Along the Great Ohio: Michael and Dan Tour Kentucky and Indiana


Daniel Emberley, May 2011


Over the past few years we’ve been covering the United States in a series of road trips.  A pocket of the country we’ve neglected is in our back yard, the states of Kentucky and Indiana.  There’s a good reason it was neglected: no great tourist attractions, no romantic reputation or culinary renown.  But, it was there, it was drivable, and we made it the subject of a spring adventure.  We didn’t suffer harassment from religious conservatives or crazed mountain people, floods did not impede us, and we had a fun ten days.  Report follows, read or trash.


Saturday, May 14

I’d planned a route for us down the Shenandoah Valley on I-81.  We stopped outside of Lynchburg at Poplar Forest.  This was Thomas Jefferson’s personal retreat, a three day’s ride on horseback from Monticello.  It was an extremely impractical plantation, but an architectural folly that let him play at being Palladio.  A central sky lit cube surrounded by four hexagonal rooms form the first octagon shaped building in North America.  It’s been undergoing reconstruction for a decade.  The exterior is done, but the interior is still plain brick with pine floors, waiting for finishes.  It’s a brilliant install, seen with a group of annoying tourists who brought bright daughters.  The girl’s intelligent questions made the parents look good.  The weather was grey, as it would be most of our trip, but despite that the house was bright with no artificial illumination. 


We made a long haul down the Valley to Bristol, almost into Tennessee.  It was tough to find a hotel room; tornadoes had hit the area heavily.  They produced the downed trees we’d been seeing, and had led to an influx of insurance adjusters and Caterpillar equipment operators who’d taken most available rooms. 


Sunday, May 15

Country music’s Crooked Road winds through the Appalachians at the tip of Virginia leading to the Cumberland Gap.  To get to the Gap Visitors Center you have to drive through a bit of Tennessee, then the Cumberland Gap Tunnel.  The Tunnel is a four lane highway pork barrel project completed in 1996 that takes you under a mountain next to the actual Gap into Kentucky.  This left the Gap open as a hiking trail and to be interpreted as a National Park.  We learned about the Wilderness Trail and Daniel Boone’s Trail, both of which we would be paralleling over the next week.  The geology, layers of coal, shale, and limestone, made the area desirable to coal and construction materials miners into the early 20th century.  The best part is the Pinnacle Drive, a 1920’s effort to make the Gap a tourist attraction.  It gives fantastic views over the Gap, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. 


We found the geography and history difficult to follow, but from exhibits here and later we pieced together that herds of buffalo had created the original path from the Ohio River over the Appalachians to the Atlantic via the Gap, mainly because they were being funneled in this direction by other gaps in mountains further west, in the Kentucky Appalachians.  Native Americans followed the buffalo, and Daniel Boone and company followed the Natives.  The Gap was an important mountain crossing for about 200 years, until the Erie Canal and railroads rearranged the geography of the United States.


An hour’s worth of mountain roads brought us to Corbin.  Harlan Sanders sold fried chicken here to tourists travelling between Ohio and Florida.  He sold his mix of secret herbs and spices to restaurants across the country, created Kentucky Fried Chicken, and in the process helped create franchise marketing.  The original building burned down, but Pepsico has restored the site as a shrine to Colonel Sanders.  You enter to face a standard, though massive, KFC sales counter, but then move into dining rooms that include recreations of the Colonel’s original kitchen and motel rooms and wall displays of corporate history.  We got a big bucket of original; somehow it tasted better in the sacred navel of the fried chicken universe.


Corbin’s other claim to fame is Cumberland Falls.  The “Niagara of the South”, the Falls was in prime form from all the recent rain.  It is one of the few sections of major American river that is allowed to flow without dams or flood controls.  It’s also one of the few places where, by the light of the right moon, one can see a moonbow.  This pale version of a rainbow can also be seen at Victoria Falls and in Hawaii.  We decided not to wait for nightfall to see it, but instead headed for some craft retail magic. 


I-75 took us north through the Daniel Boone National Forest to Berea, home of the Kentucky Artisans Center.  This is a large shop, really, masquerading as a tourist site, part of a circuit of craft centers that includes Asheville, Penland, Arrowmont, and the Southern Highland Craft Guild.  If you’re in the area and see Mom Blakeman’s Creamed Pull Candy, buy it.  Kentuckians do amazing things with sugar.  The pulled candy is hard like a Canada Mint, but definitely pulled like a toffee, and full of buttery rich vanilla sweetness.  Other than the candy, we were a little disappointed, but headed to downtown Berea to see if it could be redeemed.  It started raining buckets, and we bailed on our plan to drive on and checked into the Boone Tavern. 


We were glad we did.  Berea College was founded in the 1850’s to educate whites and blacks in integrated classes.  They were closed by slave sympathizers during the Civil War, resurrected as a small college after, but came into their own in the 1920’s with a new president from Oberlin.  He was intrigued by the local weaving, and helped jumpstart an Appalachian craft revival that’s still going on.  His wife got so tired of entertaining people in the President’s House that she told him to open the Tavern.  It is one of the oldest hospitality programs at an American college.  The school offers free education to people from Appalachia in exchange for work at one of the college businesses, including the Tavern and its restaurant.  Our room was full of furniture made on campus by people in the crafts programs.  The dinner was a culinary highlight of the trip: a bibb lettuce/grapefruit/radish salad, pork chops with turnip greens and beans, fried green tomatoes, and a berry cobbler.  Madison County is dry, but the food was so good we didn’t miss the booze.  After dinner we toured the campus, including an eco-village with some co-housing aspects.  It’s innovative and pretty in a Whole-Earth-Catalog way.


