Michael and Dan Discover Even More Hidden Treasures of I-95 North
Daniel Emberley, April 2008
Another year, another chance to turn a family visit into a road trip. Who knew there was so much to do off of I-95? This year our friend Catie, veteran of the Barnes in a blizzard and our Brussels/Amsterdam trip, joined us.
Saturday, April 19
Our first stop off I-95 was New Brunswick, New Jersey. We pulled off the Jersey Turnpike hungry, so stopped for lunch at the collection of food trailers on the Rutgers campus signed “RU Hungry?” Excellent choice, great fat subs with fries stuffed in. Goal was the Zimmerli Museum. This is the university art museum; I’d seen some pieces from here at the Corcoran’s Modernism show and at Art Nouveau at National Gallery, but wasn’t sure of the extent of the collections. Turns out they have outstanding Russian art: 19th Century, post-Revolution Modern coolness, and post-Glasnost contemporary. Plus glass, Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau paintings and decorative arts. What a treat. Did a quickie walk around the older parts of the campus, but as our friend and Rutgers undergrad Brett had warned, it’s not a memorable architectural ensemble. Tipped our hat to the statue of William of Orange, whom we’d last seen together in Amsterdam.
Up Interstate 80, due west of Manhattan in Parsippany is the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms. I’d thought this was where Gustav Stickley made his cool Arts and Crafts furniture at the turn of the last century. Actually, that was in a factory in New York City. Craftsman Farms was designed by Stickley as his country estate. He went broke not long after completion, but the kernel of the utopian community he’d planned was preserved when others used it in turn as their country estate. It’s now run by the county and interpreted back to period, with wonderful examples of Stickley furniture and Arts and Crafts textiles. We had an excellent docent, who used models to interpret the joints and construction of the furniture. Pastoral and peaceful.
We had enough time to do something, but not anything that had a closing time. We headed east to Liberty State Park, on the Jersey shore of New York Harbor, opposite Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Michael had been here about twenty years ago with his Mom, right after the former train yards had been declared a park. The state’s been busy since then, and there’s plenty to do even if you don’t take a ferry to the monuments. They’re turning the old Jersey City train terminal into a new ferry terminal. This was where Pennsylvania Railroad trains ended before Andrew Cassatt built the Hudson River tunnels to Manhattan and Penn Station. Too much history to absorb, but the sun on Manhattan was gorgeous.
We drove to Jersey City’s Brownstone Diner for calamari, spanakopita, linguini, and banana cream pie. Off to the highway for a hotel; checked into a Holiday Inn Express. I’d always interpreted this chain’s name to mean it was a stripped down version of a Holiday Inn. Actually it’s the chain’s brand for business travelers: big rooms, luxury sheets and towels, great service, and full hot breakfasts. Who knew?
Sunday, April 20
Duke Gardens was Doris Duke’s father’s country estate in Somerville, New Jersey. These are the American Tobacco Company, Duke Power, and Duke University people. We’d seen their Newport house, Rough Point, on a previous trip. Doris left most of Dad’s Jersey place as a working farm, but built an enormous greenhouse to play gardener in. The whole estate is now open to the public, and there are so many options that I’d been confused calling in to make reservations. Good thing that I had, as the place was booked up for the whole day. We were lucky in my uninformed choices, as we got to take a walk through the semi-wilderness near the old house, then through Doris’s theme gardens. The usual Italian, Chinese, and desert rooms, but also a Persian-themed garden that blew us away. There are hundreds of acres we never got to; site management seems to be undecided about whether they want to be an agricultural research station or a tourist attraction. Totally worth it either way. Docents mentioned that management may tear down the greenhouses; be sure to contact the site in advance before you go to make sure they’re still there and to reserve the tours you want.
Hertz had given us a GPS system with the rental car. We started playing around with it, and were psyched about what it provided. I’m throwing away my hotel directories, as the GPS finds them more conveniently, and then gets you there. The 3rd-party nature of the system meant that Michael and I didn’t get into tussles over directions. It still helps to know generally where you’re going, as we had a couple of misdirects. Overall, though, it’s a blessing: we’re so adding one to our road trip kit, along with our EZ Pass (probably the only one in America not attached to a car).
So, GPS got us to Albany up I-87 and into New York State on the west side of the Hudson. Cool passing view of Storm King Art Park, which we’d seen on an earlier trip and could now recognize.
