Michael and Dan Move to Massachusetts and Head to Appalachia
Daniel Emberley, October 2008
No, that does not translate as the Berkshires <smile>. We sold the house, bought a condo on Massachusetts Avenue, moved in and the next morning went on a road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. Read or trash; text will be up on my website shortly, so no need to keep.
We’ve been planning for a while now to sell the house and move to a place that would allow the same quality of life, in a better location in D.C., with a little less space and a lot less maintenance. We decided on buying a one-bedroom and an efficiency condo in a building near Dupont Circle. Theory is we’ll use the one-bedroom to sleep and eat in, and the efficiency for a library, office, and guest room. With the help of a brilliant realtor, Judy Cranford, we sold the house the same weekend we listed it, for our asking price, on the day that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac went under. We found the efficiency we wanted in our most desired building, the Boston House. There were no one bedrooms available, but there was an acceptable efficiency that came with a parking space, so we nabbed it. Boston House was built in 1950; it’s a mega-boring beige brick complex nestled amongst Johns Hopkins and Brookings buildings a block east of Dupont. Front desk, easy walks to Red, Blue, and Orange Lines, Michael’s office and a bunch of Dan’s clients. Lots of potential for renovating the original bath and kitchen, and for later buying a one bedroom with view and adjacent efficiency.
Wednesday, October 8
Between signing the contracts and the closings, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns all went under. Banks started cutting back on who they would lend to, and increasing what they required out of properties. Fortunately our buyer was game and flexible, doing things like having the security bars removed to get the inspection passed while planning to turn around and weld them right back up again once they moved in. Sale closing was in Friendship Heights, above the Cheesecake Factory. People were late, but it happened without a hitch. As we left Judy started handing us the documents the buyer should have asked for but didn’t, with instructions for me to close all those commitments so there would not be long term problems. We then hopped into her car for the condo closing up in Bethesda. En route up Wisconsin I waved our half-a-million dollar check shouting “Chevy Chase, we’ve arrived, let us in, let us in!” They didn’t even wave to us from the Country Club. Their loss. Closing at Judy’s preferred agent went even better, no issues, and an hour later we were on the Red Line back downtown with the keys to a new-to-us condo.
We’d negotiated a two week lease back on the house. That gave us a chance to paint the condo, throw a final party, move furniture to friends who helpfully agreed to babysit, and finish packing. Painting was the most important thing. The previous owners were investors who had never lived there; there were multiple layers of boring rental beige on every surface. We stripped and cleaned hardware, painted the ceiling a glossy white, walls our favorite grey Dover Cliff, and kitchen grey-green Seal Beach. Michael gave the parquet floors a good scrubbing with Mop-N-Glow. It all made the place look bigger.
Monday, October 20
We used Gulliver’s Movers, a company I’d used for a couple of clients. Thank God for professionals. Most everything went great; only one plate and one lamp were broken, and Michael and I were responsible for the lamp. But, no move goes perfectly, so here are our two best stories:
Just as the movers were finishing loading everything we own onto the truck, the police walked down Seaton and arrested the move coordinator. We still don’t know why; Michael was at the house and was told pretty forcibly by the cops to stand aside. The Gulliver’s crew called headquarters, and fortuitously they just had a manager walk into their office from a previous job. Michael bought the guys lunch, the replacement was at the house in a half hour, and we were back in business.
I was at the condo, and when I got the call the truck was moving, went downstairs to make sure the parking spaces we’d blocked were still open. A woman tried to pull in, but I pointed to the No Parking signs I’d posted and she waved and drove on. Right on her tail was an idiot on a cell in a BMW. He pulled right up to me and started screaming (still on the cell) to move so he could park. I pointed to the signs, let him know he could not have the space, and he started bumping me with his car. I should have keyed his hood, but instead kept taking baby steps back at each bump. Then our truck pulled up, saw what was going on, and started bumping Beamer-boy from behind. In the end we “won”, but what a jerk. Especially since, if he’d waited 10 seconds, he could have parked in the space in front where I’d blocked off one space too many. The movers were amazing, managed to negotiate a too-small freight elevator, long winding corridor to the apartment, and fit a two-bedroom house’s worth of furniture into an efficiency.
Tuesday, October 21
Knowing that if we stayed in D.C. I would turn into an unpacking maniac, Michael picked up a rental car from National, we threw bags in the back and headed south on I-95 to North Carolina. Lunch at a Waffle House, then Duke University in Durham.
