I march myself from the Princesse Royal, the ship that has been my floating hotel for the eight-day BoatBikeTours’ Bruges to Amsterdam bike trip the few steps from where we are docked to the free ferry to Amsterdam’s Central Station and into Amsterdam’s historic city center and on to the hotel Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam.
The level of service, luxury and elegance in this five-star hotel makes you feel you are staying in a palace, and frankly, it was, as I soon learn on the hotel’s daily tour.
I always seek out historic hotels when I travel because they tend to be so much more interesting, so connected to place, so full of personality, character and yes, authenticity, but rarely have I stayed in a hotel that played such an integral role in a nation’s history.
A hotel only since 1992, the original buildings and tower that have been repurposed for The Grand were built in 1411 and actually were two convents – one on the northern side and one on the southern side, with canals on both.
In 1578, with the success of William of Orange’s revolt against Catholic Spain, Protestantism swept the Netherlands and Amsterdam. The two convents were given to the city. The northern side was empty for a time, but the southern building became the Royal residence – The Princenhof (still the name). The Maria de’ Medici, Queen of France, and William of Orange himself stayed here at some point.
In 1652, after a fire at Dam Square destroyed the building where the Council met, they moved into the northern part of the building, which served as the Council Chamber for three years until Dam Square was renovated (the room is still set up as a Council Chamber).
In 1655, the powerful Dutch East India Trading Company made this their headquarters. The company, which set up trade, exploration and colonization around the globe, functioned as a military power, government, and even agricultural producer and helped make this small nation a global power, from 1602 to 1800. (A little research reveals the Dutch had an advantage in resources because they were on the cutting edge of capitalism. The Dutch East India Company had a more successful strategy because of sound money, an efficient tax system and a system of public debt by which the government could borrow from its citizens at low interest rates. See https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/what-made-east-india-company-so-successful)
In 1808, the French took over and Napoleon installed his brother, Louis Napoleon, as King of Netherlands. He wanted Dam Square for his palace, so the Council came back to this building for the next 108 years (until as recently as 1988, which explains why the room is still set up as a Council chamber.)
We see an astonishing five-story high wall of stained glass by Roland Holst (1868-1938), given to the city of Amsterdam in 1925 by the city of Rotterdam on the occasion of the capital’s 650th anniversary. The first nine stained windows present the founder of Amsterdam, Gijsbrecht van Amstel. The others depict dike constructors, fishermen, floral patterns, symbols of trade, education and jurisdiction. There are three crosses of Amsterdam symbolizing fire (a lot of fires afflicted the city); water (the city is below sea level) and plague (to show respect for people).
In 1925, the Wedding Chamber was painted with a most magnificent Art Deco series of murals that our guide, Donna van der Heul, of guest relations, relates, tell the story of a couple who meets, are seduced in a sneaky way (symbolized by a snake), stay true, meet each other (there is a little flame between their legs), become engaged (the flame becomes bigger), a wedding showing the happy couple. Another panel shows the couple with a child with a flame of her own, and another panel shows them as an old couple, still together. (We have to rush through the chamber because a wedding is getting underway shortly).
We visit the Council Chamber (which looks like parliament). Princess Beatrix and Prince Klaus (the present king’s parents) in 1966 and you can see a photo of their wedding .
We visit the beautifully decorated Oriole Garden Bistro where there is a mural that was painted in 1949 when the building was City Hall. Titled, “Inquisitive Children,” by artist Karel Appel, it depicts begging, crying children, with sad eyes, in the aftermath of World War II’s human destruction. “The Council Staff thought it would make people feel uncomfortable so they put it behind a wall. But when the building became a hotel and the painting was found, the artist, Karel Appel, had by then become a famous painter. They had Appel sign it and repair the painting. Now it is behind glass and doesn’t look sad,” our guide relates.
She also points out the marble floor with pieces that are arranged with a “book marking” design that form a butterfly, so the butterfly images and theme is around hotel .
The Princenhof – once the royal residence – is used for meetings. Obviously an immensely popular venue for weddings, the hotel has its own florist and wedding planner.
Located between two historical canals in the heart of the historic city, the hotel Sofitel Legend the Grand Amsterdam has turned its pedigree from a 15th century convent to royal residence to Dutch admiralty headquarters to Amsterdam’s city hall, into a five-star luxury hotel with a particular “Amsterdam” ambiance, French elegance and grandeur. You feel the five-star luxury in every aspect of the hotel, from the moment you check in. The lordly complex became a hotel in 1992.
It offers the restaurant Bridges, the Oriole Garden Bistro serving Mediterranean-style cuisine, the Garden Terrace within an inner garden, the Library ‘Or’ where Grand Afternoon Tea is served, and the Flying Deer pop-up bar and a spa.
The Sofitel SPA offers a heated indoor pool, sauna, hammam (Turkish steam bath) and fitness area where you can also order from a spa menu.
The Grand is one of the Sofitel Legend’s collection of stately heritage hotels and palaces found in iconic cities around the world, “exclusive hotels in legendary places, offering world-class service, stunning décor and inspiring culinary experiences. Step into a timeless story that’s still unfolding to this day at Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam.”
The Grand features 178 guest rooms of which 52 are luxury suites. Throughout, you see a harmonious blend of traditional and contemporary French design and typical Dutch style elements. The rich heritage of the structure has been carefully preserved, while ensuring that the accommodations are updated with the amenities and advanced technology travelers today savor. (I can testify to the exemplary service.)
Guests who stay in the suites are provided an extra layer of luxury: Butler Service, with exclusive benefits, such as “personalized rooming” – (un)packing of suitcases and presenting the “pillow menus” and “bath rituals”.
Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam is a member of Historic Hotels Worldwide®, an official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the USA, and an international companion to Historic Hotels of America (historichotels.org). Historic Hotels Worldwide is a prestigious collection of 360 historic treasures that include historic hotels, castles, chateaus, palaces, academies, haciendas, villas, monasteries, and other historic lodging spanning ten centuries and more than 45 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
The Sofitel Legend exemplifies the mission and criteria of the membership. Hotels inducted into Historic Hotels Worldwide® are authentic historic treasures, demonstrate historic preservation, and celebrate historic significance. With a growing global collection of hotels that have faithfully maintained their authenticity, sense of place, and architectural integrity, Historic Hotels Worldwide® membership is comprised of the world’s finest hospitality brands, chains, collections, and independently owned and operated properties.
Historic Hotels Worldwide® is dedicated to promoting heritage and cultural travel to these prestigious historic treasures. Membership in Historic Hotels Worldwide® encourages revitalization and enhances preservation of magnificent architectural and cultural legacies.
To participate in Historic Hotels Worldwide, historical lodging properties must be at least 75 years old; utilize historic accommodations; serve as the former home or be located on the grounds of the former home of famous persons or a significant location for an event in history; be located in or within walking distance to a historic district, historically significant landmark, place of historic event, or historic city center; be recognized by local preservation organization or national trust; and display historic memorabilia, artwork, photography, and other examples of its historic significance. Hotels located in the United States must be a current member of Historic Hotels of America to qualify for participation in Historic Hotels Worldwide.
Hotels are in diverse cultural settings, ranging from a 12th-century castle set among the rolling hills, prehistoric monuments, and Celtic landmarks of Ireland’s Ancient Eastin, (Kilkea Castle, Castledermot Ireland, circa 1180) to a medieval village nestled in the Tuscan countryside that dates back to the 11th century (La Bagnaia Golf & Spa Resort Siena, Curio Collection by Hilton, Siena, Italy circa 1081).
Travelers can find and book these historic hotels them at HistoricHotels.org, which since 2012 has served as a global travel website, or call 1-800-678-8946. The Annual Directory can be found by visiting HistoricHotels.org/Directory.
Bruges, Belgium’s UNESCO World Heritage city, is impossibly beautiful. Walking around, you almost feel like you are in Busch Gardens Colonial Williamsburg themepark or a movie set – it is that perfect, that fantastical, almost unreal in its perfection. The sheer beauty of this extraordinarily picturesque place, gives you such a sense of peace. I walk every route multiple times, entranced.
I feel sorry for the day-trippers who flood into Bruges but leave before they can experience how magic descends in the late afternoon glow, the evening light, the reflected lights on cobblestone streets at night, and the early morning stillness when only the occasional swan makes a ripple in the canal – it’s as if the fairies wait for the people to leave the forest before they come out. I am so grateful to be staying overnight, having come a day early for my eight-day BoatBikeTours’ Bruges-Amsterdam bike trip.
I stay in the Flanders Hotel, a four-star boutique hotel and a member of Historic Hotels of Europe – beautifully renovated and updated for modern tastes, and within the historic district.
The hotel provides the perfect ambiance in which to appreciate and immerse myself in Bruges.
I always seek out historic hotels – they typically are perfectly situated (location, location, location!), have charm and character and embody the stories and heritage of the people – in effect, they offer an “authenticity” and a sense of place. The owners and managers invariably see themselves as stewards, as guardians of that heritage and are fierce protectors, and it shows in the loving care they bring.
Designed by one of Bruges’ foremost architects of the 19th century, the Flanders Hotel building stands where the former Grand Hotel Verriest once served travelers from all over the world. The structure includes a Gothic room, which once was part of a Dominican Monastery dating from 1304.
The Flanders Hotel puts you right in the historic district, and within a short (exceedingly pleasant) walk of all major sights in the historic inner city as well as offering amenities that make the stay here an absolute delight– there is actually a beautiful indoor pool, a stunning lounge-bar connected to an outdoor terrace, gardens with a picturesque pond and a lovely parlor. Much of the hotel has been recently renovated. Inside it’s actually hip.
The Flanders Hotel offers 50 rooms: the classic room type mostly face the garden and pond; spacious club rooms; extra large Grand Double which has a canopy bed and mezzanine bathroom; and Triple and Family rooms set up to accommodate three to five persons, and offer excellent value.
A breakfast buffet is served from 8 to 10:30 am (weekdays) and until 11 am on weekends in its charming restaurant that looks out to the garden and pond.
