Say Hi to NYC’s Second Avenue Subway


ON NEW YEAR’S DAY, New York City opened its first new subway line in over half a century — well, three new stops, anyway. The far Upper East Side, once a pain to get to, is newly accessible via these three stops along Second Avenue at 72nd Street, 86th Street and 96th Street (it’s the yellow”Q” line on the map below).


It’s visible proof of how transportation can bring new life to a neighborhood that for the better part of a decade was, to my mind, a place to avoid — inconvenient, boring and ugly.

But absent the scaffolding and the sawhorses and the orange cones and the big holes in the ground, Second Avenue looks fresh and optimistic, chock-a-block with old and new bars and restaurants to serve the densely populated high-rises that line the avenue.

Three times recently, I found myself on the Second Avenue subway. The trip from mid-Brooklyn to the UES now takes just under 30 minutes.

I met a friend for brunch at Jacques Brasserie on East 85th, an old favorite, and discovered a cozy hole-in-the-wall pub that I happened to stumble upon coming out of a doctor’s office — Jones Wood Foundry on East 76th.


The architecture of the stations, while impressively scaled, is unexciting, but the art in the three stations makes up for it. The MTA calls it “the most expansive permanent public art installation in New York City history.”

At 72d Street, full-body portraits of colorful, eccentric New Yorkers, rendered in mosaic tile by Brazilian born artist Vik Muniz, are imbedded in the white wall tile along the concourse, like so many fellow passengers.


At 86th, there are overscaled photo-based portraits in mosaic or ceramic tile, some of famous musicians and artists (Lou Reed, Kara Walker, Philip Glass). They’re the work of Chuck Close (who also included a couple of self-portraits), and they are mesmerizing, both from up close and far away.


Abstract murals of porcelain tile by Sarah Sze wrap the interior of the 96th Street station, into which we’ll descend below (yes, I visited all three stations just to see them).


I’m glad I didn’t have to live through the protracted construction, but now that it’s done, I have to say: well done, MTA.

Drive Slowly, Look Closely: Thru Indiana and Ohio on the Historic National Road

Another never-published travel story from the vaults, this one commissioned — but the magazine, an AAA publication, folded before my story ran. It’s safe to assume the over-the-top Indiana Theater in Terre Haute has landmark protection and the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Springfield, Ohio, is in fine shape, but re-reading this piece a decade later makes me wonder: Are those antiques shops filled with Midwestern glass and pottery still open, or have they gone the way of eBay? Did Richmond, Indiana’s Depot District ever take off? I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s all still more or less as described here.


The Historic National Road contains multitudes, from faded movie palaces and picturesque “pike towns” to cornfields and 1940s motor courts

A ROAD IS A ROAD IS A ROAD, some might say. But when it’s the Historic National Road, a 2002 Federal designation for that ribbon of highway conceived by Thomas Jefferson to open up the West, it’s nothing less than the road that built America.

Once the only road from the Eastern seaboard to the frontier, the National Road was begun in 1811 in Cumberland, Md., as a log-reinforced trail for pioneers’ wagons. It reached Vandalia, Il., by the 1830s, just in time to be superseded by rail travel. Later, that same road was used by bicycles and early automobiles, then partially paved with brick in 1914 to bear the weight of Army trucks on their way to war.

In the 1920s, the National Road was straightened, paved once more, and re-named U.S. Route 40. So it remains, a more tranquil alternative to I-70, the truck-jammed interstate that runs roughly parallel.

In some places, Route 40 is two lanes through cornfields and cow pastures. Elsewhere, brash 21st century commerce obscures the layers of history that lie in wait for those willing to slow down and look.

Girl Detective ISO History 

In the spirit of a detective seeking the past behind the present, I set off with a friend from Terre Haute, Ind., to travel a 340-mile swatch of this once-vital artery through the hearts of Indiana and Ohio.

Over two days, we bounced around in time, encountering architectural gems from the Federal era to the Post-Modern. Here and there, where signs indicated, we turned off onto untouched sections of original early-19th century road, lopped off when 1920s builders chose a more direct course for Route 40. These eerily quiet, often overgrown stretches are the stuff of a road aficionado’s dreams, invariably worth the detour.

