A Sunny, Art-full Day in London Town

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SUNNY AND IN THE 60s…I can’t complain about yesterday’s weather in London. And there’s something about the sky. When it’s not gray (as it so often is, and is again today, Friday), it’s particularly, poignantly beautiful.

I visited two of the city’s outstanding art museums, the 250-year-old Royal Academy of Arts, where one of the current blockbusters is American Painting After the Fall (meaning after the stock market crash of 1929 — I had wondered which fall they were talking about), full of rarely-seen, dystopian works by Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper and other social realists. Most were borrowed from museums other than New York’s and were wholly new to me.

I breezed through the permanent collection of The National Portrait Gallery just to get the idea, lingering over a few Tudors and Stuarts whose faces or costumes particularly arrested me. Then I enjoyed a ‘modern British’ vegetarian lunch in the third-floor restaurant, where the view rivaled (and resembled) that of Florence, with an unexpected number of domes and spires.

Both art institutions are housed in venerable buildings whose interiors have been cleverly revamped to suit current purposes, with (in the National Portrait Gallery, especially) dramatically long escalators and glass elevators that allow the building’s original ornate detail to still be seen.

Late in the day, I walked through some of the city’s poshest precincts, including St. James Square, top, and Westminster, wearing out more shoe leather over the Millennium Bridge. Destination: the National Theatre for Twelfth Night, a brilliantly staged production of Shakespeare’s original, in modern, outrageous costume and with hilarious physical comedy. I hope they don’t bring it to Broadway, where they’re sure to ruin it.

Come see what I saw.

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Above, The Royal Academy of Arts on busy Piccadilly

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While just around the corner, on the narrow side streets, the feel is of a smaller, even older town

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High-priced shopping in the Burlington Arcade, off Piccadilly, includes several hatters and other old-fashioned businesses. Above, Fortnum & Mason’s glittering displays

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I peeked into Zedel’s, a fabulous and festive Art Deco-era brasserie, a dead ringer for Paris’s, and found it hopping at lunchtime

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Outside the National Portrait Gallery, above. Sadly, there’s a fair amount of homelessness on display in London

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Samuel Pepys, 17th century diarist, bon vivant and Secretary of the Navy, without whom we would know much less of London’s Plague and Great Fire

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The brooding young poet, later priest, John Donne

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The view from my table at Portrait, the National Portrait Gallery’s top floor restaurant. Nelson’s column at Trafalgar Square is prominent

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Above, the view from my plate: a goat cheese starter and herbed quinoa and cauliflower main, artfully composed

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Trafalgar Square from street level in late afternoon, now pedestrianized. I remember it as a terrifyingly traffic-choked roundabout in the late 1960s

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Skirting St. James Park at sunset

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Same time of day but looking east, a host of golden daffodils

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Japanese musicians on the Embankment, astonishingly good

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Irresistible Thames evening views, again. You can be sure I wasn’t the only one taking iPhone photos

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London: St. Paul’s to Fleet Street to Waterloo Sunset

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YESTERDAY I LET MYSELF BE LED THROUGH the multifarious heart of London by two lifelong Londoners. First by bus, where I appreciated the classic proportions of St. Paul’s Cathedral, above, from the top deck of the swaying red leviathan on wheels. There’s no bad angle on St. Paul’s.

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We were headed for Two Temple Place, a heavily paneled Neo-Gothic palazzo where there’s a show ongoing through April called Sussex Modernism. On display are 1930s works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Henry Moore and others, who wrought surprisingly subversive art, anti-war and gender-fluid, in the quaint villages of southern England.

Later, as we walked along Fleet Street, a main thoroughfare since Roman times, I was fascinated by the few surviving medieval houses, below, that pre-date London’s Great Fire of 1666 — heavily restored, of course, but still functioning. They’re a curious counterpoint to the stately Victorian headquarters of some of England’s earliest banks and the limestone Art Deco blocks in which news organizations were housed when Fleet Street was the epicenter of the newspaper trade.

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We had tea in one of several cafés in Somerset House, below, a massive 18th century palace now used as a cultural complex. It’s now the home of the Courtauld Gallery, known for its impressive collection of Impressionism, among other art institutions, and definitely bears further exploration.

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Then we trekked across Waterloo Bridge toward the Royal National Theatre, below, its 1960s Brutalist concrete architecture jollied up with colored lights, and bought tickets for a future production of an apparently uproarious modern Twelfth Night.

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The view from the bridge toward the London Eye ferris wheel and the Houses of Parliament caused us all to start softly singing the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.”

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I set off solo as darkness fell, enjoying the gaudily lit theatres on Aldwych, the bowler-hatted doorman at the Waldorf Hotel, and what is reputedly London’s oldest shop, all in the same area.