Its lounge-bar (‘barazar’) is stunning, serving fine wines, cocktails and local specialty beers, as well as other beverages and finger food, daily from 4 pm to 1 am.
I am also impressed by the personal service with attention to detail, as well as online tools that have everything prepared for my stay before I arrive, and arrange for a taxi to bring me to the boat that will be my floating hotel to Amsterdam at the end of my stay.
The hotel is surrounded by loads of restaurants and eateries of all kinds, from Michelin star gourmet cuisine to local specialties and international dishes.
I am delighted with the accommodations, and love that just walking out of the front door, I am immersed in the city’s charm. It’s a very short and picturesque walk to Bruges’ key sites including the Burg and Markt (Town Square).
I quickly discover why it is said that Markt Square is Bruges’ heart and Burg is its soul.
The Markt Square, the beating heart of Bruges, is dominated by the Belfry, 83 meters high and the city’s most prominent building (you can climb to the top for a breath-taking panorama). In the Market Square itself, I marvel at the imposing Provincial Court and a line of buildings with colorful stepped gables. Horse-drawn carriages complete this exquisitely picturesque scene. Here on my first evening I come upon one of the nightly concerts – this one of Flemish music going back 300 years that is coordinated with the bells ringing from the famous Belfry tower.
The Markt Square is the heart of Bruges, but the Burg Square is considered its soul. For centuries this has been the center of power in the city, and Bruges’ city administration still occupies the 14th century Gothic Town Hall. This grand, majestic square is lined with monumental landmark buildings built over the centuries and reflect the building style of their age. They include two palaces of justice, the Liberty of Bruges to the Deanery, and the renowned Basilica of the Holy Blood.
Wandering down a street of shops – chocolate, waffles and such – I come upon a street festival where I mingle with locals.
It says something of the neighborhood that the Flanders Hotel is mere steps away from what is today the Grand Hotel Casselbergh Brugesbut from 1656 to 1659, served as the Royal Palace of England, Scotland and Ireland, where King Charles II held court.
“King Charles II lived here with his brothers James, Duke of York, and Henry, Duke of Gloucester until the restoration of the monarchy,” a marker outside states. King Charles II “loved Flanders and Bruges in particular. In 1662, the grateful Monarch wrote, ‘The Flemings are the most honest and true-hearted race of people I have met with.’”
The Flanders Hotel is a member of Historic Hotels of Europe, an exclusive collection of independent and unique hotels, castles, palaces, country houses and other properties of historic importance throughout Europe.
Each property has been handpicked for its historical authenticity, quality and unique story. The owners see themselves as guardians of heritage, with a responsibility to cherish each property as a historic national treasure. Accommodating guests provides the economic support to preserve, sustain and improve each property and keep their stories alive.
You can click on Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Croatia, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Montenagro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and Wales to find historic hotels, castles and manors.
You can also search by themed itinerary (cultural routes; gastronomic road trips; wine-lover’s trails, fairytale castles; rooms with the best views) and bookmark an Itinerary Inspiration guide; or search by collections, wedding ideas, experiences. You can also arrange for gift vouchers.
There were ten categories for this eighth edition of the awards to vote in this year, including two new categories – the Historic Hotel Sustainability Award and New Entry Historic Hotel Award:
Historic “A Story To Share” Award 2022: Known as “the hotel from fairytales,” Dalen Hotel in Norway snagged this year’s “Story To Share” award, no doubt because of its “floating” spa, jaw-dropping architecture and exciting common areas that include a terrace and gallery. (Silver Award Winner: Schloss Hertefeld in Germany; Bronze Award Winner: Suter Palace Heritage Hotel in Romania)
Historic Castle Hotel Award: Chateau Liblice in the Czech Republic has perfected the art of blending the old with the new, and combines a classic atmosphere with contemporary comforts, restaurant and spa. (Silver Award Winner: Castello di Gargonza in Italy; Bronze Award Winner: Barberstown Castle in Ireland)
Historic Hotel City Award: Hotel Stefanie has swept the accolade of best historic city hotel for the second time (having won this category in 2020). Having operated since the year 1600, it’s the oldest hotel in Vienna, Austria, and has clearly lost none of its charm or first-rate hospitality over the centuries. (Silver Award Winner: Hotel Britania in Portugal; Bronze Award Winner: Hotel Cattaro in Montenegro)
Historic Hotel Wedding Experience Award: The Slovakian gem Hotel Gino Park Palace, has been named the best place in the Collection to say “I do”. (Silver Award Winner: Villa Bergzauber in Austria; Bronze Award Winner: Villa Cipriani in Italy)
Historic Natural Setting Hotel Award: Overlooking Bantry Bay and Garinish Island on the Eccles Hotel is situated in one of the most enviable places in all of Ireland, the famous Wild Atlantic Way coastline. (Silver Award Winner: Kyrimai Hotel in Greece; Bronze Award Winner: Renvyle House Hotel in Ireland)
Historic Romantic Hideaway Hotel Award:Greece’s island of Santorini has long-been called one of the most romantic places to travel to in Europe… especially if you stay at Esperas Santorini, according to this year’s voters. This pearlescent property contains 17 Greek-style studios complete with such perks as jacuzzis, luxurious beds and bathroom amenities. (Silver Award Winner: Manowce Palace in Poland; Bronze Award Winner: Hotel Villa Schuler in Italy)
Historic Top Hotel Restaurant Award: Foodies are never more delighted than when settling down at a table at Ghan House. This Irish hotel’s restaurant has won numerous awards over the years and is loved by tourists and locals alike for its gourmet dishes. (Silver Award Winner: Twr y Felin Hotel in Wales; Bronze Award Winner: Castel Rundegg in Italy)
Historic Spa & Wellness Hotel Award: The spa and wellness services at Italy’sRelais San Biagio are inspired by the age-old traditions of the property and the monks who once lived there. It’s the place to boost your mind, body and spirit before exploring beautiful Perugia. (Silver Award Winner: Le Bouclier d´Or Hotel & Spa in France; Bronze Award Winner: The Ice House in Ireland)
Historic Hotel Sustainability Award: Schloss Wartegg in Switzerland is Historic Hotels of Europe’s first to be dubbed the best sustainable hotel. Along with its strong focus on cycling and bike tours, the property prizes organic ingredients and makes the most of its extraordinary locale on the shores of Lake Constance, a remarkable slice of Swiss nature. (Silver Award Winner: Hotel Schwarzer Bock in Germany; Bronze Award Winner: Allegory Boutique Hotel in Greece)
New Entry Historic Hotel Award: The peaceful Komierowo Palace in Poland is a wonderful recent addition to the Collection. Not only does the building boast a sauna and jacuzzi house, 16 hectares of enchanting parkland and gorgeously-furnished rooms festooned with Art Deco elements, it has a fascinating history populated with knights, royalty and noble families. (Silver Award Winner: Blue Haven Hotel in Ireland; Bronze Award Winner: Hotel Chesa Grischuna in Switzerland)
Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Deadwood, South Dakota – the endpoint of the 109-mile Mickelson Trail on the Wilderness
Voyageurs’ six-day “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour – is a shrine to
the Old Wild West, Rapid City is what the American West is today.
The Wilderness-Voyageurs Badlands trip (800-272-4141, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com) starts in Rapid City where I cleverly organize my trip to arrive the day before, staying at the famous, historic Alex Johnson Hotel (famous on its own, but made eternally famous for the part it played in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “North by Northwest” – an autographed caricature of Hitchcock is behind the front desk).
Indeed, the Alex Johnson Hotel is a major attraction in itself (it’s red and white sign atop the building is iconic symbol of the city) – the hotel, still the third tallest in South Dakota, even provides a walking tour of many artifacts and architectural features that in their own way tell the story of Rapid City.
The Alex Johnson Hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a member of Historic Hotels of America, which means that successive owners have recognized their responsibility as stewards of these place-making hotels that harbor the story of their respective destination. To be accepted into the prestigious HHA program, which has nearly 300 members, a hotel has to faithfully maintain authenticity, sense of place and architectural integrity, be at least 50 years old; designated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark or listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places; and recognized as having historic significance. (More information at HistoricHotels.org)
The Alex Johnson Hotel is all of these things and more. The hotel
was built by Alex Carlton Johnson (1861-1938), who was vice president of the
Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Johnson was unusual for his time in that he
respected and admired the Native Americans who lived in the area and developed
his hotel as a tribute to the Sioux Indian Nation and honor its heritage. The
structural design of the hotel integrates the heritage of the Plains Indians
and the Germanic Tudor architecture representing German immigration into the
Construction began in 1927, coincidentally, just the day before work began on nearby Mount Rushmore. The hotel opened less than a year later, on July 1, 1928.
follow the walking tour:
the entrance of the hotel are sculpted Indian heads, taken from the design of
Indian-head nickels and pennies.
The entrance has an “AJ” tepee symbol embedded in the entry walkway. The lobby itself is designed in Native American tradition with “Sacred Four Directions” integrated in the lobby tiles. The Lakota Sioux people believed their four sacred powers were derived from the four directions: north (white) a symbol for the “Cleansing Snow.”; east (red), the “Morning Star” which gives “Daybreak Knowledge”; south (yellow) is “Warm Winds” which replenishes the land; west (black) is “Thunder Being,” giving strength and power in times of trouble. Among the signs is a symbol that resembles a swastika, but was long used by Native Americans since prehistoric times.
Suspended with chains, the chandelier that dominates the center is actually formed of war lances. It is in the shape of a teepee and made of concentric, decreasing-sized copper-clad wooden rings. The rings are decorated in authentic Sioux patterns.
The exquisite ceiling incorporates stenciled Sioux designs between open beams. The brightly-colored patterns, originally painted with natural materials, are in the traditional “box and border” design. There are eight plaster-cast busts of Indian men that hold the beams.
