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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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IT BEGAN when my daughter moved into a Prospect Heights brownstone with a struggling pine tree in a barrel  out front. Each time I visited, I eyed the dead branches, wishing I could take a pruner to the thing and tidy it up. One day, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told her, “I’m going to prune that pine. If your landlord says anything, tell him your mother is an itinerant urban gardener who goes around pruning people’s shrubs unbidden.”

While my East Hampton house is rented out, I’ve been getting my gardening jollies catching up on maintenance in the yards of my buildings in Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill. I ride around with a wooden box of garden tools in the back of my car — a hand rake, lopper, pruner, shovel, gloves, trash bags. When the urge to garden strikes, I’m ready. But I can see how this could get out of hand. Last week, I was walking along a Park Slope sidewalk and saw a lovely Japanese maple in a cobalt pot in someone’s front yard. It was full of weeds. My fingers itched to reach over the iron fence and pull them out, but I restrained myself. One recent morning, in Philadelphia to visit my son, I went out in my pajamas at 7AM and pulled 2-foot-tall weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk in front of his building … and the building next door.

Soon, I’ll have my half-acre to play with. In the meantime, I stealth-garden on other people’s property and enjoy what they’re doing with their window boxes, tree pits and containers. They’re doing a lot; it’s an encouraging sign of the times.

Below: March of the pots, a trend I’ve spotted this year for the first time. This is good news. In decades past, they might well have been stolen.

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Above: Window box explosion in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood. Below: Ivy and seasonal containers decorate a carriage house in Old Kensington.

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Below: Orange cosmos and white gaura have burst through the iron fence around this apartment building in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, seeding themselves in cracks in the sidewalk.

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Below: A proudly tended Brooklyn tree pit with petunias and variegated hosta.

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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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DON’T YOU JUST HATE when a blogger starts off a post by apologizing for a long silence, then runs down a list of excuses ranging from being busy with ‘real’ work to computer and/or camera troubles?  I mean, like, who cares? Just get on with it.

This hypothetical blogger could have other issues as well. Sheer laziness, perhaps. Concern that people are sick of seeing photos of the same old place again and again (and who could blame them?) Or simply living life instead of blogging about it, which may be a good thing.

For the record: the month just passed was a productive one at The Hole (a friend’s suggestion for a name for my new house, borrowed partly from the name of the road it’s on, and in the absence of anything less pejorative, or anything else at all, I’m growing to like it).  I busied myself with small improvements to house and garden, prepping for my July renters — installing a washer/dryer, planning for a new deck come August, hanging pictures on the walls.

The great room, below, is kind of great.

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The living/sitting/dining room, below, looks pretty much the same…

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as does the kitchen…

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The master bedroom is shaping up.

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The guest room is rather sweet (and extremely difficult to photograph).

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Out in the yard, the vegetable beds remain unplanted, the shed unrenovated. Though I do have a spectacular weed…a verbascum taller than I am.

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I’ve done a bit of planting, not a lot; that will come in the fall. I discovered a local couple who sells hosta and ferns — big healthy ones — for $3 and $5, out of their backyard. Who says the Hamptons is a rip-off? For me, being able to grow hostas at all, thanks to a 6′ tall stockade fence the deer have yet to breach, is a remarkable thing.

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I’m in Brooklyn for July, with a planned return trip to Rancho La Puerta (my 12th, I think) mid-month. It’s all good, and I’ll make no excuses for that.

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