Category Archives: US Destinations

72 Hours in Philadelphia: Ben Franklin, America’s Revolutionary ‘Elder Statesman,’ Would Have been Quite at Home in 21st Century

Benjamin Franklin, “The Sage” is the only Founding Father to have signed all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance (1778) with France, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution (1783) and the United States Constitution (1787), though he was sick and suffering in pain during the Constitutional Convention and died shortly after, in 1790 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My third day of my deep-dive into Revolutionary War America in Philadelphia is devoted to exploring key figures and sites that I have never visited before: Benjamin Franklin Museum, the Betsy Ross House and the National Constitution Center.

Once again, the best way to connect is to walk because you are quite literally walking “in the footsteps” of these iconic individuals, and in so doing weave together the places and events, create a context. It is exciting to happen upon a site – a historic marker, a building keystone – that you would never have thought to seek out.

I set out again from my hotel, the Sonesta Downtown Rittenhouse Square, walking down Market Street, through City Hall, to Chestnut Street.

I am off to visit the Benjamin Franklin Museum, which is relatively new (open four years) and very close to the very new Museum of the American Revolution. The trick here is that you need to walk up an alley (I missed it the first few times I went by). I enter from Chestnut Street, but you can also come through from Market Street, where there is a row of townhomes (“Franklin’s Neighborhood”) that includes the post office, Franklin’s print shop, and looks back at City Hall.

Ben Franklin is, of course, a native son of Philadelphia, and justifiably the most revered figure, and here we learn why that is so deserved, why the city still has his stamp.

The “Ghost House” frames where Ben Franklin’s house would have stood, in what is now Franklin Court © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You enter a courtyard and come upon the “Ghost House” – the sculptural frame of Franklin’s home (the museum is actually in what would have been the basement) you can peek into the archeologically preserved remains of the foundation of his house. Franklin’s grandkids, unable to afford the “prohibitive” taxes, tore the house down in 1812 to sell to a real-estate developer. Eventually, a rooming house was built on the site. The National Park Service tore that down in the 1950s in order to restore the Franklin site, and after the Independence Bicentennial in 1976, it became a National Park, administered by the National Park Service.

The exhibit area is divided into five “rooms” with each room interestingly focusing on a particular trait of Franklin’s: ardent and dutiful, ambitious and rebellious, motivated to improve, curious and full of wonder, and strategic and persuasive. There are videos, touch screen interactives, mechanical interactives, and artifacts in each area. An additional area called the “Library” presents a video with excerpts from Franklin’s Autobiography.

The exhibit is well presented to give a total biography of this fascinating Renaissance, self-made man, who so epitomizes the American Dream.

I come to Franklin Museum hoping to learn more of this fascinating man, and was richly rewarded. I did not realize his humble beginnings, or fully appreciate the range of his talents, accomplishments.

But my essential question about Franklin – my theory that it was the Stamp Act (not the tea tax) which imposed taxes on newspapers – that was the key to the colonists taking up arms to “free” themselves from the greatest superpower humankind had known. Franklin was not just a printer, but a newspaper publisher who provided seed money to newspapers throughout the colonies and became (what I consider) the first syndicated columnist, sending out editorials that would have been printed in those papers. My theory (as yet unproved) is that newspaper editors were the ones who turned opinion against British rule, gave the colonists the notion that they could actually win their independence, and gave the colonists from Massachusetts to Virginia, who were then (as now) very different,  a sense of unity. Had the British not imposed the Stamp Tax, the newspaper editors may not have been so gung ho for Revolution. If my theory could be addressed at the museum, it was not at all clear to me.

Ben Franklin as inventor: glass harmonica © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

But what is clear is that Franklin lived in the Age of Enlightenment – ideas and innovations were spread by trade and globalism – and people with the wit and wisdom like Franklin – despite having only two years of formal schooling – were encouraged to learn, innovate, invent not just technology (he did experiments with electricity and invented the lightening rod, bifocals, Franklin stove, urinary catheter and glass harmonica and charted and named the Gulf Stream) but civic society (volunteer fire department, the Philadelphia hospital, library, founded what became the University of Pennsylvania) and politics. There was greater willingness to challenge authority and notions of “divine right” – even question institutionalized religion – and class rather than be ruled by them. Colonists – who hailed from many countries in addition to Britain and would not have had loyalty to the Crown – had already lived in the New World for a century, and saw themselves not as British but as Americans. And Franklin knew better than anyone that a person from humble beginnings could ascend the ranks of social status.

I am surprised to learn that Franklin never patented his inventions, believing in the equivalent of what we call “open source.”

He was a key figure in creating the Declaration of Independence – one of the committee of 5 (with Jefferson, Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston); and along with Adams nominated Jefferson to write the Declaration and made some important changes to Jefferson’s draft.

He was a generation older than Adams and was in his 80s during the Continental Congress – near death and in significant discomfort. He was considered a giant, an elder statesman, “The Sage.”

America’s ambassador to France during the Revolution, he secured critical support of the French.

I was shocked to learn that Franklin initially owned and dealt in slaves (it was a time when that was common place, even in the North) but by the 1750s, he argued against slavery from an economic perspective and became one of the most prominent abolitionists.

His personal background is worthy of a multi-part dramatic series:

Ben Franklin at 9 years old (artist’s rendering) © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Ben Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, one of 17 children of his father. He only attended two years of formal schooling which ended when he was 10; he continued his education through voracious reading.

At 12, he apprenticed to his older brother, James, a printer, who founded the first independent newspaper in the colonies. Ben started publishing columns secretly under a pseudonym (his brother was furious). When James, who was a free thinker, was jailed for three weeks in 1722 for publishing material unflattering to the governor, Ben took over the newspaper and wrote, in the character of his alter-identity Mrs. DoGood, “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”

In 1723, Franklin escaped his apprenticeship and fled to Philadelphia, making him a fugitive. He took up lodging in the Read home, and at the age of 17, proposed marriage to 15-year old Deborah Read. But her mother refused permission for them to marry. Franklin went off to London for several years and Deborah married John Rodgers, who abandoned her, ran off with her dowry and but without a divorce, left her unable to remarry.

When Ben Franklin returned to Philadelphia, he formed a common-law marriage with Deborah who becomes a mother to Ben’s illegitimate son, William.(William grew up to become a Loyalist and self-exiled himself to London; William too had an illegitimate son who became Ben Franklin’s secretary and aide). Deborah and Ben had two more children together, but his son died at the age of 4 of smallpox; his daughter Sarah married, had children, and took care of Ben in his old age

I hadn’t realized that Franklin spent much of his life abroad, especially between 1757-1775, and as Ambassador to France from 1776-1785.

Franklin returned to the United States in 1787 and is the only Founding Father who is a signatory of all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance (1778) with France, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution (1783) and the United States Constitution (1787), though he was sick and suffering in pain during the Constitutional Convention.

A civil war reenactor at Philadelphia’s Veterans Day Parade peeks in at Franklin’s grave at the Christ Church Burial Ground © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

When Ben Franklin died in 1790, 20,000 people attended his funeral. Later, I see where he was interred in Christ Church Burial Ground. It is interesting to note that in 1728, when he was just 22, Franklin wrote his own epitaph: “The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author.” But the tombstone simply reads, as he specified in his final will, “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.”

You leave the museum realizing what a remarkable Renaissance man Franklin was – like Thomas Jefferson in that way – with all the inventions and areas of success. Franklin was very much a modern man; if ever there was a person who could find himself 250 years in the future, he would have been very much at home in the 21st century. And very much Philadelphia’s Favorite Son for good reason.

The Ben Franklin Museum is a very welcoming space that really humanizes and personalizes Franklin. I love Franklin’s witty quotes, the portraits of him that show him throughout his life, even his love letters (to women not his wife).

Fire insurance symbol, one of the civic innovations that Ben Franklin introduced, can still be found on Philadelphia houses © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

For children, there is a scavenger hunt for the small squirrel figurines located throughout the exhibits. Franklin delighted in pet squirrels, or skuggs as they were known in his day.

You need at least an hour to visit.

The museum and print shop are operated by the National Park Service as part of the Independence Hall.

Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission $5/adult; $2/children 4-16.

Benjamin Franklin Museum, 317 Chestnut St., Philadelphia 19106, 215-965-2305, https://www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/benjaminfranklinmuseum.htm

Print Shop

From here, I go back up to the court yard and find my way to Franklin’s print shop, where there is a replica of an old-style printing press (not much different from the days of Gutenberg), where National Park Rangers run off documents (you can buy a printed Declaration of Independence though Franklin never actually printed it). If you are lucky, you may visit when the ranger is in period dress.

The Print Shop where National Park Service rangers demonstrate the printing process that would have been used in Franklin’s time © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On the Market Street side of Franklin Court, there is the B. Free Franklin Post Office, where you can get postcards hand-stamped just as one would have when Franklin was the first postmaster. The line of attached buildings are very much the way they were when Franklin lived here. You notice on Market Street and then around the historic district townhouses that still have the reliefs that show what fire insurance company protected the house. On this day, the street is closed off for a street festival. After spending some time enjoying the music and festivities.

I also pass a firehouse with a wonderful bust of Benjamin Franklin.

Philadelphia had just held a Veterans Day parade, and just as I pass the Christ Church Burial Ground where Benjamin Franklin and many other Founders are buried, I come upon Civil War re-enactors from the 3rd Regiment: Sgt  Major Joseph Lee and Corporal Robert F. Houston.

The Franklins’ tombstones – extremely modest – is easily the most visited (and can be seen through the gate from the sidewalk). People throw pennies onto the tombstone – a nod to Franklin’s motto that “a penny saved is a penny earned,” as well as a symbol of good luck.

People throw pennies onto the modest tombstone of Benjamin Franklin and Deborah at Christ Church Burial Ground © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Others buried here include John Dunlap, who printed the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, composer and poet Francis Hopkinson and medical pioneers Dr. Benjamin Rush and Dr. Philip Syng Physick. Divided into quadrants, the ground is mapped and plots are identified with markers where the original inscriptions are gone. A book of 50 biographies is available for purchase at Christ Church. (There is an admission to the burial ground, $3 adults/$1 child or $8/$3 with guided tour.) (5th and Arch Streets, Philadelphia 19106, 215-922-1695, ext 30, http://www.christchurchphila.org/about-the-burial-grounds/

Christ Church Burial Ground © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I walk the few blocks to the Betsy Ross House, another Revolutionary character who would have been thoroughly at home in the 21st Century. 

Follow in Franklin’s Footsteps

Take a walking tour and follow in Ben Franklin’s footsteps through historic Philadelphia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

VisitPhilly.org, the city’s convention and visitor bureau, offers a marvelous walking tour to discover historic attractions visited by Franklin himself, sites dedicated to his accomplishments and local restaurants that would appeal to one of history’s most prolific men.

The Franklin’s Footsteps Itinerary starts at the Benjamin Franklin Museum, Franklin Court, the Ghost House, the Print Shop and Post Office and continues:

City Tavern (138 S. 2nd St. 215-413-1443), where Colonial America is recreated at this authentic tavern in Old City

Carpenters’ Hall (320 Chestnut St., 215-925-0167), the site of the First Continental Congress, was once the home of Franklin’s Library Company and the American Philosophical Society (APS), two organizations he founded.

Carpenter’s Hall © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Christ Church (20 N. American St., 215-922-1695), where Franklin and his family attended services, and Christ Church Burial Ground.

Fireman’s Hall Museum, (147 N. 2nd St., 215-923-1438), commemorates the history of firefighting in an old firehouse

The Liberty Bell Center (6th & Market, 215-965-2305), home of the internationally known symbol of freedom (pick up timed tickets for Independence Hall at the Independence Visitor Center, or order them online at recreation.gov).

My immersion into Revolutionary War Americana in Philadelphia, which started with the National Museum of Jewish American History and Museum of American Revolution, continues at Betsy Ross House and the National Constitution Center.

Visit Philadelphia provides excellent trip planning tools, including hotel packages, itineraries, events listings: 30 S 17th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-599-0776, visitphilly.com.