The fireplace is formed of Black Hills stones. A huge rock in the keystone was selected for its resemblance to a buffalo head. The mantle is decorated with brands of local ranchers. Above the fireplace is a striking portrait of Alex Johnson in Sioux attire. Johnson was made an honorary blood brother of Chief Iron Horse in 1933, and named “Chief Red Star.” Another portrait of Johnson, in a more typical businessman pose, was commissioned by the 580 members of the Chicago Rotary Club in appreciation for his service as president (1924-25).
There are two bison heads mounted over the southwest entrance of the AJ’s Mercantile shop (American buffalo are apparently not buffalo at all, but one of two species of bison). I learn that “buffalo” was a corruption of “boeuf,” the name the French explorers used for the animal.
mezzanine and second floor are graced with carved wood railings and provide a
gorgeous vantage point to appreciate the Indian busts, ceiling painting and
The ballroom, which also served as a nightclub back in the day, has four murals painted by Max Rheiner, an artist from Chicago, that realistically depict four well known areas of the region: Harney Peak, the Needles (which we will soon visit on the bike tour), the Badlands (we will soon visit) and Spearfish Canyon.
Lincoln Room, the site of the original restaurant, has been restored to its
original elegance. The ceiling lights are original. The wallpaper custom,
hand-printed paper and the same design used in Abraham Lincoln’s home in
Springfield Illinois. An original 19th century Lincoln print is on
the wall. Meeting rooms are named after the four presidents on Mount Rushmore.
The hotel also offers Paddy O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Grill, named after the hotel’s first guest.
is a kind of museum of exhibits – you can see Johnson’s actual headdress and
that is not all. I learn that the Alex Johnson hotel is haunted – there is an
entire book of testimonials from guests who have had sightings, and recently.
Ross Goldman, the front-desk fellow who has been giving me an orientation to the hotel and to Rapid City, points me to an entire Haunting book filled with people’s letters and descriptions of encounters.
of the rooms that is supposedly haunted, 304, was Alex Johnson’s private room
where he stayed when he was in Rapid City, and where he died at the age of 90.
But years before, his young daughter died in that room. People, especially
children, say they have seen a child ghost
In the Haunting book, I find a drawing by a little girl who stayed in
room 304, who drew herself, her brother, and another girl with a dark, long dress
you can see through (the ghost), dated July 5 2019. Children say they see ball
rolling and that there is a knock on doors all at once.
haunted room, 812, was where 60 years ago, a bride on her wedding night jumped,
was pushed or fell out of window. Guests say that doors open, lights go on and
some say when they sleep, they feel something pressing on their chest.
macabre legends must have appealed to Alfred Hitchcock who used the Alex Johnson
Hotel in his iconic thriller, “North by Northwest” and stayed here through the
filming of the Mount Rushmore scenes– there is an autographed photo of
Hitchcock behind reception desk (the lobby seemed much larger in the movie).
(the only Goldman in South Dakota, he notes), tells me his father is from
Brooklyn, and came to Rapid City for his medical residency and stayed. What a
small world: Goldman’s cousins live on my block in Long Island, New York. (He
says there are just 300 Jews in the entire state; they hold their Passover
seder in the hotel’s ballroom).
after exploring Rapid City, I get to appreciate the Vertex Sky Bar on the
hotel’s tenth floor (the Alex Johnson hotel is the third tallest building in
South Dakota). Originally, there was a solarium here and an observation tower
that was later used by KOTA radio station. Today, it is an upscale rooftop bar exclusively
for members and hotel guests. It provides a wonderful view for the sunset
behind the hills.
Goldman gives me some great tips for our bike trip – especially in Deadwood City, where he tells me to be sure to visit the cemetery where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried, and where there is also a Jewish section.
he orients me to Rapid City: Memorial Park was created after a major flood in
1972 collapsed the dam, in which 238 people died (signs in the park tell the
story), leveling the poorest section of city. He tells me where to get the best
buffalo burger (Thirsty’s).
so I am off to discover Rapid City.
City makes the absolute most of whatever it has. The architecture except for a
small historic district is mostly nondescript, but there is sheer brilliance in
that 20 years ago, an artist began an ambitious program to have almost
life-sized sculptures of every president on every corner of the two downtown
boulevards, Main Street and St. Joseph’s Boulevard. This turned Rapid City into
“The City of Presidents.”
is fascinating and fun to go in search of them (they aren’t in chronological or
alphabetical order). Six artists produced the 43 sculptures, beginning in 2000:Obama’s
statue, depicting the Election night scene when he came out holding his
daughter’s hand, only went up a couple of months before; Lincoln is also
portrayed with his son, Tad; FDR is shown standing at a podium with radio mics;
Taft looking amazingly svelte, shown as the first president to throw out the
first pitch at a baseball game. There is a self-guided walking tour and a
Presidential Scavenger Hunt. It is really fun to try to see all of the
presidents. What is most interesting is how these significant personages are
set in such ordinary circumstance on nondescript small-town America street
notable exception to the presidents is a bust, “Mitakuye Oyasin” (“We are all
related”) by DC Lamphere, from a drawing by Richard Under Baggage, representing
“hope for reconciliation, dignity and respect for all the human race.” The
earth is in the shape of a hoop or circle of life; crossed pipes represent
world peace; the eagle symbolizes all flying creatures, and communication with
Tunka Sila; wisdom and the healing arts are represented by a grizzly bear, and
a long and productive life is symbolized by a turtle. “The bison reminds us of
our ancestors’ healthy lifestyles, free from famine, and also of the white
Buffalo Calf Woman who brought us the pipe.”
Another marked contrast to the presidents on every other corner is outside a remarkable shop, Prairie Edge: “Hunkayapi” also was created by local artist Dale Lamphere. The statue, depicting a Lakota naming ceremony, is intended to reflect the warmth in Lakota families, the wisdom of a Lakota elder and the teaching of the Lakota heritage to the next generation.
Edge is one of the most fantastic Native American shops anywhere. It is almost
a museum, with numerous contemporary Native artists who have their own
displays, biography and museum-quality art (I learn about quillwork). There is
also clothing, including Pendleton & Pilson, blankets and housewares, books
and music, and a Sioux Trading Post, and tee shirts and souvenirs and yes items
popular in tourist shops on sale, like an old-fashioned mercantile store.
shop contains a fine art Plains Indian Gallery, a Buffalo Room with bison
leather furnishings. There is also the Italian glass bead library boasting the
world’s largest selection of glass beads, with over 2,600 different styles and colors, from
the same Venetian guild that supplied fur traders in the 19th
century used for trade, including used in trade for the island of Manhattan;
after the Societa Veneziana Conterie closed in 1992, Prairie Edge bought the
remaining inventory of 70 tons of beads. (Prairie Edge, 606 Main Street, Rapid
City SD 57701, 800-541-2388, 605-342-3086, www.prairieedge.com).
I think about what Goldman told me about continued tension between Native Americans and the “settlers” (for lack of a better word), “Other places are more assimilated. South Dakota has nine Indian reservations. The two largest reservations – Pine Ridge, Rosebud – make Appalachia look like Beverly Hills.,” he told me. And his remarks echo for me later when I visit the Crazy Horse Memorial on our Mickelson Trail ride.
Edge is housed in an 1886 building in Italianate style that began as the L.
Morris Dry Goods and Clothing store with a dentist’s office on the second floor
and rooms to rent. Known as the Clower Building, it is most famously remembered
as the Jack Clower Saloon (1895-1917), a cowboy bar ion its day. It is one of
the most beautiful buildings in Rapid City.
you do expect in an open-carry state that still prides itself as being the wild
west, are the gun shops. There is the biggest gun shop I’ve ever seen, First
Stop Gun & Coin. (I am amazed at how heavy rifles are; there are “My First
Rifle,” child-sized like starter violins, and some pink and decorated rifles
geared for women.
wander over to Main Street Square, with a spray fountain, Astroturf and
stage for performances, and public restroom.
There is a surprising variety of restaurants you wouldn’t expect in a place that calls itself “City of Presidents” – Nepali, Mexican (considering how far from the Mexican border we are). Goldman has recommended Thirsty’s, which looks like a pool hall, as having the best buffalo burger in town. I opt for the Firehouse Brewing Company in the historic firehouse next door to Prairie Edge. I take note of a large 1883 photo mural depicting the store that had stood on the site with store names of Jewish proprietors: Herrmann Treber & Goldberg Groceries, Liquors and Cigars Wholesale.
Back at the Alex Johnson Hotel, I go up to the Vertex Sky Bar on the 10th floor to take in the sunset.
The Alex Johnson Hotel today is independently owned by the Bradsky family of Rapid City, acquired in 2008 on the hotel’s 80th anniversary, and refurbished with respect and sense of stewardship for its historic significance and importance to the city. (The family owns several properties, under the Liv Hospitality banner, in Deadwood and Rapid City, including Cadillac Jack’s and Tin Lizzie’s in Deadwood and Watiki water park in Rapid City. (www.LivHotelGroup.com)
Hotel Alex Johnson Rapid City, Curio Collection by Hilton, 523 Sixth Street, Rapid City SD 57701, 605-342-1210, alexjohnson.com.
More information at Visit Rapid City, 512 Main Street, Rapid City SD 57701, 800-487-3223, 605-718-8484, www.VisitRapidCity.com.
Missile National Historic Site
With better planning, I would have also
plugged into my itinerary a visit to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The
site provides an opportunity to explore the Minuteman II system’s role as a
nuclear deterrent during the Cold War and visit sites rarely seen by civilians
while in use, but that nevertheless loomed large on the geo-political
landscape, and in these tense times, be reminded about what a threat nuclear
I first became aware of the site
watching an extraordinary documentary, “The Man who Saved the World,” about
Stanislav Petrov, a former
lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air
Defense Forces and his role in preventing the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident from leading
to nuclear holocaust. Now, with Trump and Putin at odds over
renegotiating a nuclear arms treaty while boasting about new weapons, it is
more important than ever to be reminded of how quickly things can go
Many complain that the true spirit of the holidays have been corrupted by crass materialism. But there are ways to be less material and incorporate values – family values, social values, environmental values, global values – into your gift giving. Think travel.
