Michael and Dan in Rochester and points North
Daniel Emberley, September 2017
Michael and I drove to see my parents in Waltham, and took a detour to Rochester for territory we’d passed through before, but not explored. Lots of cool mansions and gardens, and the chance to catch up with friends in New York and Massachusetts.
Tuesday, September 19
We’d thought about stopping in State College for ice cream at the Penn State Dairy, but ended up driving straight to Letchworth State Park in New York. The Victorian estate of William Pryor Letchworth preserves three waterfalls on the Genesee River flowing north to Rochester. We started at the north end, at the Mount Morris Dam. This is a “dry dam”, one that is normally empty, but closed to protect Rochester from floods during heavy rains. A good introduction to the shale layers we were to see throughout the Park. It’s about a 45-minute drive south to the other end, along the “Grand Canyon of the East”. No color like in Arizona, the shale is different shades of grey, but definitely reminiscent with the river flowing in a gorge below the roadway. And of course, in a pine forest instead of a desert. We stopped at the Lower Falls to make sure we saw them with daylight, then backtracked to the Middle Falls, where Letchworth had built his estate. The house is now the Glen Iris Inn, where we checked in and took a walk across the road to the falls, then up through estate grounds where a balloon was being prepped for twilight rides over the Park. Beautifully maintained, it reminded me of Prospect Hill Park from my childhood, only well kept up. Dinner in the Inn was okay, as was our room. Best feature was the top floor library, with Bradbury & Bradbury wallpaper and a good view of the Middle Falls.
Wednesday, September 20
We hiked to the Upper Falls, more of a path through the woods than anything strenuous. Technically closed for restoration, we got a decent view of the Genesee through the construction fence. Back to the car and an hour up to Rochester.
This is a cool small city. Kodak is almost gone, and Bausch and Lomb downsized, but there is enough of an economy and public spirit to keep the city from looking like Detroit. It has great neighborhoods and residential architecture, at a highly affordable price. The food is very good, and the people Midwestern friendly. We were won over, we are considering it a potential summer retirement place.
First stop was Eastman House. George Eastman founded Kodak, the company that changed photography from a technically challenging expensive profession to something we all expect to be able to do anytime, anywhere, for cheap. They missed the opportunity to seize the conversion from film to digital; they could have been Adobe. Or Pinterest. You park in the estate behind the house, and enter through a contemporary visitor center and museum of photography. We doubled straight back to see the house, a Georgian Revival mansion with every technological enhancement 1905 offered. Most of Eastman’s collection of art (Rubens, Velasquez, Rembrandt) has been moved to Memorial Art Gallery, but their places house (appropriately) photographic reproductions. Lunch in the café was excellent, a delicious pea soup, sandwich, and chicken salad. The gardens string along the house, a series of Italian garden rooms providing views between the house and estate outbuildings and laboratories. The galleries were showing contemporary photography; the museum has one of the best collections in the world. Plus several movie theaters (Eastman discovered Thomas Edison was splicing his movie stock from Kodak film purchased in drug stores; over lunch they invented movie film). Also technical oddities like early cameras and a wall of every chemical used to create the first Technicolor process.
Nothing in Rochester was more than a half-hour drive. We made a short trip into downtown for the Strong Museum of Play. Margaret Woodbury Strong was a buggy whip heiress who collected toys. The Museum is her legacy, a combination history of toys, children’s museum, and the National Toy Hall of Fame. A blast. Galleries of historic toys, a library designed as a series of rooms from children’s literature, arcades of video games, and sets of board games and other toys that you can play as you tour the galleries.
The building is not interesting, a series of concrete boxes, across the street from Lawrence Halprin-designed Martin Luther King Park. This was a disappointment, it’s almost like a rehearsal for his FDR Memorial in D.C., but with only one big waterfall and missing the George Segal sculptures that make D.C.’s park work.
That tired us out, we drove to the gay-friendly South Wedge neighborhood. Good coffee and dessert from The Coffee Connection, a collective giving formerly abused women jobs and training, and excellent chocolate from The Hedonist across the street. We drove to Historic House Parts, one of several stores selling architectural antiques. Oh, to have a place to install a funky mantelpiece!
There’s a Frank Lloyd Wright property, the Boynton House, in town; not open to the public, but we did a drive by. We checked into our Holiday Inn Express north of town in Irondequoit, then drove back in for dinner at Nosh. This was a birthday treat to me from Michael, one of the best restaurants in the city, not far from Eastman House where we started. Craft cocktails, massive salads, pork chops, and a bacon-ham-pork burger (treif city). Too much food, we wished we had saved room for dessert, which looked amazing.
