Michael and Dan’s Rust Belt Tour
Daniel Emberley, June 2002
We had a driving trip through the states from western Pennsylvania to eastern Iowa on our agenda for a while. Michael was scheduled to teach a class for IRS in Cincinnati, and this seemed a great opportunity to get in some of that trip. This abbreviated Rust Belt Tour covers Ohio and southern Indiana, broken into two legs, with Nashville, Tennessee thrown in for Dan, and Cincinnati for Michael. Our apologies to folks in Illinois and Iowa, we’re keeping you on the list for future trips. As always, feel free to accept this as a “Howdy!” and to skip the rest: who has time to read all this, anyway <smile>?
Thursday, May 9
Michael had been out in Cincinnati since Monday. The plan was for Dan to fly to Nashville, meet our friend Peg Harrington, and together we would drive across Kentucky to rendezvous with Michael in Indiana. I arrived at BWI to discover I would be flying with the K.C. and the Sunshine Band World Tour 2002. Bonus points to anyone who can name three songs covered by the group. Let’s just say the band has not aged well, did not appreciate Southwest’s “get a number at the gate” boarding process, and were loud and whiny. In a tribute to the joys of contemporary flight, I also got to see an elderly gentleman explode in anger at a Southwest gate attendant. Like the rest of us, he had stood for an hour for no reason. Unlike the rest of us, he dared complain about it, and was hauled off by airport security. I had always thought the movie “Brazil” was dystopian, not predictive.
Once in flight the trip was uneventful. Peg greeted me at the airport and was her usual joyous self. She treated me to a tour of her funky neighborhood, lovely duplex (in Nashville, that means two apartments sharing opposite halves of a ranch house), and introduced me to Fred the Basset Hound of Destiny. Fred, delight though he is, was off to the vet’s, aka “the Spa”, for the weekend. We checked out Berry Hill, a neighborhood not unlike Houston’s Montrose crossed with D.C.’s Adams Morgan, en route to real Tennessee BBQ at McNeeley’s. Mmm-mmm.
This was my third trip to Nashville, and I am proud to say that in none of those visits have I been even close to the Grand Ol’ Opry, Opryland, Opry Mills, or the rest of the entertainment–plex that Gaylord Enterprises runs out on the highway. My first run through, with Michael on our Southern Tour, took in the Parthenon and Centennial Park, and was sort of a dud. On a second visit two years back Peg’s husband showed me the state house, Bicentennial Mall, and a lot of sports stadiums. Eh. Miss Peg is separated from said husband, and her take on Nashville is indeed superior. My advice to aspiring visitors is to get a local guide if you can, one who is not trying to get accepted at the Belle Meade Country Club. Nashville is reminiscent of both Houston in its wide roads and driving emphasis, and a Southern state capital in culture, gentility, and racial history. Interesting. There is good food and good conversation, but it does require some inside-knowledge to ferret out. There is much “keeping up with the Joneses”, but that can be laughed at politely if one chooses not to enter the competition.
After lunch we drove out to Andrew Jackson’s estate, The Hermitage. This is a big ol’ Southern plantation, and is stuck in an interpretive time warp by about twenty years. Remember when Mount Vernon tours emphasized gracious living and referred to “servants”, rather than “slaves”? Like that. We found one panel in the visitors center discussing slave life in the entire complex, and saw no people of color as visitors or staff. Political consciousness aside, it is a nice estate, with spectacular French Empire wallpaper telling the story of Telemachus from the Odyssey (yeah, we had to look it up also), an odd pairing of Doric and Corinthian front and back facades, and spacious grounds. The gardens were not lush as we expected. Perhaps the Ladies Association was trying to be historically accurate? Perhaps they are broke, and dealing with a drought? Either way, a very nice expanse and window into the life of a man who helped bring democracy to America.
We drove back into town to check out Peg’s church, St. Ann’s. This is the funky Episcopalian establishment of Nashville, with a nice modern building erected just last year to replace its historic home (wiped out by a 1999 tornado). Prime architectural moments downtown are the 1990’s Bell South Tower, Adelphia Field, and Country Music Hall of Fame. The tres modern 1950’s Liability and Casualty Building looks like a variation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower, all aluminum fins, very nice. There seems to be money in Nashville in the last decade, and an effort to fill the urban renewal gaps of the 1970’s with appropriate and involving architecture.
Nashville’s main Post Office was a 1930’s art deco wonder, abandoned for a suburban loading facility. This year it was converted to the Frist Museum of Art. The conversion is good, preserving the original main hall and adding a great garden plaza, and the art on display is excellent. The Frist has decided not to assemble a permanent collection, instead showing traveling and temporary shows. It is an interesting strategy that they are making work. Does this turn an art museum into more of a convention center? Yes. Is it successful? Yes. A show of modern art from the 1970-90’s was at least as good as the recent Broad Collection show at the Corcoran. They also had Indian art from Philadelphia, religious art from the Walters, and Faberge from New Orleans and the Forbes Collection. Sculptor Gregory Barsamian was showing sculptures that spin and use strobes to animate them wonderfully. Best of all is the Frist’s hands-on art room, where table stations walk kids and adults alike through the essentials of art (line, shading, perspective, color, pattern, collage, material: you know the drill). Peg created a Matisse bunny collage, and I made an impromptu flower sculpture. Fun, in a way that I’ve only seen done as well in Denver.