The gift of travel is the gift of together, of time, of memory, of experience that is life-changing or life-enhancing, of new perspectives and new awareness – of self, of others, of our place in the world and time itself.
But it is also possible that we can use gift-giving to support or help sustain heritage, culture, environment.
Many of the great museums and institutions of the world offer some of the most interesting, innovative and creative items in their gift shops and you can support their endeavor by shopping online or through catalogs: the Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org), the American Museum of Natural History (www.amnh.org), the Art Institute of Chicago (855-301-9612), Smithsonian (Smithsonianmag.com), the Nassau County Museum of Art, which usually have special items oriented around major exhibitions, and you wouldn’t believe the great Harry Potter items you can get at the New-York Historical Society, in conjunction with its “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” exhibit (www.nyhistory.org), to list just a few.
Zoos and aquariums and special attractions are fantastic to shop at, especially for kids: The Palm Beach Zoo (www.palmbeachzoo.org), for example, has eco-friendly items. There are also Adopt-an-Animal programs. The Bronx Zoo has similar programs and an online store (www.bronxzoostore.com). And you don’t have to visit the Kennedy Space Center, to get space-related items (www.thespaceshop.com), though visiting offers incomparable experiences.
Another gift idea is to purchase family memberships in these entities, which gives a sense of “ownership” and encourages multiple visits as well as giving access to benefits.
Just call or go online to your favorite museum, zoo, aquarium, preserve, historic site or attraction and you will likely find a store or various ways to support the organization with your gift.
You can give a donation that preserves the planet and good social purpose, often getting something material in the bargain. In recent years, I have “purchased” an acre for preservation and sent a furry animal and booklet to my niece and nephew through the Nature Conservancy (nature.org/gifts and there is an actual catalog); became a member of the Smithsonian Institution and received not only a subscription to the outstanding Smithsonian Magazine for myself, but a free subscription/membership to give as a gift, not to mention the incredible journeys offered through the Smithsonian (www.smithsonianmag.com); enrolled my loved one as a member of the National Parks Conservation Association so they received a fleece blanket plus the NPCA magazine; made donations on behalf of my loved ones to National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service which earned gifts as well as membership benefits. A gift membership to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, for example, gives access to online guides to bike trails and often some giveaway like a hat (www.railstotrails.org).
You can give a gift that supports important organizations which protect destinations, historic or cultural sites, or the mission of exploration, like National Wildlife Federation (my nieces enjoy their holiday subscriptions to Ranger Rick magazines I’ve gifted them for years, nwf.org). Also on my holiday list: Audubon Society(www.audubon.org), the Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org/store), the Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org); and World Wildlife Fund (wwfus.org).
Many worthy organizations are also supported by purchases: the National Park Foundation, which supports national parks, gets support from Subaru of America through its annual Subaru Share the Love Event, now through January 2; over the past decade, the event has raised over $7 million for national parks. Earthwatch Institute, which offers “civilians” the opportunity to join real scientific research expeditions (earthwatch.org) is supported by purchases made through AmazonSmile (https://smile.amazon.com). When you buy travel insurance through World Nomads, you can make microdonations to support local communities (the site also steers people to responsible travel, https://www.worldnomads.com/make-a-difference/responsible-travel/).
Consider these organizations for support on Giving Tuesday.
Trips That Make a Difference
The very act of traveling benefits communities by spurring an economy that sustains culture, heritage, the environment, community, and forges a mutual understanding that can translate into foreign policy.
But for those who want to go even beyond to improve conditions for people, there is a category of travel, Voluntourism, that organizes travel to a destination to volunteer for good purpose – whether it is participating in scientific research, working to save a species from extinction or save the planet, or helping disadvantaged communities, or rebuilding after some disaster, as in Puerto Rico.
andBeyond has launched philanthropic-focused itineraries in Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa to give guests a first-hand look at its core ethos of caring for the land, wildlife, and people. The activities range from adopting an elephant at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya to participating in local school conservation lessons in Tanzania to visiting the Grootbos Green Futures College in Cape Town, an organization that provides educational training to unemployed young adults in the city (www.andBeyond.com)
Earthwatch Expeditions enable you to join scientists in the field as they research urgent environmental issues, in places that would otherwise be closed to visitors. Expeditions address wildlife and ecosystems, climate change, archaeology and culture, and ocean health, for example, researching lions and their prey in Kenya, rewilding the Scottish Highlands and studying orcas in Iceland. (800-776-0188, 978-461-0081, www.earthwatch.org),
Sierra Club arranges around 90 affordable volunteer trips each year through its Sierra Club Volunteer Vacations to engage in hands-on conservation work like building and maintaining trails, removing invasive plants and assisting on archaeological digs. For example: park maintenance in Hells Canyon, Idaho (with transportation by jet-boat up the Snake River Canyon), forestry service at the New York Botanical Garden (a 50-acre urban old-growth forest) and native-bird habitat restoration on the Big Island of Hawaii (with hiking in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park).
Adventure Life, a tour operator, incorporates voluntourism into some of its trips. For example, on its trip to Ecuador’s Cotopaxi Volcano, travelers lend a hand with reforestation efforts, painting interpretive signs and performing trail maintenance; a trip to Costa Rica’s Pacuare Reserve for whitewater rafting also includes two nights with biologists for research at an important nesting ground for leatherback turtles; a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula enables travelers to take part in citizen science projects aboard the ship (www.adventure-life.com).
Village Experience expanded upon its fair-trade retail shop (which supports local craftsmen) to create an ambitious program that brings travelers into their villages, creating another stream of revenue (www.experiencethevillage.com).
WorldVentures Foundation offers 42 VolunTours in 12 countries — professionally planned and guided trips where volunteers spend time beautifying communities, building infrastructure and brightening the lives of local children – reported that its 2017 programs impacted the lives of more than 50,000 children around the globe with over 50,000 volunteer hours (worldventures.com).
But don’t expect that because you are volunteering your services the trips are cheap, sometimes you pay for the privilege of doing good and your fees help support the mission.
There is a whole category of experiential trips that not only enrich and inspire and make the world a better place, but support important institutions like National Geographic, the Smithsonian (which also offer student and family programs); Outward Bound, Road Scholar, Sierra Club (sierraclub.org), just as examples.
National Geographic is offering up to $1000 off each child under 18 who travels with you on its family-friendly National Geographic-Lindblad expeditions to Alaska and Galapagos (booked by Dec. 31). Through the National Geographic Global Explorers Program, kids and teens learn to develop the skills and curiosity of an explorer while working alongside our certified field instructors -observing the behavior of blue-footed boobies, painting watercolors using glacier ice, or filling a field journal with wildlife sketches of all kinds (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/expeditions/). Traveling with National Geographic helps further the work of its scientists, explorers, and educators around the world (natgeo.com/giveback).
Often, just showing up is a way of sustaining, revitalizing communities with tourism supplanting obsolete extractive and exploitive economic pursuits. Also, some travel companies donate a portion of their guest fees to local community, in addition to doing their best to purchase locally, hire locals, and help sustain communities. For example:
Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), which is part of Boston-based Grand Circle Corporation’s family of travel companies, supports the nonprofit Grand Circle Foundation established in 1992 by owners Alan and Harriet Lewis to support communities in which Grand Circle works and travels, including some 300 humanitarian, cultural, and educational endeavors worldwide, among them, 100 schools in 50 countries. The Foundation is an entity of the Lewis Family Foundation, which has pledged or donated more than $169 million since 1981 (www.oattravel.com).
World Bike Relief has partnered with tour operator Tourissimo to present a week-long mountain biking tour in the Apennine Mountains of Italy led by World Champion Rebecca Rusch. Funds raised through this trip will help empower students, healthcare workers, and entrepreneurs in rural Zambia and give them access to reliable transportation. Tourissimo is also donating two Buffalo bikes per rider. https://www.tourissimo.travel/appenninica2018.
There is a whole category of “sustainable travel” companies and projects that not only structure their travel programs with social responsibility in mind, but leverage the power of travel and tourism to improve the lives of people and their environment (see sustainabletravel.org).
Travel Gift Card, Registry Programs
Black Friday, Cyber Monday kick off the holiday shopping season. But gifts don’t have to come in a box. You can also gift the experience of travel and all the life-enhancing, even life-changing benefits that travel affords, from creating the opportunities for family bonding, to enriched learning, to broadening perspectives and world-view, to laying the values for social consciousness by seeing other cultures and habitats.
Many travel entities – hotels and resorts, cruiselines, tour companies – have gift card programs – spas (Spafinder.com), ski resorts, cruiselines. Some have registries.
Many of the grandest Historic Hotels of America members – each one distinct, and most often grand, historic and luxurious – offer gift cards – like Wentworth by the Sea, NH; Omni Grove Park Inn, Mission Inn & Spa (the list goes on and on) – just inquire. To see members, visit historichotels.org and its European counterpart, Historic Hotels of Europe, www.historichotelsofeurope.com.
The key here is that if there is a destination, a cruise, a resort you want to “gift” to your loved one, just ask if a program is available. Check on expiration dates and how the gift card can be used.
And how much better to let someone special know you care by gifting them the fulfillment of a fantasy? There are Fantasy Camps for just about every interest. For example: Broadway Fantasy Camp, geared to adults of all ages and levels of experience, immerses you in the world of performing and creating live theatre, working closely with theater pros – veteran stage directors, choreographers, and musical directors – who guide you through the process (www.broadwayfancamp.com, 212-713-0366). Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy Camp, based in Las Vegas, offers a variety of music, as well as Songwriting Fantasy Camp and Vocalist camp (check their site for calendar and events, www.rockcamp.com, 888-762-2263).