At the hotel we discovered we were in what had once been extensive parking lots at the biggest shopping mall in Rochester. A mall that has now closed (no dinner from THAT food court!), but there was a Target across from us in the former lots. Easy shopping: even in D.C. we need to take a bus to Target, but that night we walked on over.
Thursday, September 21
One big surprise for us was that although Rochester owes its importance to its location on Lake Ontario, downtown is several miles south along the Genesee (presumably where water power enabled construction of clothing factories). We started our day at Ontario Beach Park, and proceeded south, upstream, on the river. The beach is lovely, both an active sport marina and a Victorian park with bandstand, picnic pavilions, and a funky bathhouse. We walked along the pier into the Lake, then up and down the beach. Cool middle-class houses near the park.
Back downtown, Rochester Public Market is only held three days a week. It is much more about farmers selling their wares and cheap clothes and trinkets than about meals-ready-to-eat. We stocked up on buckwheat honey and grains and spices, knowing that if we lived here this is where we would be buying our groceries. Since the lunch options were meagre we drove back toward Eastman House to Jim’s Diner for Reubens. We discovered we were across the street from Memorial Art Gallery, their major art museum. Part of the University of Rochester, this is a much better museum than anticipated. Decent Old Master paintings, but also a great collection of American art from Colonial to contemporary. All in a building that looks a little like Riverside Church in Manhattan, or Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. Stanford White designed the fountain court and gallery now used for Renaissance art.
Frederick Law Olmsted was hired in 1888 to give Rochester a park system; he located a series of parks along the Genesee. We skipped Seneca Park’s zoo, and started at Highland Park, home of Lamberton Conservatory. A medium-size glass house, very traditional, with okay tropical and desert gardens. What makes it spectacular, and what you don’t notice at first, is the wildlife underfoot. Baby quail have full run of the glass houses, and halfway along a large pool is full of tortoises who crawl out several galleries on either side. Finally, they were gifted a baby duckling, on the understanding that it would be released to the wild on achieving adulthood. The duck, however, has no interest in exploring a Rochester winter, and rules over the quail, turtles, and visitors. You’re forced to watch your step as you look up into the forest, but it’s completely worth it. Outside the Conservatory is a good arboretum, groves of pines, rhododendrons, honeysuckle, even our friend Marty’s nemesis mock orange. Across the road in an extension are extensive lilac groves, a very stair-intensive Vietnam War Memorial, and AIDS Remembrance Walk.
Back in the car, and a few miles south, is Genesee Valley Park. This preserves the original Erie Canal connection to the Genesee River. Mainly converted to sports fields, biking, and picnics. If Central Park had not had preservation advocates this is what the NYC Parks Department might have done to it.
Friday, September 22
East of Rochester we’d thought to visit two places not far off the NY State Thruway. Palmyra is where the angel Moroni disclosed the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith; the original farm and the first place to publish the Book are preserved. Further on is Seneca Falls and the Women’s Rights National Historic Park. We blew past both of them, however, en route to the Bershires.
Naumkeag, close to the Mass Pike in Stockbridge, was the summer home of the Choate family. The same Choates as founded the prep school; the owner was the well-compensated lawyer who prevented implementation of federal income tax for seven years. Choate hired Stanford White to design one of his first and best Shingle Style mansions. It passed to their daughter Mabel, who with landscape architect Fletcher Steele reworked the gardens in the mid-20th Century. The whole megillah, with original furnishings, went directly to The Trustees, a land trust for historic landscapes across Massachusetts. Brilliant tour, with Mabel’s collections of dishes displayed throughout White’s glorious interiors. The gardens are amazing. A walled Chinese garden is above the home, with vistas over the Berkshires. These descend to a Copacabana-like rose garden, fountains in Italian terraces, waterfalls in more naturalistic spaces, a linden walk, and a woodland trail. Connecting Mabel to the lower gardens, Steele built the Blue Steps, accented with curved metal rails, blue tile arches and water fountains down the side of the hill. That leads back to the house, and Mabel’s Venetian garden, with gondoliers’ poles and fluttering pennants. Amazing, and beautiful even in the autumn.
Our original plan had been to see Edith Wharton’s The Mount, in Lenox. This was Apple Squeeze Weekend, however, when Lenox’s two streets are overwhelmed by tourists. Instead we checked into the Crowne Plaza in Pittsfield, where we surveyed the city from our skyline 8th floor room. Sarcasm intended. Our friend Patty White picked us up there and took us for dinner at North, a fantastic restaurant in a boutique hotel downtown. Amazing artichoke dip, meatloaf, fish & chips, and cannoli. Patty is a masseur at Canyon Ranch, she gave us a driving tour of Pittsfield, estates in the mountains, and the spa facilities. We can understand why she is so happy there.
