, shirts and collars), fell on hard times in the 20th century, but much of its impressive — in fact, gorgeous — architecture remains intact. Some of its brownstones are more stellar, even, than Brooklyn’s best, and its commercial buildings, in the uniformly antique downtown area, are great beauties.

There’s much for an architecture aficionada to explore, and explore I did last Saturday, in the company of my travelin’ cousin Susan and Brownstoner columnist Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris), a new Troy resident and now expert on the buildings of that city. (Her recent New York Daily News article on the revitalization of Troy is here.)

photoHere we are at Lucas Confectionery, a hip new wine bar/ restaurant/grocery that retains the name of the original 1863 store in this space, toasting the wonders of the city named after the ancient Troy, whose motto is “Ilium fuit, Troja est (Latin for “Ilium was, Troy is”) — and, young entrepreneurs and real estate developers hope, will be.

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Above, Suzanne with Lucas Confectionery owner Vic Christopher, formerly of…Brooklyn!

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The obvious place to begin a walking tour of vintage Troy is Monument Square, where a towering column topped by a figure of Liberty commemorates Civil War dead, and around which are a few thriving boutiques like Truly Rhe and a phenomenally unspoiled Victorian bar/cafe, Illium Cafe (photos below of the building that houses it and its wholly original interior). Try the strawberry mimosa.

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The elegant 1904 McCarthy building on Monument Square, of terra cotta with a proscenium-style arched window, below, just waiting for the right tenant.

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Angling off Monument Square toward the Hudson River — narrower here than in New York City, but the original source of Troy’s commercial success — is River Street, below. The spectacular wedge-shaped Rice Building, an 1871 High Gothic landmark at the corner of River at First, replaced an earlier structure wiped out in an 1820 fire that destroyed all the businesses and warehouses along River Street, which had been a busy commercial district since the 1790s.

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River Street is optimistically dubbed Antiques Row. More buildings are vacant than occupied at present, though the potential in its sturdy, attractive building stock, below, is evident. One of the best stores now open: Country Charm at #188, where painted cupboards and iron bedsteads similar to those found in Hudson, N.Y., shops are offered at a fraction of the price. Another goodie: Playing on the Furniture, a place to find cheerily repainted and refurbished secondhand pieces.

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Off Monument Square in the other direction, on River and Third Streets, are livelier boutiques, vintage clothing stores and flower shops (The Botanic Studio specializes in terrariums), and more fine commercial buildings in need of tenants.

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Above, Dang! That’s Cherry, a vintage clothing boutique that also sells mid-century kitsch and kitchenware.

Troy seems to have no shortage of fine public buildings. Below, the interior of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, an 1870s auditorium with original pipe organ, long famed for its acoustics, has a full calendar of important names in classical, jazz and popular music.

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Below, the Troy Public Library, remnant of proud bygone days, with magnificent iron sconces.

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Below, two early buildings at Russell Sage College, founded in 1916 in a public park in Downtown Troy.

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There are numerous blocks of well-preserved row houses — a few early Federal clapboards and many later homes of brick or stone, in Italianate, Romanesque Revival, and other fanciful late 19th century styles. The best of them seem to be along 2nd Street, which we wandered, admiring bay windows, cupolas, friezes, ironwork, cornices, and other details.

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Above: the Federal style Hart-Cluett House, built in 1827 with a marble facade, now the home of the Rensselaer County Historical Society.

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Eventually we came to Washington Park, below, established in 1840 and one of only two private ornamental parks in the state, open by key to residents of surrounding buildings (the other such park is Gramercy Park in NYC). Some of the homes are freestanding mansions, below; others are row houses.

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Above, one of the last remaining cobblestone streets in Troy.

We returned to Monument Square along 3rd Street, where the homes are more modest. There are two interesting houses of worship: the 1827 St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, below, whose 1890s interior is all Tiffany; stained glass windows, woodwork, metalwork and lighting. And a cute blue-painted 1870 synagogue, in continuous use for the past 144 years.

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Wherever you roam, there’s interesting stuff to see, like the leaded glass storefront and rusting Art Deco hotel sign, below.

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That’s Troy 101 for you. What do you make of it?

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I’VE BEEN A FAN OF TEL AVIV’S BAUHAUS-STYLE ARCHITECTURE at least since 1984, when a show at New York’s Jewish Museum made me aware of the design importance of the so-called “White City.” German Jewish architects influenced by the Bauhaus and LeCorbusier emigrated to Tel Aviv in great numbers in the 1930s, fleeing the Nazi rise to power. Erich Mendelsohn is probably the best-known of them; he and others brought International Style ideas of modernity to the construction of mostly low-rise apartment buildings, adapting their design principles to a hot climate.

Now Israeli artist Avner Gicelter has launched a website featuring meticulous graphic illustrations of 11 (so far) outstanding buildings throughout his beloved city. It’s an attractive resource and a useful document.

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I’ve written before about Tel Aviv’s stock of 4,000 such modernist buildings, including an outraged letter to the New York Times Travel section after a writer summed up the city’s architecture as “awful.” Remembering a walking tour conducted by Israeli friends, I described the city’s back streets as “uniform blocks of characteristically flat-roofed, cubic structures with ribbons of balconies, or with sleek curves and rounded corners that rival anything in Miami’s South Beach for streamlined modernity.”

The city’s collection is impressive. Three districts were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, and Conde Nast Traveler magazine has called Tel Aviv one of the world’s best cities for architecture lovers. Some of the Bauhaus-style structures anchor broad boulevards, like the elegant Rothschild Boulevard, or encircle plazas like well-known Dizengoff Square. More line narrow side streets. Some have been carefully restored; others are still in an unfortunate state of disrepair. There’s an ongoing preservation battle.

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All the above illustrations are from Gicelter’s website, where you can see more building images and subscribe to the continuing series.

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