And if you are struggling for that special gift for the hard-to-please teen, consider an Outward Bound expedition: Sailing on the rugged and beautiful Maine Coast; Sea kayaking through the Outer Banks; Dog sledding on the frozen Boundary Waters of Minnesota; Mountaineering in the Colorado Rockies, High Sierra or Pacific Northwest; and many more choices to fit students’ interests, schedules and locations. The company makes it easy to purchase a Gift Certificate (outwardbound.org, 866-828-1195).
The holidays are a great time to check off items from that bucket list.
Black Friday, Cyber Monday
The travel industry makes it easy: gift cards and certificates, some offer registries. Many have Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, holiday discounts and sales – just google sites to find them. This is the time to indulge that bucket list or fantasy.
Just a few to recommend:
For example, on Black Friday, Perillo Tours, is offering $500 off per couple ($250 per person) on all 2019 Italy and Hawaii escorted tours. The offer is valid on new bookings only for travel January 1 – December 31, 2019. The 24-hour Black Friday sale is bookable online, via phone or email from 12:01am to 11:59 pm on November 23, 2018 (must use booking code: BlackFri18).
On Cyber Monday, November 26, the Divi & Tamarijn Aruba All Inclusives offering a discount of 50% off hotel stays between April 21 – December 22, 2019. Plus, one lucky winner who books the Cyber Monday deal will be selected to receive their stay free (www.diviaruba.com orwww.tamarijnaruba.com)
Save up to 40% off bookings at the historic The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, MA. Rates for winter and spring travel start at $99 per night; summer dates start at $179 per night for bookings online on Monday, November 26 and can be booked online at: https://www.redlioninn.com/getaway-deals/.
Glamping Hub, an online booking platform with 35,000 tree houses, tipis, yurts, safari tents, airstreams, cabins – accommodations that are unique and secluded in nature – is participating in its first-ever Cyber Monday sale, adding 20% to each gift card purchased on Monday, Nov. 26. Visit https://glampinghub.com/.
Travel Related Gifts
Still wedded to the idea of a material gift? There are umptium possibilities for the travel-bound, especially where some special-interest or activity that requires special gear or equipment is involved like skiing, biking, hiking is involved.
Cameras are big on the list for travelers, with size and functionality among the key criteria. Some of the new smaller cameras have almost as much functionality as the larger digital SLR, but are compact, light, easily carried and in most cases even have quality video. (For really important trips, good to have a DSLR as well as a smaller, versatile point-and-shoot.) Look for a wide-range digital zoom, ISO range, image stabilization, video capability, battery life, how fast the camera focuses and shoots and WiFi capability).
After consulting with experts at this year’s PhotoPlus Expo, I have a list of cameras for when I don’t want to pack my DSLR that fulfill my criteria – that is, what can I wear around my neck, shoot with one hand while riding a bicycle that gives excellent quality images, image stabilization, decent zoom lens, auto focus, is fast and responsive on/off/shoot, and is reasonably priced. Here’s my list Panasonic Lumix DMC ZS100 (which I use), Panasonic Lumix DMC AZ200, Canon G9X, Canon G7X, Sony RX100V.
Drones and GoPro-style cameras are also popular, as well as new accessories that enhance the photo capability of smartphones.
Consider getting your traveler a waterproof camera for those adventures into the rainforest, snorkeling, whitewater rafting and such; for the astrophotographer, the astronomer, the birder, the survivalist, the underwater photographer, the adrenalin junky.
Take advantage of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and holiday savings deals at major camera stores and online sellers like B&H, www.bandh.com, 212-465-4018, 877-865-9088 and Adorama, www.adorama.com, 800-223-2500.
Two hundred years ago, Thomas Cole, the father of the Hudson River School art movement, sailed up the Hudson River to the Catskills and was smitten by the landscape, by the natural world, by the respite from the bustle of New York City. And so convenient to reach, even then, coming by the new steamships which was the “thing to do”. He railed against the influx of “progress” even then, and the ravage of the axe that was already decimating the lush forest. It is remarkable that we have Cole and his student, Frederick Edwin Church who built his magnificent Olana on a hilltop with a view over this magnificent Hudson Valley, to thank for its preservation. The Catskills are magnificent any time of the year, but in fall, there is an explosion of color. And like an explosion, it is fleeting.
Less than three hours drive to Hunter, NY, from Long Island, is the Fairlawn Inn, a magnificent bed-and-breakfast inn with an incredible story to tell. It will be my hub to explore the Hudson River School Art Trail that offers some of my favorite hikes in the world. They trace the footsteps of the artists and you can see the very same scenes they painted.
On my way to the inn, I have already visited two of the sites on the trail – relished the view from Kaaterskill Clove, marveling how it still looks much as it did in Thomas Cole’s “The Clove, Catskills” (1827), and Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits” (1849) -even the tree just turning red for fall foliage seems the same as the scene in the painting – which you see from the parking lot for the hike up Kaaterskill Falls, then continuing on to take this stunning hike to the heights of the double falls. They are along Route 23A, the scenic byway you take from the Thruway to get to Fairlawn Inn, in Hunter, less than a dozen miles further.
During my all-too brief three-day getaway to the Catskills/Hudson River Valley, I spend two days hiking trails associated with the Hudson River School Art Trail in the Catskills State Park, just beginning to show their fall colors and imagining how the artists walked these trails before me, and one day re-discovering two historic jewels: Olana, Frederick Edwin Church’s exquisite mansion home and estate that has become one of New York State’s most visited historic houses (for good reason), and the Thomas Cole House Museum, devoted to the artist known as the “Father of the Hudson River School” which has been restored since my last visit with new ways of experiencing the museum that really give you a sense of the man.
The Fairlawn Inn is ideally situated, and so charming and comfortable, you immediately feel whatever city stress or physical exhaustion dissipate as soon as you cross the threshold – all of this the artistry and craftsmanship of the gracious host, Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko, who has anticipated everything to make his guests feel absolutely at home – even providing refrigerated drinks, ready snacks and fruit, a coffee maker and a refrigerator for guests to help themselves.
It is about 5:30 pm when I arrive at the Inn, bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon. Set beside Hunter Mountain (the entrance to the popular ski resort is less than a half-mile away) and with views of the Catskill State Park from its wrap-around porch, the bed-and-breakfast inn is in a Victorian jewel originally built in 1840 and expanded in 1904 as the summer home of a wealthy Jewish philanthropist and real estate developer, Harry Fischel.
Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko, with 40 years in the fast-food industry, bought the bed-and-breakfast in 2002, and remodeled, redecorated, refitted, and refurnished with stunning antiques and period pieces and other amenities, exposed the gorgeous oak and maple floors and woodwork (hemlock, which was typical of the area because it was a byproduct of the tanning process the area was known for), created the stunning landscaping, added a patio, fire pit and waterfall, all with an eco-friendly eye.
Chuck claims to have the only historic home in North America that has earned a 4-key rating (on a 5-key scale) from Green Key Global, a Canada-based eco-tourism organization and was named Good Earthkeeper for 2013 and #1 Inn in New York for 2010 by New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association.
Indeed, it is quite remarkable for a 113-year old house to get that distinction– Chuck has used composting, solar tubes that bring in natural light to otherwise dark hallways,low-flow shower (yet still wonderful pressure); LED lighting throughout; the outdoor lanterns are solar-powered (from Ikea, no less; he has a plan to use them for Christmas lights).
Walking around the inn, there are wonderful sitting areas outfitted with books, a parlor with a bar with snacks and a refrigerator with drinks as well as coffee maker to help yourself; a pool table in another parlor; a living-room area; outside a gorgeous, lushly landscaped patio with waterfall, solar-powered lanterns, a fire-pit.
I love to see Chuck’s clever innovations – how he made a wine rack out of crown moldings and planter hooks; a fire pit out of a coal bin; how he turns “shabby chic” into beautiful pieces of furniture.
There are 5 rooms upstairs of the main house, each one differently configured and scrumptiously decorated, several with fireplaces. The Glenwood Room has a two-person Jacuzzi and a fireplace. Several rooms are “outside”, along a lovely porch with charming sitting areas, in that extension to the home that originally housed the Jewish scholars and served as an ice house. My room, the Spring Valley, was originally a mikvah (a ritual bath for a bride).
The rooms are each uniquely themed and decorated in period furniture (several have clawfoot bathtubs), but with modern amenities (private bathroom in each, free Wifi) and eco-friendly features like solar-tubes which bring in natural light. Several have gas-operated fireplaces; at least one has a two-person Jacuzzi bath.
The Fairlawn Inn, a Gold Eco-Rated Lodging and 2015 Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence winner. is gorgeous, comfortable, wonderfully situated, excellent amenities, but the best asset is Chuck, himself, who is more than a gracious host.
Bed-and-breakfast inns really reflect the character of their structure and the personality of the innkeeper. The Fairlawn Inn is an expression of Chuck’s phenomenal sense of hospitality and his prodigious artistic talents – the interior design and decorative arts, antiquing, painting, landscaping, and culinary arts. He loves to cook.
Many bed-and-breakfast hosts love to show off their breakfast creations but Chuck goes beyond: he offers his guests a selection of four different made-to-order omelettes (I enjoy his feta cheese, spinach, kale and arugula omelette) plus a special item like pancakes (selection of fillings), fresh fruit and muffins (pumpkin spice), freshly brewed coffee, served in a gorgeous dining room (just the right size – not too big, not too small), with glorious sunlight flooding in from the windows.
Before we leave the table, he comes out with a bottle of water and snacks to take on our hikes.
Everything is so caring, so thoughtfully arranged, so meticulous – there is even a night light in bathroom and hooks. Little things that matter. There is a remote control for the fireplace which Chuck has decorated himself with antique tiles.
The porch has a delightful sitting area of wicker lounge chairs – even a blanket nearby – as well as tables if you should want to eat al fresco.
I am truly intrigued by Fischel’s story which Chuck relates as he gives me a tour of the inn and ask who built the house and why it is so enormous, with a huge two-story extension. Chuck explains that Fischel would house Jewish students in the summer; my room, Spring Valley, actually was a mikvah (a room used for a ritual bath for a bride).