Monday, May 16

The Boone Tavern overnight special included breakfast, and it was delicious: a classic mountain breakfast of meat, eggs, tomatoes, biscuits and gravy, and potatoes.  We burned it off checking out the crafts shops and studios downtown.  Most but not all have a connection to the college; lots of high quality wood work, furniture, weaving, and pottery, and a smattering of other crafts.  It was fun to talk to students in the shops.  We learned the nearest liquor is ten miles down the road in Boone, just across the county line, in case you feel the need to join drunken revels.


I’d planned to have us stop at Nicholasville to see the Kentucky River.  They have a High Bridge Park there, overlooking the river’s palisades.  We found ourselves crossing the Kentucky on so many bridges, though, that we passed on that, and replaced it with a distillery tour.  The bourbon industry has a well publicized trail of six distilleries one can visit.  Woodford Reserve had been highly recommended, but we chose Four Roses, between Harrodsburg and Lawrenceburg. 


Folks my age may remember Four Roses as the bottle you’d see in the hands of a bum in the gutter.  It had once been a great bourbon house.  It was founded in 1910 by a couple who built a Spanish Colonial distillery in tribute to the San Diego World’s Fair where they’d honeymooned.  Seagrams bought them out in the 1950’s, and while they continued to export quality bourbon to Europe and Japan, in America they sold at the low end of the market.  Kirin Beer purchased the company at the Millennium to produce boutique high end product for the Japanese market.  Today Four Roses makes five lines of bourbon, two of which can only be purchased in Tokyo. 


The distillery had shut down for its summer hiatus, which happens when the local river is too low to produce quality product.  They’re using heritage strains of yeast from 1910, quality corn, rye, and barley, in a very industrial process in a rural setting.  The warehouses where the grain is unloaded and tested smell like a clean barn, the mash rooms where fermentation takes place like rising bread.  Since they were shut down, we were able to go into a couple rooms normally off tour, poking our heads into the several-story-high stills.  Across the river are multi-story warehouses where Seagrams once aged the whiskey, but are now leased to Jack Daniels, as the tall structures lead to too much temperature difference to produce the highest quality product.  At the end we sampled the three lines sold in the United States.  Yellow Label is a traditional blended bourbon, Small Batch blends from just three to five barrels for a more distinct but still consistent flavor, and Single Batch gets numbered with the exact barrel the bourbon aged in.  I found I liked the Small Batch best, but would recommend any of these if you see them in your local package store. 


Lexington, Kentucky is all about horses.  Acres of beautiful farms, with the expected wooden fences around farm houses and the occasional tract mansion.  Seemingly lots of money, and many horse-related attractions about which we could not care less.  We prefer houses to horses.  There was significant money here between 1800 and 1950, and as in many of the Kentucky cities, a lot of well preserved Victorian residences.  We toured the Mary Todd Lincoln House, where she grew up.  It’s a typical 1820’s Jacksonian-Georgian center hall structure, restore to 1850’s interiors.  The tour stresses Mary Todd’s hard but privileged life under a wicked stepmother, but our guide had enough antiques savvy to keep us on board. 


Lexington’s small downtown was dead, but we drove through some nice in-town neighborhoods to see Benjamin Latrobe’s Pope Villa, and the Henry Clay estate Ashland.  Ashland is where Clay bred horses, cattle, and other livestock to improve America, when he wasn’t in D.C. compromising on slavery to preserve the nation’s culture until the Civil War.  The house one sees isn’t actually Henry’s.  I thought it looked too new; the original estate burned down, and Henry Junior built the current one in 1857.


If you’re in Lexington on a Monday night, you might want to plan ahead and get tickets online to Woodsongs.  This is a public radio folk music program broadcast live from the Kentucky Theater downtown.  We didn’t, and missed our opportunity.  Michael was not shedding any tears.


It’s just an hour’s drive from Lexington to Frankfort, the state capital.  We checked into a Holiday Inn Express, ate at Applebee’s, and shopped at Walmart.  We feel we did our duty to corporate America in one fell swoop.


Tuesday, May 17

It was Primary Day in Kentucky, which meant little to us except a few signs for folks going to the polls.  Frankfort is located in a valley with a hillock dominated by the Capitol building, a lovely view of which is presented through the trees on the drive down into the city.  We parked just downhill of the Capitol in front of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Zeigler House.  This is a private home, not open to visitors, but looks to be from his early Oak Park period, not the usual Usonian 1950’s house one would expect to find this far from Chicago.  It’s in a lovely 1920’s residential neighborhood with a nice variety of architecture. 


We walked up to the State Capitol.  It was designed in heavy Beaux Arts style by Frank Mills Andrews, an architect we never heard of, and completed in 1911.  There are some well done murals in the pendentives below the dome, painted just last year to celebrate the Commonwealth’s centennial.  You see the usual state house ostentatiousness: dual house chambers, Governor’s office, Supreme Court chamber, flying staircases, faux marbling, a Dutch-metal ceiling.  Downhill is the Governor’s mansion, a 1912 effort to replicate the Grand Trianon in Versailles.  It seems a little ostentatious for the state of Daniel Boone and Alben Barkley.