It was the first day of early voting in N.C., and the campus was one of the polling places, so we couldn’t get parking anywhere close. Instead we entered the Duke art museum into the GPS, and parked there. Duke has a lovely but massive campus, like Princeton or Ohio State. Lots of forests between grey stone pseudo-Gothic buildings. The Nasher Museum of Art is an interesting Rafael Vinoly building in the shape of a flower, with galleries radiating from a central core. Not a bad teaching collection. The museum had up “El Greco to Velazquez”, great Spanish paintings in a show curated by Boston’s MFA. People in the South are so funny: aspiring to culture, but not really comfortable with it, or change, especially if they have money. So we two gay boys asked the Information Desk bottled-blonde-of-a-certain-age if we could walk from the Nasher to the chapel through the gardens. The request stunned her, as people clearly live in their cars here, but with a little prompting she was able to produce a campus map with walking paths. Turned out to be a lovely 20 minute walk through the Sarah Duke Gardens, which are one of the gems of the campus. A great set piece of a floral amphitheatre, The Terraces, led us to the cross-axial old campus. The chapel was designed by Julian Abele, one of America’s first great African-American architects. Very Gothic, very inappropriate for North Carolina, but totally fitting the Duke family’s agenda for making this one of American’s great universities. The interior woodwork is by Casson & Davenport, the East Cambridge furniture factory whose successor companies used to give me scrap lumber when I worked at Cambridge Legal Services back in the 1980’s. Terrific sculpture, glass, and organ.
Downtown Durham is much more than a college town. The former tobacco warehouses and cigarette factories have been turned into shopping, restaurants, and an entire research campus. We cruised for a restaurant for dinner, through the Ninth Street District, Brightleaf District, and American Tobacco Campus. We ended up back at Ninth Street, the most Adams-Morgan/Cambridge/college area, for Chubby’s Tacos. Truly brilliant fish tacos and taco salads, with a self-service bar of homemade salsas. Get the red pepper cream sauce.
Wednesday, October 22
A short drive up the road is the University of North Carolina’s main campus in Chapel Hill. A pretty campus, founded in 1793, some authentic Georgian/Federal architecture. But, very football-frat boy-sorority-centric, not a place I would have felt comfortable as a student. The Beaux Arts Ackland Art Museum is nestled up against a more contemporary art building addition. Walking through the addition we ran into an Art Department bake sale; these UNC girls certainly knew their way around an oven. The Museum small but well collected, hung, and curated. The star show celebrated their founding in 1958 with a look back at art and history from that year. Great pieces by Washington Color School, John Chamberlain, and Fluxus artists. Michael banged a nail into a Yoko Ono mirror. Best part was a lounge with Eames furniture, a TV showing period video, and contemporaneous kids’ stuff like Colorforms and Doctor Dan the Bandage Man.
The Coker Arboretum, managed by UNC as part of the NC Botanical Garden, is nestled into the campus, a lovely green glade among the brick-topped hillsides. We couldn’t get the GPS to direct us to the Botanical Garden proper, so called to get coordinates. They’re quite a ways out from the campus, and the Visitor’s Center was under construction, so even on a weekday parking was tough. The collection is great, though, broken into individual gardens themed to regions of the state. We really liked the aquatic and fern collections, also the large assembly of carnivorous plants.
We got lunch at Evo’s an eco-conscious salad bar/deli in Chapel Hill, then headed west to Winston-Salem. As the Duke family took over Durham, the Reynolds family did Winston-Salem and Wake Forest University. The Reynolds family home, Reynolda House, has been deeded to the community as an art museum. The art is okay, but the real treat is the home itself. Generations of women who married in tried to make life in the Piedmont tolerable by increasing the entertainment possibilities of the house. It has a bowling alley, shooting range, amazing swimming pool/conservatory, and quite beautiful bar. The entire basement/game level has rubber flooring for roller skating.
GPS took us by crazy backroads, including the town of Coolemee. Michael read it as “Coolie? Me? Not me!” When we got to our friend Marty’s she let us know it’s actually pronounced “cuul-a-mi”. Marty was Michael’s housemate years ago in Silver Spring; she’s since returned to the family place in back-country Mt. Ulla. She’s taken down the old sharecropper cabins, and the main house has been recycled into furniture around the country, including a bar in Athens, Georgia. She leases the land to a local farmer, and lives in the house on top of the mountain that she built in the 1980’s. She treated us to BBQ, Cheerwine (a great local Dr. Pepper equivalent), a visit to her cows, and terrific conversation as we caught up. True Southern hospitality.