Peg showed off the architectural delights of residential Nashville, which has unique versions of bungalows, Queen Anne’s, four-squares, and Arts and Crafts. A greensward by the Cumberland River preserves a dramatic, still used, railroad trestle. Given Nashville’s hilly contours and railroad heritage, trestles are a regular part of the landscape, but this was long and beautiful even on those terms.
Dinner was at the Gwersthaus, most excellent German food. In the Southern tradition, all the vegetables came sweetened, and they did amazing things with corn bread. Delicious, with dead animal heads as décor. Peg attempted to instill Nashville pronunciations in me: I’m afraid the only one that seems to have stuck is “di-mun-brin” for “Demonbreun Street”. We drove down Music Row to see the recording studios for country music. Interesting that these are not downtown, but instead a cluster of their own.
Friday, May 10
I got in a walk around downtown, checking out Union Station, the Kefauver Federal Office Building (don’t know Estes Kefauver? Nixon was a protégée), the Customs House, Ryman Auditorium, and Gaylord Center. Breakfasted with the early morning crowd in the Bell South cafeteria, then met Peg at my hotel. She took me on a tour through their new Robert-Stern-designed Public Library (a beauty). Walked through the old Arcade, a wood and glass shopping mall predecessor between downtown blocks. Not as old as Providence’s, or as fancy as Cleveland’s (see below), but nicely not rehabbed at all, with a grungy and pleasant mix of cheap food and barber shops. Lots of Southern lawyer-types in pastel seersucker suits – guys still wear those here. Retail downtown is dead, but you can walk around the old “men’s quarter”, home of the original Maxwell House Hotel, where Teddy Roosevelt announced the coffee “good to the last drop”. Printer’s Alley still has jazz and blues clubs, but of course, 10AM is hardly the time to see them in action. The Tennessee Foxtrot Carousel, by one of my all-time favorite pop sculptors, Red Grooms, was closed up like a drum, unfortunately. As a consolation prize, I got to go into Hatch Show Print, across Broadway, and see the original presses where they’ve been producing country music and circus posters for the last century.
Lunch with Peg and her friend Maggie at Swett’s, home of “meat and three”. Basically, a cafeteria, think Scholl’s, with superior side dishes and excellent chicken-fried steak. Maggie is a hoot, a woman whose life encompasses enough Nashville anecdotes to fill a book, but whose genteel demeanor will prevent them from ever being committed to print. We took a drive through Green Hills and Belle Meade. Belle Meade is the quintessential country club district, the aim of all who aspire to Tennessee wealth pre-country music. Eh, if you’ve seen Weston, MA, Chevy Chase, MD, or River Oaks, TX, you’ve seen Belle Meade.
Off to the final art stop in Nashville, Cheekwood estate and gardens. The Cheek family were the Maxwell House coffee money, and their former home holds the largest collection of art in the city. Hysterically, as we drove through the entrance gates, we were greeted with howls of “thar’s no paw’r! no paw’r anywhar!” Translation, power lines were down, and staff did not know how to take entrance tickets or open the house without it. We parked and strolled the gardens, which hold a magnificent Japanese area, flowering shrubs, and a forest trail of modern sculpture. They’ve installed a George Rickey mobile (think the long red spiny sculpture in front of the Hirshhorn) wonderfully between two trees overlooking a valley, and have a great Robert Turrell sky piece that you walk into, like walking into a concrete WWII bunker that opens up to the light.
We high-tailed it onto the highway and drove four hours through Kentucky to Columbus, Indiana. Peg had discovered Columbus a year back, and encouraged us to have a look. The town is the home of Cummins Engine, successor to a variety of heavy industrial concerns that started in Columbus in the late nineteenth century and really prospered after WWII. In the early 1950’s a progressive congregation hired Eliel Saarinen to rebuild their church. The town so liked the building that the Saarinens were invited to design several other buildings. Cummins Engine began to sponsor use of great modern architects for other urban construction, and in the last 50 years have turned Columbus into an architectural mecca, a model for how modern design can enrich American life. There is a Robert Venturi fire station, Cesar Pelli shopping mall, I.M. Pei library. Existing Victorian buildings have been renovated, parks integrated into the city, and infrastructure like bridges built with new engineering principles as well as quality design in mind. Most of the residential architecture is the usual run of Victorian-GI Bill-1980’s tract housing that you find all over America, and the major retail is a highway strip north of town, which makes the integration of modern ideas even more amazing. Columbus’ visitors’ center, complete with Dale Chihuly glass works, disseminates walking and driving tours of the community.