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Then I hoofed on through London’s nighttime streets to The Viaduct, below, described as “the last surviving Victorian gin palace in London,” all etched glass and mirrors and Art Nouveau maidens, with chandeliers hanging from a red-painted tin ceiling. That’s where I had — no surprise — the best gin and tonic ever, made with Sicilian lemon tonic water, dried raspberries and rosewater. An ideal refresher after a 14,000 step day.

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Around London in 22,000 Steps

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I SET OFF EARLY YESTERDAY from my friend’s house in N.1 with a rough list of goals and my most comfortable shoes. I wound up wandering longer and farther than intended, into areas I’d never been and was curious about.

Eventually I’ll get to the Tate and the British Museum, to Shakespeare’s Globe and more historic houses. But yesterday was one long free-form meander through N.1, E.C.1 and 3, S.E.1, W.C.1 and 3. For those unfamiliar with London’s postal codes, that translates to Shoreditch, the City, the South Bank, Holborn, Clerkenwell and no doubt others.

I wanted to see trendy Shoreditch, which was merely up-and-coming when I was last in London ten years ago. Now you can’t turn around without spotting a modern café or pricey boutique.

I wanted to see the daring new office buildings, with nicknames like the Cheese Grater, the Walkie-Talkie and the Shard, a tall skinny pyramid that inserts itself into every vista, and confirm my preconceived notions that I would hate them. (I did, of course, because I’m a lover of the old, but they’re more interesting than New York’s banal contemporary architecture, so I couldn’t hate them unequivocally.)

And I wanted to see the Thames, to reassure myself I was really in London. Once I got to the river, and walked along it for a bit, I decided to go out on Southwark Bridge for the view. Once I got to the middle of the bridge, I decided to continue over it to the South Bank and check out the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I knew there would be no performance in the open-air theatre because it’s off-season; there were no tours, either, because of school groups.

So I wandered down to Borough Market, a sprawling open-air food market that wasn’t there a decade back — kind of like a permanent Smorgasburg, under an old metal shed roof.

A short ride on the Underground took me to Farringdon, where I sought out Ye Old Mitre, an 18th century pub with roots in the 16th, that gives new meaning to the word cozy. It’s in every guidebook, but famously hard to find, down an obscure, easy-to-miss narrow alley. I wanted to see if I could find it, and did, with the help of my iPhone GPS.

I walked on, up Gray’s Inn Road, and toward nightfall, met my friend at the Booking Office Bar at St. Pancras Station, the greatest Victorian pile ever, and had a gin gimlet under soaring Gothic arches.

Today, clear and bright, I traveled by Overground (newly built for the 2012 London Olympics) and Underground all the way out to W.6, to interview an interior designer at her home in Hammersmith for an assignment. Then I had a pot of mussels and a glass of wine at The Dove, a historic waterside relic with Wi-Fi, where the locals were excited to be able to sit outside in the sunshine wrapped in blankets (it was in the 40’s), and I was happy to sit inside, where fires blazed in two hearths, and watch the racing sculls on the river through the windows.

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De Beauvoir Town, N.1

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Over Regent’s Canal and into Shoreditch…

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Inside the 1857 Shoreditch Town Hall

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Forge & Co., one of the ubiquitous modern cafés of Shoreditch

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This beautifully housed shop, Labour and Wait, sells utilitarian items like hot water bottles, enameled bowls and wooden brushes. It was closed, to my disappointment. 

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The new glass structures of The City, London’s financial district, are remarkably unsympathetic to the old, but at least they have curves and aren’t just boxes.

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The Shard seen from Southwark Bridge (and many other places – it’s hard to avoid)

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Shakespeare’s replica Globe, a few blocks from the original site

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The unassuming 16th century house above, housed both architect Christopher Wren while his St. Paul’s Cathedral was being built, and Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, at different times — that’s what it says on the ceramic plaque. 

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Near the Borough Market, which definitely bears a re-visit when hungry

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On Borough High Street, South Bank

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The George Inn, off Borough High Street, owned by the National Trust. The present building dates from 1677. 

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Ye Old Mitre, found with difficulty

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Re St. Pancras Station, the “great Gothic phantasmagoria” of 1868-74, I have to quote David Piper’s excellent Companion Guide to London: “High as a cliff crowned with pinnacled castle in a Grimm’s fairy-story; drawing up with complete confidence into its sky-assaulting rage of turrets.” And to think it was once threatened with demolition. 

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Instead, we have the glorious cocktail bar, part of a new hotel within the station. The line of chairs against the magnificent tile walls is in a back hall leading to the loos (see how I’m picking up the language?)

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Another day, another bridge. This is the 1887 Hammersmith Bridge in west London, a suspension bridge with ornate Victorian detail. 

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London: Slinging Thru Islington

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ARRIVING IN LONDON YESTERDAY MORNING for a late winter sojourn, I had none of the sense of disorientation and dislocation I normally do when landing in a foreign country after a semi-sleepless night on a plane.