Thursday, October 23
We’d driven the Skyline Drive before, but not spent much time on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is spectacular, especially the highest sections. Autumn trees in the American West seem to go all yellow. In New England we got yellows right through orange to vibrant reds and even purples. Southern forests are more dramatic than the former, but less than the latter, with hues going through a dull orange. If I were sending a European to see American leaves change color, I wouldn’t direct them anywhere south of Pennsylvania. Still, the color was gorgeous. Better, the mountains in the Blue Ridge and Smokies are significantly more dramatic than the White Mountains or Berkshires. So, we got roads that twisted in and out of mountain ranges similar to what we experienced in southern Utah, but with more vibrant foliage. Travelling at end of week, the traffic was not too bad, and the visibility great.
The Parkway Craft Center, in the Moses Cone Manor in Blowing Rock, was the first of a run of great Appalachian craft schools and stores. Moses Cone made his money in denim, built the mansion for the mountain views, and his wife deeded it to the Park Service. They had a woodworker making Shaker boxes on the front porch, and a great store. We especially liked the screenprints of Debbie Littledeer. Got a Blenko glass water pitcher and were back on the Parkway.
The Linn Cove Viaduct, south of Moses Cone, was the last section of Parkway built, in the early 1980’s. Hugging Grandfather Mountain, the park here preserves so many unique ecological niches that the highway engineers and the environmentalists couldn’t figure out how to preserve the nature and still get cars through. Figg Engineering finally solved the problem with long reinforced concrete post-and-lintel structures supported on a few strategically placed concrete piers around the mountain’s curve: this allowed limited construction disturbance, and long-term continual access for animals and plants up the mountainside. It’s also a pretty impressive set of views, as you curve down the Parkway at 30 MPH. I’d taught the viaduct in my bridge demonstration at the Building Museum, but had never had a chance to see it.
Penland is one of the region’s best craft schools. Several of our friends have studied glass, metals, and textiles there. It’s well into the woods, up a steep drive that gets even steeper once you enter the grounds. It acts a little like a cross between a summer camp and an art school. They have a gallery/visitor center where you can purchase work by the teachers; then they let you walk the grounds and check out craftsmen at work. Decent bakery/café abuts the school library. The school supply store also sells well designed t-shirts. All in Arts-and-Crafts wood and stone cottages tucked into groves of trees, except for crafts like glass or the forge that require more industrial space. Way off the beaten track, totally worth it.
Penland is just a few miles northeast of Asheville, the Paris of the Hillbillies. This was the surprise hit of our trip. We’d been through the town before to see the Vanderbilt mansion Biltmore, but had not been able to see anything off the estate grounds. We are so glad we went back. The town is famous for Thomas Wolfe, affluent vacationers, and contemporary crafts. It is bigger and nicer than Charlottesville; less college town and more of an arts capital. Great gallery scene, mainly craft but some decent art, in a downtown that is compact enough to be walkable and big enough to be worth exploring. Lots of Art Deco and Arts-and-Crafts construction. The Grove Arcade downtown was designed to be the base of a Gothic-Deco skyscraper that never materialized. The Defense Department and National Archives used it as a storage facility for decades, then it got renovated into its current shopping arcade space. Craft galleries and specialty food stores downstairs, professional offices upstairs, all in one of the most lovely arcade structures we’ve seen.
The same investor who planned the Grove Arcade also built the Grove Park Inn. This is a top draw on the Arts-and-Crafts architectural circuit, a massive luxury resort hotel in the style of a castle built out of boulders. The furnishings are original Roycroft and Stickley, or more recent reproductions by successor firms. We ate the fanciest meal of the trip with a view of the sun setting over the Blue Ridge. It only lasts about ten minutes, but is so worth it. The bourbon and pork chop weren’t bad, either. Aim for one of the restaurants in the original building; the 1980’s additions are an architectural crime.
Friday, October 24
Woke up to discover we were a short hop from Biltmore Village. This was the train station the Vanderbilts used to get to Biltmore. It was laid out by Olmstead, homes and shops designed by Richard Morris Hunt and associates. It was supposed to evoke a British estate town, but services Hunt’s French-Chateau Biltmore, so is a little odd. Now it’s mainly Chico’s-like clothing, high end housewares, and a really good toy store. The craftsmanship of the buildings is fantastic. The Cathedral of All Souls, the town church, is the best part.
