Glimpse of Alexandria


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

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Above, “Captain’s Row,” a street sloping down to the Potomac River, paved with stones originally used as ships’ ballast

DSC_0885We 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.

Late Season Home Improvements


WITH INDIAN SUMMER and its crazy beautiful sunsets stretching well into October, it was hard to tear myself away from the East End of Long Island. But mornings were getting chilly, as were evenings, in my unheated house — though I was more sanguine about it than I was last spring. “52 degrees!” I heard myself say, looking at the thermometer in my living room first thing in the morning. “Not bad!”

I’m back in Brooklyn, more or less, planning occasional forays to check on my two properties in Springs. I’ve given the listing on my original cottage there to Corcoran and wished them good luck.

In the last few weeks of the season, with the help of a friend, I painted the exterior of the house — and there was one other big project I needed to accomplish before letting go of summer ’13. That was repairing the 6′ stockade fence that surrounds my half-acre property and protects it again maurading deer. Or does it? Yes, they can jump six feet. But will they, if they can’t see over or through the opaque fence? My neighbor, who has a deer-control business, thinks not. We shall see. I purposely did not spray my hostas or my hydrangea, so it will be evident if they’ve trespassed.

I had Shane of The Deer Fence (highly recommended) raise the few existing 3′ and 4′ sections to a uniform 6′ all around. At the moment, I can’t afford the 3′ top extension with heavy-gauge wire mesh that would have absolutely assured the sanctity of my vegetation, but that’s OK — I haven’t planted much yet that needs protecting. And then — this is the exciting part — I had him change the configuration of the fencing at the front of the property, where the driveway was lined on both sides with stockade fence, one side of which met the corner of the house in a way that totally bugged me (see the ‘Before,’ below).


Now, below, the driveway is shorter (but still long enough for 2-3 cars), the fence is halfway down it, the house seems to have more architectural integrity, and there is the beginning of an entry courtyard that will eventually be planted and may even get some sort of central (water?) feature.


The view from inside the property toward the driveway, below, is much improved, too.


I will sleep better this winter, knowing I have a painted house with an entry courtyard to go back to in the spring.

Also, in a late-season thrift-shop triumph, I found an 8-foot-long solid oak (?) table on a chrome base, marked made in Finland, at LVIS. Very late ’60s, or perhaps ’70s. Now I’m ready for a banquet, or at least a proper dinner party. All I need are the chairs.



HAMPTONS VOYEUR: Casual Decor for a Quirky Rental


PART OF THE FUN OF BLOGGING is getting the occasional bead on a great subject from a reader. I met Dorothee van Mol and her husband Paul a year ago when they came to look at my East Hampton cottage as a possible year-round rental. We spent a pleasant hour chatting on my deck, but ultimately, they decided to rent in Southampton, closer to their primary home in Brooklyn. Dorothee continued to follow my blog, and when she saw the unconventional modernist house I bought in East Hampton last spring, she knew I’d be interested in seeing the sprawling complex she and Paul have been renting.

The site: now that’s a tale. As is the house itself, which began as a 1920s industrial dairy building. It’s unclear whether cows were actually housed there, but refrigerated compartments, concrete floors, a pass-through marked “Milk and Package Receiver,” and other quirky elements are clues to its origins. The acre-and-a-half spread, on the fringe of Southampton village, was owned at one time by a garden designer, some of whose landscape architecture remains, and then by three partners who began an ambitious expansion of the house with cinderblock construction and casement windows, covering many thousands of square feet, before feuding and parting ways. The property came up for rent, and that’s when Dorothee and Paul, who have two college-age kids, stepped in. They decorated resourcefully, on a shoestring, with furnishings they had in storage, items they found on the property, and a few fill-ins from IKEA. I love its casual Bohemian air.

Let’s circumnavigate the property first, and then we’ll go inside…


Walls around the gravel parking court and elsewhere on the property are made of stacked stone in wire cages called gabions.


Charcoal gray-painted trim against brown vertical clapboard siding, looks chic and ties together disparate windows and doors.


One of two kitchens — yes, that’s right — is in an extension at the front of the house.


Around the side, you sense the building’s utilitarian origins.




Old perennial beds and self-seeding annuals soften the unfinished walls of the never-completed extension.


There’s a lap pool around the back, of which I’m terribly envious, surrounded by ornamental grasses and an allee of trees.



Long gravel walks punctuated by cypress trees and lined with flagstone packed in wire cages have a classical Mediterranean feel.


A wall of glass windows and doors opens to a gravel courtyard. The parking court and entry gate are in the stone wall at left.


The long west-facing entry hall gets afternoon light. Kitchen #1, below, is down the end.





There’s a small dining area in that same kitchen, above…


and a rustic bar.




The main living space has one spectacular window and a wood ceiling.


Wire grids found around the property were pressed into service as bulletin boards.


There’s a sophisticated contemporary bathroom with a marble vanity and the world’s smallest sink, below.


Kitchen #2, below, looks out into the heart of the abandoned construction project, which, as greenery overtakes it, seems a bit like an ancient archaeological site.



Below, the enormous master bedroom.





Two additional bedrooms, one with the curious cubby-hole.




The future of the site and the couple’s tenancy is uncertain, so — though they put in a fair amount of work painting and decorating — the whole project has a casual, spur-of-the-moment feeling about it. Thanks, Dorothee, for letting us have a look.

East Hampton Farmhouse + Outbuildings 745K


THE AD IN THE EAST HAMPTON STAR says “capacity for 7,500 sq. ft. house, tennis, horses.” Phooey on that. I see a good old-fashioned Long Island truck farm on the cleared, sunny acre+ behind this 1880s farmhouse. Organic, of course. Or maybe a field of flowers.

There’s good news and bad news. The farmhouse is close to Springs Fireplace Road, where traffic is incessant. That’s true of historic houses in general. In the old days, when only horse carts passed by on unpaved roads, traffic noise wasn’t a problem. Anyway, that’s reflected in the reasonable price. Also, it’s conceivable that the house could be moved back on the lot, away from the road. And it’s not bad news if you want to have a farmstand to sell your produce and flowers!

The good news is behind the house: the huge, open property, surrounded by trees and very private, with a rural feeling that’s hard to come by these days. There’s a 1,200 square foot barn plus a 400 square foot workshop, all of which offer rental possibilities.

The house itself, with 4 bedrooms, 2-1/2 baths is presently rented out. I didn’t see the inside, but it’s said (by a friend who knows the place) to be attractive and in good condition.

It’s for sale by owner. For more info: 631-987-8366.




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