Albany gets a deservedly bad rap, but underneath the machine politics, state employee mindset, dead industry and worse urban renewal are the bones of a great Victorian industrial city. First stop was the Albany Institute of History and Art. This is a pristine little museum near the State Capitol. A great collection of Hudson River School paintings, and a good but odd exhibit on cast iron stoves. Turns out Albany was once a cast iron, railroad, and manufacturing city as well as home of state government.
Empire Plaza was Nelson Rockefeller’s dubious gift to the state. Anchored on one end by the Capitol, it extends south to the New York State Museum. It’s one of the best done, and most unpleasant, examples of tear-it-down-and-build-it-Modern ever. A giant windswept plaza lined on one side by state office buildings so anonymous they go by the numbers one through five rather than names. The other side has the tallest building in Albany (and probably between the Empire State and Montreal), named after the corrupt mayor Erastus Corning, who Rockefeller bought off to allow destruction of the neighborhood that was once here. A gynormous reflecting pool that reflects nothing, disabled fountains, evil staircases that descend to who knows what (probably parking), but looked like bird-blinds for muggers and rapists. All topped by the largest collection of sculpture in public ownership. Nelson called in his friends in the art community, and got gifts and purchases from the best sculptors of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. If only that period had been a good one for sculpture, or architecture. There is a quite cool George Rickey mobile, but the rest is not memorable.
Dinner at a P.F. Chiang’s in Colonie Mall, as Catie had never been to one before. Olive Garden with chopsticks.
Monday, April 21
One of the challenges of road trips is finding places open on Monday. Governments can be life savers, and New York State did not disappoint. Back to Empire Plaza for the New York State Museum. It’s a hideous 1960’s concrete monster, but has quite good collections on the history and art of the state. At least half of the museum is dedicated to New York City, including the first curated exhibit dedicated to the 9-11 attacks. I liked the tenement section, where the Jacob Riis photos on the wall are complemented on the gallery floor by a life-size outline of a typical tenement. Amazing that people could live in such small quarters and not kill each other; in comparison, Queens and the Bronx must have seemed like paradise. The museum is ready for an overhaul: the original 1970 shows are still standing, but subsequent shows have been shoe-horned in. The resulting warren of exhibits has no clear narrative, but is small enough that one does not get overwhelmed as in D.C.’s American Indian Museum. The highlight is a working carousel on the upper level, where you get to ride the horses while the panorama of Albany passes around you.
Our next goal was the New York State Capitol, across the Plaza. Michael found a small door that led under the Plaza. There’s a whole subterranean level of shops, parking, a convention center, and entry to the office buildings above. This is where Rockefeller’s gifts of painting went (we knew they had to be somewhere). Overall impression was of an airport terminal where the main airline had gone out of business. We were lucky to have found this space, as it is where the State Capitol Visitors’ Center is housed. We picked up audio guides and exited the concourse through security right into the Capitol proper. Apparently this is the main entrance, and folks who try the grand entrance outside are directed here. A creepy precedent for what’s about to happen at the U.S. Capitol when the new subterranean visitors’ entrance opens, I’m afraid.
We took a break for lunch at a Mexican restaurant we’d scouted the day before opposite the Albany Institute on Washington Street. Not white-people Mexican, but food that was cooked by someone who might actually have been born in Mexico. Excellent chipotle chicken.
The New York State Capitol is worth a walk through any way you can get it. The most expensive government building ever when it was completed in the late 19th century, it had four architects, each of whom built on and partly obliterated the work of their predecessors. The only one I can remember is H.H. Richardson, who designed some amazing gilt-Romanesque chambers and staircases. (Richardson also built the Albany City Hall, around the corner, which needs a visit if we find ourselves back in town.) The audio tour is quite good, taking you through impressive public spaces as well as functioning and cool areas like the corridor of press offices. Although a lot of the building’s cost was due to Boss Tweed corruption, enough was invested in carved brownstone, ceiling painting, leaded glass and wrought iron to make an impression.
We booked it east on Route 2, winding over the Berkshires on some of the most treacherous roads Michael had driven since our Southwest trip. North Adams, Massachusetts was once a Sprague Electric factory, now the art museum MassMOCA. Michael and I had seen it on a previous trip, but Catie never had, and wanted to see the transformation from factory to kunsthalle. Since there’s no permanent collection every visit is pretty much a new place. We remembered it being better; perhaps we’re conflating it in our memories with Dia Beacon on the Hudson? The big deals were non-Chinese artists working in China, Spencer Finch (mundane tech like fans and fluorescent lights evoking poetic aspects of light and place) and Jenny Holzer (an obscure poem projected into a space the size of a football field, and onto yourself if you took advantage of the family-size beanbag chairs). The Holzer piece was near-identical with what she showed from the Kennedy Center Terrace last year, except in a more controlled and so better projected environment. There was an intriguing piece installed upstairs, Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” reproduced in suspended spools of thread, but the evil security guards closed the gallery before we got there, an hour before closing. Bastards.