See also:

National Museum of American Jewish History is Unexpected Revelation in Philadelphia 

Philadelphia’s New Museum Immerses You into Drama of America’s Revolutionary War

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Philadelphia’s New Museum Immerses You into Drama of America’s Revolutionary War

A mural at Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution depicts George Washington in front of his battlefield tent he stayed in virtually throughout the war; the actual tent is the crowning jewel and centerpiece of the museums extraordinary collection © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I used the opening of the brand new Museum of the American Revolution as the theme for my three-day visit to Philadelphia – a really deep dive probe of the Revolutionary War era, a return to understanding the founding of the nation through, as it were, original documents, materials and artifacts, at a time when we need to be reminded. During this all-too-brief time, I also  visited the National Museum of American Jewish History, the Benjamin Franklin Museum, Betsy Ross House and the National Constitution Center. 

It’s 1770s Colonial America. Anger, resentment against the British Crown is brewing; an independent spirit is growing and spreading among the colonies. Would you have joined the American Revolution and taken arms along with other farmers, shopkeepers and merchants against the most powerful nation that history had ever known with not much more than a musket? The newly opened Museum of the American Revolution, located in the heart of Philadelphia’s most historic district, plunges visitors into the tumult and transformation of the Revolutionary era when colonials took upon themselves a new identity: Americans.

You are challenged to choose sides and it isn’t a simple matter. This was very much a civil war, with families, neighborhoods, villages and towns split in terms of which side they would support: Patriots or Loyalists. But it was a revolution in ways beyond taking arms against ruling institutions: it was every bit a revolution in ideas, in ideals, in the notion of self-governance and civil rights, a revolution the Museum would like you to realize that is still underway.

“We have it in our power to begin the world again,” Thomas Paine, an English immigrant wrote. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he later wrote.

‘No taxation without representation’: At the Museum of American Revolution, explore the reasons that colonial Americans fought for freedom from Great Britain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

With thousands of Revolutionary-era artifacts at its core – the crown jewel of which is General George Washington’s actual wartime tent  in which he lived on the battlefield with his troops throughout the war – the Museum uses immersive experiences, dynamic theaters, recreated historical moments, and interactive digital installations to make you feel you have time-traveled back to the 18th century, giving context and making the events, people, and ideas that created this nation more immediate and relevant.

A private nonprofit institution founded by Jerry Lendfest who put up $50 million and raised $100 million more from thousands of donors, the Museum of the American Revolution goes beyond the Founding Fathers and well known key figures to explore the personal stories of the diverse range of individuals who were part of establishing our nation, including women, native people, and free and enslaved people of African descent.

The experience brings you on a chronological journey from the roots of conflict in the 1760s through the creation of the American republic. Along the way, you learn about the rise of the armed resistance to British taxation, the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the long years of brutal warfare and how the Revolution continues to be relevant today.

Walk beside a life-size re-creation of Boston’s Liberty Tree in one of the 16 galleries of the Museum of the American Revolution © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The museum experience is a journey through time and place and builds to a climax: seeing General Washington’s War Tent, one of the most significant surviving artifacts of the Revolution. (I save this experience for last, and the presentation is so riveting, I sit through it twice.)

It’s not just the history of the war, battle by battle, with amazing detail and with skillful use of multi-media to enhance the dramatic retelling, but even more interestingly, how it overlays the human dimension. These aren’t just places and dates and round numbers, but individuals, some of them heroes whose names are so familiar, and many who were just ordinary people swept up in events. You are able to explore the personal stories of the diverse individuals. There is a wealth of information, but the presentation is so engaging, children of any age will be swept up in the drama.

Witness life-size figures of Oneida Indians debate whether to support the Revolutionary cause, the British or stay neutral © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My favorite gallery is the one devoted to the Oneida Indian Nation, where there are life-size figures who you hear debating (as a video provides a visual context) whether to support the Revolutionary cause, the British or stay neutral. Indeed, the Revolutionary War split the Six Nations Confederation.

At the end of the excellent presentation, there are photos of Oneida who have served in the American military in every conflict since the Revolutionary War.

A section devoted to women introduces us to Deborah Sampson who dressed as a man to join the 4th Massachusetts Regiment and fought in New York’s Hudson Valley where she was wounded in the thigh with a musket ball and took the bullet out herself to avoid being found out by the surgeons (she was honorably discharged in 1783 and later published a memoir of her experiences.); and to Esther Reed who published an essay, “Sentiments of an American Woman.”

Abigail Adams warns her husband, the future President John Adams: “Remember the women.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, urged the writers of the Constitution to “remember the women,” and wrote her husband, John Adams, a Congressman at the time, in March 1776, “If particular care is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” The King’s abuses proved that men were tyrants, she wrote, and only the influence of women could secure reason and liberty. (That revolution clearly is still going on.)

A really interesting character I had never known about before was Baroness von Riedesel who followed her husband into battle and was taken prisoner in 1777 when General Burgoyne surrendered to General Gates at the Battle of Saratoga (a pivotal battle, which had the British won, would have enabled them to separate New York, the breadbasket for the American army, from the rest of the colonies; instead, the American victory enabled Ben Franklin to persuade France to give critical support to the Americans).

Baroness von Riedesel, who followed her Hessian husband into battle and protected prisoners, is lauded for her courage and heroism © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

She is depicted as a hero: “In the final days of the siege, the Baroness guarded the lives of women, children and wounded men. She barricaded them in a basement as American cannonballs slammed the house. She cared for her own children and the most vulnerable members of the army for six days. For most of this time, the firing was so heavy that they could not leave, and the basement filled with excrement. But she probably saved dozens of lives.” She was taken prisoner along with her husband and nearly 5,000 British and Hessian troops who were moved frequently to prevent their escape or rescue and were not freed until the war ended in 1783.

(You can continue this immersion into women during the Revolutionary War era at the Betsy Ross House a few blocks away.)

The museum does a yeoman’s job of humanizing and personalizing war, revolution and nation-building. For example, we learn that “Hessians, portrayed [by propaganda, which was waged by both sides] as cruel and inhuman but were a lot like Americans: King George hired 20,000 German special troops who came from six European nations and most were poor farmers with families.”

Displays at the Museum of the American Revolution confront the issue of slavery and give voice to freed and enslaved black Americans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In “Finding Freedom”, you can explore the different experiences of enslaved African Americans in Virginia in 1781 through a multi-kiosk touchscreen interactive based on the lives of five men and women who followed different paths to freedom during the Revolutionary War. The Museum worked with a historical illustrator who used diaries and letters to animate these stories.   

You have an extraordinary opportunity to look into the faces of the Revolutionary generation in a fascinating display of photographs of 70 people who lived through the American Revolution and survived into the age of photography.

Faces of the Revolutionary generation © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Throughout the museum, there are immersive, multi-media experiences that put you into the action: in the Battlefield Theater, you find yourself on the Continental Army’s front lines facing an attack by British soldiers (with appropriate sound effects, smoke and rumbling floor); you walk beneath the branches of a realistic, life-size replica of Boston’s Liberty Tree and can touch an embedded piece of the Annapolis Liberty Tree, a Tulip Poplar that sheltered Maryland colonists in 1775 which survived until 1999; you can climb aboard a large-scale replica of an 18th century privateer ship like the one on which 14-year-old free African American James Forten volunteered. In the Declaration of Independence Gallery, which evokes Independence Hall, you sit in your own Windsor chair to witness the unfolding debate and decision-making as delegates to the Continental Congress decide whether to declare American independence, then view authentic printings of the Declaration of Independence on display.

You get to thoroughly engage with the Museum’s rich collection of original historic artifacts. One of the premier collections of its kind, it includes several thousand objects from the Revolutionary period, and includes George Washington’s personal belongings, as well as an impressive assortment of weaponry, soldiers’ and civilians’ personal items, fine art, letters, diaries, and manuscripts. You can examine child-sized slave shackles, an intricately carved woman’s busk (corset piece), and a signed 1773 volume “Poems on Various Subjects” by Phillis Wheatley, America’s first published black female poet.

Arms of Independence: Nearly 50 Revolutionary War-era weapons and artifacts are on display and below them, a multi-kiosk touchscreen interactive enables you to virtually handle them and learn more about their uses, owners, and makers. Using the latest ultra-high definition photography, you get a 360-degree view of the glass-encased weapons and artifacts, most of which have never been displayed before.

The statue of King George III as it is about to be torn down by an angry mob in New York City is one of the historic moments depicted with life-size figures © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are more than 20 re-created historical moments with life-like figures, tableaux intended to broaden our view of the people who were central to the Revolution. One of these scenes is a brawl among Revolutionary soldiers that George Washington broke up in Harvard Yard; another portrays the statue of King George III as it is about to be torn down by an angry mob in New York City; another features artist Charles Willson Peale reuniting with his brother James on the banks of the Delaware River in December 1776; there is a view of Independence Hall in disarray during the British occupation of Philadelphia; a pair of Loyalist cavalry troopers in the South; and a conversation between enslaved Virginians and a black Loyalist soldier in 1781.

There are opportunities to participate in the story which is why the exhibits are so engaging for children as well as adults. You can mix-and-match pieces of a soldier’s uniform to learn about how soldiers displayed their loyalties; learn about the common soldiers and their families who endured the harsh winter at Valley Forge with flip-doors that explore the complex workings of a war camp; assume George Washington’s role as President of the Constitutional Convention by sitting in a reproduction of the “Rising Sun” chair; and try hand at an early American stitching lesson through an interactive sampler station in a gallery on the role mothers played in educating children as citizens.

Costumed educators offer a deeper understanding of the lives and times of the Revolutionaries: at the Battlefield Theater, learn to muster before marching into battle; on the Privateer Ship, discover how to load and fire one of the ship’s cannons; at Discovery Carts, handle replica artifacts to learn more about how they were made and used.

Children will be engaged by the many opportunities to handle materials at the Museum of American Revolution © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Climax: Washington’s War Tent

All of this builds to the climatic experience: and the crown jewel of the Museum and the original artifact which led to the creation of the museum to begin with: General Washington’s War Tent.

You line up for the timed show in a dedicated theater built to house one of the most iconic surviving artifacts of the Revolution: General Washington’s War Tent, which served as both his office and his sleeping quarters through much of the war. It was within the folds of this tent that key decisions were made that changed the course of history.

I was expecting to walk into an exhibit of the tent. Instead, it is dramatically revealed after a powerful 12-minute video. The movie screen rises to reveal a gauzy sheet which rises to show the tent. With surround-sound track, theatrical lighting, video projection on a front scrim and screen, as well as on a scenic wall behind the tent you see the tent, in different times of day, months, seasons, years as if marching in time.

The presentation makes you really appreciate the meaning of the tent and why it is so iconic – it is a physical link to the man who was, as Henry Lee said, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Indeed, the tent has its own dramatic story which lives on beyond Washington.

The tent was created for use as a mobile headquarters during the Revolutionary War. It was made in Reading, Pennsylvania, while Washington was encamped at Valley Forge in 1778. He used it until 1783, including throughout the 1781 Siege of Yorktown, the last major land battle of the war. Indeed, throughout the war, Washington spent only a few days back at his Mount Vernon plantation.

The tent covers an area about 23 feet long and 14 feet wide, comprising three small chambers – a central office, a half-circle sleeping chamber for the general, and a small area for luggage and for sleeping quarters for his enslaved African American valet, William Lee, who traveled with Washington through the war.

But the drama of the tent doesn’t end there. After the war, the tent was eventually acquired by Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, and was stored at his Virginia estate, Arlington House. It passed to Custis’ daughter Mary Anna, who was the wife of General Robert E. Lee (how ironic was that? – both a revolutionary like Washington, but in pursuit of destroying the nation that Washington won and lead), only to have it seized by federal troops at the start of the Civil War when they took over Lee’s plantation. The tent remained in federal possession for 40 years before it was returned to the Lee family. Mary Custis Lee put the tent up for sale to raise money for Confederate veterans.

In the early 1900s, an Episcopal minister, Rev. W. Herbert Burk, dreamed of creating a museum to tell the story of our nation’s founding. He began collecting historical artifacts, beginning with General George Washington’s War Tent. He raised the $5,000 to purchase the tent from hundreds of ordinary Americans. The acquisition began a century of collecting – a collection which eventually came under the ownership of the Museum of the American Revolution.