Walking north from the Capitol to the Kentucky River we passed the Mitch McConnell Building of the Kentucky Republican Party.  Uggh.  There’s a renovated downtown on the far side of the Kentucky River, Old Frankfort.  Some nice coffee shops, an Art Deco movie house, grounds near the original state Capitol.  We checked out a combined bookstore, craft gallery, and coffee house, and were almost convinced this was a livable place until a steam whistle blew and we realized that the railroad tracks through the center of town were not for commuters, but for long haul coal trains.  Umm, maybe not. 


Frankfort is the home of the Rebecca Ruth Candy Factory.  Our first effort to get in met a bus load of ignorant Mennonite students, who could not decide whether to take the tour, buy candy, or even choose a flavor to sample.  We gave them a half hour to pass through and tried again, finding the shop blissfully quiet.  In the 1930’s Ruth Booe invented the bourbon ball here, the unofficial chocolate of Kentucky.  It is a thing of culinary delight, with the fragrance and taste of quality bourbon matched to a not too dark, not too sweet chocolate coating.  We stocked up.


Overall we found Frankfort a small sweet state capital, with all the big financial guns of population, museums, and the state university located elsewhere.


I-64 Takes you to Louisville, the largest city in the state.  We started at Museum Row on Main Street.  It’s just a block from the Ohio River, but you’d only know that if you recognized the flood gates built into the street crossings and sides of buildings. 


Downtown has the second largest collection cast iron fronts in America, after Manhattan’s SoHo.   In the 1980s the city attempted to redevelop this area as a funky, cultural side of downtown.  They asked name architects to renovate the historic structures and build office towers.  Michael Graves’ Humana Tower and Johnson and Burgee’s Aegon Tower dominate the skyline.  At their base are four blocks of museums and adaptive re-use.  The museums are small, but okay. 


The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft was showing cool quilts, wood carving, and pottery from the permanent collection, plus a decent show on the interface of technology and craft.  The expected stupid t-shirts with embedded LED’s, but also some great computer printed and formed work.  


The 21st Century Museum Hotel is a recent renovation by Deborah Berke.  They are a hotel, high-end restaurant, and art gallery.  The gallery fills the ground and basement floors, showing contemporary Cuban art when we were there.  I really liked photography by Rene Pena.  Michael thought the best piece was a video installation of letters from a poem falling onto our projected image.  There was much more gallery space than I expected, and the art well executed and shown.


We walked past the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, with its giant baseball bat outside, to Glassworks.  Housed in a renovated industrial space, Glassworks provides working hot and warm glass studios, classrooms, a large shop/gallery, and artist housing. 


The Louisville Science Center is in a former warehouse that received a cool Venturi-Rauch-esque makeover.  The architects recycled the façade, livening it up with vibrant color in a way that reminded me of Houston’s Children’s Museum.  They had a Star Trek exhibit that had just opened, but at $18 each we decided to skip.


All that culture left us hungry, so we stopped into a newsroom coffee shop for a slice of Derby Pie.  Was not fresh, may have been left over from the previous week’s running at Churchill Downs.


Architects Beyer Blinder Belle’s Muhammad Ali Center is just around the corner, built into the flood walls above the Ohio River.  We expected this to be hagiographic bullshit, but were pleasantly surprised.  Yes, you can watch videos of Ali bouts in an ESPN-Zone-like space with multiple monitors and Barcaloungers.  The emphasis, though, is on the principles the helped Ali turn from a poor Louisville kid into a boxer, Vietnam protester, speaker for Islam, and Parkinson’s activist.  Who knew?  The footage of him and Howard Cosell is brilliant, as is the section that tries to put you into the mindset of segregated 1950’s America.  You walk into a simulated diner, audio screams at you to get out, and you are immersed in a different world.  The building’s terraces give great views of the Ohio River.  Sadly, we were some of the few people in the museum.  Dead fountains and weeds growing between the plaza’s pavement made it look as if it is under-used and poorly maintained.


We drove to an Asian neighborhood where Vietnam Kitchen served us pho and vegetarian dumplings that rivaled the quality back in D.C.  We checked into La Quinta, did laundry, and watched the season finale of “Glee”.


Wednesday, May 18

Just across the Ohio River in Clarksville, Indiana, is the Falls of the Ohio.  These are the original reason for Louisville, a series of rapids that forced pioneers to portage their goods along the river.  Today they’re submerged by dams built and managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, like the falls of the Mississippi in Minneapolis.  The Corps and the State of Indiana run a visitors center with old exhibits but a great view and interpretation of the site.  This is where Lewis & Clark started their expedition, and where John James Audubon did a significant chunk of his paintings.  Ancient fossil beds have been found here, and an innovative lightning-shaped dam sends enough water over to protect wetlands while still allowing river traffic and the production of electricity.