First, though, we met up with Michael at the Columbus Inn, a hotel created out of the old Richardsonian town hall. We think we educated the desk clerk a bit as two guys and a girl checked into their suite, only to return a minute later with the girl announcing “I’m not sleeping alone on a sofa bed”. We traded up to two lovely adjoining rooms without incident. The renovation had stripped most evidence of the old town hall in place of a sponge-painted, faux antique look, but the rooms had nice antique sleigh beds, Neutrogena toiletries, and HBO and Showtime, which compensated.
Michael found Cincinnati as racially segregated, sadly, as we remembered. His stay there was uneventful, with the exception of being able to visit the childhood home of our friend Anne Dammarell, who now lives in Adams Morgan. It is a Richardsonian Romanesque house of immense size. He was able to chat with the current residents, who were kind enough to share with him some of its recent history.
What time was it? Indiana counties can choose to be on Eastern, Eastern Daylight, Central, or Central Daylight time. Columbus is on Eastern, so Peg and I had not actually gained an hour, and Michael lost one. Annoying, but interesting. Being on the edge of Eastern Time, it was pleasantly light fairly late, so we took a walk around downtown. They have a striking memorial to Columbus residents lost in wars during the 20th century. Designed by Thompson and Rose and Michael Van Valkenburgh, it includes the usual lists of names, but also letters from some of the dead to family back in Columbus. Beautiful and touching. The local newspaper, The Republic, has editorial offices facing the county courthouse, in a Skidmore, Owings, Merrill masterpiece that is wide-open glass to the street. Must be a fishbowl to work in, but looked amazing at dusk lit from within. Venturi, Scott, Brown worked with the city and engineers on bridges into town, producing two red cable-supported wonders, one cable-stayed, the other arch-suspended. Great lit up at night. We walked back to the Inn and crashed.
Saturday, May 11
Breakfast at the Inn was great, with fresh eggs in a charming room on the ground level. We visited the Visitors’ Center, saw the introductory video and displays, and walked through a restored 1890’s garden. We picked up a driving map and hit the town. They have 2.5 and 5.5 hour drives mapped out, we chose the shorter. It really did take that long, even without a lot of park-and-get-close-and-personal stops, perhaps because the map and roads were not always in sync. The brilliant directional guidance of Miss Peg and Michael’s natural sense of direction prevailed over my slavish adherence to the printed word. It was fun to introduce U-turns to the conservative drivers of southern Indiana. There’s an excellent parking lot (no joke) by Dan Kiley at one of the Saarinen churches, giving hope that cars and gardens don’t have to be enemies. Some of the churches, schools, and commercial buildings on the tour are amazingly good. Many are mediocre modern pastiches. It was great to see it, outside the usual urban context, in a regular town. Exhausting, however.
Michael knew there were signs of civilization in Columbus when we found a Chinese buffet in a strip mall for lunch and to decompress. This was a truly Indiana experience. The Chinese food was quite acceptable, with the usual hot-and-sour soup, Szechuan chicken, lo mein, etc. It shared the buffet tables with mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. Good Mongolian BBQ. Best was the dessert table, with chocolate and vanilla pudding, brownies, sprinkles, kimchi and sushi. One has visions of butterscotch-pudding-and-kimchi. Fun, tasty, and cheap, three of our favorite adjectives.
We abandoned modernism after lunch and headed one county west to Nashville, Indiana. This town is known as a local antiques headquarters. We were disappointed by the antique malls on the main stretch, seeing nothing we could not have seen at similar stretches on the East Coast. In-town itself, however, was a nice tourist mix of craft galleries, tschotchke shops, and ice cream places. Got a comprehensive index of quilt patterns, assembled by a local quilter. Very fun and a nice walk around after the mornings drive. Once a month the local 4H hosts an antique exchange at the county fair grounds, so we walked over and were happy to discover more unique stuff at much better prices than out on the permanent antique strip.
Drove back to Columbus, pleased with our full bellies and shopping finds. The intersection from the highway back into town is an attempt to make the transition without a cloverleaf, using dedicated access lanes and stoplights. Works well, with a lot less space eaten up, and in a more pleasant driving experience. Cool. Took a walk through Mill Race Park, which was reminiscent of both a county park and of Renzo Piano’s modern work in La Villette outside Paris. Recent rains had flooded much of the grounds. It was cool to trace where the high water had hit, while avoiding the mosquitoes bred in its aftermath. The Commons is a Cesar Pelli designed mall downtown. One can guess that this was supposed to “revitalize” downtown, you can almost hear the city fathers bowing to that wisdom in 1975. It’s a flop, a black glass design with a Sears at one end and a great interior playground at the other. Think Ballston Common with a Jean Tinguely sculpture in the food court.
For dinner, we decided to hit corporate food on the highway, and ran into a Mothers’ Day conundrum. There were 45 minute waits at Red Lobster, Texas Roadhouse, Applebee’s, and the other chains. Settled for Mexico Viejo, a local enterprise, for surprisingly good Mexican food with no wait and excellent service. Southern Indiana, who knew the food could be so good?