George Washington’s battlefield tent is an iconic link to the man who was “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Textile conservator Virginia Whelan spent more than 500 hours restoring the priceless hand-stitched, linen tent. “Losses” – small holes which could fray – needed to be stabilized so that original material wasn’t lost. The process involved inserting an extremely fine needle and thread between the fibers of the tent’s weave and using virtually invisible netting to stabilize the holes. The conservation effort also entailed using digital inkjet printing to reproduce new fabric that matched the original material. The new fabric swatches were then used to repair holes, rips, and a large piece that had been cut away. For this, Whelan partnered with faculty from Philadelphia University’s textile design faculty.

One of the challenges of displaying the tent was to keep the drape-like effect of the fabric without putting tension on it. To design a system that would support the artifact without inducing stress in the delicate fabric, the Museum commissioned Keast & Hood, a structural engineering firm that is a nationally recognized leader in the preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation of historic structures.

To protect the centuries-old canvas from rope tension, Keast & Hood worked with a team of conservators, historians, and craftsmen to design an innovative umbrella-like aluminum structure and canvas sub-tent membrane, creates an illusion of the tent draping naturally. The ropes that originally tensioned the tent are now purely aesthetic and representative of the earlier form.

The tent is set behind glass in a 300-square foot climate-controlled object case.

The presentation is so powerful, I watched it twice and both times, the audience applauded at the end.

The museum does an excellent job of tackling complex ideas, the span of history, the intricacies of the battles, while also bringing in a human scale. There is so much to see and absorb, it is a really good idea to take advantage of the fact the ticket is valid for two consecutive days.

Located just steps away from Independence Hall, the Museum of the American Revolution is housed in an impressive three-story state-of-the-art building. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Located just steps away from Independence Hall, Carpenters’ Hall, and Franklin Court, the Museum, housed in an impressive three-story state-of-the-art building, serves as a portal to the region’s many Revolutionary sites, sparking interest, providing context, and encouraging exploration. The Museum is a private, non-profit, and non-partisan organization.

Guided Tours: While most visitor tours are self-guided, the Museum does offer several guided tours, including: Early Access Guided Tour, a 60-minute guided tour before the museum opens (Tues, Thurs, Sat at 9 a.m. $50 non-members; limited to 10 people). Guided Highlights Tour, a 60-minute guided tour of key artifacts and stories (daily at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.; price of admission plus $12; limited to 15 people). Book online or at the museum.

General admission tickets to the Museum can be purchased here and are $19 for adults; $17 for seniors, students, and active or retired military; and $12 for children ages 6 and up. Children ages 5 and under are free. All tickets are valid for two consecutive days. Group tickets for parties of 15 or more are currently available for a discounted price by calling 267.858.3308. Memberships are also available for purchase here or by calling 215.454.2030.

Museum of the American Revolution, 101 South Third Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215-253-6731, 877-740-1776, info@amrevmuseum.orgwww.AmRevMuseum.org.

My immersion into Revolutionary War Americana in Philadelphia continues with visits to the Betsy Ross House, the Benjamin Franklin Site, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration House, the National Museum of American Jews, and the National Constitution Center.

Visit Philadelphia provides excellent trip planning tools, including hotel packages, itineraries, events listings: 30 S 17th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-599-0776, visitphilly.com. 

See also:

National Museum of American Jewish History is Unexpected Revelation in Philadelphia 

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Killington, ‘Beast of the East,’ is Roaring into 2018 With Powder Snow

Skiing Killington, Vermont, the “Beast of the East.” A major snowfall in December created incredible powder conditions © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Whoa, what a Christmas present: December has been very kind to Killington which already had a decent base when we arrived just before Christmas, then had nearly two feet more of powder by the end of Christmas Day, much to the delight of skiers and snowboarders who clearly raced away from opening gifts to enjoy the acres and acres of fresh powder snow.  With Killington’s elevation and a 3,000 ft. vertical drop, the powder made you feel you were skiing the Rockies.

Killington, known as the “Beast of the East,” is the largest ski area in New England – sprawling across six-mountain peaks, the highest at 4,241’ elevation, affording 1,509 skiable acres, 155 trails totaling 73 miles. Of the 21 lifts, three are gondolas, and of the nine quads, five are high-speed express.  (Pico Mountain, Killington’s sister resort (Killington’s ticket is valid there), is its 7th peak; it is not connected by lift but there is shuttle service between the resorts.)

Killington, with 1,509 skiable acres, 155 trails totaling 73 miles, offers variety of terrain © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The resort offers multiple terrain features for snowboarders and freeskiers in six terrain parks including The Stash, an all-natural inspired terrain park with more than 65 features, and NeffLand, an outer-space themed terrain park with rocket and planet style jibs, as well as two pipes.

Killington is absolutely phenomenal for black-diamond skiers and skiers who are comfortable regardless of terrain – you can just go and explore and not really care what you wind up on.

Bear Mountain is great for double-black diamond skiers, and is where you will find Outer Limits and Centerpiece (glades).

A fun narrow trail in the trees for daring intermediate (don’t have to be advanced tree skier, but should be comfortable intermediate, slightly more adventurous): Roundabout (rated a black diamond, really fun, narrow, tree experience, don’t have to be a glade skier), shoots out to a long green, Bear Cub, long easy, on the perimeter.

Taking the scenic route at Killington: Launch Pad. © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Intermediate skiers will need to plot out their route. One combination that I particularly enjoyed was riding K-1 to the summit and taking Blue Heaven to Bear Trax to Launch Pad (which has a particularly scenic stretch flanked on both sides by trees to Bitter Sweet where you will find a few, short steeps.

I also enjoyed taking the Skyship Gondola up to Great Eastern, a green, (I chickened out of taking the blue trail, Skylark, normally a long fun blue run,  because it had a caution, “Advanced skiers only” and I wasn’t in the mood to be challenged), to connect to Cruise Control, a very pleasant blue. From there, you can ride up the Northbrook Quad back up to the Snowshed slope.  Skyship tends not to be as crowded and is particularly a good place in the afternoon when it is less likely for the trails to be skied off.

There are great blues at Rams Head but this is also the area that is used for ski school and clinics, so tends to be crowded.

Killington’s famed K-1 Gondola © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Green trail skiers are more restricted – the Great Eastern is a long trail but you have to watch carefully when it crosses over black and blue trails. Snowshed offers great opportunities on gentle terrain to fine-tune your form, so I didn’t mind riding the chair five minutes for the five-minute run because I enjoyed my skiing there so much. At Rams Head there is another long green trail, Easy Street.

Killington’s Discovery programs utilize Terrain Based Learning, the latest innovation in snow sports education, coupled with the promise of free equipment for skiers and snowboarders at the end of a four-lesson series.

Novel Ways to Enjoy Killington

Snowshed, indeed, is the place for novel mountain activities.

This year, you can rent a ski bike (also known as snow-bike); lessons are available as well. Killington ski bikes operates Friday through Sunday 9 am to 4 pm and daily during holidays, and rentals are offered at the Snowshed base area. Ski biking is permitted on the Snowshed and Ramshead mountain areas which provide optimal beginner to intermediate conditions. Pricing starts at $88 for a half-day rental and includes an access ticket.

It’s also where you will find The Beast Mountain Coaster, a 4,800-foot-long alpine coaster that twists and turns through the woods with 360-degree corkscrews. It hadn’t yet started operation for the season (Dec. 26, 2017-April 1, 2018), but operates 1-4 pm weekend and peak days (operations are weather dependent; check Resort Services Report for updates in real-time. Book with a Ski & Stay Package prior to arrival and save; call 800-621-6867 for reservations.

The Snowshed area is where you will find ski bikes, The Beast Mountain Coaster, the terra maze and other novel ways to enjoy Killington © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

New attractions include the four-story Skye Ropes Course, Skyeride (seated zip line ride), 5,000 square foot Terra Maze, Roaring Brook Mining for the youngest adventurers, plus motorized mountain tours by Segway and All Terrain Vehicle.

Killington and Pico are catering to increasing popularity of “uphill travel” with guests choosing to reach the peaks of Bear Mountain, Snowdon, Ramshead and Pico via human vs. machine power with designated routes for each mountain area and 24/7 access (when designed routes are open).

Experiential Dining

Killington also has Vermont’s highest elevation structure: the Peak Lodge from where, on a clear day,  you can actually catch views of five states plus Canada. The Peak Lodge is the most sustainable building at Killington, with forward thinking approaches to electricity (Cow Power), lighting, recycling, grey water, and refrigeration (Freeaire).

All food at the Peak Lodge is made to order, and ingredients are sourced from local farms to ensure the freshness of all dishes. Fresh local craft beer is also available from the full-service bar with views of gondola cabins cresting the head wall and arriving at the terminal.

At the Bear Mountain lodge, the chef very kindly prepared a gluten-free sandwich.

Also fun: the Waffle Haus at the bottom of Snowshed.

The Long Trail Pub at Snowshed is a great place to finish the day or wind down. The windows open up to see the skiers as they come down.

The Long Trail Pub at Snowshed is a great place to finish the day or wind down. The windows open up to see the skiers as they come down. © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Experiential dining at Killington ranges from fresh-made fare at the Peak Lodge to snowcat-drawn sleigh rides to the Ledgewood Yurt, a ski-in-ski-out hidden gem during the day that transforms to a cozy, candlelit slice of paradise after hours.

The Motor Room Bar, located in a retired lift tower at the top of Bear Mountain overlooking two of Killington’s most feared double-black diamond runs, is reserved by single parties for an unforgettable apres – complete with private cabin-cat transportation, libations and small bites.

While Killington doesn’t have an actual village, the Killington Access road is as famous for dining institutions like the 50 year old Wobbly Barn steakhouse as it is for high energy nightlife, and the Liquid Art Café .

Casey’s Caboose is Back!

The little toy train runs again! And you can still sit up in the caboose cab, or in a snowplow. All the fun and whimsy has returned, but with seriously improved food for an altogether outstanding dining experience on Killington Road: Casey’s Caboose is back.

The little train is back running around the ceiling at Casey’s Caboose – if you manage to hit Goofy with a quarter. © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is back with the color, the lights, the spirit, the toy train that runs around the room (it launches when someone hits Goofy with a quarter), and with an outstanding menu all guided by new owners who loved the Killington tradition too much to let it die. The restaurant reopened this past July after being closed for three years.

The cozy sitting area in the cab of Casey’s Caboose © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Built around an 1876 railroad caboose and a 1910 railroad snowplow, fans (like us) will be delighted to see the fun, whimsical interior, with its toy train that still runs around the room and colorful neon lights, its tiny sitting area in the caboose cab (you have to climb up a ladder and step across a space), are even better than we remembered. But the food! That is entirely new.  Everything is homemade. The menu has a few nods to one of the new owners, a British gentleman who couldn’t bear to see the restaurant close, with fish and chips that are outstanding (the cod is really flavorful and fresh). The burger selections are out of this world. Who could imagine a New York Deli version, with fresh, homemade pastrami combined with the beef? Or a burger with lobster! Even so, Marco had them make his own version: a burger with egg and jalapenos. My Meat & Mushroom burger (prepared with Portobello mushroom and gruyere cheese) was perfectly prepared and one of the best ever (and served on a warm, not cold bun!). They were extremely accommodating to our requests: gluten free for Daniella; spicy for Marco. Everything is freshly made and beautifully presented. And the prices are still modest. The dessert that had everyone’s eyes popping was like a combination of every edible fantasy: chocolate, pumpkin pie and cheesecake. They also offer 21 draft beers and cider (including Long Trail), a gin kitchen with a surreal selection of gins, tonics and botanicals.

Casey’s Caboose offers a huge selection of local beer, cider, gins, tonics and botanicals © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fun fact: Casey’s Caboose was named after Jonathan Luther “John” “Casey” Jones the great American railroad engineer who died in April 30 1900 saving the passengers on his train. His mother, Mrs Jones is said to have lived near Killington in her youth.

(Opens daily at 3 pm, 1930 Killington Road, 802-422-3795, caseyscaboose.com.)