The Speed Art Museum was a big reason for this trip.  I’d seen minor pieces from their collection in shows for years, and was intrigued.  Good pieces by minor artists, and mediocre pieces by famous artists.  The building is small enough to be pleasant and intimate, like the Corcoran.  The American collection is okay, especially the decorative arts.  They had a mediocre crowd-pleasing show “Monet to Sargent” of Impressionist landscapes.  A better temporary show featured Caravaggio’s “The Fortuneteller” from the Capitoline Museum in Rome, complemented by a collection of Baroque paintings from the Speed’s holdings.  The star of the place is an English Renaissance carved wood interior with the theme of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, from an estate in Devon.


A Museum handout recommended Buck’s Restaurant nearby.  This was lovely, very genteel, in a residential hotel.  It reminded us of the old Mrs. Simpson’s on Connecticut Avenue.  We got Hot Browns, Louisville’s signature sandwich, open face turkey, ham, bacon and cheese.  It’s good; I had visions of my cardiac team hovering above the blue haired ladies in the dining room. 


Louisville is known in landscape circles for their Olmsted parks.  The Olmsted firm designed a collection of parks named after Indian tribes (Seneca, Cherokee, Iroquois, Algonquin), connected by parkways.  Was an expansion of the Emerald Necklace idea they implemented in Boston.  The system seems to have been forgotten.  The parks are used, and you can still track the parkways on map, but they’re essentially just auto throughways. 


We headed south on I-65 to Mammoth Cave.  Michael had been whining about Mammoth ever since I brought up the idea.  He’d seen Carlsbad Caverns, and didn’t care to visit another cave ever again.  Mammoth surprised him, though.  We did the New Entry tour, which includes Frozen Niagara.  It’s like something out of a sci-fi movie, or Chronicles of Narnia.  From the Visitor’s Center you get on a shuttle bus, which takes you through the forest to a stop that is just a military-looking grey metal door in the woods.  In the woods, no one can hear you scream?  The guide took our eight person group down several flights of stairs, and in a few steps you’re in a tight but manageable cave system.  There are a few places where the space widens out, but most of it is through fairly narrow passages.  There are 500 steps down, but you leave on lower level of the mountain than you enter, so the ascent is not physically challenging.  Like Carlsbad, no real color, very beige.   All of the stalactites, stalagmites, walls of limestone, bats, and albino spiders that you expect. 


Within the Park we got onto the Duncan Hines Scenic By-way.  In general I would not bother with a KY scenic byway; they’ve gone to great lengths to create systems of back roads, but most of them go through farms that reminded us of working class New Hampshire.  This was a good route to try.  It includes a three car ferry across the Green River, Nolin Lake Dam, and lots of the forested Mammoth Cave National Park that you miss if you just zip into the main entrance for cave tours.  The name comes from Duncan Hines of cake mix fame; his birthplace along the route is now a funeral parlor with a scenic marker.


Dusk fell as we finished the drive, and we checked into the Hampton Inn Bowling Green.


Thursday, May 19

The Kentucky Museum is billed as the main history museum of the Commonwealth.  We knew it was on the campus of Western Kentucky University, but where?  GPS did not help, as the street address “One Big Red Way” was clearly made up for the college.  In addition, many streets were closed due to construction and a burst water pipe.  We parked on College Hill and walked across campus, figuring we’d hit it.  Michael asked a student, who pointed us to a building labeled “Welcome Center”, on campus maps as “Kentucky Library”; we’d driven right past it.


It was worth the hunt.  Someone here has gone to school to be a curator.  There are some trashy old exhibits, but several great new ones.  The decorative arts collection is shown as a timeline as found in grandmother’s attic, piles of pieces from colonial settlement through Space-Age-groovy-1970’s.  The show on Duncan Hines was especially good.  Do you know he began his fame as a traveler who wrote up a list of recommended restaurants included in a Christmas card?  They show the original, opened to Maryland.  We fell over laughing when we saw Mrs. K’s Toll House, still out on Colesville Road.  That led to guide books, and TV promotion, and eventually using his name as a brand to sell packaged foods.  Eventually he was bought out by Proctor & Gamble, and retired to Bowling Green.   Our favorite quote of the trip came in a show on the Civil War, where Kentucky is described as a border state that joined the Confederacy AFTER the Civil War.  We were the only visitors in the museum; the guards eyed us suspiciously wondering what we were doing there. 


Just west of Bowling Green is South Union Shaker Village.  This is the smaller of two Shaker settlements in Kentucky; the other, Pleasant Hill, is set up as a much larger museum complex.  South Union has only six buildings left from over 100 at the village’s height of prosperity.  However, most of these are original, not recreated.   The main Center House includes a good museum of the sect.  There is no food and only a small shop, but we were able to walk around the complex unsupervised.  We’ve been to enough Shaker villages to be able to give the tour ourselves; it was great to have access to the settlement unmediated by a guide.


We stopped for lunch at an Amish sandwich shop/bulk grocery down the road.  They serve amazing BBQ pork and ham salad sandwiches with baked beans and potato salad.  Homemade, sweet, and delicious.


We kept passing signs for the Jefferson Davis Birthplace State Historic Site.  Did you know that both Lincoln and Davis were born in Kentucky?  Back in the 1920’s the Daughters of the Confederacy funded an obelisk to the President of the Confederacy, in emulation of the Washington Monument.   Oi.  At its base is a double-wide pre-fab housing an exhibit on his life.  We decided we’d done enough homage to the revisionist history presented without each paying $5. 


