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BACK-TO-BACK VISITS last month to Mount Vernon and Monticello upended my preconceived notions. Based on what I’d heard from friends before the trip — “Mount Vernon? Yeah, sure. But I loooovved Monticello!” — I expected the highlight to be Jefferson’s quirky abode in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As it happened, I found Washington’s Mount Vernon, below, no less beautiful or fascinating. Though they’re both 10’s as travel destinations (and it’s shocking that I’d never been to Monticello at all, and to Mount Vernon only as a child), the surprise was that I looooooovvvved Mount Vernon.
Neither is a McMansion by today’s standards, having relatively few small bedrooms (Mount Vernon six and Monticello eight) — and no bathrooms! Even in square footage terms, they are pretty intimate — definitely homes, not official buildings. At Mount Vernon, the famous two-story dining room was being renovated, so we were denied the sight, though I found the four or five ground-floor rooms that were open to view, one with kelly green walls and one with Prussian blue, highly satisfying (interior photography is not permitted, regrettably). The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which has owned the house since 1858, has acquired many of the original furnishings in Washington’s tastefully restrained style.
The view of the Potomac, above, and formal, English-style vegetable and flower gardens, are spectacular, and the dozen original outbuildings, each set up to illustrate the workings of the estate — carriage houses, smoke houses, ice houses, etc. — very well-done.
The house itself, of wood covered with a stucco-like material to give it the appearance of stonework, and in the style of 18th century English country houses, began as a four-room cottage built by Washington’s father. He inherited it from his half-brother in 1761 and expanded his acreage to 8,000, as well as building the house up and out, with a columned portico, below, that runs the width of the house in back, on the river side, and curving colonnades in front that welcomed visitors as their carriages came up the long drive.
The commentary was a bit perfunctory, with one docent in each room tasked with keeping the line of visitors moving along. In response to one question, a docent replied, “Google it.” Still, I learned a lot about hospitality and housekeeping in those days, and how it was accomplished with the help of 160 or so slaves who lived in rustic quarters some distance from the house.
We took the three-hour drive west to Charlottesville and Monticello partly along Route 20, the same route Jefferson and his friends James and Dolley Madison, who lived thirty miles away, took when they visited each other’s homes — a 9-hour journey in those days. It’s a two-lane road, unspoiled and scenic, unlike the big-box shopping horrors we encountered getting out of Northern Virginia, and came as a great relief.
The next two days were spent in the Charlottesville area, never out of sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We rolled into Charlottesville ready for a cocktail, and stumbled upon the C&O Restaurant, left, so named for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad whose trains run nearby. This little haven of hipness became our spot; we returned the next night for dinner.
Our accommodations at the High Meadows Vineyard Inn, below, a brightly painted Victorian in nearby Scottsville, seemed at first to suffer from the B&B curse: an excess of knick-knacks and dried flower arrangements. But I quickly came to love our yellow, bay-windowed room with a claw-foot tub, the working vineyard outside the window, and Henry, the resident peacock.
Our Monticello tickets, for the “Behind the Scenes” tour ($42) that includes the upstairs bedrooms, were for 2:30PM, so we took the following morning to explore Charlottesville, especially its 6-block pedestrian shopping area, below, created from mostly Deco-era storefronts, with half a dozen independent bookstores, fashionable clothing and shoe boutiques, and local food shops.
We also took in Jefferson’s magnificent University of Virginia campus, below, where we got a foretaste of his infatuation with columns, pediments, domes, and other elements of classical Greek architecture. It was heartening to see students actually studying in the inspiring rotunda.
Monticello, below, a couple of miles up a wooded mountain studded with apple orchards and the c.1784 Michie Tavern (where we hoped to have lunch but found nothing remotely vegetarian), is extraordinarily well-organized, with a museum/shop/cafe complex below and a frequent shuttle bus up to the pinnacle.
My first sight of the house came as slight shock, though I’d seen images (notably on the nickel!) I’d admired the classical architecture at UVA, but the oversized pediment and columns used on a home appeared pompous. I tried to remember that Jefferson was the first to do it, and that Monticello is considered an outstanding architectural achievement — but initially the red-brick house looked to me like nothing so much as a bank.
Our good-natured docent, left, a John Updike lookalike, answered every question patiently and thoughtfully.
More beautiful from this angle…by the end of the day, the architecture grew on me.
Inside the front hall, the expected staircase is absent. Instead, there’s a square room surrounded by a balcony and hung with replica Native American artifacts representing those brought back by Lewis and Clark. Jefferson kept such items in that reception room, where he greeted members of the public who traveled to see him; he was intent on educating them as they waited for their audience. The most elegant room is a semi-octagonal parlor with long French windows, one of the country’s first parquet floors, and about fifty portraits and copies of paintings by European masters hung floor to ceiling.