Ski Rentals

The skis we rented from Peak Performance, just about a half-mile below Snowshed (2808 Killington Road) were fantastic. The Everyone is specifically measured and fitted for boots (Salomon brand). The skis (Fisher) were brand new and after each use are run through the shop’s tuning machine, one of three on the mountain (you have to see it; like a car wash for skis and snowboards) and performed amazingly. Even the poles, Scott brand, were top quality. Reserve online in advance and you get a 15% discount on the already really reasonable rates if you reserve on line – basically just filling out the rental form, you don’t even give a credit card. The website is extremely easy to use. When you arrive, they are ready for you. It is no wonder the shop has been rated the best in New England.

The cool tuning machine at Peak Performance Ski Shop on Killington Road © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is surprising to learn that they are also the biggest race ski center in the country, selling more racing skis than anyone, even more than Colorado. Returning was equally easy and stress-free. Peak Performance has been in business for 27 years, and the shop, owned by Fred & Denise Coriell, clearly reflects pure love of the sport. (Peak Performance, 2808 Killington Road, 802-422-9447, info@peakskishop.com, www.peakskishop.com.)

Lodging

There are loads of lodging choices, including several that are managed by Killington such as the Killington Grand Hotel, right at the base.

We absolutely loved our stay at the Mountaintop Inn & Resort, a 30 minutes scenic drive away in Chittenden (the hotel offers a daily shuttle to Killington), as well as its own major cross-country ski center. (Mountain Top Inn & Resort, Chittenden, VT, 802.483.2311, www.mountaintopinn.com).

Mountaintop Inn & Resort, Chittenden, Vermont © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Killington Resort is a four-season destination set on 3,000 acres in the heart of Central Vermont’s Green Mountains. After the snow melts, Killington features an 18-hole championship golf course, the family-friendly Snowshed Adventure Center, 30 miles of mountain biking trails with expansion underway with Gravity Logic, plus 15 miles of hiking trails. The range of après (snowmobiling, snowshoe tours, sleigh rides, tubing), dining, and lodging options have made Killington a world-class destination for skiers and riders for over 55 years. Killington is part of the POWDR portfolio and participates in the M.A.X. program. Check the website for packages and specials.

You can check ski conditions at killington.com/conditions. For information, 800-621- 6867, www.killington.com.

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Fall Getaway in the Great Northern Catskills: Hiking the Hudson River School Art Trail

The view from Sunset Rock, immortalized by artist Thomas Cole, the father of the Hudson River School, America’s first art movement, is much the same today © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My three-day fall getaway in the Great Northern Catskills exploring the Hudson River School Art Trail starts before I even arrive at the historic Fairlawn Inn, in Hunter, NY. Taking advantage of the time of day and beautiful weather, I stop at the parking lot on 23A for the trailhead to Kaaterskill Falls, where you get an amazing view of Kaaterskill Clove (HRSAT Site #4). You gaze out over the gorge where mountain peaks seem to thread together and compare the scene today to the way it is depicted by Hudson River School artist Asher B. Durand’s 1866 painting. The trees are just beginning to turn colors (the peak is usually around Columbus Day weekend), but I swear that the same tree, already crimson, is the same red tree in the painting, also depicting an early fall scene.

The view of Kaaterskill Clove, Hudson River School Art Trail Site #4, one of the most painted scenes, with the marker that compares the scene to Asher B. Durand’s 1866 painting © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s a short walk along 23A (watch out for cars on the winding narrow road) to the trailhead for one of my favorite hikes, Kaaterskill Falls (HRSAT Site #5), a stunning scene that looks remarkably just as depicted in an 1835 painting by Thomas Cole, known as the father of the Hudson River School. “It is the voice of the landscape for it strikes its own chords, and rocks and mountains re-echo in rich unison,” Cole (who was also a poet and essayist) wrote.

The Kaaterskill Falls were a favorite subject of many of the Hudson River School painters and for me, is the quintessential combination of stunning scenery plus the physical pleasure of the hike – half-mile up to the base of the double-falls, then another half-mile to the top.

Kaaterskill Falls, a favorite subject of the Hudson River School painters © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The two-tiered Kaaterskill Falls, 175 and 85 feet, is the highest in New York State and was described by James Fenimore Cooper in “The Pioneers” which Thomas Cole, a friend of Cooper’s illustrated.

The waterfalls, usually rushing, are just a trickle after a long dryspell, but the hike is still absolutely fantastic – just enough challenge (I love my walking sticks) – and means you can get much closer than you might if the falls were fuller.

© 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You make it to the base of the double-falls. Last time I hiked the trail, there were barriers and warnings not to go higher because it was so steep and dangerous (people have died!), but since then, there are staircases so you can hike to the very top. (There is also access to the top from other trails and nearby Laurel House Road parking lot above).

The two-tiered Kaaterskill Falls, 175 and 85 feet, is the highest in New York State © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I climb up and take a cut-off to the bottom of the high falls where there is a pool of water. Though it is already autumn on the calendar, it is as hot as a summer’s day – record heat in fact, close to 90 degrees – and people are in the shallow pool. The ledges are beautiful and you get a wonderful view back down the valley.

Soaking in the pool at the base of the Kaaterskill Falls © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another half-mile climb (another new staircase gets you up the steepest part) brings me to a winding forest trail that wraps around the hilltop to the very top of the falls. I cross a bridge over what would usually be rushing water. You can look back to the steep drop of the falls, back to the valley – just as Thomas Cole and the artists would have seen it. There is a viewing platform which looks back at the falls, bookended by trees just beginning to turn into their kaleidoscope of fall colors (the peak is traditionally around Columbus Day).

The falls are normally rushing but now a trickle after a dry-spell, means you can go to the very edge © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a small trail through the woods to the very top of the falls. Signs admonish hikers that climbing the ledges beside Kaaterskill Falls is extremely dangerous, and  has resulted in numerous injuries and deaths. But the falls are not flowing when I come, so I get to walk on the ledges, giving me really nervous view straight down and beyond, to the Valley and letting me look at the carved initials and graffiti from  the 1920s and 30s, some even from the 1800s.  You feel a sense of kindred spirit with those who have passed through and passed on. You feel the height and the proximity to the drop off, and it makes your heart flutter.

Later, you will recognize the view in Thomas Cole’s paintings and imagine how he must have stood in this precise place where you are standing.

Generations of trekkers have carved their initials into the ledges at the top of the Kaaterskill Falls © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is a half-mile to the base, and another half- mile to the top of the falls, for a total of 2 miles roundtrip. There are some scrambles and it is uphill almost all the way (walking sticks are really recommended), and is thoroughly fantastic.

The tranquil scene at the top of the Kaaterskill Falls © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’ve taken my time, really savoring the views and the scenes and the smells, and the couple of miles hiking have taken about 2 1/2 hours.

(The parking lot is just west of the trailhead and across 23A, so you park and walk back along the road, being very careful. Haines Falls NY 12436, 518-589-5058, 800-456-2267).

I set out along 23A toward Hunter and the Fairlawn Inn.

Hudson River School Art Trail Hikes in North-South Campground 

For my second day, after an amazing breakfast at the Fairlawn Inn, I head to North-South Campground, where there are several of the Hudson River School of Art Trail hikes (as well as many other hiking trails) – the lake itself depicted in paintings such as Thomas Cole’s “Lake with Dead Trees,” 1825, (HRSAT Site #6).

I take the longer and wonderfully more challenging (only moderately strenuous) hike which brings you to such spots as Artist’s Rock, Sunset Rock and Newman’s Ledge (you can continue to North Point). Other hikes bring you to Boulder Rock, the Catskill Mountain House (HRSAT Trail Site #8) and Laurel House sites.

Artists Rock along the trail to Sunset Rock © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hike to Sunset Rock (HRSAT Trail Site #7) begins along the well-marked blue trail (you cut off to the yellow trail to Sunset Rock) that mostly wraps around the ledges, with the amazing views that so enthralled the artists of the Hudson River Valley. Close to the beginning is a fairly interesting scramble, then the trail winds through the woods along side fabulous rock formations before coming out again to the ledges. You reach Artists Rock at about .4 miles. Continuing on, you look for the yellow trail marker to Sunset Rock.

Taking in the view of the Hudson River Valley from Sunset Rock, a cherished site for Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School artists © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I continue on to Newman’s Point but overshoot and head up some challenging scrambles before turning back (the trail to North Point continues for another mile). I am delighted with myself to have gone what I estimate was an extra .4.

View from Newman’s Ledge © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Back at the North-South Lake (it’s taken me about three hours taking my time), people are swimming in the ridiculously unseasonably hot (near 90) weather.

I look for a relatively easy trail and find just a short distance away, Mary’s Glen trail to Ashley’s Falls (alas, the falls are all but completely dried up when I come). This is an ideal trail for families with small children who want to avoid hiking near open ledges. You go through a lovely wooded glen alongside a beaver meadow and stream to a deeply forested cascade, Ashley’s Falls. This day, though, there is no cascade. (just .6 mile roundtrip).

Hiking is not just about the long view, but the near-view: two ants transport their prey © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Mary’s Glen trail can also be the entrance to a difficult hike, to North Point, a distance of 3.2 miles with 840 feet ascent. It is a mostly moderate climb but has some short, steep scrambles over rock, but you come to large open slabs and expansive vistas at North Point, a 3,000 ft. elevation with some of the most distant views.)

On my last visit, I did a wonderful hike to the site of the Catskill Mountain House (HRSAT Site #8), one of the earliest tourist hotels. The majestic hotel, which was opened in 1823 and accommodated 400 guests a night (Presidents Arthur and Grant were among those who stayed here), burned down in 1963 but the view that attracted visitors still remains as one of the most magnificent panoramas in the region, and can be compared to Frederic Church’s “Above the Clouds at Sunrise” (1849).

It is fun to see the initials carved into the stone ledges from more than a century ago. The Mountain House began drawing thousands of guests each season from all over the country as well as from abroad, who came not just for the cooler, healthier climate but for what had already become one of the most renowned natural panoramas in the young nation: the valley 1,600 feet below, stretching east to the Taconic Mountains and the Berkshires, with the silvery thread of the Hudson visible for 60 miles from north to south.  On a clear day, you can see five states – Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. The hike is just a half-mile with only an 80-foot ascent.

North-South Lake, Hudson River School Art Trail Site #6 © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a $10/car day use fee for the NYS DEC’s North-South Lake Campground from early May through late October, however the fee is waived for NYS residents 62 years or older midweek. The campground is open for camping from May through October; 518-589-5058 or call DEC Regional Office year-round at 518-357-2234, More information at www.greatnortherncatskills.com/outdoors/north-south-lake-campground.

Get maps, directions and photographs of all the sites on the Hudson River School Art Trail at www.hudsonriverschool.org. 

Other Ways to Experience Fall in the Catskills

Those who prefer driving to experience fall foliage will find two National Scenic Byways in the Great Northern Catskills: a 21-mile route that descends from high country peaks to Durham Valley farmland., affording  views that stretch across the Hudson River Valley to summits in four 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, Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko notes, is just 2 miles from his Fairlawn Inn door, at the intersection of Rte 214 and 23A – which looks toward Bear Creek and some half-dozen mountains that form layers.

The intersection of Rte 23A and 214, looking out to Bear Creek, is considered one of the best spots for fall foliage in New York State © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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. (www.greatnortherncatskills.com/kaaterskill-clove)

Antiquing. The villages of Catskill and Tannersville are known for their antique shops. Actually the best antiquing of all turns out to be across the street from the Fairlawn Inn in Hunter: the Antique Mall, housed in what used to be the Masonic Center, is owned by innkeeper Chuck Tomajko. Among the treasures: two chairs that had been owned by Elizabeth Abell, the woman who introduced Mary Todd to Abraham Lincoln. Another chair dates from the mid 18th century, made in Philadelphia, could well have been used by Washington, Jefferson or any of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

A colonial chair from Philadelphia which could have been used by George Washington, and two chairs owned by the woman who introduced Mary Todd to Abraham Lincoln, among the treasures at the Hunter Antique Mall © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Bronck House Museum, where you see how eight generations of a family occupied this same house for more than 350 years.  (Greene County Historical Society, 90 County Route 42, Coxsackie, NY  12051, 518-731-6490, gchistory.org/bronckmuseum.html).

The charming town of Hudson with its galleries, antique shops, and restaurants.