That left us at 3:30 in the afternoon with nothing to do. We walked around downtown North Adams, but that took all of fifteen minutes. In an inspired choice we headed north to Bennington, Vermont. This had been on our B-list, but having been, we highly recommend it.
First stop was dinner at a Friendly’s, then the Bennington Battle Monument. The battle was during the Revolution, actually took place in neighboring New York, and I can’t tell you any more about it. Monument is like a melting obelisk, but is the tallest thing in town, in a pretty hilltop circle. We asked the GPS to direct us to Bennington College, and were stunned to be told to go over a cliff. We eventually found the road intended, a golf course service road, but instead went around the course then back on the GPS-dictated route. This was the kind of destination we would have skipped without the GPS: knew it was somewhere in town, had no map, no directions, and really didn’t know where we were. Instead, in fifteen minutes we were at the College gates.
Bennington College at twilight was one of the most beautiful experiences of the trip. The campus is like a farm with estate outbuildings serving as dormitories and classrooms. Everywhere we turned live music was coming from an open window, or actors were rehearsing on the lawn, or artists were running with portfolios under their arms. There’s a lovely glass-box library by Pietro Belluschi. The former manor house is now the music building; we stood on the terrace and watched the last sunbeams hit the hills across the valley, just lovely.
Tuesday, April 22
Bennington has a covered bridge museum, which we completely skipped, but we picked up a brochure of the bridges and toured three of them. A perfect merger of technology, vernacular architecture, and tourist attraction.
The Bennington Museum has an outstanding collection of Colonial and Federal furniture, also funky holdings of paintings, inventions, and just “stuff” that you might find in the attic, if your grandmother was D.A.R. The big deal are the Grandma Moses paintings, some of them housed in her former schoolroom, brought to this site and merged into an old church as part of the building complex. I think Grandma Moses was a 1950’s Thomas Kinkeade, but the building itself is pretty amazing.
Hancock Shaker Village was a short drive south. Massachusetts schools had this week off for Patriots’ Day, and the Village celebrated with “baby animal week”. Goats, calves and pigs filled the famous round barn, and Michael got to chase heirloom breeds of chickens around the grounds. This is probably the best Shaker museum-village I’ve been to; more authentic than Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, and much more alive than the Shaker rooms you find in art museums. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Shaker Village of Canterbury, New Hampshire, near where I grew up, but Hancock does a better job of interpreting the community. One of the large dwelling houses has been restored, with the individual rooms interpreted for differing uses, making for clear instruction. The graveyard, with the individual stones replaced by a single monument a la Canterbury, was a perfect ending to the experience.
We gunned it east on the Mass Turnpike, the most boring expressway in America, to Waltham. Ate dinner in an inexpensive but good Italian place on Main Street; then drove to my folks for the official family visit part of the trip.
Wednesday, April 23
The agenda was to spend time with my parents and brothers, but that didn’t mean we had to sit around the kitchen table reading the Waltham News-Tribune. In tribute to Catie’s Unitarian faith we made the pilgrimage to Concord, for the Alcott House and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Visited the graves of Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, Daniel Chester French, and other New England notables. Went to the North Bridge, and drove Battle Road to Royal Pastry Shop in Lexington. Royal is one of Michael’s must-do stops when we get close to Boston, bakers of some of the best Italian pastries anywhere. We got a box full to eat at the Museum of Our National Heritage nearby. The museum is run by the northern branch of the Scottish Rite Masons; the southern branch is housed in the Scottish Rite Temple on 16th Street near our house in D.C. On the down side, the northern Masons got a tawdry 1960’s brick building in the suburbs. On the up side, they have outstanding exhibits on the cultural and industrial history of America, focusing on suburban Boston. Some very cool clocks were on display, crafted as a hobby by the man who created the animated displays for Jordan Marsh and Filene’s Christmas windows.