Back up on the Parkway is the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild Folk Art Center, partner to the center/store at Moses Cone. Same great crafts, and a much better gallery showing amazing wooden cabinetry.
Back downtown we got lunch at Chey’s Noodle House, then shopped our way through galleries and stores. Furniture here is inexpensive and high quality, if you like that Scan-modern-country look. Mast General Store was once an authentic Appalachian hardware store, but is now a small chain of pseudo-country stores in towns servicing the Parkway. Was able to get a Lodge cast iron griddle with raised grill lines, to replace the much-missed inline grill at Seaton.
Black Mountain is a settlement just northeast of Asheville. From 1933-1956 it was home to Black Mountain College, one of the most innovative schools in America. Josef and Anni Albers taught John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and tons of important poets I never heard of how to create an American culture. Buckminster Fuller made his first geodesic dome here, from Venetian blinds, with the help of dozens of students. The College’s legacy looms large over American art and education. The Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center commemorates the school in a storefront space in downtown Asheville. Decent show on the influence of women at the school, and a great video helping put the myth into perspective. Also cool t-shirts.
We headed west from Asheville to Cherokee, the North Carolina gateway to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This is one of the biggest Native American reservations east of the Mississippi. Of course, the main draw is a casino. Anything to reverse the disenfranchisement of the natives, I say. The Cherokee tribe has created a museum, seasonal amphitheatre performance, and crafts center to keep people entertained away from the gaming tables. We did the crafts center, the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual. Most of what was on display/sale was basketry and wood carving, not stuff we collect or could use.
Walked through the tawdry “Indian” shops on the main drag, and had a mediocre dinner at an all you can eat steakhouse buffet. Frighteningly, this seems to be how a good chunk of Middle America takes vacations. Then off we went to try our luck at Harrah’s. We proved that “lucky in love, unlucky in cards”, and happily so. I lost $40 in fifteen minutes at the slots; Michael did better, losing half that in twice the time. Fun, but no Vegas or even Mohegan Sun.
Saturday, October 25
The point of this trip was to actually see the Great Smoky Mountains. We’d cut across the Park a decade back, as a shortcut between Biltmore and Dollywood. It was dusk, but incredibly beautiful, and we swore to return when we could appreciate it. It’s still incredibly beautiful, but we still haven’t done it justice, and now we know we probably won’t. The Park has a major drive cutting through the middle, Newfound Gap Road. It’s the road we took before, and took again. It takes you on hairpin turns, past countless scenic vistas, and pine forests and waterfalls that come right up to the car windows. To really appreciate the Park, though, you need to access it from its periphery for the many hiking trails that get you up close and personal with the best stuff. That would also require backpacks, a tent, and more time and desire to commune with nature than either of us have. I’ll leave that to my brother Tony. By heading out of Cherokee first thing and driving right into the Park we were able to enjoy a good chunk of the drive and vistas at a leisurely pace. About 2/3 through, after we crossed the Appalachian Trail into Tennessee, traffic caught up with us. It’s dispiriting watching people cut you off for a parking space so they can commune with the glory of God and nature. Unable to reconcile the contradictory behaviors, we didn’t try. We headed on through, into Tennessee’s Smoky gateway, Gatlinburg.
Gatlinburg had the same tourist traps that we’d seen in Cherokee, with even more Branson-like attractions. In between these, however, is the entrance to Arrowmont, another of the great Southern craft schools. Our glass mentor Kari Minnick teaches there, and she’s right, once you enter the grounds you forget you’re in Gatlinburg. Getting more tourists than Penland, Arrowmont has created a “skywalk” over the studios, so you can check them out without interrupting instruction. Glass, wood, pottery, metal, printmaking. Very fun and interesting. A great bookstore, and a small but select collection of teachers’ work for sale.