Hunter Mountain is a four-season resort most famous for skiing, but offers a score of festivals and activities in fall, including weekend scenic skyrides (www.huntermtn.com).

Pick your own apples and pumpkins at Boehm Farm

Hull-O Farms offers a corn maze, as well as pumpkin picking.

There is also a Wine & Craft Beverage trail through the Hudson Valley (see TravelHudsonValley.com).

A great place to stay: The Fairlawn Inn, a historic bed-and-breakfast, 7872 Main Street (Hwy 23A), Hunter, NY 12442, 518-263-5025www.fairlawninn.com.

Further help planning a visit is available from Greene County Tourism, 700 Rte 23B, Leeds, NY 12451, 800-355-CATS, 518-943-3223, www.greatnortherncatskills.com and its fall hub www.greatnortherncatskills.com/catskills-fall-foliage

The I LOVE NEW YORK weekly foliage report – a detailed map charting fall color progress, vantage points for viewing spectacular foliage, suggested autumn getaways and weekly event listings – is available at www.iloveny.com/foliage or by calling 800/CALL-NYS (800/225-5697).

See also:

Fall Getaway in the Catskills: Thomas Cole National Historic Site is Site #1 on the Hudson River School Art Trail

Fall Getaway in the Great Northern Catskills: Frederick Edwin Church’s Olana

3-Day Fall Getaway in the Catskills: Fairlawn Inn is Superb Hub for Exploring the Hudson River Valley

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Fall Getaway in the Great Northern Catskills: Frederick Edwin Church’s Olana

Frederick Edwin Church orchestrated visitors’ arrival to Olana so you would look up © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge from the Thomas Cole National Historic Site (#1 on the Hudson River School Art Trail), you see this grand mansion perched on the hillside, poking out from the trees. It is just a short ride off Rte 9G on eastern shore of the Hudson River to get to the long drive up to the mansion and farm, Olana, built by the Hudson River School artist Frederick Edwin Church.

View of Frederick Edwin Church’s Olana from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Spanning 250 acres, Olana is one of the most intact artist-created landscapes in America, and “the most intact artist residence of its age in the world,” our guide explains. In fact, it is the artist’s last major work. Church designed, even decorated, every aspect of the house and landscape – digging out a 10-acre lake, planting some 50,000 trees. And today, virtually all the furnishings (95% we are told) are original to the house, even in the same places as when the Church family occupied the house, up until the 1960s.

Literally saved from a wrecking ball, the Olana State Historic Site is now one of New York’s premier historical attractions (HRSAT Site #2), drawing 20,000 visitors a year. You can only visit the house on a guided tour and they only take up to 12 per tour, so tours frequently sell out by 1 pm (advance reservations are recommended).

As I approach Olana, a sign on the road introduces me to a new word, and a new concept – “viewshed.” The word intentionally evokes “watershed” – a protected resource area. Here, Olana, chosen and designed by the artist Church for the views, successfully established a “viewshed” maintaining that this is a national cultural resource worthy of protection and preservation.

The notion of preservation versus progress is the very essence of Church and his Olana, taking up the key theme from Thomas Cole, his teacher and mentor.

The protected “viewshed” from Frederick Church’s Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Church’s background is very different from Cole’s. While Cole, renowned as the father of the Hudson River School art movement, America’s first, was an immigrant from England, Church was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1826 to a well-to-do family (his father, Joseph Church, owned several businesses including a silversmith and became a director of Aetna Life Insurance Company). Whereas Cole had little art training, Church’s father arranged for him to study with Cole for two years, 1844-46, when Church was 18 years old. Church then went to New York City to set up a studio. He became the youngest Associate of the American Academy of Design, in 1850, and within a few years, became one of the most successful artists of his generation – a veritable rock star.

Portrait of Frederick Edwin Church hangs in Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

And whereas Cole, the immigrant, was enthralled by the wildness of the American landscape, Church fell under the spell of naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who encouraged artists to travel the world. Church traveled to the Middle East, South America, Europe (one of his children was born in Rome), Labrador and Greenland. He brought these images and ideas back to the Hudson River Valley where he would build Olana, and his worldliness and world-view filled his canvases.

Ultimately, Olana became his canvas.

Over the last 40 years of his life, from 1860-1899, he designed and fashioned Olana into a three-dimensional work of art that includes the magnificent Persian-inspired home with its various collections, set within a 250-acre landscape, meticulously designed for iconic views of the Hudson River Valley.

Virtually all we see at Olana belonged to the Church family and wherever possible, is positioned where it would have been © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What is most remarkable about Olana is that the home and grounds never left the family – the furnishings, the art, even the books, are all Church’s possessions, and we see them laid out in the deliberate living canvas that Church intended.

After Church died, in 1899, his son, Louis, occupied the house, and when Louis’ widow died, in 1964, the house and estate were saved from being sold off by virtue of a public-private collaboration between New York State Parks and a private nonprofit, Olana Partnership (similar to the collaboration between the Central Park Conservancy and New York City’s parks department). Olana opened to the public as a museum in 1966.

This is most fitting, since Church served as commissioner of Central Park (he was a distant cousin of landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead). He also was a founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Church was responsible for locating Cleopatra’s needle, the obelisk, behind the museum.)

And Church, who achieved national and international prominence with his seven-foot wide painting, “Niagara” (1857), was credited with creating the Niagara Reserve – New York’s first state park and one of the first in the nation, a precursor to the national parks movement.

The Olana grounds include five miles of carriage trails, managed by New York State Parks, and are open to the public at no charge.

Artist painting the view that Frederick Church created at Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Olana Partnership has worked to restore Olana as well as the landscape. The physical landscape, in Church’s planning and today, is as much art as the landscape painting on canvas. As you walk the trails, the images are framed – markers here as along the other sites of the Hudson River School Art Trail, compare the scene today to paintings. And since my last visit, the view from the mansion to the Hudson River and Catskills beyond has been opened up.

Indeed, as I arrive at Olana, there a group of artists, in the area on a week-long workshop, are painting the scene.

Church’s Worldly View

While Thomas Cole was an immigrant from England who glorified America’s landscapes in a way that had not been done before, Frederic Edwin Church was one its most traveled among the Hudson River School artists, and he brought these images and this worldliness into his canvases.

Frederick Church’s Olana offers an astonishing collection of art. You can only tour the house with a guide © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Church finished his two-year study with Cole in1846 but Cole died soon after, in 1848. Church seems to have always maintained a connection with Cole – returning to the Hudson Valley to build his home close to Cole’s Cedar Grove, traveling with Cole’s biographer to Labrador. He found ways to help the Cole family – helping sell Cole’s paintings (he owned several himself, some of which are on view at Olana) and hired Cole’s son Theodore as Olana’s farm manager.

When Church was in his 20s, he became enamored with the renowned naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt who encouraged artists to travel and paint equatorial South America. In 1853, Church made the first of two expeditions following in Humboldt’s footsteps, chiefly in Colombia; the second, in 1857, to Ecuador.

“Sunset, Jamaica.” Frederick Church traveled to exotic locales for his subjects. © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The paintings he produced from these trips made him one of the best known and most successful painters of his generation.

The New York exhibition of his ten-foot canvas, The Heart of the Andes, in 1859, “was the most popular display of a single artwork in the Civil War era, attracting 12,000 people who paid admission in three weeks to its New York premiere alone, then traveling to Britain and seven other American cities on a tour lasting two years.”

The painting sold for $10,000 to collector William Blodget, at the time, the highest price ever paid for an American painting,” says Olana curator Evelyn Trebilcock. We get to see Church’s final study for “Heart of the Andes”.

Frederick Church’s study for “The Heart of the Andes” on view at Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Church set out again to travel to exotic places and intrigued by literature of Arctic exploration, in 1859, he hired a boat to take him to the north Atlantic between Labrador and Greenland to sketch icebergs, joined by Louis Legrand Noble Thomas Cole’s biographer. At the beginning of the Civil War, in 1861, Church exhibited Icebergs: The North, another grand canvas, which also was a blockbuster hit.

With his career on the rise in 1860, Church’s married Isabel Carnes and came back to the Hudson River Valley, where he had studied painting with Thomas Cole, and bought a farm overlooking the Hudson River on the opposite shore from Cole’s house.

Touring Olana: ‘Thou Art Welcome”

You walk in through the threshold to Olana under an inscription in Arabic, “Thou Art Welcome.”

Most remarkable: all the land and the contents of the grand home are intact, because they had always been within the Church family, and everything you see was meticulous conceived and planned by Church.

That’s what makes the experience of being here all the more profound – there is an immediate connection to the man and creative process of this great artist, who until now, I had only appreciated through his canvases on view in art museums.

Frederick Church used Persian architectural influences to create Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Olana is every inch Church’s creation. Church traveled the world (he is a worldly person in his reading and outlook) and went to Mideast, and when came back, wanted to create a “fantasy”. He actually never went to Persia but thought the Persian style could be fanciful. But he didn’t just fabricate the designs out of his imagination, he studied Persian art and architecture. He never visited the Alhambra, but bought photos in order to incorporate the Moorish design elements. He experimented with colors and patterns.

“The desire to build attacks a man like a fever,” Church wrote.

He built the house in two years (for about $90,000, or about $2.5 million today, fairly reasonable), and spent the next four years meticulously decorating it.

Architectural detail of Frederick Church’s Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Church experimented with different designs; he mixed the colors; he based his patterns on a book of Persian architecture; the stencil designs on the door – in gold and silver paint – have a shimmering effect. The gilded patterns we see on the grand doors – Les Arts Aribe – are from original stencils.

“He meticulously arranged every room, choosing exotic items for their emotional effect, each room a composition. It took him four years to complete decoration.”

I ask whether Church produced much art during this time, and the guide explains that by 1876, when Church was 50 years old, landscape painting had fallen out of fashion and his career was on the wane, Church came down with crippling rheumatism. Home and family became more important and Olana became his primary canvas.

The exotic décor Frederick Church used at Olana; he spent two years building his mansion and four years decorating it © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most important to Church were the views. He oriented the house and the windows southwest to best capture the view.

“Our home will be a curiosity in architecture, but the view from every window will be fabulous,” Church said.

The paintings we see that decorate the rooms are Church’s own collections – his own paintings as well as painters he admired, including Thomas Cole.

There is also Church’s painting of “Petra,” 1868, with its unusual perspective (even for Church) – a vertical image of the temple, carved into rock cliff , as you come to it through a rock cleft, like a photograph.

The unusual perspective Frederick Church used in his painting of El Khasne Petra; the painting hangs in the family room, furnished much as it was when the family lived at Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The last time I visited, I was able to see Church’s library, and what he was interested in, what informed him (almost like reading a journal, it is so telling about values, perspective, world-view, what informed him). He was interested in natural science, novels, religion (Presbyterian), “Women of the Arabs”, “Popular History of the Mexican People” “Natural Law & Spiritual World.” He owned a copy of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” He was friends with Mark Twain, who also lived in Hartford, where Church was born.

In 1888, at 61 years old, Church devoted himself to expanding house and building a new studio within the house. He closed the New York City studio he had rented for 30 years.

Today, his studio seems just as he left it, with various items of folk art and pre-Colombian artifacts Church collected on his travels.

Frederick Edwin Church’s studio is much as he left it © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

On the wall, “Christian on the Border of the Shadow of Death,” a dark, early painting, reminiscent of Cole. Here in the house, we can see the transition of his style, from largely emulating Cole to developing his own style and perspective.

“Church was a smart marketer of his art – people paid a fee to see just one painting. Lithographs of his work were successful,” says Olana curator Evelyn Trebilcock. “When Church studied with Cole, he painted in Cole’s style, incorporating Christian message, but Church realizes it is not commercial -not saleable- so he instead shows God in beautiful sunsets.”

We go up back stairs that would have been used by the servants – to the second floor family rooms, which were opened to the public in 2009.

Most impressive here are the tiles and the fireplace, produced by Ali Mohammed Isfahan which Church acquired in New York City (they know because they have the receipts).

The Olana dining room, set up for the Church family, has a gallery of art that Church collected on his travels © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the dining room, set for a family meal, the walls are an art gallery – none of which are Church’s, but are the pieces he collected on his travels through Europe, artists he wanted to showcase and support.