We liked the newspaper offices downtown so much that we decided to drive out to see the printing plant. Being a newspaper printing plant, it was way out of town. We abandoned the tour map and hit the highway, to find it in an industrial park next to a Toyota plant. It was worth the trip. The architects were inspired by the editorial building in town, and had a similar wall of windows facing the highway, this one showing the massive color presses used to put out the paper. Very cool. Of course, three folks walking around a building in an industrial park at night next to the highway is probably not safe and definitely suspicious, so we hopped back into the car and downtown to retreat to our 24-hour HBO. There was a Woody Allen retrospective: we’d forgotten how funny he was in Sleeper and Everything You Always Wanted To Know.
Sunday, May 12
Peg and I had to take off before breakfast, unfortunately, so we said goodbye to Michael and left him to partake of our share of the muffins. Had a long but not unpleasant drive straight back to Tennessee. Peg introduced me to my last insider-tip in Nashville, burgers at Fat Mo’s: juicy and delicious. She dropped me at the airport, and I flew back to BWI without event. Ran into our friend Katie Robbins on the bus back to Greenbelt, she had just gotten back to D.C. from Phoenix. We exchanged stories over dinner on U Street. Got back to Seaton Place thirteen hours after leaving the Inn: a long trip, but a good one.
Friday, May 17
We had thought that Michael would finish up in Cincinnati and drive up to Cleveland, meeting me there. The IRS had other plans, however. Michael came home early and we flew out to Cleveland together in the afternoon. The flight was uneventful, aside from my being requested to submit to a simultaneous body search and hand bag check. Disarming them with the question “What’s bothering you more, the intact syringes or the loose needles?”, I was let go with a body wanding. We picked up our rental car and drove across town to Cleveland Heights, home of our friends Rachel and Greg. They are among the few people of our generation who seem happy in their chosen field, both professors at Cleveland State. Their six-month old daughter Alison is a delight. They fed us the best we ate on this entire trip, a tour de force of vegetarian cuisine complete with fresh greens grown under lights in the garret.
An overview follows, before jumping into our drive. Ohio has a great number of mid-tier cities. If they were consolidated into one, they would compete with New York, LA, or Chicago. They could play on their strength of diversity in unity and compactness, but do not seem to have caught on. Instead they compete with each other for state and federal money and attention, a game in which they all lose. We never heard an Ohioan recommend seeing something in another part of the state. After the initial surprise that we had chosen their city for a vacation, they often realized and could praise the good things they had locally, but had only derision for their peers. If small is truly beautiful, Ohio’s cities have captured a better mix than in larger American centers, and could emphasize that in national attention.
Unfortunately, they seem doomed to failure. The only places we visited that were not in obvious decline were Oberlin, stable with the college, and Columbus, growing with banks and insurance companies. The rest are “donut cities”, with a compact 1920-1990’s downtown, decayed ring, and nice suburban housing. Ohio based a lot of its wealth on the manufacturing/industrial sector that boomed in the 1950’s and left in succeeding years, and their leadership has not found a way to really fit with the current economy. Interesting. In some ways it’s a time warp, a possible laboratory for urban change, but sadly often a disaster in the making.
On the architecture/design side there is a lot that is good. A recent publication called “Building Ohio” (Jane Ware, author) lists the top buildings to see in the major cities, and was an excellent guide as we drove around. Ware lists the strengths of Ohio architecture as:
1.) coming out of a society of educated affluence (all those 1870’s industrialists who founded colleges next to their factories), which engendered an infrastructure of optimism that future years could fill out,
2.) the wealth that the industrial and agricultural sectors produced in the state, enabling the training and hiring of the best practitioners, and
3.) the “hybridism”, or sharing and morphing of ideas, that came together as Ohio cities competed with each other and with the older cities of the Eastern states.
That seems as good an explanation for the excellent buildings we saw as any. A partner volume on the architecture in smaller towns of the state is being written.
Saturday, May 18
Rachel and Greg have given up on the Cleveland Plain Dealer, so we delighted in breakfast with the New York Times. First stop was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This I.M. Pei shrine to the music industry was built specifically to jumpstart a tourist economy in Cleveland. Like the best of Pei’s commemorative architecture (JFK Library, National Gallery East Building), it is a stunning glass hall surrounded by galleries that function well and the supporting services one needs in a modern museum. Strike one, it was Cleveland high school band day, and the place was jammed. Strike two, the exhibits are poorly curated, with no historical overview or even thread to justify bringing the many interesting objects together. My guess is that the exhibits respond to big donations, and when Atlantic Records drops dollars, their top artists are emphasized in the displays. The costumes were the best part.
