ALL GARDENING ALL THE TIME… that’s how I spent September and October at my beach-house property in Springs, N.Y., before cold nights forced me back to the big city.

I devoted last spring mostly to home improvements, while my garden ambitions lay fallow. I rented in July, and August was broken up by treks back and forth to Brooklyn, to oversee work at my townhouse in Cobble Hill (now rented, happily).

Besides which, though I had done a lot of clearing and planting by this third season at the house, I’m still somewhat lacking in the overall vision department.

But Labor Day weekend, I had a visit from a garden-designer friend who never fails to get me thinking, and things took a conceptual leap forward. I’d had this grand new deck built the summer before last, but hadn’t done much landscaping around it. Mary-Liz suggested that if I enlarged the existing beds, which began a few feet away from the deck, with an expanse of wood chips in between, and brought the beds right up to the edges, you’d feel, while lounging on the deck, as if you were sitting in the garden and not just looking at it.

While she was visiting, we swam in the bay and drank wine and, except for one trip to the dump for compost and some watering, didn’t lift a finger. It was Labor Day weekend, after all. As soon as her car pulled out of the driveway, though, I sprang into action. Over the next few days, I outlined new, expanded beds with some of the bricks from the three huge stacks I inherited when I bought the house two-and-a-half years ago. Then I had more compost delivered and piled in the newly defined areas, where there was only packed-down dirt.

This is all still very ad hoc; the bricks are mere suggestions, not yet dug into the soil, and they don’t quite end anywhere. Things may shift later, when more permanent paths are built. But it was enough to get me going, and on to my next challenge: what to plant in these new areas without spending a lot of money I didn’t have?

As it happened, my friend Stephanie, gardener extraordinaire, had recently sold her East Hampton house and could quite easily part with a couple of hydrangeas, some Japanese silver ferns, hostas and other random things that would never be missed from her intensively planted acre. I procured these donations in late September, along with some pieces of slate for stepping-stone paths.

Then, my dear next-door neighbors were planning to move, too, at the end of October. They had been renting for several years, had done a fair bit of planting, and didn’t want to leave their fabulous weeping spruce, an Alberta spruce, a couple of other evergreens, some irises, etc., to the new owners, nor could they take them along. So these were dug up and brought over the fence to my property, where I carefully chose spots for each.

Finally, around Columbus Day, I made a visit to Lynch’s Garden Center in Southampton, one of my favorite area nurseries — it’s medium-size, not overwhelming, and always has an interesting selection. Even at that late date, to my amazement, they had a table of robust-looking shade perennials, including Solomon’s seal, rodgersia, astelboides and ladies mantle, at the giveaway price of $3 apiece. I bought almost all they had.

I also moved things I’d planted in the outer reaches of my own half-acre to spots nearer the house and deck, where I can enjoy them on a daily basis and where they’ll get more watering. A crape myrtle that was unhappy in the woods is now in a prime sunny spot, and three leather-leafed mahonia that were lost back there now have pride of place in a V-shaped area where two paths meet.

Oh, and then there were several buckets of liriope from Brooklyn, a grasslike groundcover, that had been hastily dug up, thrown into plastic pots and left to sit all summer with an occasional spritz. It was a tangled mess, but alive, when I got to it in September, and I spent two days teasing it apart and painstakingly transplanting what I hope will one day be a glorious carpet on either side of a new path from my brick patio to the… what to call it… well, to the area that still needs conceptualizing.

Add to this my renewed commitment to watering, watering, watering, which I did diligently by hand for approximately an hour-and-a-half each day, with fancy new watering wands and nozzles to make the job easier, and I have every expectation of a great gardening season when I get back to my little Eden next spring.

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I’M MORE BULLISH THAN EVER on Kensington, the Philadelphia neighborhood north of Center City where I bought a small row house for investment in 2007. Eight years ago, the area was full of crumbling, sagging buildings. Now it’s being spiffed up and built up everywhere, with new low-rise residential construction in formerly vacant lots, and the conversion of the area’s many disused textile mills and factories into rentals and condos.

In Philly this week, I wanted to see the area around Norris Square, above, a leafy park I remembered as sketchy several years ago, when small row houses near the park were going for well under 100K. They’re a bit more now (though still under 150K), but the area felt cleaned up and more friendly on a walking tour of the neighborhood with my son Max and his dog Roma.

We ambled up Hancock Street and down Front, under the elevated train, where industrial buildings are being renovated left and right for commercial and residential use. Here, in approximately this order, is what we saw.


The carriage houses that carry tourists around Center City are stabled on Hancock. In the background, one of the many brick factory buildings that have been converted for residential use.


This former feather company building is being developed after a community battle to save it from demolition.


Admiring the newly painted signage on a Hancock Street building, we were invited in for a look. Federal Distilling is a vodka distillery, soon to open with a bar selling house-made products.


The area’s row-house architecture is very similar to that of nearby Fishtown.


Right around Norris Square, the houses are larger and more detailed. Must have been elegant in their day.