Continuing west on I-68, the Land Between the Lakes has always been out of the way, tucked into the southwestern corner of the state between two rivers.  The TVA dammed the Cumberland to make Lake Barkley, and the Tennessee to make Kentucky Lake.  The Forest Service took over management of the area in the 1980’s.  It’s mainly set up for camping and outdoor recreation.  The visitor center explains the region’s history, including the dams and the evictions they caused.  Just to the north is a restored Elk-Bison Prairie.  We paid five dollars to get in, drove around the cool restored prairie, but saw no animals.  Maybe our city-slicker calls of “Bison, where y’all at?” scared them away.


Just north of the Barkley Dam is Grand Rivers, home to Patti’s 1880 Settlement.  This is a dreadful restaurant/tourist trap; the bastard child of a Victoria’s Secret and a Cracker Barrel.  They’re famous for their thick pork chops and high meringue pies.  We couldn’t take the potpourri, and since it wasn’t meal time, kept going.


We pulled into Paducah an hour later, found a Holiday Inn Express, and got dinner at Steak and Shake.  This is a chain we’d seen across Kentucky.  Hamburgers and milk shakes, with table service instead of counter.  It was fun and tasty, better than a Friendly’s.


It was still light after dinner, so we drove downtown to check out the flood wall murals and walked a bit around the old downtown.  We tried to drive around the Lower Town, but parts were blocked for an artists’ festival taking place that weekend, so gave up. 


Friday, May 20

The cultural highlight of Paducah is the National Quilt Museum, in the headquarters of the Museum of the American Quilt Society.  This is an unremarkable building with an amazing collection, purchased from the MAQS annual show winners.  They had two historical shows, on the orange slice pattern, and on orange the color.  The stars, though, are the recent quilts.  Art quilts, mini quilts, traditional patterns.  Lots of machine piecing and quilting, but plenty of hand work, too.  Dan especially liked a quilt that had complementary piecing on both sides, so it was reversible, sharing the same quilt stitches, but unique on each side.  Michael was taken by a Tolkien-themed quilt.  Unlike most quilt shows, there were few stupid quilts with metal or dangling bits that would make them unusable.  The best quilt technique we’ve seen, in beautiful, functional pieces.


The reason we were in Paducah is that for several years they have been giving houses to artists to attempt to jump start an economy.  We walked around the Lower Town Artist’s District, where most of that action had taken place.  There are few shops left, and just a few more studios.  The smart and funny owner of The Egg and I B&B and gallery told us the recent city history.  Like most cities, the white money went out to the suburbs after World War II.  Downtown declined into an area of prostitution and drugs; and the region remained economically stagnant when manufacturing moved to China.  By enforcing housing codes Paducah was able to push out most of the crime, and those are the houses that were used to bring in artists.  Efforts were working, with many artists having renovated houses and been ready to flip them, when the Bush II economy died.  So now the city is left with renovated housing in a place where no one is coming and there are no jobs.  To Michael’s stock question “When is your busy season?”, the response was “Season?  There’s dead, and there’s barely alive.”


We had a good funky lunch at Kirchoff’s Bakery, adjacent to the old market house downtown.  An amazing oyster po’boy and tuna melt, and broccoli and potato salads with bacon.  Coconut meringue pie for dessert.  Worth the stop.


We drove across the Ohio and through a boring corner of southern Illinois.  We crossed the Wabash into Indiana on a $1 toll bridge that looked like it hadn’t been maintained since the Depression.  New Harmony, Indiana, was founded by German Protestants in 1814.  They were expecting the Second Coming, but when God failed to arrive within a decade sold the whole thing as a turn-key Utopian village to English philosopher Robert Owen.  Owen recruited some of the great intellectuals and scientists of his day to build a model socialist community.  That didn’t work, but they did establish one of the most educated centers in Jacksonian America, just a flatboat ride down the Ohio and a short run up the Wabash.  Fast forward 150 years.  Dominique de Menil, oil exploration heiress, is vying with Jane Blaffer, daughter of the founders of Exxon and Texaco, for cultural supremacy of Houston.  Stay with me here, it really does tie together.  Dominique gives us Philip Johnson’s Rothko Chapel and Renzo Piano’s Menil Museum.  Jane Blaffer establishes the major art gallery at University of Houston.  She marries a descendent of Robert Owen, who takes her to decaying New Harmony on their honeymoon.  Mrs. Owen falls in love with the town, and creates a foundation to restore the original German and Owenite buildings.  She hires Johnson to design the Roofless Church here, and later Richard Meier to design the Athenaeum. 


So, we’re here for modern architecture, in a little-visited corner of Indiana.  It’s a small town of under a thousand people.   The Athenaeum is actually a Visitor’s Center, more a piece of Richard Meier sculpture with some utility than a functional building.  Most importantly for our visit, the Wabash had just receded from flood stage earlier that week.  No buildings were damaged, but the fields along the river were mosquito-breeding marshes.  Did you know that insects are attracted to shiny white buildings?  Or that the Athenaeum is exactly that, shiny white tile ramps, walls, and roof decks in signature Meier style?  We ran the bug brigade to the front door and were met by a kind volunteer guide who filled us in on all of the above.  The Center has a short video on the community, but as we were the only visitors she gave us a private tour.  Fun.  The insects were less of a problem as we walked away from the river and into town, which is quite lovely.  The Roofless Church is a little dumb, a brick walled grass court with an undulating altar-like structure over a Jacques Lipschitz sculpture.  It reminded me a little of the Brandeis chapels, and photographs beautifully.