The Rock Hall is on Lake Erie, so we walked next door to Hornblower’s for lunch. This is a restaurant on an old Lake steamer, now permanently moored downtown, and was pretty good. We took a walk around downtown. The 1890’s Arcade building is on its second renovation: a 1980’s attempt at a shopping mall failed, but a 1990’s transformation into a Hyatt seems to be succeeding. They preserved the fabulous glass ceiling and wrought iron storefronts, the upper ones becoming hotel rooms. Public Square is the original four blocks first laid out by Moses Cleveland (yes, they dropped the “a”), now a nice park at the heart of downtown with a big war memorial. This park is cut by the main north-south and east-west avenues that divide the city into sections, and is bordered by modern office buildings and a 1920’s Art Deco tower. That plan (original plat, park, avenues, offices, Deco tower) is so standard to Ohio’s cities that I’m going to refer to it as “the Cleveland plan” for shorthand in the rest of this write-up. The Art Deco here is Terminal Tower, one of the best. For decades it was the tallest thing between Chicago and New York. Built by the Van Sweringen brothers who also developed the suburb Shaker Heights, the Tower rises above the subway tracks that lead east to the Heights and west to the West Side and airport. On either side it had major department stores and a hotel, with offices above, and a shopping stretch and major atrium in the tower base. If you can imagine Woodies and Hecht’s on either side of the Empire State Building with Metro Center station beneath it you get an idea of its importance. Even better than Rockefeller Center, Terminal Tower (now called “Tower City”) still functions as the best downtown development we’ve ever seen. To our shock, having packed only shorts and t-shirts, the temperature was in the low 60’s and expected to remain there, so we got ourselves some cooler weather gear. North and east of Public Square the city laid out a Beaux Arts Municipal Center, filling it in the 1920’s with a library, convention center, city hall, and Federal Reserve building. It doesn’t quite hang together, probably due to lack of lake access, but is a pretty spectacular feat of urban planning.
We hopped into the car and headed back east to University Circle. It’s not really a circle, but a collection of major streets that come loosely together surrounded by the art museum, symphony, and Case Western Reserve. We checked out the new Frank Gehry classroom building at Case, then went to the Cleveland Art Museum. They’ve got one of the best Asian collections in the country, and a great selection of European and American master paintings, including two of my favorite artists, Crivelli and Caravaggio. Then we took a drive around Shaker Heights. I had seen this suburb from the air, but never had a chance to check it out on the ground. Although the street plan is interesting and subway connections excellent (thanks to those Van Sweringens), the housing is just not as good as in Cleveland Heights, a short distance to the north. Both of these suburbs are filled with great vernacular housing from the 1880’s-1920’s, in all the familiar Victorian styles, but Cleveland Heights seems to have more character. We don’t think it was just loyalty to our hosts, but couldn’t quite place the difference. We stopped at Shaker Square, the still active retail development planned by the Van S’s, for books and coffee, then picked up good take-out Thai for dinner with Greg and Rachel.
Sunday, May 19
Greg made us buckwheat pancakes for breakfast, and we headed west to Toledo. Ideally, we would have driven in a circle around the state from city to city, with no drive more than a couple of hours. We couldn’t figure out how to make that mesh with our travel dates and open days at the museums, though, so ended up doing more driving than we needed to. If you plan on retracing our steps, going from Tuesday-Sunday will let you do the circuit at a more leisurely pace. The Ohio Turnpike is a long, dull, but efficient connector across the state. You don’t see much, but you can book it to Toledo in a few hours. Michael got to revert to Houston training, put it into cruise control somewhere around 80 MPH, and we were still among the slowest on the road.
Tony Packo’s Hungarian Restaurant is Toledo’s signature eatery: celebrities come to show they’ve been to the city, and hot dog rolls with their signatures are framed on the walls. We can’t make this stuff up. It may have started as Hungarian, but is now mainly hotdogs and chili, with decent German potato salad. Michael was disappointed with his stuffed cabbage, but I relished my chili dogs. The main draw in Toledo is the Art Museum. This is one of the best in the country: Owens, Libbey, and other glass money have gone into both the building and the collection. It is more Corcoran than National Gallery in scale, but with a better Renaissance-to-Impressionist painting continuum. The Peristyle Hall auditorium is a thing of beauty, a lecture hall in the shape of a circle, surrounded by Greek columns, toped with a shallow dome that is painted as the sky. Not Las Vegas, but a clear progenitor.
That done, we chose not to linger in Toledo, but headed back east on the Turnpike to Oberlin. Are you confused by the cities yet? We couldn’t have told you Canton from Akron on a map before this trip. Here’s a quick orientation. Going clockwise, from the upper left corner of Ohio, on the Lake, is Toledo (glass). Due east is Cleveland. Youngstown (steel) is east again, almost on the Pennsylvania border. Turn southwest to hit Akron (rubber), then south to Canton (auto parts). All four of these are in the northeast corner of Ohio. There’s a long farm section south through Amish country and then Appalachia. Follow the Ohio River west on the state’s southern border to Cincinnati (Proctor and Gamble), northeast from there to Dayton (aircraft), and north again to return to Toledo. Columbus (government and banking) is dead center, in the middle of that circuit.