Our friend Peg had warned us that Knoxville was not our kind of town, and she was right, too. The University of Tennessee Volunteers were playing football that afternoon. Mobs of orange-shirted drinking frat boys and the pony-tailed girls who love them hung out in pre-game parties making the place seem creepy and fascist. The draw for me was World's Fair Park. Site of the 1982 fair, the Park is a decent piece of urban development. A fake river flows through, beginning with a major fountain plaza and ending at the river. The plaza is bizarrely signed that people with diarrhea may not enter the fountain, a better epitaph for Knoxville than anything I could make up. The Fair’s landmark structure, the SunSphere, is about twelve stories tall. You can take an elevator to the view over the town, but there’s not much to see. The Knoxville Art Museum redeemed the stop, a 1990 building by Edward Larrabee Barnes. Another good craft exhibit, a terrific Kenneth Snelson in the sculpture garden, and Thorne Model Rooms. If you’ve ever been to the Art Institute of Chicago, you’ve probably laughed at the Thorne Rooms, dollhouse-scale models of great moments in Western Interior Design. They serve as the museum’s surrogate for period rooms. Turns out Ms Thorne paid for more than Chicago wanted, and Knoxville got the leftovers. What a hoot.
In adjacent Oak Ridge there’s a museum dedicated to the atomic bomb and energy science, but we blew past that, the Andrew Johnson Presidential Site in Greeneville, and went straight up I-81 parallel to the Parkway to Virginia. We were starting to look forward to getting home. Blacksburg and Virginia Tech offered no rooms at the inn due to another stupid ball game, so we ended our day’s drive up the Shenandoah in Salem, outside Roanoke.
Sunday, October 26
Natural Bridge has been a tourist trap since Thomas Jefferson bought it off of King George III. One expects a trashy experience, but it is actually breathtaking. There’s a major parking lot, resort hotel, wax museum, and toy museum, but then you get onto a nature trail that leads to the arch proper, and it’s amazing. Best equivalent we can think of is the path up to the falls in Zion National Park. At night there’s a Christian light show projected against the bridge, but during the day you just get the grandeur of the site. Lee Highway goes across the bridge, as it has since before Robert E. Lee was the most famous member of the Lee family, but you can’t see the road from below. Through the arch and up the trail is a recreated Native American settlement, bat cave, and saltpeter mine. The climax, just when you’re about to give up because the trail map is SO not to scale, is Lace Falls, a beautiful terminus to the stream gorge you’ve been exploring. We checked out the toy museum, which has a decent collection but is in serious need of dusting and re-hanging. It can look like a Toys-R-Us surplus sale, but then you’d turn a corner to see a great little Civil War or Star Wars or Gem and the Holograms diorama.
Lexington is a smug little town in the Shenandoah Valley. It looks too affluent and privileged for its own good. When we got cut off by a trophy wife and her sweater-draped-over-shoulders husband I wondered if they still missed their slaves. The Washington & Lee University campus is quite pretty, and we were able to find the chapel where Robert E. Lee is buried, but had missed visiting hours. The adjacent Virginia Military Institute campus seems to be trying to emulate West Point, but without the benefit of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue’s architectural ability. Glad we saw, but no need to go back.
With that we got back on 81, up to Front Royal and into D.C. on 66. Good to get away from the city, but we were never so glad to be back with people who valued their educations. A condo packed to the gills awaited us. We’ve since unpacked the boxes, gotten the kitchen, bath, dining room, offices, and bedroom functioning, and are enjoying life without the stresses of house ownership. Hotel Rice and Pasta is closed until we get that one-bedroom purchased, but we look forward to accomplishing that and extending an invite before Easter.
FOR FUTURE TRIPS:
NC Homespun Museum, Asheville
North Carolina Arboretum, Asheville
Levine Museum of the New South, Charlotte
UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens & Sculpture Garden
Duke Homestead Historic Site, Durham
Church of the Frescoes, Glendale Springs
Korner's Folly, Kernersville
Grandfather Mountain, Linville
World's Largest Open Face Granite Quarry, Mt. Airy
Birthplace of Pepsi, New Bern
Tryon Palace, New Bern
James K. Polk Historic Site, Pineville
Mordecai Historic Park, Raleigh
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh
North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh
North Carolina State Capitol, Raleigh
J.C. Raulston Arboretum, NC State, Raleigh
Gorges State Park, Sapphire
Ava Gardner Museum, Smithfield
Jesse Helms Center, Wingate
Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga
Lookout Mountain/Rock City, Chattanooga
Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga
Norris Dam State Park, Norris
Norris Museum & City Tour, Norris
American Museum of Science & Energy, Oak Ridge
Andrew Johnson Historic Site, Greeneville
Barter Theatre, Abingdon
Poplar Forest, Lynchburg
Appomattox Courthouse, Appomattox