Jefferson didn’t believe in grand staircases, we were told, considering them a waste of space. The only way to the upstairs bedrooms is via two steep, narrow, winding rear staircases, like those of an Amsterdam canal house, which women carrying babies and perhaps candles, and slaves carrying firewood and perhaps babies and candles, were forced to use. Jefferson had his own mancave — a library, study, and bedroom — on the ground floor.
The house has a couple of doors to nowhere, windows at floor level, and other architectural quirks, including a hard-to-access dome room at the top of the house, below. It is beautiful and harmonious but was apparently almost never used, except for storage and by some Jeffersonian grandchildren as a hideout.
In short, I ended up admiring the uneducated Washington’s architectural skills more than the highly educated Jefferson’s. Monticello is a good place to ponder the irony of the man who wrote “All men are created equal” owning some 300+ slaves who lived in outbuildings and chambers beneath the house, a whole subterranean world of utility and organization which is also open to the public. I was moved by his personal struggles, though; Jefferson had some six ‘official’ children, only one of whom lived to reproduce. Many of his offspring, including some descended from Sally Hemmings, a slave in his employ, as well as Jefferson himself, are buried in an atmospheric cemetery partway down the mountain.
One of my favorite parts of the estate is the one-room mini-Monticello, below, where the young Jefferson and his wife lived for two years before the main house was built. With bed, dining area, and study desk, the civilized cottage looks like almost all a couple would need.
We ended the day with a 45-minute grounds tour, admiring the extensive vegetable gardens, below, restored to resemble how Jefferson laid them out. The perennial flower gardens around the front lawn were curiously bedraggled at end of the season, but also perhaps because the caretaking is in transition. The longtime gardener who supervised Monticello’s landscape for several decades recently retired, we were told, and is in the process of being replaced by someone new.
I returned to New York with a better understanding of both men’s multi-disciplinary genius and cultural sophistication, and a sense of how far we’ve come in a mere couple of centuries.
MY WHIRLWIND TRIP TO PALM SPRINGS on assignment for Endless Vacation magazine took place the week before last, though it seems forever ago. I’ve been bouncing around since — from Long Island, where I packed up two-thirds of my furnishings and turned my cottage in Springs over to renters for at least the next year (and am inching forward on the purchase of another property), and my apartment in Brooklyn, where I’m coming to terms again with life in two rooms. The warm sun and crystalline air of southern Cali are a distant memory, but I feel compelled to post more photos before I resume blogging about life on the East Coast.
I certainly enjoyed waking up each morning to the view, above, from the Hideaway, a low-key inn in a 1947 compound formerly known as the Town & Desert Hotel
You see, professional travel journalist here left an important gold mesh bag on her dining table when she departed at 5AM for LaGuardia Airport [slaps self upside the head]. In the bag: my camera battery and charger and the cord that enables me to download photos to my laptop. Once again, it was iPhone to the rescue; at least I was able to do one blog post from there, though the photos hardly did the place justice. I did have the camera itself with me, and I used it, sparingly, to the full extent of its battery power, capturing some of Palm Springs’ exceptional mid-20th-century architecture and the vintage-inspired hotels and design shops that have blossomed around them.
Herewith, a few more images from the trip.
Below, houses in the Las Palmas neighborhood by the enormously influential developer Robert Alexander.
Below, three of seven surviving all-steel houses by architect Donald Wexler, c. 1962
Below, Hedge, a shop in nearby Cathedral City whose owners can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. Their taste in mid-century art and design is impeccable.
A grouping of Danish pottery at JPDenmark, below, which shares strip-mall space with Hedge and several multi-dealer vintage modern shops
At the trendy Ace Hotel, below, scooters at the ready
Below, Norma’s, a popular brunch spot at the Parker and public spaces decorated by the inimitable Jonathan Adler
The discreet 9-room Hideaway, my Palm Springs home for three nights
GOOD MORNING from Palm Springs, California, where I am, instead of the woman taking yard waste to the dump or running to catch the Flatbush Avenue bus, a minor celebrity. It’s because of a book I wrote in the 1980s, Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, that launched many collecting and merchandising careers and helped spawn a huge revival of interest in the design of the period that continues to this day.
Guest lounge at the Hideaway, looking very much as it did in the 1950s
Palm Springs was an epicenter of adventurous custom architecture in the post-WWII years, and the town’s stock of homes by architects like William Cody, Albert Frey, William Krisel, Donald Wexler, and E. Stewart Williams has become one of the area’s main draws. I’m here to write about it for Endless Vacation magazine.
My room at the Hideaway, known as Ray’s Retreat (Ray Eames, I presume)
I’m comfortably ensconced at the discreet and well-named Hideaway (there’s no sign; I was told to look for three tall skinny palm trees rising out of a thick hedge) — a low-slung 1947 mini-resort by architect Herbert W. Burns, whose rooms, arrayed around a pool, feature authentic mid-century decor and Palm Springs’ ever-present, stunning mountain backdrop.