That night we hosted dinner at the Chateau, a classic red sauce Italian restaurant that’s been feeding Waltham since the 1960’s. All but five of my immediate family were able to be there, which was fantastic. As a party of seventeen they should probably have put us in our own room, but then we would have missed the Gold Room, where we dominated the space under the beneficent eyes of Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Sylvester Stallone (in oils, not live). Afterward we continued the party at Mom and Dad’s.
Thursday, April 24
I’d planned to route us west on Route 2, but the GPS was pretty insistent that the Pike was the wiser option, so we followed directions to the Connecticut River Valley and Deerfield, Massachusetts. Deerfield was oddly disappointing. They have a sensational collection of Colonial and Federal period houses, about one-third restored and open to the public as a museum, a la Williamsburg. Prep school Deerfield Academy is in the center of the historic town, the students looking like they walked out of a Ralph Lauren ad. We’d always thought Ralph made that look up, but the Deerfield kids seem born to it. More disappointing was the museum set up. Most of the houses are only open on the hour, via guided tours. However, the undisciplined docents go well over an hour, dwelling on details that we either already knew or found irrelevant. A frustrating experience, as we knew that cool interiors were waiting for us, if only we could break free from the monotone of the moment. Even my curtness was unable to interrupt some of them. Deerfield does have impressive collections of silver, furniture, and textiles, but if you go, expect to need all day, and to have to stand through much boring narrative.
By the time we got out of town it again seemed too late to hit another museum. We drove to Northampton in search of a yarn store which we discovered had become a bead store. Eh. Pretty town, but we decided to risk it and raced to the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst. We were in luck, catching the final tour of the day. The house Dickinson lived in and her brother’s next door are now managed by Amherst College. They have only begun restoration, so don’t have a lot to show. One would have expected that to be a disappointment, but our guide did a brilliant job of infusing the space with Dickinson’s life and poetry. A fantastic counterpoint to our Deerfield experience; it shows how much of a positive museum experience comes from the people rather than the things.
Amherst is another pretty Valley college town. We had dinner at the Amherst Brew Pub, with a delicious honey pilsner and flight of their other brews accompanying fried pickles. Delicious. We strolled across the Common to the College, where the Mead Art Museum stays open until 8PM on Thursdays. An impressive collection, which we had almost to ourselves. Traded knowledge of American painting with a student guide, saw Assyrian reliefs, a cool English Jacobean room installed with 1920’s Russian canvases, and an odd but decently curated show of contemporary art about foreignness and identity (I think). Another sunset walk across a campus to the car, and off to a Holiday Inn.
Friday, April 25
Just a bit south is the biggest city in the valley, Springfield. They have a museum quadrangle that we’ll have to get back to, behind Daniel Chester French’s “Pilgrim” statue. The draw was the Dr. Seuss Memorial in the quad’s courtyard. Bronze statues of the Cat in the Hat, Thing One and Thing Two, Horton, the Lorax, and other Seuss characters surround Ted Geisel, their creator. A fun photo op.
Conitnued south to New Haven, Connecticut, and the Yale University Art Gallery. In the 1920’s, when Cole Porter was hanging out in Paris and the south of France , he was doing it with his friends Sara and Gerald Murphy. Sara was an ink heiress, Gerald’s father founded Mark Cross. For ten years the Murphy’s created the idea of how rich Americans should live on the Riviera. Inspired by work they did on sets for the Ballet Russe, Gerald became a painter. Of his fourteen known canvases, only seven remain. All of them were in a major show here at Yale, which was what drew us back here. We’d forgotten how good the collection is, and the recently renovated Louis Kahn building was spiffy. Well worth the visit. We had lunch in a surprisingly good Thai buffet on Chapel Street, and wandered the campus. The Paul Rudolph-designed Architecture Building is being redone, but a banner pointed to the other show I’d hoped to see, “Painting the Glass House”, contemporary artists interpreting Modern architecture. Unfortunately, the building it’s in was being set up for a private function, but we got a quick peak at the nifty building where the School of Architecture has set up temporary quarters.
Down river to Bridgeport for the Barnum Museum. Bridgeport is looking very bad, a blue collar town that hasn’t figured out how to make it as a New York suburb. The museum building is its best holding, a great red brick Victorian paid for by P.T. Barnum to house a museum of art and science. The town has turned it into a tribute to the showman, with mediocre and tired circus exhibits.