An hour away, east on I-64 and a bit north on Indiana 37, is French Lick.  Yes, Larry Bird’s French Lick. Couldn’t care less.  Before the Boston Celtic grew up here the town was famous for its sulphur springs.  These were developed into resorts at the turn of the last century, and millionaires from Chicago, Detroit, and Louisville would come to take the waters.  Two remain open.  We had dinner in the French Lick Resort, which is a Louis XIV style hotel that must once have acted like the Homestead in West Virginia.  About a decade back they added a casino, and while that’s keeping the place alive, it’s also made it tawdry.  We tried to get into the main steak house restaurant for dinner, but it was booked solid.  Instead we ate in their Colonnade Buffet.  This is a little like one of the mass restaurants in Disney World, designed to move as many diners through as possible.  The food was good quality, but boring Midwest buffet.  After dinner we checked out the gardens on the grounds.


A mile up the road is the West Baden Springs Hotel.  We SO should have eaten here.  This hotel was built in 1901 with the world’s largest free-span dome.  It almost collapsed in the 1990’s, but preservationists intervened and in 2005 the building was restored as a luxury resort.  The grand round room and dome are magnificent.  A giant terra cotta tile fireplace almost gets lost in the space, which would be a shame given its charming theme of a gnome at the springs.  The grounds are very grand.  A sulphur smell lingers over the whole property, but that is after all why you’re there.


The rack rate starts at $300/night.  We decided it was too pricey for us and headed north to Bedford, where there was a Holiday Inn Express.  This was a long day; if you replay it you would want to spend more time in both New Harmony and French Lick. 


Saturday, May 21

Bedford has famous limestone quarries, whose product covers the Empire State Building, the University of Chicago, and Federal Triangle in D.C.  It’s almost like the stone has been following me in my life.  There are tours of some of the limestone quarries.  In addition, the University of Indiana campus at Bloomington is supposed to be worth seeing, as is the architecture in Columbus, which we’d visited in 2002.  We didn’t slow for any of this, but took the future I-69 corridor directly to Indianapolis. 


Every cultural organization in Indiana is fully funded.  Eli Lilly’s endowment has a restriction that a specific percentage of donations each year must go within the state.  Federal tax law requires that a specific percentage of a foundation’s income must be distributed each year.  That pairing was fine when Lilly was toddling along selling insulin.  When they developed Prozac, profits went through the roof, and the Foundation has to spend money like crazy.  It’s hard to find a cultural group in Indiana that has not benefited. 


The Glick History Center is the public face of the Indiana Historical Society.  Lots of high-tech exploration of documents in the collection, holographs on steam screens, video, still photos as interactive history.  This is supplemented with live performances of moments in Indianapolis history: Bobby Kennedy announcing the Martin Luther King assassination, a German-immigrant violin shop from 1914.  The Cole Porter room recreates an Art Deco bar, complete with a pianist/singer who performed “Anything Goes” at Michael’s request.  The Glick is located on the Center Canal, a San Antonio’ed river walk through downtown.  We had lunch at the museum’s café, on the canal terrace outside.  Egg salad, bacon & cheese, broccoli salad, a chicken club: everything was wonderful and fresh, in a cool space where you can watch people use the Canal path.


We walked around the nearby State House.  An odd French Second Empire Beaux Arts mishmash.  They were closed to tourists on Saturday, and that was okay. 


Indianapolis is one of the world’s largest settlements not on a major body of water.  We were taught it in the Geography program at Chicago as a study in place dynamics and settlement patterns.  Unfortunately, a live visit did not live up to thirty years of expectations.  The city is boring, and probably doomed to never have a lively urban feel.   The blocks are too big, so when a building fills a block it tends to be over scale and banal.  The streets are too wide for the traffic, so cars drive faster than they should and make crossing a little scary.  The people are derived from German Catholics, Scotch-Irish Protestants, and Southern Appalachians who were allowed to simmer without new blood for almost a century, leading to a fear of others and conservative thinking.  The end result is a non-walkable, sprawled city that tries ideas (urban renewal, downtown malls, redeveloped historic neighborhoods) just as other cities are discovering the flaws in the idea, but without the benefit of learning from other cities’ mistakes.  Not as bad as St. Louis or Phoenix, but pretty fatal.  Public transit is a no-go in this environment; getting some here was a major concern of writers in local newspapers.  One thing they could do would be to allow new streets to break up the interiors of the blocks and create a finer density, but that will take decades if they even want to invest the energy.


So, despite the fact that it is just north of downtown in a former trolley-car suburb, we got into the car to explore the Old Northside.  The Benjamin Harrison House on Delaware Street commemorates the president who broke up Grover Cleveland’s two terms in the 1880’s.  They’ve done a good restoration to the 1870’s period when the Harrisons first moved in.  Michael was excited to discover another American political dynasty: Harrison’ grandfather was the short-termed President William Henry Harrison, and great-grandfather a Governor of Virginia who had signed the Declaration of Independence.   When we rang the bell and were ignored figured we’d missed the last tour, but a nice guide we ran into on the grounds happily did a double shift and showed us around.  The former stables had a good exhibit on women’s suffrage.  Afterwards we walked around the neighborhood, full of gentrifying Edwardian architecture.