Oberlin is beautiful. Like Hanover, NH, or Williamstown, MA, the college is the town. They have a lovely green surrounded by the campus, with a music building by Minoru Yamasaki looking like a three story version of his World Trade Center. The Allen Art Museum was designed by Cass Gilbert as a Renaissance palazzo. An addition by Robert Venturi stays nicely in the background, deferring to Gilbert’s palace. The collection is small, as befits a college, but fantastic, with masterpieces by secondary artists and secondary pieces by master artists. In addition to a Red Grooms sculpture of New York commuters, they had on display Hogarth’s complete “Rake’s Progress” and “Harlot’s Progress”. Hogarth is one of Michael’s favorite artists, so he forgave me dragging him into two art museums in one day. We retreated for dessert to a nice coffee house on the green; then took a walk through residential Oberlin. The houses are similar to what we saw in Cleveland Heights: nice enough, but we were on a quest. There is a Frank Lloyd Wright 1950’s residence here, but it was far enough out that we had to backtrack to the car to get to it. The Allen maintains it in excellent condition. We arrived too late for tours, but no one stopped us as we walked around and took pictures. If you’ve seen the Pope-Leighey House in Mount Vernon, no need to make a special drive, but this one is wonderfully sited on its original location, still in a residential neighborhood but surrounded by woods.
We were able to use daylight right up to 9PM most nights, thanks to that edge of the time zone thing, which helped here. Stop now? Nah, we could get ahead of schedule! We booked it back onto the highway and headed through the western suburbs of Cleveland. Dinner at a Macaroni Grill was surprisingly good, not bad for chain theme food. Then we drove south to Akron and checked in to the Crowne Plaza Quaker Square. Akron turned a former Quaker Oats factory by the side of the tracks into a theme shopping destination. The oat silos were converted into a hotel. The rooms are 24-foot diameter circles, with bathrooms and balconies cut like wedges into the original concrete of the silos. Pretty cool, and fun, and a nice place to drop offer after a heavy day.
Monday, May 20
The morning gave us a chance to check out the public spaces of the hotel. The silo exteriors in the lobby are covered with carvings in concrete of suns, planets, smiling clouds, and other 1970’s “I’ve taken drugs but will keep this Up With People clean” motifs. The shopping area is too small to be a success, with an odd railroad theme using actual rail cars, but has a good toy store. Pie and candy stores make their wares on site; we regretted having to pass them up. We walked around downtown, which is similar to Cleveland’s, with the Deco tower a bank that looks like a Chicago Tribune Tower competition runner-up. Not a lot of action, but it was early, and we found a greasy spoon in the basement of an office tower for a hearty breakfast. As Akron is very hilly, the buildings use the hills to provide entrances on multiple levels, and skywalks to make connections. If you built Rosslyn in 1930 and gave it more green space you might get Akron.
The E ticket in Akron is Stan Hywet Hall. Stan Hywet (say “stan hue-it”) was the family home of the Seiberlings. Mr. Seiberling made it big with Goodyear Tires, and when he was forced out of the company he founded, went on to found another of the big rubber companies, since merged out of existence. He and his wife toured Europe to determine the appropriate baronial home for a rubber king. They did not buy rooms or structures, but did stock up on Tudor antiques and sketches. They commissioned Stan Hywet as a modern country house with Tudor styling. So, there’s an English banquets hall with animal heads, armor, and a telephone hidden behind linen-fold cabinetry. The structure is concrete and steel, but veneered and painted to appear medieval. It sounds phoney, but in execution works wonderfully. The tour takes you to the big public spaces you expect, but also bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and swimming pool, all those neat places that house museums often neglect. Also unlike many great house tours, it appears the Seiberlings really loved each other. They shared a bedroom, rather than having separate wings, and although they had separate baths, these connect via a window above the tubs. Nice. The gardens are extensive, beautiful, and well maintained, with a great Japanese style garden using woodland plants of the northeastern U.S. Shouldn’t work, but it does. We had lunch in the former stables. Beware salads in Ohio: this is a land that has not discovered lettuce in varieties other than iceberg. Dan wisely chose a sandwich, Michael chose less wisely.
We drove south, passing within spitting distance of the Football Hall of Fame (ugly) in Canton, through the Amish country. We stopped in “Dutch Valley”, a tourist trap of gift and furniture shops with a buffet restaurant as anchor. This is done at least as well as in the more famed Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and with smaller crowds. The cheese and smoked nuts we picked up to eat on the road were excellent, and we were able to get fresh fruit at a farmstand.
Our goal was Zanesville, where the Zanesville Pottery creates Fiestaware. We never did see the factory, but the retail shop in front had excellent deals on Fiesta and other ceramic ware. If Williamsburg Pottery Factory wasn’t closer we would consider driving out to stock up on flowerpots for the backyard.
Zanesville is on U.S. 40, the original National Road, one of the first federal roads built to help settlers go west. Its other claim to fame is the Y-bridge. Instead of crossing the local river once, the bridge was built in the shape of a Y, so you could cross easily from two separate points on one shore. Or, you could go across and never really cross the river at all. We drove up to the bridge on 40, stopped at the Purina Dog Food Processing Plant, and hit a barrier. One leg of the Y had been cut off and was being rebuilt. So, despite valiant efforts, we were forced to leave the National Road and head on west to Columbus by interstate.