No, I just got right into it, though I haven’t been in England in ten years and, despite at least that many visits, don’t know London well at all. Its intricate layers and ever-changing character seem to defy knowing.

I’m staying with a dear friend in De Beauvoir Town, a neighborhood in the northeast of the city, developed in the mid-19th century from farmland into row houses, much like my home borough of Brooklyn.

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From Heathrow I took the Tube to King’s Cross Station, above, and then a taxi to my destination, below. All smooth as clockwork. No sooner did I sit down in the back of the cab than the driver, noting my accent, said, “Well, shall we talk about the elephant in the room?” I was a little slow on the uptake (jet lag) and didn’t get it, until he added: “Your President!” Oh, him! I hadn’t thought about any of that in hours. The driver was smart and not a supporter, so the ride passed pleasantly.

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My theme for this visit: historic pubs. I plan to visit at least one a day. So far on schedule, though the two I’ve been to (the nearest at hand) are not particularly historic and not found in guidebooks. Both were incredibly welcoming, and I don’t know why Keith McNally, instead of continually reproducing old-school French brasseries, doesn’t bring us some upscale British pubs. Lunch today, at The Scolt Head, below, right around the corner, with two other old friends, was convivial and delicious.

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I had wild mushroom pie, but forgot to take a photo before tucking into it. The plate below belonged to another diner: your more traditional Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding. The sides were the same: potatoes, red cabbage, carrots and peas. Scrumptious.

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We’ve done two long walks: yesterday down to Regent’s Canal, below, where industrial buildings have been turned into residences and narrow working barges into colorful houseboats. A few casual cafés have even popped up along the towpath there.

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Today we did a circuit of what they call Georgian terraces in nearby Islington — that is, attached houses of the late 18th century to mid-19th century, uniform and understated, except for the occasional yellow or blue door. Some have carefully considered front gardens.

Islington has the feel of a village, organized around park-like squares. There’s little commerce, except for the occasional pub. It’s altogether genteel, a very fine address.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be exploring London, largely on foot. I hope you’ll come with me.

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Spring is farther along here. Daffodils, forsythia, early magnolias about to pop. The mimosa, above, already in full flower.

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Live the Beachy Life This Summer…Rent My Rustic-Modern East Hampton Retreat

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IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN… time to start thinking about renting a place at the beach for July and August, or part thereof.

I can help you with that. My rustic-modern retreat in Springs (East Hampton), Long Island, a 5-minute walk from stunning Maidstone Beach — is available for rent in July and August only, at $3,000/week with a two-week minimum (utilities included).

It’s pretty idyllic.

Built in the 1940s as a fishing bungalow, with a later addition and a separate guest cottage, the house is 1,400 square feet on a private, landscaped half-acre, with a great big wood deck for lounging and dining.

Share the place with friends if you want — it can work for two couples with a total of two or maybe three kids.

The house sleeps 6, officially — there’s a master bedroom with comfortable queen bed; a second bedroom with two twins; as well as a separate 14’x17′ guest cabin with double bed and space for additional cot or crib (bathroom is in the main house).

There are two showers, one indoors and one out, and plenty of room to spread out — there’s a dining/sitting room with fireplace, in addition to a great room with two comfy sofas, and a home office with a partner desk, if you must work.

Live like Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner in (whose home and studio is a mile away) in the 1940s… no air-conditioning, no dishwasher.. but good Wi-Fi and fans in each room. (*TV and DVD player on request)

  • Swim, kayak, paddleboard at unspoiled, never-crowded Maidstone Beach on a miles-long crescent of sand, a short walk away
  • Walk the scenic ‘loop’ through Maidstone Park, or along nearby Gerard Drive with Gardiner’s Bay on one side and Accabonac Harbor on the other
  • See egrets, ospreys, wild turkeys (no deer on my property, though — it’s fenced!)
  • Nap or read on the deck, watch the sun set over the jetty, picnic at Louse Point, make bonfires on the beach (legal!) or in my fire pit, shower outdoors, grill on the brick patio, hang out on the porch at the local landmark Springs General Store
  • Do yoga at one of several nearby studios
  • Surf or swim in the ocean at Amagansett (10 minutes by car) or Montauk (25 mins.)
  • Shop for local produce at farm stands and weekly greenmarkets
  • Check out the always-promising yard sales and thrift stores. Designer shopping too.
  • Art shows and galleries, live performance at Guild Hall, music at Stephen Talkhouse, historic house tours
  • Garden tours + garden visits at LongHouse Reserve, Madoo, Bridge Gardens
  • Restaurants and bars galore
  • Explore nearby Sag Harbor (20 minutes), Shelter Island (30), North Fork, Block Island (day trip)

Sound good? It is good!

Contact me for more info: caramia447 [at] gmail [dot] com

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Say Hi to NYC’s Second Avenue Subway

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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, In., 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 1940s,” 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.

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