The only breaks in Indianapolis’s grid are Monument Circle in the dead center and four diagonal avenues radiating from it.  We checked out the street-life sucking City Centre Mall, the Circle, and the South Bend Chocolate Company.  The architecture on the Circle shows how good buildings can be when their age is respected and when successive schools of design confront a break from right angles.  Viewing stands were going up all over downtown, especially at the Monument, in preparation for the next weekend’s running of the 500. 


We were ahead of schedule, so drove back to the museum complex around the State House to see the Indiana State Museum.  This is a classic state history museum, with displays on three floors covering geology, geography, native settlement, immigration, Industrial Revolution, and contemporary history.  Well done, and well funded.  The state was settled by farmers south to north, coming up from the Ohio and Wabash Rivers.  Industry is still mainly in the two counties outside Chicago.  The founders who came in through the Cumberland Gap gave the state its conservative base: they could have used some of Wisconsin’s Scandinavians.  Their original 1851 Constitution made slavery illegal, and also refused blacks the right to settle in the state.  A little hypocrisy, anyone?  It was not a surprise to learn that Indiana became a center of the northern branch of the KKK in the 20th century.


We’d been excited to hear that the city had restored its 1870’s Union Station, and that the Crowne Plaza let you sleep in original Pullman cars.  Ah, but this is Indianapolis.  The Crowne Plaza fills half the original Union Station, a not-bad red stone faced Romanesque shed.  They’d done a horrible 1980’s adaptation – our room was in a Pullman, parked on original tracks, but once through the car door we realized they’d gutted the interior.  We got a 1980’s hotel room filling half the car, with mauve wallpaper, fake Bicentennial plumbing, and odd windows.  Rooms are named after famous travelers who once went through the station, but our “Jean Harlow” theme was two photos of the movie star between the beds. 


Since the Festival Marketplace in the rest of station has died the only restaurant choice was the hotel’s.  Instead we walked uptown through the Wholesale District.  This is all chain restaurants serving new sports venues.  Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Colts football franchise, is actually pretty cool: it is sited strikingly askew on its superblock, surrounded by parking, but looking like a big industrial fragment of a mythical blue collar past.  You’ll get to see it on TV when it hosts the 2012 Super Bowl.  Dinner was at the Old Spaghetti Factory, where the service was friendly but even the Spaghetti Vesuvio bland.


Sunday, May 22

Massachusetts Avenue is one of the diagonal streets, heading northeast from Monument Circle.  It is hyped as a funky in-town neighborhood.  Yes, it has some cool stores, and bits of an Adams Morgan/Capitol Hill vibe.  It’s spotty, though, broken up by blocks that suffered 1970’s urban renewal that break the energy.  There is a great pseudo-Moorish Masonic Temple/Mecca shrine.  We’d thought about getting brunch here, but fortunately had eaten breakfast at the hotel.


North to the Indianapolis Art Center.  It was hosting its annual Broad Ripple Art Fair.  This is one of the best craft/art shows we’ve seen.  The Center is as big as my high school, with large studios for pottery, hot glass, printing, and painting.  It’s sited in a park along a creek, and artists’ tables filled the parking lots, terraces, and groves around the Center.  Student work on display was well done and cheap; the professional craftsmen were great and asking prices less than we’re used to.  We purchased two prints from an artist based in Kansas and a striking metallic glazed pot from one of the students.  We ate there, since they offered fair food: corn dog, pork tacos, a giant pork chop.  We missed our opportunity to eat Indiana’s fried steak, like a giant breaded schnitzel, each bigger than a plate. 


Five miles north of downtown, on the grounds of the former Eli Lilly estate, is the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  This made me grateful for all my years buying their insulin.  The Museum bills itself as the fifth largest in America.  It’s headed by Max Anderson, wooed away from the Whitney in New York to bring them into the top rank of museums.  He’s certainly making the right moves.  Outside the main building are sculpture gardens, the original house Oldfields restored to show decorative arts, and estate gardens.  There’s also a new woods and lake park, 100 Acres, with art installations including a floating island by one of Michael’s favorite artists, Andrea Zittel.  We covered all but the last, letting bugs, guards, and severe storms kick us out of 100 Acres.  Good comprehensive Classical, Asian, textile, and African collections.  Old Masters from the Clowes Collection, the guy who helped Lilly make insulin a marketable product.  Good modern, and fantastic contemporary.  We especially like the James Turrell install, a previously unseen by us Edward Hopper, and a video of “Alice and Wonderland” transformed into a critique of Guy deBord and the Situationists. 


We decided Indianapolis has its moments, but we won’t be relocating.  Our friend Dawn is scheduled to move back soon; we promise to visit.  We’d skipped Conner Prairie, a Williamsburg of the 1850’s frontier, and Carmel’s design stores, both north of the city and presumably worth investigating.