We circled Columbus on their beltway to a western suburb, Plain City. This is far from the main Amish concentration, but has an authentic settlement of Amish farmers. More to our interest, it had an authentic Amish family-style restaurant. We stoked our fires with all-you-can-eat fried chicken, baked ham, and grilled sausage. All of the vegetables are cooked with some form of pork or beef, we pondered ambushing vegetarian friends there. We found a Motel 6 and turned in.
Tuesday, May 21
Tim Horton was a Canadian hockey player whose donut chain has made in-roads into Ohio. They make decent scones and muffins, and provided the friendliest service of our trip. The Ohio State Capitol had several architects, but one of them was early American painter Thomas Cole. The Capitol looks like an architectural folly from one of his paintings, all Roman pillars topped by a cylindrical tower. The interior has been restored lavishly and is worth the visit. We were surprised to encounter little if any security, a far cry from what we’re used to in Washington. We did a downtown walk. Columbus modifies the Cleveland plan by putting the Capitol in the middle of the center park. Several grand movie houses have been saved and are used for live performance, a lesson Washington would have done well to learn. Their Art Deco Leveque Tower looks terrific outside, but has suffered a poor 1980’s marble interior redesign. Best of all, they have a downtown mall anchored by a Marshall Field’s, so we got to stock up on Frango Mints. Columbus had the healthiest downtown of any in Ohio. It probably helps that it has not seen economic decline, since its anchor industries, government and banking, are ones that have grown rather than shrunk since the 1970’s.
North of downtown is the funky new Peter Eisenman Convention Center, not a level floor or straight line in the whole complex: its Deconstructionist! Sadly, it is built on the site of their former Beaux Arts train station, a real loss. The gay neighborhood of Columbus, the Short North, lies just north of that. Yes, a gay neighborhood. Other Ohio cities have gay populations (okay, maybe not Cincinnati, that hotbed of conservative values (as a Columbian told us, “it was a city of Confederate sympathizers, you know”)), but they are diffuse. Columbus is proud to point to the Short North as one of their funky neighborhoods. Good Victorian residential areas stretch out east and west of High Street, a funky shopping street almost worthy of Chelsea in NYC. Really. Who knew? Checked out the art galleries, tschotchke stores, and places that will never sell a bathing suit in my size. Fun. Gay guys in Columbus look so much more normal than the buff boys of D.C.: if I needed to re-enter the competition, I’d definitely consider coming here.
Further up High Street is the campus of Ohio State University. This is one of the largest campuses in America, probably the world. We did a driving tour, then parked to see the Wexner Center. OSU wanted to attract name architects to the campus, and preferred they build on the Mall, the main grass expanse. Unfortunately, most of the Mall is full of older academic structures. So, when Peter Eisenman designed an art center that filled unused space between two existing Mall structures, the administration jumped. They got a classic Eisenman building, lots of major corridor, odd angles, and stairs to nowhere. It was financed by the Wexner family, owners of The Limited chain, hence the name. I was prepared to hate it, even looking forward to doing so. Couldn’t do it, it works really well. The show on exhibit, “Mood River”, was difficult to understand, but easy to like, with artist installations of contemporary commercial design. A waterfall, for instance, made out of Phillipe Stark chairs, and a tornado of suspended skateboards, bikes, and other gear for extreme sports. Good gift shop, too.
Back toward downtown, Topiary Park, also known as Deaf School Park, was planted a few years back with a topiary rendition of Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on la Grand Jatte”. The foreground figures are over life-size, and there’s a marker for where you stand to capture the view that mirrors the painting. Better though is to wander amongst the shrubs, discovering just how many figures there are in Seurat’s piece. Did you know there’s a whole boat of guys rowing crew in the background? I didn’t, and I’d made the painting a regular Art Institute stop when I lived in Chicago. The topiary armatures are almost filled out; it should be even better to go visit in about two years.
On the river (Which one was this? Who can keep track, the only one of any substance is the Ohio itself, and it only flows through Cincinnati.) is a well landscaped park, gift of Battelle Labs, with a model of Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria. The ship was closed, but adjacent to the park is the Columbus Police Department. Over the entrance is carved a poor translation of Kant, “Dedicated to justice for all in the firm belief that obedience to the law is freedom.” Very George Orwell.
We had booked a room in a gay B&B in Columbus’ German Village. This was a neighborhood of brewery and other industrial housing, really cottages, from the nineteenth century. In the 1970’s a few residents saw the potential of inexpensive housing that could be renovated easily. They coined the moniker “German Village” partly in tribute to the former residents, but also partly as a marketing shtick to encourage a unity of style in the rehabs. It’s worked, and German Village is one of Columbus’ headlined tourist attractions. The neighborhood is walkable, the shopping pleasant, and the coffee house local and good. A former elementary school is now a center for the sale of crafts by seniors – a great opportunity for hand stitched, American-made quilts at low prices. Also of cheesy crocheted, dried flower, and wooden items, but one must suffer the dross with the gold. We checked in to the Brewmaster’s House, a great renovation of a large Italianate building on the outskirts of the Village. The host was pleasant, gave us a room and bath on a floor to ourselves, and left us in the privacy we prefer.