In once-glittering Terre Haute, a town built on breweries and baking powder, we got a closeup view of the 1922 Indiana Theater, a 2,000-seat movie palace dripping with ornamentation in Hollywood Baroque style. Precious few such intact theaters remain. This one, designed by John Eberson, the premier movie-house architect of his day, retains all its elaborate plaster work, including robust nudes holding up the lobby’s coffered ceiling.

Inspecting a framed pastel in the lobby, I communed with the swells in top hats and boas who flocked to the floodlit Indiana in its heyday. Built for vaudeville as well as films, the theater had its own orchestra, a Wurlitzer organ and live peacocks onstage. Today, it shows second-run films and rents itself out for theme weddings — but at least it’s still standing.

The National Road really sprang to life for me at Rising Hall, an imposing brick farmhouse in Stilesville, Ind., where we met 83-year-old homeowner Walt Prosser. Prosser remembers being taken, as a small child in the late 1920s, on a family outing to see this astonishing road with its double lanes of traffic. “It was miraculous,” he recalled. “Some cars going one way, and some the other!”

Rising Hall was built by Melville F. McHaffie in the late 1860s on land given to Civil War veterans in lieu of money. Prosser, a retired engineer, and his wife June, bought the house and its vintage barn in the 1980s. Long abandoned, except by marauding hogs and goats, they spend a decade restoring it and now give tours by appointment. With its arched windows and other Italianate details, it was and is the finest house around.

We got a vivid sense of what life was like in the 19th century for stagecoach passengers, pioneer families in their Conestoga wagons, livestock drovers and other travelers along the National Road at Huddleston Farm near Cambridge City, Ind. Now a museum, the three-story white brick inn and its outbuildings were among the many establishments that sprung up to take advantage of passing traffic. “This was the interstate of the 1840s,” said Joe Jarzen, executive director for the Indiana National Road Association, whose headquarters is at Huddleston Farm. “Several hundred wagons a day passed by here.”

Furnished rooms and an exhibit in the barn tell the story of John and Susannah Huddleston and their eleven children, who played all the angles: boarding weary travelers and their animals, providing blacksmithing and wagon repairs, selling brooms, cheese, flour and ammunition. “No liquor — they were Quakers,” Jarzen said.

If you time it right, you can attend a Civil War camp reenactment at Huddleston Farm of participate in one of the popular harvest suppers, where guests help prepare meals on an open hearth.

Centerville, Ind., is the region’s outstanding “pike town,” the term used for communities that developed and thrived because of their location along the National Road. Many of its lovingly restored brick rowhouses, separated by arched alleyways, are now used as guest houses, cafes or antique shops. The town bills itself as “the hub of Antique Alley,” some 1,300 dealers in a 33-mile stretch of eastern Indiana. A thousand of them, at least, are in behemoth antiques malls, where you’ll be overwhelmed by showcases full of made-in-Indiana glassware like Carnival, Fostoria and Heisey.

Off Route 40 in Richmond, on the Indiana-Ohio border, the ongoing rehab of the majestic brick-columned Pennsylvania Railroad Station, designed in 1906 by the Chicago firm of Daniel Burnham, is sparking positive change in the surrounding Depot District. The city is proud of its origins as an early center of jazz recording: Louis Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael were among the musicians who got off the train at Richmond to record at the seminal Starr-Gennett studio. Elegant Victorian storefronts once housed barber shops, newsstands, cafes and bars for the convenience of fail passengers. Now there’s a gourmet Italian deli and kitchenware emporium, antiques shops, upstairs blues clubs and local eateries.

Our first stop in Ohio was the glorious Westcott House, a newly restored Frank Lloyd Wright masterwork just off Route 40 as it passes through Springfield. “Fallingwater gets all the attention,” grumbled Andrea Rossow, the operations coordinator. Maybe so, but the less well-known Westcott House was one of the architect’s own favorites, and it’s far less crowded.