Chuck points to a thick biography of Fischel, written by his son-in-law, Rabbi Harry S. Goldstein. Fischel, I learn, was born in 1865 in a small, isolated town of Meretz, Lithuania, to poor but pious parents (his father was a cabinet maker). Yisroel Aaron Fischel (later known as Harry) became an architect and a builder by the age of 19. At 20, he emigrated to America virtually penniless (“he had 60 cents in his pocket” Chuck tells me) and earned his first million in real estate at a young age (he pioneered building tenements in the Lower East Side on irregular-shaped lots, becoming the first successful Jewish developer on the Lower East Side). But even when he was earning just $10 a week, so his biography reads, he sent money home to help support his parents. “Fischel was one of the leading pioneers in the growth of American Judaism, in general, and in American Jewish Orthodoxy, in particular, particularly in the dynamic precedent-setting first half of the 20th Century,” the Wikipedia biography notes.
Chuck notes that Fischel laid the cornerstone at Yeshiva University, built a high school for Jewish girls, and personally prevailed on President Taft to install a kosher kitchen at Ellis Island in 1911, so that Orthodox Jewish immigrants could have the opportunity to eat kosher food during a probation period (so they could be strong enough to pass the test to avoid deportation).
He also built the first modern Jewish theater in 1904 (exclusively for Yiddish productions).He was first Treasurer of the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering Through the War in 1914, a member of the Executive Committee of the Joint Distribution Committee in 1914; organizer of the Palestine Building Loan Association in 1921; built the home, office, yeshiva and synagogue for the Chief Rabbi of Palestine Abraham Isaac Kook at his own expense in 1923; established the Harry Fischel Institute for Talmudic Research in 1931 (which, after the creation of the country of Israel, trained, for many years, a large percentage of the judges who presided over the religious courts in the country); and established the Harry Fischel Foundation on January 4, 1932 (later renamed the Harry & Jane Fischel Foundation). He laid the cornerstone at Yeshiva University.
Fischel also built the first synagogue in Hunter, but it burnt down in 1914, so he built a new one across the street from his home – a charming Victorian from 1914 that is on the National Register of Historic Places and is still operating.
Fischel died in 1948, just before Israel became a nation.
The Fischel house remained in the family until 1993, when a couple bought what had become a decrepit structure and devoted 3 ½ years to restore and renovate it into a bed-and-breakfast, which opened in 1996.
Fischel’s great grandson, Aaron Reichel, has visited the inn twice, Chuck tells me.
It is interesting to see some of the relics of the past: built 1904 when electricity was considered “transitional” (they didn’t know if electricity would last), there are light fixtures that were made to accommodate both electricity and gas; fixtures pointed down (for electric) and up (for gas). Electricity was delivered but made gas on-site – capturing methane released from coal, but sometimes blew up.
The hemlock wood paneling that is so stunning especially in the dining room was actually a by-product of the tanning process that was the major industry in Tannersville and Prattsville.
The Fairlawn Inn is perfect for corporate retreat (with all the outdoor activities- from skiing to mountain biking that are so great for team-building); special interest groups, multi-generational getaways, destination wedding with expansive lawns for a tent (Chuck loves to cook and has accommodated weddings with up to 150 guests).
The inn is ideal for a hub-and-spoke itinerary for exploring and enjoying the amazing array of historic, heritage, cultural and outdoor attractions and Chuck offers lists of attractions walking distance and a short drive that fill out a three-day getaway but can also easily fill a longer itinerary. He also can put you on the path for antiquing, and the Hudson Valley Wine & Craft Beverage trail (TravelHudsonValley.com)
(And Chuck can steer you to every one, providing comprehensive lists, brochures, maps, print-outs, and his personal guidance and tips.)
Hiking is a huge activity and for my second day at the inn, I go to the North-South Lake Campground from which there are many trails as well as a fantastic lake (people are actually swimming with the record high temperature for a fall day), and set out for one of my favorite hikes that takes me to more of the Hudson River School artists’ favorite spots: North-South Lake (site #6 on the Hudson River School Art Trail), Artist’s Rock and Sunset Rock (site #7 on the HRSAT); another trail goes to where the Catskill Mountain House stood (trail site #8).
For my third day, Chuck gives me a tour of the Hunter Antique Mall, housed in what used to be the Masonic Lodge, which he also owns, which offers a literal treasure trove of fabulous finds, with fascinating documentation and excellent pricing. He points out a pre-Revolutionary chair made in Philadelphia that easily could have accommodated George Washington, and a pair of chairs signed on the bottom for Elizabeth Abell, a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s who introduced Mary Todd to him. (It turns out that chuck is an absolute expert on antiquing, and can steer you to auctions and a “junking” trail where you can find treasures at garage-sale prices). He offers his patrons clever ideas: like turning a stack of vintage luggage into a sidetable that also affords cramped apartment-dwellers storage; and how you can make a bird feeder out of gorgeous blue-and-white China cup and saucer; and decorates otherwise bland furniture with a waxy-press-on craft.
I then go on to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill (#1 on the Hudson River School Art Trail, www.thomascole.org) with a sensational guided tour as well as featured exhibit in the New Studio (this year’s exhibit is “Sanford R. Gifford in the Catskills”); the house usually closes at the end of October but this year has an extended season of November weekends; and then on to Olana State Historic Site (#2 on the HRSAT), in Hudson NY, which closes for the season on Oct. 28 (www.olana.org).
I prefer hiking to experience fall foliage, but those who prefer driving will find several scenic byways: Greene County’s two National Scenic Byways include a 21-mile route that descends from high country peaks to Durham Valley farmland.; along the way, you will find views that stretch across the Hudson River Valley to summits in four neighboring New England states. Then take an excursion along Mountain Clove, a byway that meanders through ravines, historic districts, and waterfalls. In fact, one of the best foliage views in New York State, Chuck notes, is just 2 miles from the Fairlawn Inn door, at the intersection of Rte 214 and 23A – which looks toward Bear Creek and some half-dozen mountains that form layers.
An Arts-Meets-Nature Driving/Exploration Route: The Kaaterskill Clove Experience provides a new self-guided discovery tour through the history of American art, and the primeval landscape that inspired it. Tailored, easy-to-follow itineraries provide a roadmap for families, adventure seekers and leisure travelers to experience the Kaaterskill Clove at your own pace, while enjoying everything that Greene County has to offer, from farm stands to charming cafes.
Other attractions include:
Sky Walkway over the Hudson River alongside the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.
Antiquing (Tannersville and Catskill are the main villages, but Chuck can steer you to auctions and a “junking” trail where you can find treasures at garage-sale prices).
Bike (or walk) the 2.7-mile long Huckleberry Trail that follows the old Huckleberry Railroad track and is mostly under trees.
There is mountain biking and golf at Windham Mountain (another wonderful ski mountain just 8 miles up 23A).
Close by in Coxsackie is The Bronck House (in the same family for 400 years) and the quaint town of Hudson with its galleries, antiques, boutiques and restaurants, which is operated by the Greene County Historical Society (http://www.gchistory.org/).
The Fairlawn Inn is within 90 minutes of major attractions including Hyde Park (Franklin Roosevelt’s home and library), the Walk Over the Hudson, Hyde Park (FDR),Walk Over Hudson, Huguenot Village in New Paltz (a national historic site with costumed interpreters, www.huguenotstreet.org), Howe Caverns and Cooperstown (Baseball Hall of Fame). And it’s just 2 ½ hours from “the universe” of New York City.
The village of Hunter is accessible from Amtrak to Hudson, MTA to Poughkeepsie, where you can find Enterprise and other rental car agencies, car service and Uber.
Saratoga Springs, one of America’s first tourist towns, has been drawing visitors since the 14th century when Native Americans discovered the mineral springs which still draw visitors today. But it is also where formal horse racing began, and over the years, has also developed an amazingly rich cultural menu of offerings, especially in summer, when its Performing Arts Center is home to the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. It is fitting that among its key attractions are the National Museum of Dance (who knew there was such a thing?) as well as the National Racing Museum (fascinating), historic racetrack, lively live-music venues, stunning boutiques (you know a top-notch town by its olive oil shop and haberdashery).
It doesn’t take long, as you walk among the giant painted horses and ballet shoes to recognize this unbelievably charming town is a combination of Louisville, Kentucky and Lenox, Massachusetts, with a touch of a spa-wellness destination thrown in. And totally enchanting.
But walking around and taking in the breathtaking Victorian architecture, you also realize that Saratoga Springs has had its ups-and-downs. Indeed, the celebrated historic Racetrack even closed down in 1896 because of financial hardship, and historic markers on Broadway point to whole historic streets that were torn down in the 1960s until a preservation movement took root.
This makes you appreciate all the more the work underway ($30 million worth) on the historic Adelphi Hotel, where the colorful Irish-born prize-fighter, horse-racing impresario, gambling entrepreneur , New York State Senator and Tammany Hall enforcer John Morrissey, a regular of the hotel, died in 1878.
You get to live Saratoga Springs’ history at the Inn at Saratoga, which has basically “seen” it all. Built around 1843, it is the oldest continuously operating hotel in Saratoga Springs, and its own history mirrors that of the village.
Anyone who appreciates as I do how a historic hotel is like a direct line to a place – putting you on the inside track rather than being an outsider merely passing through – seeks out historic hotels wherever possible. They have presence, and give you a sense of place.
These historic hotels immerse you into the collective memory and heritage of a place – like being inserted into the scene of the village as it might have been 150 years ago. They are so much more than brick and mortar – they have personality, character, even soul (not for nothing that many also harbor a ghost or two).
It is also about providing the gracious hospitality we associate with times past – the personal attention, the tranquil pace, a quiet calm.
So, coming to Saratoga Springs, I do what I always do when I plan a trip: seek out Historic Hotels of America website (historichotels.org, 800-678-8946), a membership program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation with nearly 290 historic hotels that have faithfully maintained their authenticity, sense of place and architectural integrity. I discover the Inn at Saratoga, which turns out to be the oldest continuously operating inn in Saratoga Springs, dating back to 1843.
