Countdown to Europe


THE MOMENT I GOT REALLY EXCITED ABOUT MY UPCOMING TRIP — a Mediterranean Eurail sojourn, long in the planning — was when a friend asked where I was going, exactly. I said, “Madrid, Malaga, Cordoba, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Girona, Collioure, Arles, Nimes, Aix, Marseilles, Nice, Menton, Turin, Milan, Verona [that’s it, above], Vicenza, Lucca, Naples, Pompeii and Sorrento,” and realized how amazing that list sounded. Some of those places will, of necessity, be pass-throughs, and others day trips from a base city — I only have a month, after all. The list is subject to change according to whim and weather, so we’ll have to see how it plays out in reality, but that’s the general outline.


Arcade in Turin, Italy

Three more days and I’m off. Senior travel to Europe is hot, have you heard? The New York Times ran a piece last week about a Seattle couple who have been air b’n’b-ing it through Europe for the past year-and-a-half (with no desire to return to the U.S., apparently). The ‘solo women travel’ category has blogs aplenty, and it won’t be long before the Times does a piece on that, I’m sure. But I’ll scoop them right here on casaCARA, and I hope you’ll follow along.


One of the historic cafes that abound in Turin 

You don’t even have to go through the packing and paperwork (hotel & train reservations, travel insurance, Verizon data plans, etc.) that have consumed me for months. I spent two hours yesterday just organizing pills and toiletries.


Zaragoza, Spain; Cathedral of San Salvador, Zaragoza

I got the ‘pack light’ memo, and I’m prepared to spend the next month rotating three pairs of pants and five tops. My travel wardrobe is built around a single color, as they advise: black (can’t take the New York out of the girl). It’s all going in a 22″ carry-on (a hard-sided rolling suitcase), plus a small backpack. The hardest decision: what devices to bring. My laptop, iPad and iPhone are all coming with me; point-and-shoot, too. Second hardest: shoes (I’m taking black ankle boots and a pair of pewter-colored flats). If by Naples it’s warm and I’m sick of my footwear, why, I’ll just order a pair of sandals from L’Artigiano dei Sandali (a tiny shop “Jackie Kennedy had a soft spot for,” according to guidebook spin).


Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza

I couldn’t take 11 travel guides, so I copied notes about places that sounded intriguing (restaurants, especially) into a small Moleskin notebook. Yes, I could have put it into Evernote or another app, but I’m not ready to give up actual paper notebooks when I travel.


Menton, France 

It was interesting to note, as I transcribed from guidebooks, which restaurants I chose to include, and which I skipped over. “Since 1802″…yes! “Be sure to book in advance…” NO! “On a verdant square…” yes! “Local Piedmontese…” yes! “See and be seen…” NO! “Tiny 1920s”…yes! and so on. I’ll be lunching large and dining small, most likely.


Someone asked me if this trip was a pilgrimage, and it is: an architectural pilgrimage. All I have to do is stroll the streets, no worries about opening hours. Are you on board?

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Photos, top to bottom:,,,,,, destination360

Pier A Gets an A

IMG_5301THE LAST SURVIVING HISTORIC PIER IN NEW YORK CITY, Pier A at Battery Park in lower Manhattan, was ripe for adaptive re-use. Built in the 1880s, with a clock tower added in 1919 as a World War I memorial, it was used by the city as a fireboat station, then abandoned in 1992. Whereupon it sat vacant for more than two decades, and — though landmarked and on the National Register of Historic Places — fell into disrepair.

Happily, after a long renovation, it’s been reborn as a 28,000-square-foot oyster bar and beer hall, Pier A Harbor House, owned by Peter Poulakakos, who owns 10 other restaurants in downtown Manhattan, including three on Stone Street.

With a gazillion-dollar view of the Harbor, including Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, perfectly poised to catch the sunsets over New York Harbor, Pier A is an obvious place to bring out-of-town visitors. But it’s also a great spot for locals, with beautifully executed interiors, as my sister and I found out last Sunday. It was fairly quiet on a foggy winter’s day, a month after opening, but seats thousands, including 400 outside, and I can picture next summer’s mob scene. Only the lower level is open at present; the upper level will be a fine-dining restaurant and special-events space.


As I looked around Battery Park and into the Financial District, below, I was heartened to realize the area has actually retained a fair number of old limestone and brick office buildings. It’s not all glass towers yet (or perhaps they were lost in the fog). It seemed like it would be recognizable as lower Manhattan to someone disembarking from a ship here in 1945.