Opened to the public in 2005 after a five-year, $5.8million restoration, the Prairie Style house was commissioned by Burton Westcott, who made his fortune in seeding machines and auto manufacturing, and his wife Orpha, in 1906. Designed after Wright’s first trip to Japan and steeped in Japanese influence, the house is set into a sculpted hillside, with a reflecting pool flanked by monumental urns, and small paned windows reminiscent of shoji screens. Inside, walls are trimmed with oak, and stained glass skylights suffuse the rooms with amber light. Just how ahead of his time the architect was is most evident in the kitchen, where the original cast-iron stove, decorated with Victorian scrollwork, looks incongruous against the building’s understated modernist lines.

Past Zanesville, a faded industrial town whose antique shops are crammed with highly collectible local pottery (Roseville, McCoy, Shawnee, Weller et al), several sandstone “S-bridges,” unique to the National Road, have been stabilized and preserved. So called because they zig-zag over streams, the 1820s S-bridges at Salt Fork, Peter’s Creek and Fox Run, which sheltered runaway slaves in their time, have been turned into small parks that make handy off-road picnic spots.

For our final foray before picking up the interstate to make time back to New York, we turned onto the most evocative remnant of original road yet. Peacock Road, paved with mossy brick, skirts a forest as it winds gently uphill past a clapboard farmhouse. The feeling of days gone by is palpable here and in nearby Old Washington, a town bypassed in the 1920s road re-construction and seemingly stuck in time, its deserted main street elevated by the presence of several grand pre-Civil War mansions.

Nostalgia gripped me time and again as we traveled the National Road and took its tempting detours. A turn of the steering wheel and you’re in the back of beyond, far removed from the rush of modern life.

George Washington Partied Here: A Visit to Philadelphia’s Powel House

img_0051IN MY LONG JOURNALISM CAREER (such as it is), I’ve tried not to write ‘on spec’ too often. But travel articles have been the exception. Occasionally, I’ve visited a place, crafted an article about it, and tried to sell it after the fact. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

As part of my current clear-out of paper files, I’ll be posting some of my unpublished travel pieces here on casaCARA.

It seemed timely this Inauguration week to start with this one about Philadelphia’s Revolutionary-era Powel House. For me, a visit there made the Colonial power elite, and George Washington especially, feel less like cardboard figures and more like real people.

The man of whom it was said “[He] has so much martial dignity…there is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side” presents a stark, even chilling, contrast with what we’re about to endure.

This piece was written several years ago. The Powel House has a different site manager, and the house has seen a bit of re-decoration. I haven’t updated the story itself, but the visitor info at the bottom is current.

As always, I’d love to hear from you, so feel free to speak out in the comments below. – CG

Tour of Philadelphia’s Powel House Brings Our First President to Vivid Life

The bearded young man in stylish glasses who opened the fanlight-topped door seemed happy for company. While throngs waited, three brick-paved blocks away, to pass through security checks at Independence Hall, Robert Wuilfe and his wife, Michelle Wilson, co-site managers at the immaculately restored 1760s townhouse that belonged to Philadelphia’s mayor, Samuel Powel, at the time of the Revolution, see about a dozen visitors on an average day.

The Powel House draws the cognoscenti – American history buffs, of course (“I’ve gotten into intense discussions about the glass tax,” Wilson said), as well as architecture and design enthusiasts like myself, who want a peek at the colorful, elegantly appointed rooms of the finest surviving Georgian townhouse in the country, and perhaps a more intimate connection with those who lived there.

Samuel Powel (1738-1793) and his wife, Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743-1830), were indefatigable hosts — a politically influential power couple in the last years of America’s stint as a British colony and the first years of its independence, hosting frequent parties and meetings attended by all the founding fathers in their brick mansion on 4th Street.

George Washington was a close friend and spent time in the Powel House on a regular basis, as did Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. The Marquis de Lafayette and Benedict Arnold dined there, in Philadelphia’s first formal dining room. In that aqua-painted room (a color then thought to aid digestion), President Washington and his cabinet twice had Christmas dinner.

I thought I was going to be a tour party of one on this September afternoon, but as Wuilfe began to expound on how the house survived decades of dereliction as a horsehair brush factory and escaped planned demolition in 1931, the brass knocker rapped, and three smiling Midwesterners came in.