IMG_0016Circling around to Front Street, where a milk-bottle-shaped water tower sits atop an old dairy building.


Something afoot here on Front in what looks like an old bank building.


Oxford Mills is a mammoth rental building completed a couple of years ago in the shell of a former textile family. Public school teachers get a break on rent.


On this block of Jefferson Street, a typical mix: some old row houses, a couple of modern interventions, and a former casket factory developed as apartments.


The side of my property is visible, covered with ivy, in the photo above. The new construction across the street was a vacant lot two years ago. The grassy field has been sold to developers and will become 17 new townhouses. The brick building behind mine is one of the neighborhood’s earliest loft conversions.


Lunch was here, in the shadow of the El, at the Good Spoon Soupery (they have salads and sandwiches, too) on the corner of Front and Master — a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

To see my previous reports about the area, go here and here.


AS ONE WHOSE SHELVES are already groaning with auction catalogues and design reference books (even wrote a couple of ’em myself), I couldn’t imagine how the new, nearly-500 page tome, Design: The Definitive Visual History, would tell me anything I didn’t know. Published by DK/Penguin Random House in association with the Smithsonian, it was bound to be authoritative, but at this point, what more is there to say or show?

The book is what it says: a comprehensive history of Western design, in carefully chosen photos. It lays out, in a chronological fashion that appeals to my linear brain, the evolution of design from the mid 19th century, when industrialization and the growing demand for household furnishings and decorative wares by a new middle class first necessitated that everything be “designed,” up to the present.

From William Morris and Tiffany lamps to IKEA and cell phones is a broad purview, to be sure, and the book is of necessity a cursory look at a vast subject. It’s a highlights tour of the icons, for the most part, but if you want all your information in one place. this encyclopedic book is for you.

This is the book to reach for first if you need reminding who Achille Castiglione was and what he designed, or the difference between Art Deco and Streamlined Modern. Its clear, sparkling graphics and hundreds of images, which include many period interiors and such enjoyable extras as timelines and pithy pull quotes, make it fun just to flip through.

It also provides something often taken for granted: a definition of good design, or function meeting aesthetics at a price many can afford. At $50 (about penny a page), this book is a case in point.


….is maybe not such a great idea. It’s bigger than it looked on the not-to-scale map in the tourist brochure.

Pork-chop-shaped Block Island, Rhode Island, is about 15 miles off the easternmost tip of Long Island, where I live part of the year. I was bound and determined to get there on the last weekend of seasonal ferry service from Montauk. Unable to convince a friend to join me — admittedly, the night before — I went off solo, as I did last winter to Europe. I even wore the same trusty boots that saw me through Spain, France and Italy, and summoned up an echo of the old travel excitement as I drove the half-hour to catch the 10AM ferry on a perfect October Sunday, having done zero preliminary research. I had a vision of finding breakfast in a Victorian hotel, once I reached Block Island, on a porch overlooking the sea.

I had been to Block Island once before, in the early ’90s, and wasn’t wrong in assuming it would still be much the same — unspoiled and tranquil, with only 600 year-round residents and, by Columbus Day weekend, few vacationers left. I expected the ferry to dock in Old Harbor, immediately across from an old-fashioned high street with restaurants, bars and shops. All that’s still there, but that’s not where the new super-fast ferry from Montauk docks. It docks, after an hour-long crossing over pristine waters, in New Harbor, about two miles away from any hope of breakfast (or by now, lunch).


Leaving Montauk, above


First glimpses of Block Island, below


There was a stand renting bicycles (mopeds too), but I passed it by. Block Island is hilly, and I thought I’d be better off hoofing it. So I walked and took photos, arriving at Old Harbor to discover the grande-dame hotel restaurants mostly closed for the reason, and ended up at the Topside Cafe, a hippie establishment where I had my first-ever acai berry bowl.

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Old walls made of huge stones, found throughout the island, are not why it’s called Block Island (it’s named after Adrian Block, an early Dutch settler).


I wanted to see a bit of the island’s interior and perhaps some of the vaunted ocean beaches. My rudimentary map showed 25 miles of yellow hiking trails, and I chose the Fresh Swamp Trail as a goal — it was the closest and shortest. I passed old farmhouses as I walked to the trailhead, some now used as inns, on roads that became increasingly less paved. The trail took me through woods and open fields and was serene and lovely, if not dramatic. By the time I emerged on the road at the other end, it was mid-afternoon. I had walked a total of five miles and my legs were tired. To get back on foot to New Harbor in time for the 5PM return boat, I’d have to head straight there, on perhaps the island’s least scenic road, past the airport. As I contemplated that walk, a taxi came along the otherwise deserted road, and my hand went up so fast I wasn’t sure I had even made a decision to hail it.


Because the driver had another pickup in that direction, we ended up on the unremarkable airport road, and I was now early for the return ferry. I had him drop me at Old Harbor again, thinking I’d do a bit of shopping and find a cocktail. Racks of cute, arty clothing at drastic end-of-season reductions lined the street, so I did that for a while, then found myself at Poor People’s Pub, crowded and cozy, eating the best pizza I’ve had since Naples — truffled mushrooms and goat cheese, and a Narragansett beer on draft. Then I had to move quickly to make that return ferry, or spend an extra 24 hours on the island (which wouldn’t have been the worst thing). By the time I’d hiked back to New Harbor, I was hobbling.


