Archives for posts with tag: early 20th century

Yesterday, we drove up to Saratoga Springs, New York, for a quick getaway, a mini-vacation, a brief respite from the everyday.  We haven’t planned much—our idea is to keep it simple—and spent yesterday afternoon walking up and down the main street in town, Broadway, and taking a nap (I never claimed to be the life of the party) before going out for a delicious pasta dinner at Wheatfields (highly recommended).  The heat wave finally broke and we were actually able to eat outdoors.

One of the things we did plan was a visit this morning to the gardens at Yaddo, an artists’ community founded in 1900 by a wealthy couple who, sadly, lost all four of their children.  Without heirs, they decided to convert their estate into a sanctuary where young artists, writers, composers and other promising creative types could work without interruption or concern for such mundane matters as room and board.

Most of the 400-acre property is off-limits to those who have not applied to the organization, been reviewed by its trustees and found qualified for residency.  However, the gardens, which comprise a formal rose garden and more rustic rock garden, are open to the public on a daily basis.  The gardens are tended by the volunteer Yaddo Garden Association, several of whose members were busily at work during our walk-through.

We were a bit late for the roses which probably peaked about a week ago.  Nonetheless, most of the bushes were still in bloom, even if the flowers were becoming a bit ragged.  I am always amazed by the sheer variety of roses whose flowers exist in seemingly infinite combinations of color, size, shape and scent.  My favorites are the more delicate pinks and peaches, especially the clusters of diminutive tea roses.

The rose garden is carved out of a stand of spruces which shield visitors from the unfortunate presence of the Thruway, only several hundred feet to the east.  Unfortunately, the trees are not dense enough to attenuate the constant drone of trucks and automobiles racing by at 70 miles per hour.  One has to use some effort to imagine oneself at the turn of the last century when the surrounding countryside was less populated and much quieter.

The rock garden, located west of the rose garden and divided from it by a classical colonnade, is somewhat more serene and much more shaded (fewer trees were removed to create it, apparently).  The flora here are much more familiar to me (in appearance if not in name) and include an impressive array of hostas, most of which were in full bloom.  The dense canopy of the woods must have protected them from the merciless sun of the last few weeks.

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There is nothing like a field trip to make my day, especially when it starts early, includes breakfast and takes me to another national park.  I’ve always loved the incomparable beauty of their locations (for the most part), the optimistic (some would say naïve) outlook of their educational exhibits and, most of all, the friendliness and earnestness of their park rangers (who are often the most naturally gregarious people).

So, with friends visiting for the New Year’s holiday, we decided to spend the last day of the year on the road and headed up to the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park.  It is one of the National Park Service’s more unusual properties (technically speaking, it is a National Historic Site) in that it is not directly focused on the natural environment (like Yellowstone or Yosemite) or a person or event in our government’s history (such as Gettysburg or the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt just down the street).

Instead, it highlights the lifestyles of the rich and famous—of the early 20th century.  Of course, the Vanderbilts had a huge impact on the U.S. economy and their significance in our history (along with other extremely wealthy families) cannot be discounted.  But perhaps the main reason the mansion makes sense as a national treasure is that it is a monumental example of the physical works that can be achieved by people when given sufficient motivation, resources and money (all the same thing, sometimes).  In that regard, it is more akin to, say, Hoover Dam (operated by the Bureau of Reclamation) only with more gilt.

The Vanderbilt Mansion also differs from many Park Service venues in that its main features are indoors.  Given the cold and snow left over from Saturday’s storm, an alternative to outdoor activities was desirable.  Plus, by making our visit prior to New Year’s Day (when the site will be closed), we were able to see the mansion decorated for the holidays.  On Wednesday, the staff will begin to remove the trees and wreaths that brighten almost every one of the 54 rooms.

Though large by mere-mortal standards, the Vanderbilt Mansion was considered modest by its original inhabitants and was used only in the spring and fall (summers were spent in cooler seaside locations and the only acceptable location for the winter social season was New York City).  Still, a lot of expensive architectural details and fancy furniture are packed into its 55,000 square feet of real estate.

Most of the rooms (not counting the servants quarters) are hopelessly ornate but I found it interesting that both the main kitchen and the one bathroom on view (on the second floor) are decorated in a functional style that is still popular today (open layouts; stainless steel, copper and marble fixtures; white subway tile).  The bathroom includes what is perhaps the most beautiful sink drainpipe that I have ever seen.

Outside, the views of the Hudson River were spectacular even on this wintry day.  The only downside to visiting at this time of year, however, is that we were unable to properly tour the grounds which include dense woods, expansive lawns (polo, anyone?) and formal gardens (modeled after those in Italian villas).  I do not know whether anything remains of the vegetable gardens and livestock farm that originally supplied the mansion with food but on a future visit, when the ground is not snow covered, I intend to investigate.