We fled, and keyed “Aldrich Museum” into the GPS. I remembered this being inland, almost in Westchester County. Instead we were directed to an industrial part of Norwalk on Long Island Sound. Interesting, but not what we wanted. We called the Aldrich (GPS gave the correct phone number, despite the wrong address), and learned we weren’t the first to make that detour. Got a good street address, gave it to the GPS, and this time it got us to Ridgefield, Connecticut. If we thought Deerfield was showing excessive wealth, it was just a prelude to the conspicuous consumption of Ridgefield. We stopped for tea, and think we actually made the inhabitants uncomfortable. What a nasty closed minded little town. They do have a marvelous modern building in the Aldrich, which has travelling shows of cutting edge art. To our surprise, they had up the bulk of the “Glass House” show we hadn’t been able to see in New Haven. Cool. I really liked it, but Michael and Catie were less impressed. Our collective favorite piece was an installation of tennis balls in a grid across the lawn.
Enough of Connecticut. We did a reverse commute into Manhattan, miraculously landing a parking space outside our friends Bonnie and Caleb’s apartment near Columbia. We ate take out Chinese and caught up with them and their daughters Laila and Amelia. Laila’s Girl Scout troop had sold us cookies, so we picked those up and headed across the GW Bridge to a last Holiday Inn Express in the New Jersey Meadowlands. GPS made getting on and off the bridge almost easy, and without it I would never have attempted finding anything near Giants Stadium.
Saturday, April 26
We had planned on seeing Wave Hill, in the Bronx, but since we were already in Jersey, considered skipping it. In the end we decided to pay the extra toll and cross back over, and we’re glad we did. Wave Hill is a pair of former estates on the Hudson in Riverdale, as far out in the Bronx as you can get without being in Westchester. Indeed, the houses look like they could just as well be in upscale White Plains or New Rochelle. The estates have a perfect view of the New Jersey Palisades across the river, protected by a previous owner who organized a New Jersey parks commission specifically to protect his view. Wave Hill is now run by the NYC Parks Department as a music venue, art gallery, but most especially to preserve the gardens. There are moderate size greenhouses and theme gardens, in a complex directly above the Amtrak/MetroNorth rail lines. Gorgeous. The original mansion, rented at different times by Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain, has kids’ programs and a Medieval Hall whose original armor collections are now in the Met. A secondary mansion has temporary art exhibits; it was showing contemporary artists on ecology and man’s interaction with the environment. Another excellent show, but at this point we’d seen so many that we were suffering gallery fatigue.
We recuperated in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, back in the Meadowlands. This had once been a major New York City landfill, then the Trash Museum, but has been reinterpreted into the New Jersey Meadowlands Development Commission Environment Center. We were disappointed that the landfill interpretation is no more, but the landscaping, wetlands, and abundance of birds soon distracted us. Great walking trails through the swamps and flocks of herons, bluejays, and blackbirds. Every once in a while we’d see a tire or rusting iron hulk to remind us that this was once a landfill, but the site deserves its reputation as a superb reclamation of the former dump. There’s a surprisingly good deli in the Quality Inn down the road, with obscenely large sandwiches, salads, and cakes. We split one salad, sandwich, and onion rings between the three of us, and could barely finish.
Back south on I-95, we considered various options to break up the last leg of the trip. We settled on the new Philadelphia Art Museum addition. They’ve renovated a former Art Deco office building across Ben Franklin Parkway from the main museum into a center for the decorative arts and photo collections. The renovated Deco front is almost a screen for the larger infill building behind. Really well done, with terrific temporary shows of 1920’s kimonos, Modern furniture, and contemporary sculpture, as well as the oh-so-predictable Ansell Adams.
Got back on I-95 for home, stopping for a quick dinner at Lebanese Taverna in Silver Spring. A great trip, surprising us once again with the riches to be had off the Interstate between D.C. and Boston.
FOR FUTURE TRIPS:
Trenton: Ellarslie Mansion/The Trenton City Museum
Camden: Walt Whitman Home Historic Site, Yorkship Village
Montclair: Montclair Art Museum
Union: Liberty Hall Museum
Montgomery Place, Annandale on Hudson
Staten Island: Richmondtown Restoration
Gillette Castle, East Haddam, CT
Glebe House Museum & Gertrude Jekyll Garden, Woodbury, CT
Roseland Cottage, Woodstock, CT
New Canaan Historical Society Museum
Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, Norwalk
Northampton: Smith College Museum of Art
Springfield: Museum of Fine Arts, George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Connecticut Valley Historical Museum, Springfield Armory
Waltham: National Archives center
Worcester: train station, Salisbury Mansion, American Antiquarian Society, Higgins Armory
Arden, Arts and Crafts suburb