Wuilfe led us from the electric-blue foyer with its black-and-white diamond-patterned floor cloth, elaborate plaster arch and curved staircase of now-extinct Santo Domingo mahogany, to the reception room at the front of the house, where Powel, who inherited ninety Philadelphia properties from his father and grandfather, collected rent at a small desk, using a wax seal that still sits upon it.

The front parlor’s classic proportions are faked. There’s a false door for symmetry, a fireplace made of King of Prussia marble (the veins ran out 100 years ago), and an apothecary scale that was a gift from Franklin.


Next door, in the heavenly blue-green dining room, gilded mirrors reflect views of the garden’s boxwood topiary. The room’s tangerine silk drapes, a well-researched approximation, look startlingly modern against the blue. We admire the 18th century silver and the glossy pretzel-back dining chairs, a Philadelphia hallmark. Washington liked the Powels’ decorating, too, so much that he appropriated the paint color for the dining room at Mt. Vernon and ordered two dozen of the same dining chairs.

Two large tea caddies made of lacquered wood and imported from China were kept locked so the ten or fifteen servants, and possibly a couple of slaves, couldn’t steal from them. “A handful of tea leaves was worth more than gold at the time,” Wuilfe said. The servants were allowed to dry and re-sell used tea leaves, however.


It was in the cozy upstairs withdrawing room, so called because it was where the men withdrew from female company after dinner, that our first president became less a cardboard figure to me and more a real person. The man whom Philadelphia physician and patriot Benjamin Rush said “has so much martial dignity…there is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side,” was quite vain, as it turns out.

It was a fashionable pastime to cut black paper silhouettes of other guests’ profiles at dinner parties. A framed one of Washington, believed to have been done by Powel himself, has the words “Not a good likeness” scribbled on the back. Washington didn’t like it, apparently, because it showed his double chin.

Our first president had a significant friendship with the charming Mrs. Powel, a strange ‘mourning painting’ of whom, draped in purple, hangs over the fireplace in the withdrawing room. She lost two, possibly three, children in infancy. The painting shows cleavage, but whether this was a nursing gown or Paris fashion, Wuilfe couldn’t say.

Called a “quiet abolitionist,” Mrs. Powel had Washington’s ear. It was she who persuaded him to run for a second term. “Your country needs you,” she told him, warning he’d be bored if he didn’t. He later sent her a pair of silver spurs for “spurring him on,” legend has it.

Every historic house has a ghost story. This one comes in the Rococo ballroom, whose plaster bas relief decoration is a restoration; the original is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In the 1950s, the tale goes, the wife of noted historian Edwin Moore reported seeing the spectral figure of an unidentified woman in a beige and lavender gown. Some time later, Mrs. Moore was searching for an authentic 18th century dress to wear to a costume gala. Shown one worn by Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia socialite and wife of Benedict Arnold, at the last party she attended — which happened to be at the Powel House — Mrs. Moore was shocked to see the same beige and lavender frock. Wuilfe’s take? “I’m not generally one to believe in ghosts, but I don’t discount it.”

I am more impressed with the historical connections that are there in black and white, like the letter Benjamin Franklin’s daughter wrote him, describing a ball at the Powel House where she danced with General Washington. The letter is displayed in the very ballroom where they danced, as is a harp from the year 1700 — the oldest piece in the house, except for a goat cart made by Powel’s grandfather, who was 14 when he came to this country from England in the 17th century.


More than half the furnishings in the house are original. Standouts include a rare Chippendale settee and a chest-on-chest purchaed on Powel’s seven-year grand tour of Europe as a young man. There are also two oil portraits by Gilbert Stuart, one of Anne Pennington, a young beauty, and the other of Abigail Willing Peters, both relatives of Elizabeth Powel.

It’s said that Mrs. Powel, who came from a wealthy, politically connected family, had two unrequited romances before she married Samuel Powel. “She was a little older. It was sort of assumed it wasn’t a love match,” Wilson said. Both wanted children; after their offspring died, they adopted a nephew of Mrs. Powel’s, who inherited and eventually squandered their fortune.

Samuel Powel died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, along with 5,000 or more others in Philadelphia. His widow sold the house in 1798.