Over the years, the inn’s fortunes have had its ups and downs along with the city (now decidedly up in its fortunes) and, like the city and hospitality industry, has gone through many incarnations – a physician tapped Saratoga Springs’ legendary mineral waters for his patients and operated the inn as an early version of a spa hotel; a Cuban owner had a travel pipeline for visitors from Cuba; a rabbi catered to Jewish vacationers escaping New York City’s oppressive summers.
Fortunately, it is now in the loving hands of the Israel family, who acquired the inn in 2003, and who bring a deep appreciation for historic preservation and their role as stewards.
Indeed, when you experience such places, you cannot take their existence for granted – rather, they are to be celebrated as survivors against long odds – surviving wrecking balls, economic and natural disasters, and new owners’ predilections to go “modern.”
Owners of these historic properties take on their stewardship with a sense of obligation and humility, recognizing they are links in a chain, without which, these places will simply cease to exist.
The Israel family, who are active in Preservation Society for Saratoga Springs, has spent considerable resources removing the “modern” that previous owners had installed, and restoring the hotel’s period features and charm, while providing the amenities that guests crave today, including spacious bathrooms, in-room coffee maker, flat-screen TV, voicemail, dataports, complimentary wired and wireless high-speed Internet access and such. As they say it is “the perfect marriage of past and present.”
I joke about the hotel having an elevator (which has an exquisite pastel painting of Saratoga Springs as it might have been 150 years ago that spreads across three sides) and the receptionist says, this place didn’t even have running water in 1843. But to install the elevator, Liz Israel, who has the role of General Manager, tells me, the previous owners removed a formal staircase.
The inn once had around 100 rooms, more than twice the number, 42 rooms and suites, as today – because traditional hostelries had tiny rooms with a washbasin and guests shared a bathroom.
Big band music plays in the hallway as I make my way to my room (you can’t hear it when you are in the room) but you use a modern key-card to enter. It is pure pleasure to sink into a four-poster bed so high you need a step ladder, and of course a spacious modern bathroom. Each room is different and appointed with period furnishings.
Robert Israel, a tax attorney who first came to Saratoga Springs in the 1960s when it was in decline (and property was cheap) bought the hotel in 2003, has meticulously gone about acquiring period furnishings at auction – a stunning bookcase that adorns the dining room; wood paneling that as a young man in his 20s, he salvaged from a hotel in Newburgh that he kept for 40 years before finding just the right place, in the inn’s lobby; the side board we take our coffee cup from for breakfast came from the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel. The walls are graced with stunning oil paintings (purchased at auction) as well as prints that Israel collected from the Grand Union Hall, which when it was built, was the largest in the world (it burned down). He acquired a shuttered railway ticket cottage which he reassembled and repurposed in the inn’s garden to serve as a bar for special events. The ballroom has an intricately “carved” fireplace which came from a movie set. And the dining room has a specially made red velvet banquette that captures the Victorian ambiance perfectly.
One feature of the Inn at Saratoga is the complimentary full buffet breakfast that is included – a lavish affair that reminds you more of a bed-and-breakfast inn where the host seeks to really out do themselves with memorable meals. One breakfast consisted of delectable scrambled eggs seasoned with herbs, served on a fresh croissant, along with bacon, potatoes, selections of fresh fruit, cereals, bagels, pastries and muffins, perfectly delectable coffee, served on beautiful china.
Liz Israel was 18 years old when her father bought the property. She grew up waiting tables, handling the reception desk, and went on to get a degree in hospitality management in Ireland, where she worked at the Shelburne Hotel in Dublin before returning to the Inn at Saratoga with her Irish husband.
Liz takes me on a walking tour of the hotel, recognizing how much I appreciate the restoration.
Once an open porch, The Tavern bar has big picture windows that overlook the street bustle on Broadway, Saratoga Springs’ main street, and where there is live music five nights a week, Wednesday through Saturday.
Primo’s Restaurant, where you enjoy breakfast and which serves dinner, is a Victorian confection. Liz says that they lifted up the carpet and removed a cement layer to expose the original hardwood floors.
There is a beautiful ballroom that opens to a garden where a tent has been erected for a wedding reception; there is also an old railroad ticket cottage that Israel acquired and repurposed for a bar.
The inn has a few vintage Roadmaster bikes available for guests’ use (two hours at a time). Guests also enjoy complimentary access to Victoria Swimming Pool located in Saratoga Spa State Park and the nearby YMCA. Complimentary parking in its on-site lot is a significant amenity as well. (The inn offers a spa package with the historic Roosevelt Baths & Spa in the park.)
In addition to the hotel, there is a separate Brownell Cottage (which was purchased along with the hotel) which features four luxurious suites, accommodating up to four people depending on the suite. Beautifully appointed, the cottage offers an array of modern amenities: whirlpool tub, heated bathroom floors, steam shower with multi-head massage shower, authentic Franklin Stove fireplaces, cable TV, coffee/tea maker, speaker phones with data port, voice mail and in-room safes and free high-speed wireless Internet.
The Inn at Saratoga is an ideal venue for wedding or family function or meeting because of its scale, the charming ambiance, and facilities.
Inn Follows Fortunes of Saratoga Springs
I love the back story to the inn: it was built as a large boarding house in 1843 by Isaac Hall, a carpenter from New Hampshire, 11 years after the railroad provided easy access to Saratoga’s spa for tourists.
In 1846, Hall sold the property to Thomas Smith of Virginia, who turned over the management to Dr. Richard L. Allen, who, like other physicians of the time, operated boarding houses to treat “chronic cases” – an early version of a health spa. That lasted until 1853, when the property was sold to Hervey P. Hall (Dr. Allen remained in Saratoga Springs and published a popular guide for health seekers in Saratoga).
The hotel passed through three other owners until 1865 when it was acquired by Benjamin V. Frasier, brother-in-law of Thomas Marvin, the proprietor of the huge United States Hotel (largest hotel at the time). “The wealth created by the Civil War and the pent-up demand for pleasure created the greatest boom Saratoga had ever seen.”
It isn’t a coincidence that organized horse racing, brought by casino operator and future congressman, the prize-fighter John Morrissey, had begun in Saratoga Springs.
Frasier significantly expanded the hotel, building the three-story wing in 1866 and added a brick veneer, and re-named the hotel Everett House.
Frasier gave up the hotel in 1875 (the same year as the first Kentucky Derby was run at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky) and it was sold to Nathaniel Waterbury, a prominent Saratogan, who made improvements but quickly went into foreclosure. The US was in the midst of a major economic Depression. The property was purchased at an 1878 sheriff’s sale by Thomas Marvin’s daughters, Mary Louise Sackett and Virginia Perry. By 1882, they had leased it to Primo M. Suarez, who catered to Cuban vacationers for 35 years; he rebuilt the front of the hotel in 1887 in the High Victorian style that was fashionable at the time.
After World War I, Saratoga’s old clientele was slipping away; and instead of two-week sojourns, auto touring was the newest fad. But there was a growing audience of Jewish New Yorkers who sought to escape the city’s summer heat and could afford a country retreat. In 1919, Nathaniel Heller took over Everett House and by the 1924 season, renamed it Hotel Brenner, operated by Rabbi Charles Brenner and his extended family. That continued until 1973 when the hotel was purchased by Dom Nardelli of Saratoga Springs who “updated” the facility and renamed it the Coachman Motor Inn.
That was a fairly dark time for Saratoga Springs, when many of its historic buildings were taken down. A historic preservation movement took hold in the 1980s, and when Nardelli put the hotel on the market in 1987, it was sold to four businessmen who sought to recreate the graciousness of a Victorian hotel.
In 2003, the hotel was acquired by the current owners, Robert Israel of Franklin Square Associates, a historic preservation professional who has sought to restore the hotel’s historic quality and enhance the guest experience.
Liz tells me her father uses the inn as an excuse to shadow auctions and indulge his passion for antiques.
The Inn at Saratoga offers several package options, including:
GirlFriends Getaway Package, featuring dinner, wine, mineral baths and massage treatments at the historic Roosevelt Baths & Spa in Saratoga Spring State Park.
(The Roosevelt Baths & Spa Saratoga Springs opened in 1935 largely because at the impetus of President Franklin Roosevelt who wanted to develop the mineral baths at Saratoga Springs as well as Warm Springs, Virginia. Today, the Roosevelt Baths & Spa offers 42 original treatment rooms and a complete menu of services, including mineral baths, massages, facials, scrubs and body wraps, and a full-service salon.)
The inn’s Victorian Romance Package features a deluxe guest room or suite accommodations, a rose, chilled bottle of Champagne delivered to the room, plus morning buffet breakfast and gourmet 3 course dinner for two at The Inn at Saratoga’s Restaurant. Upgrade to a suite for the ultimate experience, most Brownell Cottage suites have a whirlpool tub, heated bathroom floors, steam showers and a Franklin stove fireplace.
The Israel family also owns another boutique hotel, in St. Thomas in the Caribbean.
Centrally located, The Inn at Saratoga is conveniently near center of the village and its attractions including Congress Park, Skidmore College, Saratoga Performing Arts Center (summer home of the New York City Ballet), the famous Saratoga Thorough-bred Racetrack, the Saratoga Harness Track, the Saratoga National Museum of Dance, the National Museum of Racing, and the Saratoga Spa State Park.
On the Friday night that I am in town, I can choose from seeing the New York City Ballet, see a polo match or a live folk performance at Café Lina, among many other options.
Besides the nearby attractions of Saratoga Springs (see story), The Inn at Saratoga is well situated to year-round attractions, including Lake George (half hour); Gore Mountain (hour), and the Revolutionary War-era Saratoga National Historical Park (20 minutes).
The Inn at Saratoga, 231 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, 518-583-1890, 800-274-3573,theinnatsaratoga.com.