I never saw the beaches, except for those that could be seen from the ferry, or much of the island, really. But I saw enough to know I’d like to return.



UPDATE: It’s rented!:-)

ASK MY KIDS, they’ll tell you: Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, is a great place to grow up. Especially on Verandah Place, the most coveted block in perhaps the most charming neighborhood in brownstone Brooklyn. It’s a row of mid-19th century brick carriage and mews houses, with a vest-pocket park right across the street and a highly regarded public elementary school two blocks away. Never was there a better street for skateboarding or jumping rope; car traffic is minimal. The river, the harbor and Brooklyn Bridge Park are a few blocks away; so are the best Middle Eastern and Italian groceries you’ll find in NYC.

And how often does a four-story, five bedroom, three bath townhouse with a great garden come up for rent on Verandah Place, especially one that’s just undergone a two-month spiffing up from top to bottom? Not often, let me tell you. If I could afford it, I’d live there myself (and did, for 20 years), but right now, it’s for rent, with a long lease possible.

Our 1850s townhouse is bright and ridiculously charming, full of simple details that characterize its classic architecture: original cove moldings, four-panel doors, rare black marble fireplaces (two working) and harmonious, perfectly square rooms.

Live there, work there — the garden level would lend itself beautifully to use as a studio or professional office, or as a guest suite, play or media room.

The entire house is freshly painted, with newly refinished floors. The kitchen has custom cabinets, honed granite countertop, Sub-Zero fridge and Viking stove next to a large dining room with wood-burning fireplace.

But why take my word for it? Have a look at my many photos, below. The official listing is hereCheck out the professional photos on the realtor’s site (especially if you want to see the park across the street), or contact me at caramia447 (at) gmail (dot) com for further details.

P.S. Scroll all the way down to read some quirky factoids I’ve pulled together about Six Verandah Place and its location.




Parlor floor entry. Stairs go down to studio/garden level. Library/den to left, formal parlor ahead to left, beyond classical columns.


Library, den, media room, what have you. 15’x15′. Closet to right, double entry doors.


Come on in to parlor/living room. Door straight ahead leads to wrought iron balcony down to garden.



Major gap here: The photos above show just two angles on a 15’x22′ room with a marble mantel and two six-over-six windows overlooking the garden. Now up we go to the second floor…



Room straight ahead can be used as study or small bedroom. Overlooks garden. I wrote many a magazine article there.


View from dining room into hallway. Staircase, of course, original.


Dining room. About 15’x18′. Marble fireplace burns wood. Knoll credenza stays.





Bathroom on second floor has stall shower, washer/dryer, window overlooking street.


Coming up to top floor landing…




Master bedroom has skylight, arched windows, two closets, overlooks garden, rooftops.


2nd top floor bedroom.



3rd top floor bedroom.



Top floor bathroom with deep soaking tub.

Oh, wait! There’s another whole floor downstairs, on the garden level… and a full storage basement below that.


Two room studio can be used for myriad purposes. Guest suite, playroom, teen hangout, professional office. Another access to garden.

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Garden-level bathroom has full tub, 1940s green tile.


Private garden with slate patio.


  • The house is pre-Civil War, built in the mid-1850s.
  • It has more original interior detail than any other on the block (and I’ve been in most of them). That includes 4 marble mantels, cove moldings on the parlor floor, and the staircase/balusters. The ornate fixture in the front entry hall was once a gas fixture and is original to the house.
  • Legend has it that the house is part of a row of five, all built by one gentleman on Warren Street for his five daughters and their families. These were not carriage houses, though there are several on the block; they were always one-family houses.
  • The house is backwards! (That may be true of the whole row of five.) What is now the front facade of the house was originally the rear facade. If you stand in the garden and look up, you see its full size.
  • The house is backwards probably because access was from Warren or Henry Street. There must have been an opening or possibly a road that ran through what is now the back garden in the 19th century.
  • The rear parlor (living room) was originally the front parlor. We opened up the hallway and inserted the columns (which are salvaged porch columns) in the late 1980s, shortly after we bought the house.
  • We also raised the ceilings on the top floor in the two back bedrooms (when we bought the house, those two rooms were an attic you couldn’t stand up in) and added the three arched windows.
  • The kitchen dates from 2000. Cabinetry is custom maple, and the appliances (Viking, Bosch, Sub-Zero, etc.) have all been professionally refurbished.
  • Cobble Hill Park became a park in the 1950s. Prior to that there was a church there, and Verandah Place was gated. The church was torn down, and a supermarket was set to go up in its place. The community objected, and the park was created. The sandbox is centered on a unique concrete dolphin that has been there since the ’50s and was preserved in a 1989 park renovation.

Want more info? Email me: caramia447 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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