There’s nothing like a historic house tour and a bit of lurid historical gossip to bring the nation’s founding days to life in a very immediate way. “History is not just words,” as Wilson put it. “It really happened.”


 244 South Third Street

Philadelphia, PA 19106


 Public tours are available on the hour 11:00 AM through 3:00 PM Thursday-Saturday, and noon to 3:00 PM  on Sundays, April-November, with additional Wednesdays Memorial Day through end of October. Weekends only in March and December. All other times by appointment.

$8 General admission
$6 Students and Seniors
$20 per Family

“The Insider” Mini-Site: New on

WANT A TON OF NEW IDEAS for decorating/renovating your brownstone, loft, apartment or other urban dwelling?, the colossal Brooklyn-based real estate website for which I write a long-running weekly design column called The Insider, has just created a “mini-site” aggregating all my past columns, from this morning back about five years, in one place.

Just go here, start clicking, and see all  you may have missed.

Combing for Historic Remnants Among Brooklyn’s New Towers


ONE NIGHT LAST SUMMER, coming off the Long Island Expressway at Flatbush Avenue and Tillary Street, I had a few moments of total disorientation. It was dark, and I was in a canyon of hi-rises. Where was I?

Only in the area where I’ve been living since the late 1970s.

Scores of buildings have gone up in Downtown Brooklyn in the past decade, with scores more planned. The sky has been dotted with cranes for years, but now it feels a critical mass has been reached in what I call the Manhattanization of Brooklyn.


With each new tower, it seems, the buildings are getting taller, but alas, no more architecturally distinguished. Their shiny glass curtain walls hem in the historic brownstone districts that surround Downtown Brooklyn, stretching a mile along Flatbush Avenue from the Manhattan Bridge to Atlantic Avenue, and on the side streets as well. There’s construction on virtually every lot which lacks historic district designation.

The other day I walked along Fulton Street, the elegant shopping street of the Victorian era, in search of old buildings whose time has not yet come, like the onion-domed structure and others below. I have no idea whether these buildings have any kind of protection; I very much doubt it.


The building below was a department store (May’s? Martin’s). It’s now an Old Navy, on its ground floor at least.


Below, the earliest part of the department store that became A&S, before they built the Art Deco annex to its left.


What more fitting use for the Renaissance Revival townhouse, above, than a McDonald’s?

In decline since the 1950s (the department store in which the main character worked in the recent film Brooklyn was supposed to be on Fulton Street), the street is supposedly coming back, with chain stores like H&M, but not with any grandeur — just crass commercial architecture among the few dribs and drabs of history that remain.

I remember the Abraham and Straus in a 1930s building when we first moved to Brooklyn in 1977, especially the Art Deco brass elevators with their uniformed operators, and an old time movie palace, the Metropolitan. And of course, the restaurant Gage & Tollner, opened in the 1890s, with its mirrored walls, embossed wallpaper, gaslight fixtures and menu of Southern specialties.

A&S became a downscale Macy’s, the Metropolitan became a multiplex and then disappeared altogether. Gage & Tollner became, shockingly, an Arby’s and then a TGIF. Fortunately, its interior had been landmarked in 1975 by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, the only restaurant in Brooklyn to be so designated, and was more or less protected through the travesties. It’s now for rent again, below (click link for Brownstoner article with current interior photos).


The stores in between sold jeans, sneakers, gold jewelry. Many of those are still in place, but presumably not for long. A sweet row, below. To me they seem to be crying out, ‘Please save us!’ but to others, they’re crying out, ‘Buy my air rights!’


And recently, at the base of City Point, a new residential tower approximately where the the low-end Albee Square Mall sat for 20 years or so, a sparkling new Century 21 department store has opened, as well as a new cinema, the Alamo Drafthouse — and a promising-sounding food court is on the way. The architecture of the tower, top photo, is blocky and entirely lacking in imagination. It gets a D from me.

One landmarked structure remains near City Point, impeding the desire of developers to raze it: the domed Dime Savings Bank, below.


The building and its sensational lobby, below, will be incorporated into Brooklyn’s first ‘supertall’ — a 74-story building by SHoP architects — soon to rise in the air above it, blotting out another bit of Brooklyn sky.

Photos below via Curbed