I return to Pittsburgh when I come back to do my second Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage, a fantastic rail-trail that stretches across Western Pennsylvania, from Cumberland, Md. to Pittsburgh, this time a longer trip, 150 miles, that finishes on the Montour Trail (see stories).
I had been dazzled by Pittsburgh on my first visit a year ago, and the same is true this time. It is no wonder that this city, built on steel and coal, rejuvenated, revitalized, has been named one of America’s most liveable cities. What is best about it is how it retained the best of old and new.
This time, as luck would have it, I choose a historic hotel, Mansions on Fifth, that is in the Shadyside neighborhood, a short walk away from the Carnegie Museums and the Cathedral of Learning, so that my all-too-brief time in this glorious city is spent immersed in the city’s leading cultural attractions that I had not been able to visit a year ago.
Mansions on Fifth in Pittsburgh’s tony Shadyside neighborhood is the sort of place that when you pull up, your jaw drops. And for the brief time that you are here, you feel what it must have been like to be part of Pittsburgh’s upper-crust, the society of industrial titans. You know how historic places being “living history” places because of people? That’s what you feel like when you stay and inhabit these rooms, continuing the life and spirit of these structures that seem to have a life of their own and stories to tell. People come and go, after all, but these structures remain, albeit in the care of stewards who take on the responsibility. (Whenever I travel, I first check out Historic Hotels of America’s site, historichotels.org, to see if there is a member property because the experience is always extraordinary; for my last visit, I stayed at the Omni William Penn Hotel, an iconic property right downtown. Mansions on Fifth used to be an HHA member, prior to being acquired in 2016 by Priory Hospitality Group, Pittsburgh’s premier owner, operator and developer of independent hotels and event spaces. Among its other holdings, Priory Hospitality Group owns and operates the Priory Hotel and Grand Hall at the Priory on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.)
Indeed, Mansions on Fifth puts you right back into Pittsburgh’s history and its story:
“The late 1890’s and early 1900’s were in many ways Pittsburgh’s golden age, measured by prosperity and economic might, if not by a clean environment. Pittsburgh was a financial and industrial powerhouse as well as a center of river and rail transportation. In 1900, Pittsburgh produced more than half of the crucible steel in the nation, and by 1910, it was the eighth most populous city in the country.
“It was also a time where giants of the business world traversed Shadyside’s Fifth Avenue – ‘Millionaire’s Row’ – on a daily basis. Names such as Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, Westinghouse and Heinz were among the leading citizens of the day.”
This 20,000 sq. ft. mansion was built in the early 1900s by Willis F. McCook, a prosperous attorney and legal counsel to steel and coke magnate Henry Clay Frick for himself, his wife Mary and their 10 children.
McCook was most famous for having represented Frick, but he was highly accomplished in his own right, the notes show.”A groundbreaker in modern day corporate law, McCook studied law at Columbia University following his graduation from Yale in 1873. He was also a pioneering athlete, serving as captain of Yale’s first football team and playing in the first intercollegiate football game in the nation. Later in life, he served as president and director of the Pittsburgh Steel Company, and was a partner in the law firm McCook & Jarrett. He died in 1923 at the age of 72.”
Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, which was also home to many of the city’s leading industrialists, innovators and bankers of the city, including George Westinghouse, Frick, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie and the rest of Pittsburgh’s exceptionally wealthy families of the era.
Here among the leafy green trees on a hilltop, it is easy to imagine how clean and cool the air in comparison to the choking atmosphere of the steel mills that shrouded the city below.
As his mansion was being built, McCook’s daughter Bessie became engaged, so he contracted to build a more modest (but still spacious at 8,000 square feet) home adjacent to his own. The smaller mansion (now the Mansions on Fifth Hotel’s Amberson House) was completed first, and the main house (now called the Fifth Avenue House), was finished in 1906.
The two mansions were designed in the Elizabethan Revivalist and Tudor styles by the architectural firm Carpenter & Crocker, of Pittsburgh’s East End. Many of the firm’s other projects, which range from Florida to Washington state, exist today, including the iconic Trinity Cathedral Parish House in downtown Pittsburgh. The contractor on the McCook estate was Thomas Reilly, who also built the massive and magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral just down Fifth Avenue from the estate. Reilly also worked with Carpenter & Crocker on the Parish House at Trinity Cathedral.
“McCook and his designers and builders spared no expense, using some of the finest craftsmen of the era, including master ironworker Cyril Colnik (fixtures and decorative items), Rudy Brothers Art Glass (leaded and stained glass installations), and Rookwood Ceramic Tile (for the decorative tile around the fireplaces in the houses). The stunning carved wood in the Grand Hall of the Fifth Avenue House was produced by Woolaeger Manufacturing of Milwaukee. The total cost of the project was $300,000 in 1906 ($7.6 million in today’s dollars).
After McCook died in, 1923, the family continued to live in the main mansion through the 1930’s. But the Great Depression took its toll and the family was unable to keep current with their property taxes. Seized for sheriff’s sale by the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department, the mansion was purchased in 1949 by Emil Bonavita, Sr. and his wife Margaret for $28,000. The Bonavitas moved into the mansion with their two children, Emil, Jr. and Charles.
As a way to pay for upkeep for the massive building, the Bonavitas rented out rooms on the upper floors to students at nearby Carnegie Mellon University. Students were thoroughly screened, and many of those attracted to the historic property were studying at CMU’s prominent arts and theater schools. According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette architecture writer Patricia Lowry, tenants included Albert Brooks, Andy Warhol, Shirley Jones and George Peppard. Margaret, who acted as a house mother to the many students who resided at the home over the years, resided in the McCook mansion until her much mourned death in 2003.
Bessie McCook Reed, for whom the Amberson House was built in 1905, lived in the home from the time of her marriage until her passing in 1966. Three years later, Emil Bonavita, Jr. and his wife Marie acquired the Amberson House and moved in to raise their family of four children. Emil and Marie also assisted in the boarding operations at the larger Fifth Avenue House.
In 2004, the Fifth Avenue House, the main mansion, sustained a horrific fire which caused extensive damage to the upper floors. The building became uninhabitable, and its tenure as a home for students ended. Emil and Marie looked to sell the damaged mansion to a purchaser who would restore it.
Pittsburgh preservationists, husband and wife Mary Del Brady and Richard Pearson, acquired both houses of the former McCook estate from the Bonavitas for $1.5 million. Their idea was to redevelop the property into a boutique hotel and event center. Restoration and repair work, which was extensive given the fire damage, began in January 2010. The Fifth Avenue House, the primary mansion, was completed in early 2011 and opened to the public in March of that year with 13 guest rooms and suites, the grand hall event space, a library, the Oak Room pub, and two private dining rooms. The adjacent Amberson House, with 9 guest rooms and suites, opened in November 2012. Total cost of the project exceeded $8,000,000.
The properties were recognized as an historic landmark by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2012.
New Era for Mansions on Fifth
In late September 2016, Pittsburgh-based boutique hotel owner/operator Priory Hospitality Group acquired the operating assets of the Mansions on Fifth Hotel and assumed operations of the Shadyside property. Owned and operated by the Graf family since 1986, the Priory Hospitality Group’s properties include the award winning Priory Hotel (a Tripadvisor Hall of Fame member), Grand Hall at the Priory event facility (Best Wedding Venue – City Paper 2016; Best of the Knot 2006-2016; Pittsburgh Magazine Best Restaurant 2012 & 13), and Priory Fine Pastries commercial and retail bakery (Runner Up – Pittsburgh Magazine Best Bakery 2012 & 13).
Priory Hospitality Group invested considerably to upgrade the properties and amenities.
The Mansions on Fifth today offers 22 elegant guest rooms (each one different; you feel more like a family guest than an out-of-towner) in the two distinct historic buildings – the main 20,000 sq. ft. Fifth Avenue House and the adjacent 8,000 sq. ft. Amberson House. The Fifth Avenue House also has the hotel’s reception desk, dining room, Oak Room pub, chapel, library and wine cellar.
The Front Desk is staffed 24 hours a day to provide help with directions, restaurant recommendations, check in, , while butlers are available from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day to assist.
My room is in the Amberson House, which for your all-too-brief stay makes you feel like you are really at home in a mansion. The Amberson House offers its own cozy and comfortable first floor common areas in addition to guest rooms. It would be perfect for a family or group to take over (indeed, during my stay, there is a large wedding party.)
You can appreciate the renovations: each of the elegant guest rooms and suites features a spacious bathroom with glass and ceramic shower enclosures, Gilchrist and Soames organic bath and shower amenities, and soft, thick towels woven with bamboo fibers.
Some guest rooms and suites also feature fireplaces and jetted tubs. The spacious Presidential Suite has two separate bedrooms and baths and nearly 1,000 square feet of living space.
In addition, the Mansions on Fifth Hotel offers a wide variety of amenities and services, including: complimentary continental breakfast (with a more hearty ala carte breakfast available at an additional cost); complimentary newly upgraded Wireless Internet service; complimentary on premise parking (not a small matter in Pittsburgh); guest computer with WiFi access and printer; Fitness Center and The Oak Room pub, open 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily, featuring craft cocktails, fine wines, and a variety of microbrew beers.
The Oak Room pub also is the venue for a variety of weekly events, from wine flights, to whiskey tastings, to live music.
Mansions on Fifth is a delightful venue for weddings (there is one that had just finished when I arrive), family reunions and special events. You can basically take over the two mansion homes.
(I am also intrigued to visit the Priory Group’s historic, 42-room boutique hotel that was once a Benedictine monastery, built in 1888, meticulously restored to modern standards and featuring all the amenities of a large downtown property with the intimacy of a small European hotel, located in Deutschtown on the North Shore, a near walk to the Andy Warhol Museum and downtown Pittsburgh. The Priory Group spent $2.7 million to upgrade the property, adding a new, larger front desk and a cozy pub — the Monks’ Bar – in the original building, a Fitness Center and Business Center, as well as state of the art meeting space in a new wing.)