Bill Manion, manager of the Hideaway at its sister property, Orbit In
A real California breakfast: broccoli rabe frittata and cheddar hash browns at Cheeky’s
Palm Springs is a cohesive collection of mid-20th century residential and commercial architecture, sprinkled with a few remaining examples of the earlier Spanish Colonial Revival style that pre-dated it. Yesterday I took a comprehensive 3-1/2-hour tour with architectural historian Robert Imber of Palm Springs Modern Tours, who stuffed our heads with information and images as we drove through neighborhoods like Las Palmas, The Mesa, Little Tuscany, and Indian Canyons. He filled us in on where real celebrities, including Sinatra, Elvis, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Kate and Spencer, and on and on and on, owned homes or spent time, opening our eyes to unusual roof lines, innovative layouts, modern materials, and desert landscaping.
Tramway Gas Station (now Palm Springs Visitors Center), 1965, Albert Frey and Robson Chambers
Richard Neutra’s 1946 desert house for the Kaufmanns, also owners of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater
William Krisel’s 1962 House of Tomorrow designed for Palm Springs’ most influential developer, Robert Alexander; also known as Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s honeymoon cottage (they lived here for about a year as newlyweds)
I’m also checking out vintage modern shopping opportunities for the magazine at numerous stores whose inventory ranges from Good Design to unabashed kitsch.
Modern Way, where designer names abound
Above, Dazzles, where I relived my life in collecting, from rattan furniture to bottlecap figures to Lucite grapes (that’s Mike, the proprietor — the store has been here 14 years after 20 in L.A.)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my morning swim…
I’M IN VALENCIA, SPAIN, city of parks and paella, of rich and tangled history, with many outstanding architectural remnants thereof.
Valencia has 300 days of sunshine a year. Yesterday was not one of them. But gray though it was, it suited a walk from our hotel, the SH Valencia Palace, for some preliminary exploration.
My small group of travel journalists is here during a high point in Valencia’s calendar: the five-day Fallas festival, Europe’s largest street party. Our guide, Vito, told us it dates back to medieval times, when carpenters would gather and burn wood scraps in honor of St. Joseph at the end of the winter season. The piles became bigger and more elaborate over the centuries, morphing eventually into sculptural creations.
These days, 400 organizations spend some 10 million euros creating papier mache and polystyrene sculptures with the kitschy appeal of Disney animation figures, some fifty feet tall, and some satirical (there’s one of Barack Obama I have yet to see).
These ‘fallas,’ as the sculptures are called, will be burned in a culminating event this weekend; meanwhile, marching bands, costume parades, and fireworks are already in full swing, and the city is packed with visitors.
I am here primarily to see the architecture, and I’m not disappointed. Valencia tore down its old city walls in the 1860s and expanded beyond them along broad boulevards. Elegant apartment buildings went up in the city’s own brand of early modernism — somewhere between Nouveau and Deco, sometimes with a bit of baroque thrown in.
The area called Ciutat Vella, or Old City, is studded with monuments of all periods, including the Silk Exchange, or La Lonja, below, a late 15th century Gothic hall where merchants met and traded, with twisting columns on the interior and gargoyles along the roofline. Recently restored, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s spectacular.
Two amazing early 20th century market halls, made of iron and decorated with mosaics in the city’s characteristic ‘Modernismo’ style, bracket the Old City area — one still used for produce and foodstuffs, the other now housing craft stalls.
Mercado Central, one of Europe’s largest ongoing daily food markets, above
Mercado de Colon and details, above
We also peeked into the city’s cathedral which has a Gothic dome, Romanesque door, and ornate Renaissance chapels inside.
It’s a lot to take in, especially with the distractions of Fallas, and there’s plenty more to come.
I’M GOING TO SPAIN THIS EVENING, so for the next six days, expect to see pictures of High Gothic, Baroque, Moorish, and ultra-futuristic architecture, rather than brownstones.
It’s a press trip to Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city, where I’ve never been, and while I don’t feel anything but stressed at the moment, I know I’m going to be wildly excited when I get there. With all I had to do in the run-up to this trip, I completely forgot to move my car this morning. Anyone who knows about New York City’s draconian alternate-side parking regulations will understand how freaked I was when I finally remembered, two hours after the fact, that my car was on the wrong side on the wrong day. I ran to see if it had been towed or ticketed, and amazingly, it was neither. Mayor Bloomberg’s minions falling down on the job? It would have been a massive inconvenience to have to go to the tow pound this afternoon instead of the airport.
This visit to one of Spain’s greenest and liveliest cities will be a fine way to pass the last week of winter. I’ll be blogging daily from there, and I hope you’ll come along for the vicarious ride.
You can also go here to see my collection of posts from my time in Andalusia last winter.