We walked up toward Fulton Street to see Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s $4-billion new PATH and subway station at the World Trade Center site. The comb-like roof structure, below, doesn’t look as graceful as the renderings the architect presented a decade ago.


Inside, an impressive oculus, below, will illuminate an indoor shopping mall.


I find myself more excited by the spiffing up of a 19th historic pier than by the madly un-contextual 21st century design of the train station, but I’ll reserve judgement. Over-budget and behind schedule, it’s still incomplete.

Goodbye to Beaux Arts Manhattan

IMG_5223TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT THESE BUILDINGS next time you’re in the area around Grand Central Terminal, because some of them may not be there much longer. Big changes are coming to what’s called the Vanderbilt Corridor, the five-block stretch to the west of the station, running from 42nd to 47th Streets, between Madison and Vanderbilt Avenues.

Grand Central’s new next-door neighbor is likely to be Midtown’s tallest tower, One Vanderbilt, a glassy spire designed by Kohn Pederson Fox, that will replace the sturdy 1912 limestone building, above, designed by Grand Central’s architects, Warren & Wetmore, to complement the station’s Beaux Arts design.

Already underway — the building’s major retail tenant, the sporting goods store Modell’s, leaves this month — construction won’t start until an NYC rezoning proposal to increase the density of buildings in the corridor (and height, although there’s no limit on height now and never has been) finishes its journey through through the city’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process and is approved, something most observers expect to happen. The De Blasio administration is in favor, and Community Boards and preservation organizations like the Landmarks Conservancy, though dismayed by the prospect, have nothing more than an advisory role. It is almost certain that One Vanderbilt will replace the older building as well as two other venerable early 20th century buildings on the same square block.


From there, if the Vanderbilt Corridor Rezoning Proposal is in fact approved, which will likely happen around mid-year, it’s not a long hop to the redevelopment of sites that include the limestone Yale Club, above, and the Roosevelt Hotel, below, the last of the eight grande dame hotels that once surrounded Grand Central, if their owners decide that demolition and rebuilding are to their advantage, which they well might.


I learned all this and more when I reported a news story last month for Architectural Record, headlined “City Chips Away at Beaux Arts Heart of Manhattan.” It’s all there if you want to delve deeper. The photo, below, shows the base of One Vanderbilt, the building that will replace the 12-story structure at the top of this post (51 East 42nd Street, or the Vanderbilt Avenue building).


The Vanderbilt Corridor is one of those stretches of New York City we tend to take for granted. These solid structures, none of them landmarked, are the fabric of the city as we’ve known it, not the trim. They’re remnants of pre-World War II New York, so much of which has already disappeared in favor of banal or downright ugly glass towers. If they come down and are replaced by 21st century ‘supertalls,’ we’ll become more like Shanghai or Dubai. Is that what we want?

It’s certainly not what preservationists (and I’ll include myself in their number) want. Some may call it progress. I call it sad.

Focus on Fort Greene


IT’S NOT NEWS THAT BROOKLYN’S FORT GREENE NEIGHBORHOOD has some of the most elegant brownstones in the borough. And that Fort Greene Park, designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, like Central and Prospect Parks, is no less a masterwork of 19th century landscape architecture.

But as is often the case in a complex place like Brooklyn, where stylistic layers have accumulated over the decades and where there’s just so much to look at as you barrel along, even a longtime resident like myself is constantly discovering new (to me) blocks and buildings.

Out for a walk last Sunday and wanting to try out the camera on my new iPhone 6, I strolled down Cumberland Street, which I knew had at least one very fine freestanding mansion, above, and found many more wood frame houses than I expected, and much else to keep my eyes busy.

Most of the houses in this post are on that one street, with the exception of the three old brownstones with intact parlor-floor storefronts and gabled roofs; those are on Greene Avenue. Thirty-five years ago, when we were a young couple and had recently bought a fixer-upper on the fringe of the fringe of Boerum Hill, we briefly knew another young couple who had bought one of those three buildings in even more derelict condition and were giving it a go. I wish I knew what became of them, but I don’t remember their names. Perhaps they still own it. Or perhaps they got quickly discouraged and moved away. Or perhaps they held on to it for decades, sold it and made a killing. Whether they’re there or not, the buildings remain. And that’s what’s so great about Brooklyn.

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