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AFTER CHARLESTON, Savannah, Georgia, two hours to the south, seems busy, noisy and touristy. Parking and restaurant reservations are hard to come by, probably because we’re here on a weekend.
But Savannah’s historic district, which forms the heart of the city and is centered on 22 lush public squares, of an original 24 first laid out in the 18th century, is a stunner.
Many of the houses are from the mid-19th century and reminiscent of Brooklyn’s flat-fronted, three-windows-across row houses, though with shutters and sometimes wrought iron balconies. Free-standing mansions abound, in a variety of styles, and everything is fringed with palms and other greenery.
The early part of our visit was a washout. It was pouring rain and we couldn’t find a guided walking tour (only trolley and horse-drawn carriage tours, which I rejected as embarrassing). Instead, we picked up a book and did a self-guided one, taking in classic sites that included Forrest Gump’s bench in Forsyth Park and the terracotta-colored house featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, above, as well as the only Gothic style synagogue in the U.S., below, built in the 1840s and still going strong.
We happened on one of the few historic houses open to the public, the c.1841 Old Sorrel-Weed House, below. It had been used as a boarding house and had some tacky retail shops on the ground floor from the 1940s through 1990s. Then it was bought by a private individual who spent a few million trying to bring it back to how it looked when it was a social hotspot for such guests as Robert E. Lee.
The owner ran out of funds before completing the restoration (modern plastic chandeliers are still in place), and gifted the house, still far from finished, to a foundation. They call it Greek Revival-Regency style, which is new to me, but I love the deep colors of the rooms (similar to the originals, discovered under 30 layers of paint) and the moldings, doors and other details that survived because of what our guide called “inadvertent conservation.” The ceilings had been dropped, fireplaces boxed in, etc., during the house’s years of debasement, so the original details remained mostly intact.
We are lodged at the River Street Inn, below, a former cotton warehouse and one of several surviving early 19th century brick industrial buildings, constructed of ballast stones and built on a bluff, that have been converted to riverside hotels.
The Savannah River is right outside our window. Barges loaded with containers pass by with regularity, and the sounds of foghorns and music from the clubs below waft in at night.
Best meal so far: a genteel Southern-style lunch at the c.1789 Olde Pink House, below, where I had my first-ever Hoppin’ John (rice with vegs and black-eyed peas).
Enjoyed an afternoon latte at the Gryphon, below, a tea room operated by the Savannah College of Art and Design in a turn-of-the-century apothecary shop.
As I write this, the blare of a trumpet from a busker on the riverfront walk is penetrating the closed windows and balcony door of our river-view digs. Louis Armstrong he’s not. But the sunset over the Savannah River is making up for it.
FOR A CITY that has endured wars, hurricanes, fires and earthquakes, the historic architecture of Charleston, South Carolina is amazingly well-preserved (or well-restored). An old-house enthusiast like myself has plenty to see: eight major house museums, beautiful churches and public buildings, and the rice plantations in the surrounding low-country, which provided the wealth that grew the city in the 18th and 19th centuries, on the backs of enslaved Africans.
I flew down here to join a friend who is driving from New York to Florida. We spent three nights at the comfortable and central Kings Courtyard Inn, below, a converted 1850s commercial building whose open-air atrium reminded me of Spain.
My head is stuffed with impressions from three days of walking tours, house tours and museum visits. Charleston is a city of ‘firsts’ and ‘oldests,’ of complicated and intertwining family trees. I took no notes, and you’ll forgive me if I gloss over historical details.
My stomach is stuffed too, with she-crab soup, fried green tomatoes, and shrimp and grits.We couldn’t get into the two Anthony Bourdain-recommended restaurants, FIG and Husk — the former because it’s closed for renovation and the latter because it’s booked weeks in advance. But we didn’t have a bad meal at any of the restaurants we tried along East Bay Street, including Slightly North of Broad, Magnolia’s and Amen Street, and Poogan’s Porch on Queen.
Day 1 began with a two-hour group walking tour with Charleston Strolls, an intelligent introduction to development of the city at the tip of a low-lying peninsula where two rivers meet, a meander through narrow stone streets lined with houses modest and grand, ending at the mansions along the Battery.
Later, on our own, we visited the city’s main synagogue, a true temple in Greek Revival style, built in the mid-19th century; spent a little time in the Charleston History Museum (skippable) and then took the last of the day’s tours at the Joseph Manigault House, below, an early 19th century Federal brick building owned by wealthy planters that later became a tenement home to 10 families and served as Army housing during WWII, before being restored, appropriately furnished, and opened to the public.
On Day 2, we drove half an hour out of town to Middleton Place, a onetime rice plantation owned by a family whose members signed both the Declaration of Independence and the South Carolina Declaration of Secession. The house that remains is simple; Union troops burned the main building in 1865. But acres of formally landscaped gardens were restored by heirs in the 1920, and now the waterfront site is full of live (evergreen) oaks dripping with Spanish moss and banks of camellias in full January bloom.
This morning we ambled around parts of the historic district we’d missed and squeezed in one more house museum, the 1828 Edmonston-Alston House, below, from whose verandah (called piazzas in Charleston) Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War took place in 1861, is visible. I loved the Greek Revival moldings and the proportions of the rooms, not dissimilar to Brooklyn brownstones of the era — long and narrow, with a high-ceilinged second floor for formal entertaining, more modest family rooms downstairs.
Did I mention Charleston is a very pretty town? It’s not because of the pancake-flat topography, and even the harbor, sparkling as it is, lacks drama. (It was surely more interesting when filled with hundreds of boats, as it was in its heyday.) It’s the charm of the streetscape, lined with mostly three-story brick and stucco houses, nearly all with shutters and verandahs, impeccably tidy plantings, and, of course, historical plaques.
GREAT, RAW, OPEN SPACE, hefty wood columns and white brick walls make up this quintessential urban loft, converted to a home for two by Ensemble Architects of Brooklyn. Read all about it in my weekly column, The Insider, on Brownstoner.com.
THE TWO POLES OF MY EXISTENCE are the immensity of nature that is the East End of Long Island and the intensity of humanity that is New York City. Which do I prefer? There’s no contest; it’s the former.
But with a couple of hours to kill in Midtown recently, while waiting to join a friend for Skylight on Broadway, I found much in the West 30s and 40s to command my attention.
Emerging into Times Square after the performance, the visual stimulation was an assault. There’s something undeniably exciting about it, I admit, but… get me back to the country ASAP.
Today, my column on Brownstoner.com, the Brooklyn real-estate website, is another wreck transformed — this one by architect Elizabeth Roberts with uncommon smarts and taste. Above, the dining room in a new two-story addition, seamlessly integrated with the garden. Check out the full post, including a really great farmhouse kitchen, here.