There are also portraits of Church, his father, Joseph, who became a director of the Aetna Life Insurance Company and Church’s wife – all painted by other artists since Church never painted portraits. In my mind, it suggests the humility of the man.

Preserving Olana

After Church died, his art (along with the Hudson River School) fell out of favor.

In 1964 after Church’s daughter-in-law died, the fate of Olana was thrown into question. Then David Huntington, an art historian, got interested and reignited popularity in Church’s work.

Huntington organized a preservation group to buy Olana and got the heirs to agree to give the group two years to come up with the funds, $450,000, to buy Olana.

“The house was going to be dismantled – the items had already been tagged for auction at Sotheby’s,” Mark Prezorsky, landscape curator, says. “The Hudson School was out of style. You could buy a Cole at a garage sale.”

Olana barely escaped a date with the wrecking ball and now has one of New York State’s top attractions © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the 1960s was not a good time for Victorian architecture – it was a time for sweeping away the “old” for the new, a period of anti-establishment frenzy. Cole’s home, Cedar Grove, for example, was put up for auction – all the possessions were sold off – and might have been knocked down altogether to make way for the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.

The Catskill Mountain House which dated from 1824 and figured in many of the Hudson River School paintings, he pointedly notes was burned down in 1963.

But Huntington, the art historian, “was able to see what Olana was.”

The preservation group got the heirs to agree to a two-year “stay of execution” so that they could raise the $430,000 purchase price – they made the deadline with 10 cents to spare. But now that they owned the house, the problem was affording to maintain it.

Each season, Olana hosts exhibits; this year’s exhibit was “OVERLOOK” a groundbreaking installation by Artist Teresita Fernández with 55 works including “Penetrable” by Jesus Rafael Soto. © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

New York State in astonishing short order had Olana declared a state historic site – the resolution went through three readings in the Assembly and Senate in a single day and Governor Nelson Rockefeller flew by helicopter to Olana for the bill signing. The site is now owned and operated by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Olana is one of first anywhere to have a preserved “viewshed” (Monticello is another) – arguing the need to preserve the view helped defeat a plan to build a nuclear power plant on the Hudson.

“The farm is big part or Olana,” Prezorsky, the landscape curator, says. “The way we experience it is how move through it –the views open up….. He composed his home as artistic masterpiece in midst of nature. This is one of the few farms where art and farming intersect.”

View from Frederick Church’s studio © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Church had a 10-acre lake hand-dug as part of the design “before machinery; he sold off “muck” for profit.” Church, he says, was a very practical man; he wanted the farm to be a sustainable enterprise. He planted some 50,000 trees.

Thanks largely to the preservation of Olana and the Thomas Cole House, the Hudson River School regained its place in American history and culture. Olana awakened a sense of pride in scenery and conservation.

Olana resuscitated an appreciation for Church’s art. In 1979, Frederick Church’s “The Icebergs”, discovered in a home for boys in Manchester, England, broke the record for an American painting, selling at auction for $2.5 million.

Olana offers house tours from April  through October (closed Mondays), and on weekends November through March. Reservations are highly recommended; there is a car fee on weekends and holidays, and a fee for the house tour. Plan your visit and see a schedule of special events, at olana.org.

Olana State Historic Site, 5720 Route 9G, Hudson, NY 12534, 518-828-0135, olana.org.

The Hudson River School Art Trail, a project of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, has 8 trail sites; during the course of my three-day getaway, I get to experience six of them. Get maps and directions for all the sites on the Hudson River School Art Trail site, www.hudsonriverschool.org.

A great place to stay: The Fairlawn Inn, a historic bed-and-breakfast, 7872 Main Street (Hwy 23A), Hunter, NY 12442, 518-263-5025www.fairlawninn.com.

Further help planning a visit is available from Greene County Tourism, 700 Rte 23B, Leeds, NY 12451, 800-355-CATS, 518-943-3223, www.greatnortherncatskills.com and its fall hub http://www.greatnortherncatskills.com/catskills-fall-foliage

See also:

Fall Getaway in the Catskills: Thomas Cole National Historic Site is Site #1 on the Hudson River School Art Trail

3-Day Fall Getaway in the Catskills: Fairlawn Inn is Superb Hub for Exploring the Hudson River Valley

 

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

 

Saratoga Springs is Firmly En Pointe as Center for Dance, Culture

Saratoga Springs, which is the summer home of the New York City Ballet and the location for the National Museum of Dance, celebrates its connection to dance with painted shoes that decorate the streetscape © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

With just one full day to explore Saratoga Springs, I am still able to take in the high points that distinguish this town, which has been so popular a place for visitors going back to the 14th century, when its mineral springs were first discovered by Native Americans. Later, it became a major center for organized horse racing, a tradition which remains today, and draws the biggest crowds during the six-weeks of racing season. But Saratoga Springs, owing to the millionaires and elites and then the colleges including Skidmore, has also become a cultural mecca, especially for dance. The Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center is the summer home for the New York City Ballet and now the home of the National Museum of Dance. 

National Museum of Dance

During my one full day in Saratoga Springs, after thoroughly exploring its horse-racing traditions at the race track and the National Museum of Racing, I next visit the National Museum of Dance, which is located just at the entrance to the Saratoga Spa State Park in what had been the historic Washington Bathhouse (there is still an exhibit to the historic spa). This is such a surprise.

It exquisitely reflects the visual as well as the athletics and art of dance; surprised at seeing video going back to 1895 of dance. All the dance legends are represented with stunning photos, videos, costumes.

So far, 50 dance pioneers including dancers of all genres, choreographers, composers, writers and patrons have been inducted into the Dance Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Established in 1986, the National Museum of Dance & Hall of Fame is the only museum of its kind in the nation and one of only a few in the world dedicated to the art of dance (which is why they claim the name, “National.”)

It is set in the former Washington Bathhouse, a 1918 Arts & Crafts style building in the Saratoga Spa State Park which provided health spa treatments (there are rooms you can visit from that time).

The Museum’s archives house a growing collection of photographs, videos, costumes, documents, biographies and artifacts that honor all forms of dance throughout history.

The museum’s galleries feature rotating exhibits and three permanent exhibits including the Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame.

Dancers in Film is an enchanting ongoing exhibition at the National Museum of Dance © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Dancers in Film, a delightful ongoing exhibition, celebrates the relationship between dancers and film, and features both well-known dance stars and our favorite actors who have had world famous dance roles on the silver screen. Highlighted in the exhibit are Lifetime Achievement Award Recipients Ann-Margret (2010), John Travolta (2014), and Chita Rivera (2015). You will love sitting and watching the fast-changing videos. I am frankly amazed to see some of the oldest ones, even from 1895 (at the very dawn of movie-making).

Sparked by an abundant discourse both age-old and current, The Dancing Athlete is an innovative exhibition that explores the inherent connections between dance and sports, and dancers and athletes, and the influence and confluence of these forms throughout history. Through costumes, photographs, video, objects, and archival materials, the exhibit examines these relationships within several themes such as cross training and physiological impact, shared movement vocabularies, and sports-inspired choreography, among others. A select group of athletes and dancers including Lynn Swann, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Edward Villella are showcased as well as several choreographic works including Gene Kelly’s stunning  “A Man’s Game”. By highlighting the athletic prowess of dancers and injecting popular sports and athletes, boys, especially, will better appreciate dance.

The New York City Ballet company presented their autographed pointe shoes in honor of Peter Martins’ induction into the Dance Hall of Fame © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Opened in 1987, the Dance Hall of Fame honors dance pioneers of all types whether they are choreographers, composers, writers, dancers, or patrons; there are more than 50 who are so far included in the Hall of Fame. Among them: Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Agnes deMille, Rudolph Nureyev, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Busby Berkeley, Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, The Nicholas Brothers, Bob Fosse, Marge Champion, Tommy Tune, Edward Villella and Michael Jackson and the newest inductees, Gregory Hines and Patricia Wilde who are featured in special exhibits devoted to their careers  (see a complete list of the inductees, http://dancemuseum.org/exhibits/hof.html).

The Museum campus also includes the Lewis A. Swyer Studios, a building constructed specifically for the purpose of keeping live dance as part of the Museum’s offerings. The Swyer Studios welcome frequent master classes, lecture/demonstrations, residencies, and other programs, as well as the Museum’s very own dance school, the School of the Arts, which offers dance classes to all ages, levels, and interests. The Museum also offers a wide selection of special programs, events, and workshops throughout the year.

Twist! Jump! Play! Dance! The Alfred Z. Solomon Children’s Wing is an interactive space just for kids, with a video library, reading corner, movement and balance toys, and stage area. A Kids’ Gallery showcases rotating exhibits of children’s artwork and is where visitors can create their own masterpieces.

The museum also offers a Resource Room with thousands of books, periodicals, and print items for dance research available to the public.

A young dancer photographs one of the ballet shoes outside the National Museum of Dance, which also has its own dance school on the site of the former Washington Bathhouse at Saratoga Spa State Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

When I visit, I notice young girls, their hair tied back in the bun typical of dancers, looking on with adoration. This is their Cooperstown.

National Museum of Dance, 99 South Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, 518-584-2225, dancemuseum.org,  info@dancemuseum.org

There is a very good reason for the National Museum of Dance to be set at Saratoga Spa State Park: Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), a stunning amphitheater, is set in the heart of The Spa State Park and is the summer residence of the New York City Ballet as well as the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra. Surrounded by 2,400 acres of green hills, geysers, natural mineral springs and hiking trails, you can enjoy jazz, pop and classical concerts. (108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, spac.org).

I didn’t get a chance to really explore the Saratoga Spa State Park, but it has a score of attractions contained within it, in addition to the National Museum of Dance and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. It also has the Saratoga Automobile Museum, which this year is featuring as its main exhibit, “The Gavel: Cars of the Saratoga Auto Auction” which gives an insider look at the workings of the classic and collector automobile auctions that have become so popular with television viewers. Vehicles on display range from a 1931 Ford Model A Woody to a very rare 1957 Chrysler 300C standard shift, a 1957 Ford Thunderbird and a 1957 Continental Mark II. Imports represented include a 2003 Maserati Spyder convertible and a 2013 Lotus Exige Factory Cup on display.  These cars, along with hundreds of others, are on display until September 17, when they are all headed for the auction block in September at the Saratoga Auto Auction. (110 Ave of the Pines, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866 , 518-587-1935, www.saratogaautomuseum.org, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am-5 pm).

The Saratoga Spa State Park Golf Course offers two beautiful golf courses; a championship 18-hole course and a challenging 9-hole course, complete with pro shop and restaurant. (Information and to reserve a tee time online visit: Saratoga Spa Golf).

Saratoga Spa State Park, distinguished by its classical architecture and listed as a National Historic Landmark, is noted for its diverse cultural, aesthetic and recreational resources. In addition to the nationally-known Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Spa Little Theater, the National Museum of Dance, the Saratoga Automobile Museum, the Gideon Putnam Resort and Roosevelt Baths and Spa, Spa Golf Courses, the park offers a pool complex including slide complex and historic Victoria Pool surrounded by arched promenades; hiking and walking trails, running courses, picnic areas; winter activities include cross-country skiing on approximately 12 miles of trails, ice skating, ice hockey, and two golf courses.

Saratoga Spa State Park, 19 Roosevelt Drive, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, 518-584-2535, saratogaspastatepark.org, https://parks.ny.gov/parks/saratogaspa.

Neighborhoods

Saratoga Springs, home to the national Museum of Dance and summer home of the New York City Ballet, celebrates its connection to dance with painted shoes that decorate the streetscape © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

My walking tours from the Inn at Saratoga take me passed and through Congress Park, where in 1792, New Hampshire Congressman John Gilman discovered a mineral spring. (I also take note of a free cutey-pie trolley that operates up Broadway, but I prefer to walk). In 1822, Dr. John Clarke purchased Congress Spring and surrounding land, drained the swamp and built a park where he offered concerts. He built his impressive Greek Revival home overlooking the park, as well as a bottling plant. In 1876, Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park, designed the gardens. The Park today harbors a visitor center (built in 1915 as a trolley station); the Casino (a gaming house for men built in 1870 by prize fighter, former Congressman and gambling entrepreneur who developed Saratoga horse racing, John Morrissey, which today houses the Saratoga Springs History Museum), Italian Gardens, Congress Park Carousel, and some wonderful sculptures, fountains and monuments.

