Sunday, December 14, 2014

Christmas in Newport

Jim and I spent last weekend in Newport, Rhode Island, touring some of the mansions that we couldn't fit in on our trip back in September, strolling through the historic district and reveling in the Christmas delights. During our previous trip, we discovered that a few of the mansions are decorated for the holidays, so we immediately started planning our return.

The Breakers, the Elms and Marble House are all decorated, and coincidentally we had skipped the Elms and Marble House on our first tour. I had been to both once before on my first trip to Newport, but I had never been in the off-season. Photography is usually off-limits inside of the mansions, but exceptions were made in each house for some of the more elaborately decorated sections.

All three houses were beautifully decorated, with trees in almost every room, garland-covered banisters and elaborate mantlepiece scenes. The Breakers even had a display of gingerbread Newport Mansions—I loved the renditions of the Chinese Tea House from Marble House and Kingscote, which we toured back in September.

Of course all of the decorations are really just for show—most of the mansions were strictly summer homes and sat empty in the winter months. Historically accurate or not, the mansions are perfect backdrops for the opulent reds and golds of Christmas and every grand staircase looks even more grand wrapped in evergreen.

Of course I also enjoyed the more humble wreaths and candy-cane-striped porch columns that we spotted on our walk around town. I've always thought that New England is a quintessential fall destination, but it turns out that the colonial, federal and shingle-style houses with their dark green siding and bright red doors are pretty perfect for the Christmas season as well.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Triborough / RFK Bridge

Back in September, after a day spent exploring the always-weird Randall's Island, I made an impulse decision to walk across a portion of the Triborough Bridge (officially renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge in 2008) into Queens. I happened upon a pedestrian ramp while I was dreading the long walk back into Manhattan, so it was by a mixture of exhaustion and curiosity that I ended up on one of the last city bridges that I had left on my to-walk list.

I knew from my exploration of Astoria Park that the Triborough Bridge would dump me out near a subway line in Queens but I didn't expect it to be such a harrowing—and at times truly terrifying—bridge walk. The ramp from Randall's Island was innocuous enough—enclosed with chain link fence and rising above and over the strange mix of industrial, athletic and mental health facilities that populate Randall's Island. However, once I was on the actual bridge it began to get a bit scary with the highway so close to the walkway, and cyclists speeding by me despite the many "walk your bicycle" warnings along the narrow pedestrian route.

Like the Manhattan Bridge, the Triborough has an additional chain link safety fence sitting on top of the original railing—that is, until the very moment that you stop being over land, and begin to cross over the Hell Gate section of the East River, at which point the safety fence completely disappears. I'm not normally afraid of heights but with speeding traffic to my right and a crazy drop into the choppy river to my left (not to mention a walkway with large gaps that would shake violently every time a truck would go by) it was a less-than-leisurely stroll into Queens.

Incidentally, the safety fence reappeared when I was once again over land, making it the least-effective fence I've ever encountered. The views of Randall's Island, the spooky Manhattan Psychiatric Center and the Hell Gate Bridge are pretty nice—even more so when I was safely back at ground level and finally reviewed my photos.

There are two other legs of the bridge still to walk (the portions spanning the Harlem River and the Bronx Kill) if I want to be a completionist about it, but I have my heart set on the George Washington as my next bridge walk—as soon as (or if) my Triborough trauma subsides.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Panorama of the City of New York

One of my reasons for taking my friend JMP to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was to show her the Panorama of the City of New York, a remnant of the 1964-65 World's Fair. "Conceived as a celebration of the City’s municipal infrastructure by urban mastermind and World’s Fair President Robert Moses for the 1964 Fair, the Panorama was built by a team of more than 100 people working for the great architectural model makers Raymond Lester & Associates over the course of three years," according to the Queens Museum (where the Panorama is currently on permanent display).

It has been updated a few times since its debut, with the most recent complete overhaul taking place in 1992. Since then buildings have been updated or added sporadically and you can actually "adopt" a building for as little as $50 (who wants to buy me the Chrysler Building?).

Like the Unisphere, the Panorama still astounds me every time I see it. The Queens Museum just underwent an extensive renovation and it's a beautiful space but the exhibits are sparse—that being said, the Panorama is more than reason enough to make the trip out to Queens. The first time I ever saw it, most of the museum was still closed for construction—in fact the only thing we saw during that visit was the Panorama and I definitely didn't leave disappointed.

There are walkways around the entire perimeter of the Panorama, tracing the route that the original indoor helicopter ride took during the World's Fair. The model is built to a scale of 1:1200 where one inch equals 100 feet—the Empire State Building is just 15 inches tall.

It is endlessly entertaining to stare at each borough, picking out landmarks like Yankee Stadium, the Flatiron Building, the original World Trade Towers and all of the museums, parks and bridges that I love so much—there are even little mini planes "taking off" and "landing" in a continuous loop at LaGuardia airport. It's also fun to try and find your own address—especially easy in Manhattan where you can count the street grid using major buildings as a guide.

Everything looks better in miniature and the city is no exception. The thing I like most about the Panorama, however, is that it really serves no discernible purpose. Although it was originally meant to be repurposed after the Fair as an urban planning tool, today the Panorama really serves no function past being incredibly awesome to behold. To use a phrase from one of my favorite tour guides ever, the Panorama of the City of New York is truly "just for fancy," making it one of my favorite attractions in all of New York.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Eastern State Penitentiary: Part 2

Last week I shared some of my photos from the crumbling interior of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. ESP was operational from 1829 until 1971, was designed by John Haviland and was the largest and most expensive public structure ever constructed.

It sits in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, and looks completely out of place nestled in a neighborhood of coffee shops and row houses. Some of the most interesting stories on the audio tour were about ESP's famous inmates, notably Al Capone and "Slick" Willie Sutton. Slick Willie was one of twelve inmates who escaped via a tunnel in April of 1945. Eleven of them were eventually recaptured and one—James Grace—even asked to be let back in.

The tunnel has recently been excavated (after being filled in following the escape) and you can actually walk inside of the cell and see the opening. A line on the pavement outside traces the tunnel's route, under the ground and past the outside walls.

ESP is filled with fascinating stories like this, but my favorite inmate is definitely Pep the dog. In 1924, Pep was sentenced to life in prison for killing the Pennsylvania Governor's cat—or at least that's what a newspaper reporter wrote at the time. The real story is slightly less dramatic, and has Pep being sent to the prison to help rehabilitate prisoners (and because he was chewing on the Governor's couch cushions). Either way, there is a mugshot of Pep, which is pretty fantastic.

ESP's most famous prisoner, however, is probably Al Capone, who spent 8 months at Eastern State in 1929-1930. They've recreated his cell as it looked when he was there, complete with fancy furniture, an oriental rug, soft lighting, artwork and a radio.

Another cell even has a full-sized tree growing through the wall, and it continues into the neighboring cell. There is so much history at Eastern State and there was something fascinating in every single corner I peeked into. The day I went was beautiful and sunny, and you get to wander the grounds as freely as you do the interior. I hesitate to say that I thoroughly enjoyed being inside of a prison, but even if I was sad to leave, I'm glad I at least had the option.

Eastern State Penitentiary: Part 1