Saturday, September 23
We drove north to Williamstown. The nice women at Naumkeag had encouraged us to check out other Trust properties; we chose Field Farm. This is two Modern houses from the 1960’s, one used as a b&b, the other retained as a folly. The grounds are free, with hiking trails through the former farm. We took the easy Pond Trail across marshes, through woods, and along the hay fields up to The Great House. Fun.
The Clark is one of America’s great small museums. The Singer sewing machine financiers invested in Manhattan real estate (the Dakota) and European painting. The original 1955 building has been added onto several times; they recently hired Selldorf Architects to renovate it and Tadao Ando to extend the museum from a building into a campus. Selldorf’s Manton library is magnificent. Ando’s pavilions allow the permanent collection pride of place in the main building, while putting temporary shows, offices, and guest facilities like shop and café in separate structures in a forest with Berkshire views. As we hiked uphill to his Lunder Center, a chamber group was rehearsing on the terrace. I could not tell if the violins were live, or an art installation. Or both. Brilliant; we’d loved Ando’s work at Naoshima in Japan; this was his take on the landscape of my childhood.
We booked it east, an early dinner with my brother Dave and family, then on to my parents’ home in Waltham.
Sunday, September 24
Family reunion at Mom and Dad’s.
Monday, September 25
Our friends Alice and Kathy Ann met us for lunch in Medford, then we were on to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Yeah, we took an eight-day trip to Boston and only spent a few hours there. It’s just gotten richer and ruder. The MFA has received lots of new accessions, and is rehanging galleries to accommodate. We liked the temporary show comparing Japanese prints of Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, but overall were glad we got in for free on my American Alliance of Museums card.
Tuesday, September 26
The drive from Waltham to Tappan Zee Bridge was easy. We checked out Skylands, in Ringwood, NJ. This was the country house of Clarence McKenzie Lewis, trustee of the New York Botanical Garden. Home by John Russell Pope, now available as a b&b. Grounds by Feruccio Vitale, who also did the gardens at Rockefeller Center and the National Gallery of Art. The state bought the property in 1966, it is now run as the New Jersey Botanical Gardens. Honestly, September is not the best time to see these grounds. Very little in bloom, but it looks like in spring and summer these would be stunning. The hardscaping is brilliant, though, and a lovely walk through formal gardens, a crabapple vista, a swan pond, and hosta and forest gardens. Eat first, there is no food in or around Ringwood.
We stayed that night in Paramus. I only knew this suburb from comedians’ routines; it seems to be a sprawl of medium- to upscale retail at the junction of Routes 4, 17, and the Garden State Parkway. Route 4 is a direct route to the GW Bridge, so always busy. There was no room to install access roads or even breakdown lanes on what were once main streets; one exits and enters driveways directly into traffic going sixty miles an hour. We pulled off 17 into the Holiday Inn Express parking lot and I immediately shouted “Stop!” to Michael to ensure we did not run into the lobby. The staff said we would not be the first.
Dinner across the Bridge. We were able to find an easy parking spot along Morningside Park, and visited Bonnie Scarborough and Caleb Scharf and their girls. This is the family who graciously offer us their Columbia University-adjacent apartment when they are in Europe. While we happily get to see the apartment, we rarely get to see each other. As Michael said, “How odd to see you guys in this living room!”
Wednesday, September 27
We broke the drive back to D.C. in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. This is about halfway from NYC, far enough from the freeway that we’d never been. While the abandoned Widener Mansion is cool (Widener like the library at Harvard, dad and son/heir both went down in the Titanic), the draw was Temple Beth Sholom. This is Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterful version of a Jewish Synagogue. We were worried at first whether they were open, but on ringing the buzzer were met by a dynamic woman in charge of the temple who took us on a lightning (our choice) tour. She was brilliant; once she knew that we had seen most of the Wright canon, she went right into what made this particular building unique and important. I had been prepared to hate this, as another example of American post-WWII religious architecture gone wrong. It is an amazing shrine of light and God. Rabbi Cohen, who maneuvered the congregation from downtown Philadelphia to this suburb in the 1950’s, seems to have masterfully managed both his team and Wright to get what they needed. Worth the effort to visit, am surprised it took us this long to get there. Afterwards, Marco Polo is a decent Italian restaurant nearby; fun to listen to the Philadelphia/Jersey accents of your fellow diners.