We got out of town heading east on I-70.  Ate dinner at a Skyline Chili outside of Dayton, Ohio: it was nice to have Cincinnati chili without having to endure Cincinnati.  In Columbus the storms we’d been racing east finally caught up with us.  We pulled into what GPS thought was a Holiday Inn Express but since December has been a Red Roof Inn.  Pleasant enough, and about half the price of HI, so nice to try.


Monday, May 23

We stayed on I-70, and the rain continued, but not as fiercely as the night before.  It cleared up around Cambridge, Ohio, where we stopped to see Mosser Glass.  Cambridge has a long history making industrial glass.  As local companies focused more on bottles and other commercial products, the specialty lines were sold off.  Mosser began in 1970, hand-pressing glass in historic molds from those other companies.  It’s really just a four-square house with a concrete block “factory” attached.  They give tours, but we were there to shop.  They have lots of colored glass objet (kittens, painted flowers, pseudo-cut candy dishes).  We got what we came for, eight chicken-shaped covered dishes.  Expect to see them on the vegetarian table at Thanksgiving.


For the first time on this trip, people got suspicious and unsmiling once we hit West Virginia, and stayed that way until Hagerstown.  We think it was a general distrust of outsiders, in places that probably don’t see too many.  We don’t think we looked like revenue agents out to close hillbilly stills, but you never know.  I tried my Texas trucker cap, which I’d been using as a disguise to “blend” in Kentucky and Indiana (oh, shut up), but it didn’t seem to make a difference. 


Wheeling, West Virginia is beautifully sited above the Ohio River.  We stopped for lunch at Coleman’s Fish in the 1853 Centre Market building.  This was a recommendation from Jane and Michael Stern’s book “Road Food”.  They serve excellent fried fish sandwiches cafeteria style, and cheap.  There’s a nice little downtown around the market.  Especially notable is the original National Road crossing of the Ohio on an 1849 suspension bridge with massive stone towers.  It was designed by Charles Ellet and worked on by the Roeblings, who would later engineer the Brooklyn Bridge.


We passed over this panhandle of West Virginia into Pennsylvania on I-70, then down I-79 from Washington, Pennsylvania back into West Virginia at Morgantown.  In the 1960’s West Virginia University wanted to expand from its downtown campus, but its site along the Monongahela River meant the only pockets of level land were well north of the town.  At the same time young Senator Robert Byrd was learning how to squeeze pork out of the Federal government.  Instead of building roads to carry students and professors, which would have caused traffic to back up into the valleys, Byrd got funding to build the Personal Rapid Transit System.  This is the only working magnetic levitation system in the United States outside of Disney’s Tomorrowland.  It reminded Michael of the Disney ride, right down to the molded plastic seats.  It has one line, five stops, on a pleasant route from downtown to the original campus of WVU along the Monongahela Valley to engineering, residential, and medical campuses.  A kind student paid for our entry at the beginning, and another escorted us back on at Medical for the return trip.  The city is dependent on the university, but it seems a decent codependence.  A used video game store selling Atari consoles and nickel parking meters add to the 1970’s technology feel.


We drove through West Virginia and Appalachian Maryland on I-68.  We’d never seen mountain Maryland, up around Deep Creek Lake and Cumberland.  It is beautiful, but too outdoorsy for us city boys.  Picked up I-70, ate dinner at a Waffle House in Hagerstown, onto 270 South and into D.C. on Connecticut Avenue.


General Impressions

This is a fun, inexpensive road trip, an easy drive from Washington.  The food can be good, but there are large wastelands of corporate cuisine.  Once you cross the Appalachians the people are very polite but need to read more.  Don’t ask for something you don’t want to wait for, even if it is offered – by the time the cashier finds the skim milk, she could just as easily have gotten it from Bessie out back.  We suspect we glided by potential homophobia via speed: we were so out of the ordinary that by the time someone figured out they were taking money from gay boys we were already on the road and out of town.


We got see some cool animals: wild turkeys, horses, cows, rabbits, bats, robins, ravens, 13-year cicadas, deer, and chipmunks.  The daisies and pennyroyal were in bloom, and pretty.  In Kentucky, pick up an Ale-8-One.  This is a local brand of caffeinated ginger ale, as easy to find as Coca-Cola. 


Architecture?  The few buildings mentioned above are the highlights of the region.  Robert Venturi talks about Americans building decorated sheds, like putting a funky façade on a gas station or Costco.  Along the Ohio River they don’t bother to decorate their sheds, they put them to use just as they are unloaded from the flatbed truck.


The populace seems to be a sad product of the Scotch-Irish follower mentality.  They keep looking for their rich to deliver them to better times, with a selfish eye out for their own individual opportunity.  A series of outside movements has attempted to shift the thinking, including Progressivism, the Tennessee Valley Authority, labor unions, and farm subsidies.  Even Reynolds Aluminum and General Electric can be seen as outside influences, although in their cases interested more in what they could get from the land and the people than in regional improvement.  I kept humming songs from the musical “Finian’s Rainbow”, a condescending 1947 look at “Missitucky”, and thinking things hadn’t changed much since then.


In a rare introspective moment, a volunteer in one of the museums asked me what I was thinking about his state, and I said “D.C. seems to give Kentucky money, and in exchange you give us Republicans.”  I don’t see any reason to change that thought.




Personal articles main page


Return to main page