For dinner we went to Schmidt’s Sausage Haus, serving great German food (four varieties of sausage! red cabbage! German potato salad! sausage stew! struedel light as air! buffet!) for over 100 years. Then we headed south on High Street to Wal-Mart. What does Ohio have that D.C. doesn’t? Wal-Mart, and this was our opportunity to stock up on underwear, socks, and those other necessities you really don’t feel like paying full price for at Hecht’s. The aisles not having exhausted us, we went back to the Short North to see the nice gay boys at play in the evening and to check out their big Queen Anne homes lit up at night. Pretty.
Wednesday, May 22
After breakfast we stopped at Yankee Trader, a Short North seller of all things for parties. Amazing prices on the best selection of crepe paper crap I’ve ever seen, in a lifetime of looking. I got their card. As we drove north out of town we passed the Ohio State Fair Grounds and Ohio Village, maintained by the state historical society. If we get back, they are on our list of sights to see. Then, northeast by highway to Youngstown.
Columbus was the healthiest city we saw, Youngstown the most depressed. Downtown follows the Cleveland plan, but outside the first ring of office buildings are only acres of parking lots and a few decrepit retail establishments. We were shocked at the conditions, couldn’t spend $5 despite stocking up at a convenience store that looked like Hollywood’s interpretation of the South Bronx. Youngstown elects James Trafficant to Congress regularly, and his brand of corruption seethed from the sidewalks.
So, what were we doing there? Our friend Nisan had suggested adding Youngstown to our itinerary for the Butler Art Museum and the Historical Center of Industry and Labor. He was correct, they are worth the trip.
The Butler is one of the best museums of American art, period. We were stunned by the breadth and depth of the collection, especially their contemporary. The steel may have left the Mahoning River Valley, but some money stayed behind. The original building is by McKim, Mead, and White. They had a temporary show of electronic art that was stunning. The museum abuts the campus of Youngstown State University, which has oddly landscaped its center mall into circles of grass. Interesting, would like to know who the landscape architect is.
The Historical Center has got to be a Trafficant-sponsored effort to bring tourism to Youngstown. It worked, it brought us. It failed, we were the only non-staff people there. A lot of Ohio cities seem to be trying to jump start tourism by building little museums, a la the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Like the Rock Hall, the Historical Center is a bust. Also like the Rock Hall, the building, by Michael Graves, is a treat. Unlike the Rock Hall, the Historical Center tells its story well, with interactive activities and exhibits that lay out why steel came to the Mahoning Valley, how Youngstown fit into the Pittsburgh system, changes in industry and management, plusses and minuses of unionization, and the mismanagement of the 1960’s that led to the losses of industry in the 1970’s. To be honest, it looks like the industry would have died there in any case: they had exhausted the convenient coal and ore that it relied on, and had not invested in infrastructure to make existing plants economical. However, that decline was precipitated by foolish and selfish moves by owners who had, unlike Mr. Butler, abandoned Youngstown for mansions in New York and Chicago.
There were also two pleasant surprises. The Mahoning County Courthouse has a terrific domed center hall, well worth the stop. South and west of downtown runs linear Mill Creek Park, developed in the early 20th Century to plans by Charles Eliot (Boston parks system, worked with/student of Olmsted). The park looks like it has seen a recent infusion of money, maintenance, and construction, and frames its creek well.
Running north from Youngstown are the other two steel towns of the valley, Niles and Warren. Warren is where William McKinley was born, but we sped on through. They look like they still have economies, with contemporary highway strip mall culture. Wanting to avoid the toll on the Turnpike, we took back roads to suburban Cleveland. We had dinner at Max and Erma’s, a chain out of Columbus that is basically Clyde’s west. If you’ve eaten at a Bennigan’s, you’ve had Max and Erma’s. We then went on a fruitless search for cheap chain lodging in Cleveland. We ended up going all the way across town, finding a Fairfield Inn near the airport. Michael is convinced there are no hotels in Cleveland, expect for the high-end ones downtown, due to racism. I’m not sure if it isn’t just due to the low demand for travel accommodation: is Cleveland really on anyone’s vacation list besides our own?
Thursday, May 23
Back to Cleveland Heights for a final breakfast with Rachel, Greg, and Alison. Got to meet Greg’s mom, visiting from England, who was a sweetheart. Back to airport, caught our flight, and did the Metro bus from BWI to Greenbelt and Green Line home.
An amazing adventure into the messy industrial heart of America. Was odd for a few days back to be in a place where no one makes anything. Then we got used to it, and reveled in the availability of mesclun and organic chicken wrapped in plastic.