John Morrissey’s casino in Congress Park has been turned into the Saratoga Springs Historical Museum © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the visitor center you can pick up some wonderful self-guided tours, such as North Broadway, “a neighborhood of exceptional residential architecture”; West Side Neighborhood (“The City’s first prime residential location, where many of the people who owned, supported and worked in the bustling resort industry lived.:”and East Side Neighborhood, once home to Skidmore College, rich in history and spectacular architecture, including stunning examples of Greek Revival, Victorian, Gothic, Italianate, Second Empire and Queen Anne styles.

On the Friday night I am in Saratoga Springs, I have a plethora of choices: watching harness racing, polo matches, a performance of the New York City Ballet, and any number of live music venues, including Caffe Lena.

Caffè Lena, a famous folk-music venue since 1960, has just undergone a $2 million renovation but still offers an intimate space to appreciate folk, jazz, poetry and well-established performers as well as newcomers © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I wander over to Caffè Lena, a famous folk-music venue which the New York times in 2013 called “Folk Music Heaven, was sporting a $2 million renovation, its first since opening in the 1960, and had people lined up out the door hoping to get through a wait-list for that evening’s performance. It actually offers a range of styles – folk, jazz, poetry night, open-mike night – and still retains the intimacy of a small room and small stage, so you are mere feet away from the performer. “Opened in a former woodworking shop in 1960, the café has helped launch many of America’s best loved songwriters, ranging from Bob Dylan in 1961 to Sawyer Fredericks in 2014, with an dazzling Who’s Who list in between. When founder Lena Spencer passed away in 1989, Caffè Lena was converted to a non-profit institution supported by concert revenue, private and corporate donors, grants and bequests, and an ever-evolving team of volunteers.” (Caffè Lena, 47 Phila Street, 518-583-0022, Tickets: 800-838-3006, email:  sales@caffelena.org. caffelena.org.) 

For more information or to help plan your visit, Saratoga Convention & Tourism Bureau, 60 Railroad Place, 855-424-6073, 518-584-1531, https://discoversaratoga.org/. 

Also, Saratoga Springs Heritage Area Visitor Center, 297 Broadway
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, 518-587-3241, Email: visitorinfo@saratoga-springs.org,  www.saratogaspringsvisitorcenter.com

See also:

Historic Inn at Saratoga Captures Sense of Place, Gracious Victorian Style 

Saratoga Springs, Age-Old Mecca for Horse Racing, Gets Better with Age

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

 

Saratoga Springs, Age-Old Mecca for Horse Racing, Gets Better with Age

 

Saratoga Springs, with its healthful mineral springs, has been attracting visitors since forever, but organized horse-racing is what put the village on the tourist map © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Tucked just above Albany, New York, small-town Saratoga Springs’ fortunes have been tied to tourism since forever. Its mineral springs has been drawing visitors since the 14th century, when Native Americans first discovered the healing properties of the springs, and were the first lure to America’s earliest tourists. But along the way, the village also developed organized horseracing, which brought the elites, and later on, a rich cultural menu. And all of these come together during the six weeks of summer when racing is underway at the historic track, though Saratoga Springs is very much a four-season destination.

Saratoga Springs seems to have grown up around the Inn at Saratoga, which dates from 1843 and staying here gives you a sense of place. (The Inn at Saratoga, 231 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, 518-583-1890, 800-274-3573, theinnatsaratoga.com.)

It’s just a very short walk from the inn down Broadway to the heart of the culturally vibrant community decorated with painted horses (evoking its historic racing tradition) and ballet shoes (a tip of the hat to its cultural heritage) and banners – a stunning streetscape lined with Victorian buildings, where I go the night I arrive. It is late but there are still some live music venues, pubs, pizza places (open til 3 am), and plenty of people out and about.

A marker in front of the historic Adelphi Hotel, which dates from 1877, makes you appreciate all the more the work underway ($30 million worth) to reopen the hotel , which has been closed for five years. It is where the colorful Irish-born prize-fighter,  gambling entrepreneur credited with establishing the Saratoga Race Course , New York State Senator and Tammany Hall enforcer John Morrissey, a regular of the hotel, died in 1878.

Prize-fighter John Morrissey, who brought organized horse-racing and gambling to Saratoga Springs, was a regular at the Adelphi Hotel and died there in 1878 just a year after the hotel opened; the historic hotel has been closed for five years, undergoing a $30 million restoration © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the immediate impression is that Saratoga Springs is a combination of Louisville, Kentucky with its strong racing tradition, and Lenox, Massachusetts, with its superlative cultural offerings, with mineral springs and health spa thrown in for good measure.

The next morning, after a delectable breakfast at the inn, I walk through Congress Park, passed the Morrissey Fountain and the Casino, the gaming house for men which Morrissey built (now home to the Saratoga Springs History Museum) to Union Street, where Skidmore College was once located (today there is the Empire College and absolutely stunning Victorian houses, several of which are bed-and-breakfast inns), to Saratoga’s historic racetrack. Passing by for the moment the National Museum of Racing, I stroll over to the track where riders are finishing up their morning workouts. The six-week racing season will begin in just a couple of weeks (July 21 this year), but there is already harness racing and polo underway.

One of the painted horses that decorate Saratoga Springs graces the Inn at Saratoga © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Thoroughbred racing did not actually begin in Saratoga Springs – the legacy heralds back to colonial days, 1665, with the establishment of the Newmarket course in Salisbury, New York, a section of what is now known as the Hempstead Plains of Long Island (attractive because it was flat), in the Westbury/East Garden City section of Nassau County. (Today, Belmont Park, the third leg of the prestigious Triple Crown races, is close to where the original track would have been. As I subsequently learn at the National Museum of Racing, August Belmont originally owned, Man o’War, one of the most famous horses in all of racing, who is heralded at the museum.

Horses are a key part of the Saratoga Springs experience © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, one of the most famous horseracing tracks in the world, boasts being America’s oldest sporting venue of any kind. In 1863, the former undefeated bare-knuckle boxing champion John Morrissey staged the first organized thoroughbred meeting here at an old trotting course. In 1864, the racetrack hosted the Travers Stakes, named for William Travers, making it the oldest major thoroughbred horse race in America.

The racetrack grew to prominence for hosting The Travers, nicknamed the Midsummer Derby, which brings together the greatest three-year-old horses to the race course to compete for the $1.25 million purse, and the track enjoyed prosperity, expanding in 1891-92. Millionaires moved in, including the DuPonts and the Whitneys.

By 1890, there were 314 tracks operating in the United States. And in 1893, there was the Great Panic that led to an economic depression on the scale of the 1930s. The Saratoga race course was forced to close in 1896 because of financial hardship.

But the track regained renown with the dramatic match-up between Man o’ War and appropriately named Upset in the 1919 Sanford Stakes, in which Man o’ War suffered his only career defeat (Man o’ War won the 1920 Travers).  .

When Triple Crown victor Gallant Fox was defeated by a horse (Jim Dandy) with 100-1 odds in 1930, Saratoga became known by an ominous nickname “The Graveyard of Champions.”

Saratoga has drawn the top names in thoroughbred racing – Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Rachel Alexandra, Curlin, Gallant Fox, the mighty Man o’ War, and American Pharoah.

Come out early in the morning at watch the race horses working out © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the delightful aspects of the Saratoga race course is that horses walk right through the crowd, on a white-fenced path, to get to the paddock for their races so you get to see them up close. (I also find that you can come out around 5:30 am, and watch the horses being exercised from outside the fence.)

The course is stunning – with architectural majesty on par with Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky – and it is interesting that it is here, rather than at one of the Triple Crown venues, that the Hall of Fame for thoroughbred horsing racing is located, honoring the most notable horses, jockeys, owners and trainers.

(Saratoga Race Course, 267 Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866; info about upcoming races at nyra.com.)

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame 

Visit the Racing Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing, where you can also see videos of Hall of Famers © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Even if you are not particularly engaged in horse racing (and especially so), you will be fascinated to tour the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, which opened in 1950 (located directly across the boulevard from the Saratoga Race Course) and has been expanded and improved since. You see in paintings, documents, artifacts, that show how engrained horse racing is in American culture, America’s first major organized sport going back to colonial times. Early presidents including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison up through Ulysses S. Grant were avid race-goers. Andrew Jackson’s passion for horse racing and gambling was well known and he reputedly once fought a duel over a wager; Jackson also bred racehorses at the Hermitage and operated a racing stable from the White House during his presidency.

At the National Museum of Racing, you can ride a racing simulator to experience the thrill of the race from the jockey’s perspective © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

You get to see the lineage of the hall of fame horses (they all trace back to just a couple of horses). You can even try your hand on a racing simulator – a mechanical horse synchronized to move with jockey cam videos, so you experience a race from the jockey’s point of view, racing for the finish (this is actually much harder than you would think, and some riding experience is necessary). Horse racing is visually stunning, as much as it is dramatic, and this comes through in the exhibits.

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame’s honorees include horses such as Man o’ War (1957), Seabiscuit (1958) and jockeys like Willie Shoemaker (1958), and you can also watch videos of the Hall of Famers. On view this year is a special exhibit for Man o’ War at 100 (through 2018).  The museum also hosts Oklahoma training track tours from June-October; reservations required. (191 Union Avenue, 518-584-0400, www.racingmuseum.org)

At Saratoga Springs, there are many ways to experience thoroughbred horseracing © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While thoroughbred racing had not yet started this season, harness racing and polo matches were already underway.

Saratoga Polo Matches are held every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday night starting at 5:30 pm during the Saratoga Polo season, which runs from July 10 to Labor Day. Tickets may be purchased at the gate beginning at 4 pm the day of the match. Casual chic is the recommended attire at the highly social polo match gatherings. (Saratoga Polo Association, 2 Bloomfield Road, Greenfield Center, NY 12833, saratogapolo.com)

For more information or to help plan your visit, Saratoga Convention & Tourism Bureau, 60 Railroad Place, 855-424-6073, 518-584-1531, https://discoversaratoga.org/. 

Also, Saratoga Springs Heritage Area Visitor Center, 297 Broadway
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, 518-587-3241, Email: visitorinfo@saratoga-springs.org,  www.saratogaspringsvisitorcenter.com

See next:

Saratoga Springs is Firmly En Pointe as Center for Dance, Culture

See also:

Historic Inn at Saratoga Captures Sense of Place, Gracious Victorian Style 

____________________

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Historic Inn at Saratoga Captures Sense of Place, Gracious Victorian Style

The Inn at Saratoga, Saratoga Springs’ oldest continuously operating hotel, dating from 1843, offers Victorian gracious style and a sense of place © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

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.

The Inn at Saratoga, which dates from 1843, puts you into the city’s story © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.”

Painting along three sides of the inn’s elevator depicts Saratoga Springs of 150 years ago © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Best of the past and present: four-poster bed and period furnishings create the atmosphere in the guest room at the Inn at Saratoga; modern amenities including spacious bathroom, TV and WiFi heighten the guest experience © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Inn at Saratoga is justifiably proud of the full breakfast served buffet style in the tradition of a bed-and-breakfast inn © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The inn’s original lobby is repurposed for a dining and lounge space; the couch is an Israel family heirloom © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.)

The Inn at Saratoga offers a gracious setting © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The historic Inn at Saratoga pays tribute to Saratoga Springs’ horse-racing tradition with one of the painted horses © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The Inn at Saratoga is near most of Saratoga Springs’ attractions, such as the National Museum of Dance and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center is summer home to the New York City Ballet © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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. 

See next: Exploring Saratoga Springs 

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Mansions on Fifth Historic Hotel is Steps Away from Pittsburgh’s Top Cultural Attractions

A parting shot of the Carnegie Museum of Art © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I must admit to relishing my stay in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, where I am staying at Mansions on Fifth, two mansion homes originally 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, that have been turned into a boutique hotel. The neighborhood was also home to most of the city’s (and therefore, the nation’s) leading industrialists, innovators and bankers, including George Westinghouse, Frick, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie and the rest of Pittsburgh’s exceptionally wealthy families of the era, and boasts stunning mansions, churches as well as some of the city’s most important cultural attractions.

Staying at the mansion, you really feel part of that whole privileged Gilded Age society.

A young woman from the hotel spends a lot of time with me suggesting how to best spend my afternoon exploring. It turns out, the hotel (a true mansion) is only a short walk to the Carnegie Museum of Art. She also tells me about the Cathedral of Learning a few blocks beyond, in what is technically the Oakland neighborhood.

The neighboring mansion to Mansions on Fifth in Pittsburgh’s tony Shadyside neighborhood © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I set off for the short walk to Carnegie Museum of Art (it is attached to the Carnegie Museum of National History, two of four Carnegie museums; the others are the Carnegie Museum of Science and the Warhol Museum, downtown), dazzled when I pass the neighboring mansions along Fifth Avenue. It reminds me of Newport or Palm Beach.

The Carnegie Museum of Art is arguably the first museum of contemporary art in the United States, collecting the “Old Masters of tomorrow” since the inception of the Carnegie International in 1896 – held at various times, from which much of the present museum’s collection came (there are notes that say if the painting was in an exposition).

“While most art museums founded at the turn of the century focused on collections of well-known masters, Andrew Carnegie envisioned a museum collection consisting of the ‘Old Masters of tomorrow.’ In 1896, he initiated a series of exhibitions of contemporary art and proposed that the museum’s paintings collection be formed through purchases from this series. Carnegie, thereby, founded what is arguably the first museum of modern art in the United States. Early acquisitions of works by such artists as Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, and Camille Pissarro laid the foundation for a collection that today is distinguished in American art from the mid-19th century to the present, in French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, and in significant late-20th-century works. Today the International remains an important source for the museum’s acquisitions of contemporary art. Presented every three to five years, it features works by contemporary artists from around the globe.”

Some of the galleries at the Carnegie Museum of Art are organized as you might expect the Carnegie International exhibits of a century ago © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is a stunning collection – much of it coming out of annual Carnegie International Art Expositions, or from other important benefactors including Mellon and Scaife. Some of the galleries are arranged much like those expositions, with multi-levels of paintings; some of the rooms are more intimate, like private collections, and some are more institutional. The notes and themes that accompany the rooms and individual pieces are wonderful.

Just about every artist of note is represented with at least one piece – including a superb collection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

I take particular note of Childe Hassam’s snow scene, “Fifth Avenue in Winter,” of New York City, painted circa 1892, when here I am on Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh.

The entire museum, though, is a reminder of how an economy that is designed to bestow such riches on a small segment, at the expense of the vast majority produces a society in which “the public” depends on the kindness and charity of the ultra-wealthy.

“The Chariot of Aurora,” an Art Deco bas-relief masterpiece, was a gift to the Carnegie Museum of Art by the renowned collector Frederick K. Koch in 1994 © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This juxtaposition was absolutely clear in one room where the massive (18 feet high and 26 feet long) gilded and lacquered relief, The Chariot of Aurora, takes up an entire wall. The stunning example of Art Deco was a gift of the renowned collector Frederick K. Koch in 1994 (brother of billionaires Charles and David Koch, who have their names on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, PBS, and scores others, as well as significant donors to political candidates and entities).

Pittsburgh artist Raymond Simboli’s “Pinkerton Riot” is an homage to the Homestead Strike at the Carnegie & Frick steel mills so brutally put down in 1892 © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just next door is a room devoted to Pittsburgh artists, including Raymond Simboli,, whose “Pinkerton Riot” depicting the Homestead Strike at the Carnegie & Frick steel mills so brutally put down in 1892, uses the dress is of the 1940s. Another artist, Sam Rosenberg, similarly paints from the perspective of working class Pittsburghers in such stark contrast.

I set out for the Cathedral of Learning and find myself in the Carnegie Library, another cathedral of Learning, just across the street from the academic tower.

Truly an inspiring place, Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning looms large over the city – in fact, I am told, the largest academic structure in North America.

The Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh Historic Landmark, 1926-37, Charles Z. Klauder, Architect © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is part of the University of Pittsburgh which “was well on the way to becoming an acropolis of neoclassical buildings on an Oakland hillside when John G. Bowman became the University’s 10th chancellor in 1921. In those years following World War I, student enrollment had dramatically increased, causing a critical shortage of space. A 14-acre plot known as Frick Acres, which housed residences, gardens, and tennis courts, became the focus of Dr. Bowman’s plans to erect a monumental building. A structure expanding upward, though unorthodox, would solve the growing University’s problems of space and distance. More important, a tower would be a visible inspiration to all who approached the city. It would carry the message that education was the result of aspiring to great heights. The parallel lines of the truncated Gothic form, never meeting, would imply that learning is unending. The sweeping proportions would symbolize the spirit and achievement of Pittsburgh.  Architect Charles Z. Klauder translated these concepts into drawings that guided the placement of steel and stone.”

Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman, himself, offered the reasoning behind designing such a dramatic tower: “The building was to be more than a schoolhouse; it was to be a symbol of the life that Pittsburgh through the years had wanted to live. It was to make visible something of the spirit that was in the hearts of pioneers as, long ago, they sat in their log cabins and thought by candlelight of the great city that would sometime spread out beyond their three rivers and that even they were starting to build.”

The Cathedral of Learning is as much a monument to the immigrants who flooded its halls in their quest for education as a ticket to the American Dream.

Following World War I, Chancellor Bowman was charged with developing a great university in a city richly populated with first-generation immigrant families. He wanted to provide students with unique classrooms which would reflect a highly-creative period in the motherlands of Pittsburgh’s new citizens. He conceived the idea of inviting community representatives of diverse nations to plan and build classrooms depicting an era or aspect of the heritage they had brought to America – known today as the Nationality Rooms – appointing Ruth Crawford Mitchell as his special assistant. It took 30 years.

Peeking through peepholes to the Irish Room, one of dozens of Nationality Rooms in Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the Cathedral of Learning, I seek out the “Nationality Rooms” – each one for a different nationality, such as Irish, Hungarian, Polish, Armenian, of ethnic groups who settled in Allegheny County. Rooms were subsequently added – like the Israel Room, in 1987 after a 30-year hiatus, which is modeled after a 1st-century stone dwelling in Galilee.

Unfortunately, when I get to there, the rooms are locked for the weekend, but I get to peek through peep-holes to the Irish room (the other rooms have peep holes much too high).

Members of Quo Vadis, a student organization, conduct guided tours for nearly 30,000 visitors each year. Special interpretations are adapted for children, senior citizens, the handicapped, and groups with special interests such as architecture, interior design, art, mythology, or religion. (See http://www.nationalityrooms.pitt.edu/content/touring-options-requesting-group-tours ).

 

Pittsburgh Neighborhoods

Shadyside has been Pittsburgh’s premier upscale address for more than a century. It is fairly obvious that this was once home to Pittsburgh’s robber barons – who could enjoy the clean, cool air well away from the choking smoke belching from their steel mills that shrouded the rest of the city – and now features a legacy of stunning housing on leafy green streets, awe-inspiring churches, and two active and growing business districts (Walnut Street and Ellsworth Avenue) with retail stores and eating and drinking establishments, including several that are considered among the best in the city. Shadyside is also home to Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University, Shadyside Hospital of UPMC, and the Hillman Cancer Center.

I take my bike for a spin around the neighborhood and am dazzled by the architecture.

Shadyside is distinguished with stunning homes built by Pittsburgh’s high society © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The large residential area includes beautifully restored Victorian mansions alongside modern homes and condos (I notice that many of the houses have lawn signs stating in three languages, “No matter where you are from, we are glad you’re our neighbor.”)

Shadyside is also walking (or an easy bikeride) distance from two other distinctive Pittsburgh neighborhoods:

Home to prestigious museums, world-class hospitals and universities and international cuisine, Oakland is considered the cultural, academic and medical center of Pittsburgh, where you will find the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the Carnegie Library and Cathedral of Learning, among other cultural venues.. It is also one of Pittsburgh’s liveliest neighborhoods, with cool coffee shops, multi-cultural eateries and interesting specialty shops alongside grand architecture. Oakland offers all of the attractions of a major university in terms of concerts, lectures, theater and other entertainment, along with a wide variety of retail offerings, bookstores, restaurants and bars (ethnic and otherwise). (onlyinoakland.org)

I am particularly intrigued as I drive to Mansions on Fifth from the highway, to pass a synagogue. This is Squirrel Hill, one of the fastest growing sections of Pittsburgh, which has also been a home to Pittsburgh’s Jewish community for many years. That history is reflected in the storefronts of the neighborhood’s two main business streets, Forbes Avenue and Forward Avenue, which feature a variety of grocery stores, retailers and restaurants honoring the Jewish heritage. But Squirrel Hill is also one of Pittsburgh’s most delightfully diverse neighborhoods as well, with residents (many connected to nearby universities and hospitals) from all over the world, reflected in the diversity of the cuisine of the various restaurants and eateries. Five minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill combines tree lined residential streets, a bustling business district, internationally recognized educational institutions, and two large public parks spanning 1100 acres.

Mansions on Fifth, 5105 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15232, 412-381-5105, 800-465-9550, http://mansionsonfifth.com/.

For more information, contact Visit Pittsburgh, 412-281-7711, 800-359-0758, 877-LOVE PGH (568-3744), info@visitpittsburgh.comwww.visitpittsburgh.com.

See also:

Mansions on Fifth Historic Boutique Hotel in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside Sends You Back to Gilded Age

One Day, Two Nights in Pittsburgh: From Grey to Green, A Proud City Revitalized

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Point State Park Proves Highlight of Walking Tour

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum is at Center of Revitalized City

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Strip District Exemplifies City’s Past, Future

Two Nights, One Day in Pittsburgh: Historic Omni William Penn Hotel Connects to City’s Proud Heritage

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s BikeTour on Great Allegheny Passage Highlights Benefits of RailTrails

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn Biketour on Great Allegheny Passage Showcases Forgotten Towns

‘World’s Largest’ Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar, Pennsylvania

____________________

 

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Mansions on Fifth Historic Boutique Hotel in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside Sends You Back to Gilded Age

The jaw-dropping grand Mansion on Fifth, in Pittsburgh’s tony Shadyside neighborhood, home to Carnegie, Frick and other celebrated industrialists and bankers, now a boutique hotel where you get to feel as if you were transported back to the Gilded Age © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.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.

The main house of Mansions on Fifth, built in the early 1900s by Willis F. McCook, a prosperous attorney and legal counsel to steel and coke magnate Henry Clay Frick © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The Amberson House, built for McCook’s daughter, Bessie McCook Reed, next door to the main mansion. She lived in the home from the time of her marriage until her passing in 1966. It is now part of the Mansions on Fifth historic hotel © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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).

Light streams in to a wood-paneled lobby from stained glass windows on the staircase of the Mansion on Fifth to one of the cozy sitting areas in front of a fireplace © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.)

One of the cozy sitting areas in front of a fireplace at Mansions on Fifth, a Gilded Age mansion converted to a boutique hotel © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

My room at Amberson House makes you feel more like a weekend guest of the McCook family rather than an out-of-towner © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.)

Mansions on Fifth, 5105 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15232, 412-381-5105, 800-465-9550, http://mansionsonfifth.com/.

For more information, contact Visit Pittsburgh, 412-281-7711, 800-359-0758, 877-LOVE PGH (568-3744), info@visitpittsburgh.comwww.visitpittsburgh.com.

Next:

Mansions on Fifth Historic Hotel is Steps Away from Pittsburgh’s Top Cultural Attractions

See also:

One Day, Two Nights in Pittsburgh: From Grey to Green, A Proud City Revitalized

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Point State Park Proves Highlight of Walking Tour

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum is at Center of Revitalized City

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Strip District Exemplifies City’s Past, Future

Two Nights, One Day in Pittsburgh: Historic Omni William Penn Hotel Connects to City’s Proud Heritage

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s BikeTour on Great Allegheny Passage Highlights Benefits of RailTrails

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn Biketour on Great Allegheny Passage Showcases Forgotten Towns

‘World’s Largest’ Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar, Pennsylvania

____________________

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures