Archive for the Travel/ Tourism Category

New York and the Titanic

Posted in Travel/ Tourism with tags , , on April 15, 2017 by travsd

Today is the anniversary of the 1912 sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. The disaster took place in the Atlantic, far from New York City, but NYC has always had a strong connection to the event. This is where the ship was headed when she sank. Consequently, Titanic buffs like myself have been known to make admittedly morbid pilgrimages to sites associated with the event. I’ve visited at least three.

There is the building in Lower Manhattan where the White Star Line’s offices were located, and where desperate family members and friends and members of the press flocked to find answers in the hours after the news of the sinking broke:


There are the Chelsea Piers on the west side, where the Titanic was scheduled to dock. I happened to take this photo at Chelsea Piers; the paddle wheel, while charming, is irrelevant:


Lastly, there is the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, formerly located on the East River, but part of the South Street Seaport Museum since 1967:



May all her dead rest in peace.

Barry Lubin Becomes the First Clown to Clown on Seven Continents

Posted in Circus, Clown, Contemporary Variety, Travel/ Tourism with tags , , , , on January 14, 2017 by travsd


In the midst of so many horrible precedents, and history being made in so many undesirable ways, something truly amazing happened. The great Barry Lubin, best known as the Big Apple Circus’s “Grandma”, became the first clown in history to have performed on all 7 continents. I want to be able to claim that he was also the first professional clown to perform in Antarctica but I’m not certain if that’s true (hundreds of people go down there annually to work now, and thousands of tourists visit annually on cruises). But I’m certain Lubin’s the first clown of such major stature to do so. The word “wonder” gets thrown around too much in the circus game, but this for once is a novelty that will put a spring in my step for some time. Thanks, Barry! This is in the great Houdini tradition, just going out in the world and doing something plum amazing to give the public a boost — just when we needed it the most.

Remembering William Cullen Bryant

Posted in AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Travel/ Tourism with tags , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2016 by travsd



Today is the birthday of William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878). 19th century America would be astounded to know that a man of his standing and eminence could be so swallowed up by time — to such an extent that millions of people could walk in, around, and through the park that is named after him and located right in the heart of New York City and still have no idea whom it is named after nor even have any curiosity about it. Or that those same millions could pass by the great monument to him that is in that park, a monument that could answer the question they never thought to ask, and never look at it or read its inscription. (There it is above. I snapped it a few months ago as I strolled around Bryant Park with my son Charlie).

The significance of William Cullent Bryant is multifold; this might one reason why he is not well remembered. His complex career does not boil down to a trivia question. He was both one of 19th century America’s most important poets and one of its most important journalists and newspaper editors. So was Whitman though of course. And it might be argued that Bryant was more important on both scores, so I guess that won’t explain his present obscurity. Like Irving and Cooper, Bryant was one of America’s first literary figures of international importance. Like Longfellow, he was one of our first poets. He was born and raised in Western Massachusetts, the same area where Melville would later meet Hawthorne, and where the cloistered Emily Dickinson would later toil, but he would come to be associated primarily with New York City, like Irving, Cooper, Melville and Whitman. And, he became one of that city’s most influential newspaper editors, casting a shadow not unlike that of Horace Greeley. 

There are two most important things you need to know about William Cullen Bryant:

One is that from 1829 until his death (thus for nearly half a century) he was the editor of the New York Evening Post (the same paper as today’s New York Post). Under his direction, the paper had quite a different tone and philosophy from the one it inherited from its founder Alexander Hamilton, and of course a very different one from today. Despite the fact that he had begun his political life as a Federalist, and had first gained notoriety by writing an anti-Jefferson satirical  poem, the Post was not a “conservative” paper under Bryant. Events (and probably New York) changed him. Bryant’s Post was a pro-Jacksonian Democratic one. In time, it evolved. Bryant took an Abolitionist stance, which caused him to drift away from the Democrats to the Free Soilers, who later evolved into the Republicans. Truth be known, it was his longtime editorship of the Post that got him a monument and a park. People and politicians may pay lip service to poetry, but in the modern age they seldom move mountains to honor it.

The other important thing you should know about Bryant is his most famous poem, “Thanatopsis”. Time was when it was learned by every American schoolchild and when it was one of America’s proudest (and only) literary exports. If you only know one thing he wrote (and most people who know anything do only know this one thing) this is the thing. To this day, “Thanatopsis” is widely anthologized, and it’s been my experience that it’s the only Bryant poem (out of many volumes of poetry he wrote during his lifetime) that you will see so represented.

Coming across “Thanatopsis” from time to time is one way I came to know about Bryant. The other is my years at the New-York Historical Society. Bryant spoke there many times in the 19th century. If you visit their Luce Center on the top floor, you will find this bust of him by the sculptor John Rogers:


And closer to home nowadays, at the Brooklyn Museum, I always stop and look at this portrait of him done in his last months by the painter Wyatt Eaton: 


I have a stake in promoting him; Bryant and I share many of the same Pilgrim ancestors. There is some irony to be found in the fact that this dead poet’s poem about death, with its meditation on immortality, has proved all too mortal in the popular memory. Yet there are so many good reasons to know it and remember it. It is an incredible fulcrum, a torch-passing, full of the English influence of the Graveyard Poets and nature-loving Wordsworth, but also having much in common with the Transcendentalists and the upbeat optimism of Whitman. I don’t find it dated or stuffy or irrelevant. All young people should be exposed to “Thanatopsis”. I can’t imagine that most of them couldn’t be taught to appreciate it. Bryant was essentially a Goth teenager when he wrote it, but there is a touching, naive hopefulness to it that I also relate to and associate with youth.


     To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around—
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air—
Comes a still voice—
                                       Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.
     Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,
The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre.   The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods—rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,—
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death,
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glide away, the sons of men,
The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man—
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn shall follow them.
     So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

3 More Days to See a WWII Liberty Ship in NYC

Posted in AMERICANA, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Travel/ Tourism with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2016 by travsd


It seemed for awhile as though I would never get to see the Liberty Ship  S.S. John W. Brown during her current stay at Pier 36 in New York. Originally scheduled to arrive on September 9 (last Friday), she was delayed for two days by Tropical Storm Hermine. Ironically, on September 11, the day she steamed in, I was extremely close to where she’s docked but didn’t know it. I’d heard about the Brown’s arrival through the Lightship Lilac, so I assumed (for no good reason, now I think of it) that she’d be docking on the west side. I happened to be at Abrons Arts Center, quite close to the East River. I actually didn’t know there were still east side piers north of South Street Seaport. By September 12 (Monday), I figured out that she was docked on the east. On that day, I happened to have a meeting on the Lower East Side that day and I had a (very) little extra time, so I got off the F train at East Broadway and popped over to the waterfront real quick to see if I could just catch a glimpse of her. Again, ironically, I didn’t know it but I was quite close to her, but I had to get to my appointment. On September 13 (Tuesday), I got the idea that I’d walk there from my house via the Brooklyn Bridge (it’s about six miles). The pedestrian entrance to the bridge wasn’t where I thought it was though and I got frustrated trying to find it, and ended up walking back home. (That sounds like a bigger deal than it is; I walk that far almost every day just for exercise). On September 14 (Wednesday), I thought to LOOK UP where the pedestrian entrance was before I departed and did manage finally to make it all the way to Pier 36, arriving at 4:30pm. But they were closed for tours; they close at 5pm! Finally, yesterday, I achieved success.

Absolute pills will say, “I guess you’ll get directions first next time, eh?” I’m not so sure. I discovered several major things about the geography, history and sociology of New York during these wanderings, things that have direct bearing on my future writing. I wouldn’t have stumbled on them if I’d gone straight to my destination. They’re all just as important to me as what I learned on the Brown, and my experience on the Brown was MIGHTY DAMN COOL.


But you’re probably wondering what the John W. Brown even is. It’s a class of vessel called a Liberty Ship, a World War II era cargo ship. An astounding 2,710 of these ships were manufactured in an extreme hurry when America got into World War Two. They’d originally been designed for Britain during the Lend-Lease period but within months the U.S. needed them, so with some tweaks in design, they went into mass production domestically. As the war progressed, women increasingly became part of the workforce that built them. And they just churned them off the assembly line. One Liberty Ship was built in a record nine days (hopefully some of my photos will show why that is jaw-dropping).


The Liberty Ships were used to transport anything that needed moving over to where the war was happening: vehicles, weaponry, foodstuffs, troops, and even (early in the war, I’m guessing) horses. It’s a similar idea to the setting of the play and movie Mr. Roberts, although with this major difference. The ship in Mr. Roberts was a navy cargo ship; the Liberty Ships were part of the Merchant Marine. There were only a couple of hundred navy cargo ships. I’m the opposite of an expert, but in photos they long more heavily fortified and streamlined, and I’m guessing they were safer. But as we said above, there were nearly 3,000 Liberty Ships in the Merchant Marine. They were basically built to be disposable, do their job for the duration of the war and that was it.

The bridge on the "Brown" is not nearly as luxurious as the one we see beyong Mr. Roberts (Henry Fonda) on this navy cargo ship

The bridge on the “Brown” is not nearly as luxurious as the one we see behind Mr. Roberts (Henry Fonda) on this navy cargo ship, and that’s putting it mildly

But some lasted longer. The John W. Brown served the military into the post-war period. Then, from the 1950s through 1982, she was used as a New York City Merchant Marine high school! I’d never heard of that. I met two of the alumni during my tour. After that, she found her way down to Baltimore where she now operates as a museum. She is one of only two operational Liberty Ships still in existence.

Yesterday I told someone I someone was coming over to see the ship, and she asked, “Yeah, you interested in that sort of thing?” And defensively I conjured all sorts of good reasons which I didn’t get the chance to articulate: my brother and father-in law were in the navy, my father worked in a naval shipyard, my great-great-great grandfather was a ship’s captain, I grew up surrounded by boating in the Ocean State, I worked in a history museum for six years, I often write about history museums, and I’ve previously spent a great deal of time exploring places like the Intrepid, the South Street Seaport Museum, the Lilac, the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia and even the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But really none of that would need to be true. A better response would be , “How could you NOT be interested?” It’s an intrinsically exciting experience, like visiting an amusement park. The scale of it is awe-inspiring. The achievements associated with it, not just the construction, but the feats the vessel and its crews accomplished during its working life. And heroism — the Merchant Marine sustained the highest ratio of casualties of any service branch during the Second World War. But if that doesn’t impress you, it’s simply a cool experience to have, one you don’t get to have every day.

So forgive me for inundating you with all these photographs. You’ll find details at the bottom about how and where to visit the John W. Brown.








As a confirmed Poseidon Adventure fanatic my favorite spot on the tour was the engine room. I was like a kid in a candy store and spent most of my time there picturing the place upside down. It’s several decks high, and you enter from above, looking down through a three dimensional maze of catwalks, steampipes, valves, boilers etc. I snapped pictures like crazy (sometimes recklessly, the footing can be treacherous) but none of these photographs begin to convey how thrilling it is. A 3-D camera might do it. In looking at these pix, try to see past the foreground and middleground for the full perspective.




Shaft Alley. As Eric Shea precociously intones in "The Poseidon Adventure", "Nowhere is the steel hull thinner!" It's the passengers' final destination in their race to the bottom/top. This is a smaller propeller shaft than you'd find in a luxury liner of course. Here, it's just a crawl space.

Shaft Alley. As Eric Shea precociously intones in The Poseidon Adventure, “Nowhere is the steel hull thinner!” It’s the passengers’ final destination in their race to the bottom/top. This is a smaller propeller shaft than you’d find in a luxury liner of course. Here, it’s just a crawl space.


Troop bunks, stacked five high.

Troop bunks, stacked five high.

The Liberty Ship John W. Brown will depart New York on September 19. She is docked at Pier 36, which is frankly not easy to get to (unless you travel by car). Perhaps a 20 minute walk from the F train’s East Broadway stop. It is hidden behind some municipal buildings (sanitation and the fire department, it looked like). But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, it is worth the trip. Tours are a $10 suggested donation. On Saturday, the 17th, there will be added treat — they will run the engines, so folks can see it in action. And the biggest treat of all will be on Sunday, September the 18th, they will be having a benefit cruise. Tickets to that are $195. The John W. Brown is a not-for-profit museum. It exists on donations; and its staff is all-volunteer.  Info and tickets can be found here. 

Lastly, if you miss it in New York, you can always tour it when you visit Baltimore. That’s where she lives most of the time.

A Jaunt to the New York City Marble Cemetery

Posted in ME, My Family History, Travel/ Tourism with tags , , on September 12, 2016 by travsd


If you’ve done any amount of time kicking around the Lower East Side, you’ve passed the New York City Marble Cemetery on Second Street Between 1st and 2nd Avenues. It’s not to be confused with the New York Marble Cemetery (look carefully for the difference in the names), which is around the corner, and as both their web sites claim, is “unrelated”. The latter apparently has underground mausoleums and is viewable on a different schedule. We’ll get to that one. Meantime, we went to this one.

Ordinarily you’ll find the front gate locked, looking like this:


But once a month they open it up to the public and it looks like this:


And so, after a long time of wanting to, I finally got to go inside yesterday.

Ironically, I failed in my only specific agenda item, to find the marker for my distant relative Preserved Fish. I wasn’t very organized; I just wanted a pleasant outing, and got one. I did find this photo of the marker online though, and so I’ll know what to look for next time.


We did find many other points of interest, including the vault were President James Monroe was formerly interred prior to being exhumed and moved to Richmond. He died a veritable pauper and so he originally rated only this modest stone. So, sure, we’re the “Greatest Nation in the World” — until I hear shit like this. I can’t imagine something so cold happening to a national leader in any other nation but ours. He wasn’t even hated — he was well regarded and highly accomplished! Policies and “doctrines” and national capitals (Monrovia, Liberia) bear his name! But, “Uh, I’m sorry President Poor Guy — you’ll have to take the economy tombstone. Near the back. Too bad you didn’t have more money, and no one wanted to give you any!”


Mostly, the place was wonderfully cheering in a Gothic sort of way. It’s really just a beautiful walled garden with statuary — and remains! A festive environment prevailed. We saw a little party of older Goth women happening under a bush. I wasn’t indiscreet enough to photograph them, but I did capture this lady doing her thing on the accordion. That was two accordion concerts I got that day (I went to Circus Amok after this).




The New York City Marble Cemetery will next be open to the public on September 25 and October 15 & 16. For more information go here. 

Another Kind of Lilac to Sniff

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, Travel/ Tourism, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2016 by travsd


My new feature about the Lightship Lilac and her current exhibition just hit this week’s Downtown Express. Read all about it here. As a bonus, here are are extra stray photos I took while on board. If there are beads of sweat on the lens, it’s because it was 105 degrees! I felt like I was on the African Queen!

IMG_1373 (2)




Want to find out where all this is? Read the damn article!

Summering in Newport

Posted in AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, My Family History, Travel/ Tourism, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2016 by travsd

OK, here’s our latest vacation slide show post! By now, it’s become a regular content stream here.  We’ve done Ireland (Galway & Dublin), New Orleans (a 5 part series), Salem, Burlington, Providence, and too many staycation destinations here in NYC to list. This past week was the Mad Marchioness’s birthday, but my time was somewhat limited by the fact that I am in rehearsals for The Iron Heel. So our trip needed to be close and the time spent getting there needed to be short. Our solution was to do what New Yorkers (of a class far more exalted than ours)  did back in the Gilded Age — make for the shores of nearby Newport, Rhode Island. We both had special childhood memories of visiting the mansions there. And in addition to loving art and history and the beauty of nature, the Marchioness loves restaurants, and there is a very high number of good ones there.

And of course the place has some personal connections for me. I’m from the area. I have some ancestors among the town’s founders (see below) and I spent a very crucial summer there 30 years ago saving up the money that would get me (partway) through theatre school, which then launched me to New York.  As I blogged here, I worked for a man named Michael Shorrock in the summer of 1986, making and hawking tee shirts in Rhode Island’s two principal resorts of Block Island and Newport. These are the only known photos of me during that time. I was 20 and working some party at a Newport mansion (giving away custom tee shirts as party favors):


The visor says “Tall Ships, ’86” — it makes sense that there would be another tall ship display a decade after the Bicentennial.


Bellevue manor sign

At any rate, we went into the Belly of the Sea-Beast last week, and I do believe we managed to sample each of Newport’s “Nine Cities” which Thornton Wilder wrote about in his novel Theophilus North.

We stayed at a highly eccentric complex called the Inns on Bellevue, in a charming 19th century guest house.  “Charming” is our customary euphemism for no shampoo, unlaundered towels, a loud upstairs neighbor, a tv at a 90 degree angle to the bed (not the first time we’ve encountered this quirk) and a leaky toilet. The latter was the worst problem (use your imagination) and so we requested a move to a different room. We liked the new space better, with the one exception being the fact that the shower was in the bedroom! It was only mildly perturbing, mostly just surreal. It’s very disorienting to look over from bed and see a shower stall with no wall or curtain in between. The line between “New England charm” and “mental illness” can sometimes be very fine.

Benedict Arnold windmill

But we were in the perfect location, one of the reasons I chose the place. For one thing, we were about half a block from one of Newport’s best known landmarks, the Newport Tower. For many years, there was a spurious but popular theory abroad that the structure had been built by Vikings before the time of Columbus. On the other hand, locals have pretty much always known what it always was, a stone windmill built by Rhode Island’s first colonial governor Benedict Arnold, great-grandfather of the eponymously named traitor, and a distant relation of mine. The fact that the tower is located on Mill Road might give some clue. Still it wasn’t until carbon dating by some killjoys in the 1990s that the Viking theory was officially disproved. Still, this tower is the reason so many businesses in the area have the name Viking. (Our guest house was across from the Viking Hotel, for example).

We were pretty wiped out when we arrived, but we were also starving and eager to site-see, so we headed down the hill to Bowen’s Wharf and grabbed some seafood at the Wharf Pub, which was having a promotion for? Brooklyn Brewery. There’s no escape!

Then we roamed around the docks, where it became necessary to take this photo:


Somehow we got a second wind and took a LONG walk down Thames Street, past  countless seafood joints and watering holes, both fancy and divey, heard countless bad cover musicians, passed many a boat-yard, and roamed around an antique shop in an old armory.

Trav at breakfast

Complimentary breakfast at the inn. For once, the Marchioness was up and at ’em and eager to get started long before me. That never happens! This picture illustrates my slow attempts to attain her energy level.

Our inn was just a short bus ride from all of the mansions, with the vast majority of them literally located on the same street, Bellevue Ave. We headed first for the Breakers, which was the farthest away, and the one we had both visited previously in our childhoods. Built as the summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895, it’s the largest and most garish and gaudy of the mansions, built in an Italian Renaissance style, but with interiors that are a sort of vulgar mish-mash of whatever European plunder from whatever time period that Vanderbilt could get his hands on. This was intimated to us by our teachers as schoolchildren, but I’m sure most of us still just went, “I want a house like THIS some day!” I know I did. But this time I felt myself more interested in the butler’s pantry and kitchen. A changed perspective.

Anyway, for this reason and others, if at all possible I would recommend that travelers see this house LAST, so that you can see the smaller and simpler houses for context and comprehend what you’re even looking at. The Breakers was designed to be the last word in conspicuous opulence, in Newport, at least, so it is better to see all the other houses it attempts to outdo FIRST.

Ironically, one of the most gorgeous things about the Breakers is the view from the inside looking OUT:

Breakers ocean view

And the house’s exterior is tasteful if imposing. It was designed by Richard Morris Hunt.

Breakers from lawn

I was much more enamored of Marble House, built by Cornelius’s brother William K. Vanderbilt in 1892, just a few years prior. It was also designed by Richard Morris Hunt in the Beaux-Arts style.  Its name comes from the marble used on the building’s exterior, which was inspired by Versailles. My favorite spot was the nautical trophy room, full of souvenirs from William’s yachting activities. Apparently lots of Frenchmen like to come there and put their grubby hands on things:

vanderbilt ship wheel

Some other interesting features include a spectacular staircase that was used in the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby (in which one of the teachers at my high school was an extra), the Chinese Tea House on the back lawn, and the dark, atmospheric Gothic Room which has the atmosphere of a church.

Interestingly, three years after it opened, the Vanderbilts divorced. The mansion was already in Alva Vanderbilt’s name — she’d been given the house as a birthday present. She went on to marry Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (to whom I am distantly related on his mother’s side) and became the mistress of Belcourt, another Richard Morris Hunt mansion. Belcourt was still open as a museum until recently. In 2012, it was sold to private owners(!) This struck me as a startling tipoff as to where wealth equality is headed in this country. In similar news, that same year Beechwood, the Astor’s Newport Mansion which was also long a living history museum, was sold to billionaire Larry Ellison but he reportedly intends to turn it into an art museum.

From here we went to Rosecliff  which opened in 1902 and was designed by McKim, Mead and White. I definitely recognized some of the interiors in this house from that same movie of The Great Gatsby (e.g., the scene where they are sitting in a sun room at Tom and Daisy’s and the sea breeze is wafting the curtains). At Rosecliff we heard tales of decadent parties with the likes of Houdini as entertainment, and scandalous guests such as a chimpanzee who swung from the chandeliers. These bashes were intended to compete with the annual balls thrown by Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish at her Newport mansion Crossways, a house which still stands but now houses condominiums.

By now, we were footsore and starved so we went and had seafood at a place called The Landing on Bowen Wharf

Carolyn at restaurant (2)

From here we stayed closer to the old town waterfront. We visited the modest Museum of Newport History, located in an Old Brick Market built in the 1760s.

Gardiner Thurston

There I found this portrait of Rev. Gardner Thurston (1728-1802), pastor of Newport’s Second Baptist Church, and a distant relative. Our mutual ancestor is Edward Thurston (1620-1707) one of Newport’s founders (see below)

James franklin's press

This is apropos of nothing except that I thought it was cool. It is an actual printing press used by James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother. Ben had been apprenticed to him as a printer in his youth, acquiring skills that allowed him to achieve international prominence as newspaper editor and publisher, and author.

One thing you’ll hear about at this museum (and very few other places in town) is Newport’s past as a slave trading center. Prior to the American Revolution, Newport was America’s fifth largest city, and its wealth came largely from its participation in the Triangle Trade. The city was occupied for a time by the British; a large portion of its population fled and never returned. While Rhode Island had the North’s highest per capita concentration of slaves of any New England colony or state, it was gradually banned by legislation in 1784 (an effort driven largely by local Quakers). In the 19th century, after the last of the slaves had died, the town’s connection to the hated practice continued when the first millionaires who made their summer homes here were Southern slaveholders who came North for the cool breezes. This ceased with the advent of the Civil War. Thereafter Newport would be the playground of the rich from New York and Boston. At any rate, I’ll be blogging more about my home state’s complicity in the slave trade as a follow up to this broader one about the North. 


Photo by Marchioness

Drinks were in order at this stage; we had them at the colonially themed Clarke Cooke House on Bannister’s Wharf. where we sat and listened to some exceedingly cheesy preppies bleat loudly about the things they bought and owned — a vital part of the Newport experience.

Then we took the first of our two boat rides, this time the 55 minute loop on the Newport Harbor Shuttle. We shared the boat most of the way with three giggling drunk ladies and received interesting information from the vessel’s pilot/ tour guide Paul. The coolest sight we saw on this trip was the tall ship Oliver Hazard Perry which was moored just outside Fort Adams. 

Oliver Hazard Perry tall ship 2

It’s not so visible in my photo but there was a crew of student sailors aloft in the mast; the ship is used for training — in the unlikely event you will be able able to secure a job as a crew member of a 19th century sailing ship.

After this we stopped at the historic Black Pearl on Bannister’s Wharf. I sampled their famous chowder, my third portion of chowder since arriving, I wanted to compare and contrast. Their chowder was okay, but I was more knocked out by their hot buttered rolls — and by the fact that they served hot buttered rolls. 


While it may look like we did a lot on our first full day, we enjoyed the second day even more. It began with a little rubbernecking at some places close to our hotel.

We were  startled to stumble upon something called Audrain, a storefront automobile museum. This place (founded 2014) is so new it wasn’t in my guidebook. That’s okay, I can live without visiting an automobile museum (and why do they have one in Newport?) but we ended up seeing it anyway. The entire display (it’s an admittedly gorgeous and impressive collection) is visible from the street through the windows for free. Someone should tell these novice exhibitors to invest in some curtains and some very good signs or they’ll lose a lot of potential admission fees.

We also looked at the famous Newport Casino, designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1880, the site of the first U.S. Opens and, since 1954 the home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. We had a peek around back and caught a glimpse of the charming, impressive tennis stadium, which you’d never dream exists from the modest looking streetfront (undoubtedly by design, for it started out as a private club):


From thence we went to nearby Kingscote, which we absolutely loved. Without reservation, I would recommend this as the FIRST stop in any tour of Newport mansions. It provides a crucial foundation for the history of all that came after. Originally built in 1839 by Southern plantation owner George Noble Jones, it was acquired during the Civil War by China Trade merchant William Henry King and remained in his family for nearly a century. The primary style is Gothic revival; the main house was designed by Richard Upjohn, with more modern additions later by McKim, Mead and White (one of their first commissions). Among the pleasures (besides the Gothic atmosphere we so deeply love) is the fact that the house was acquired by preservationists when its last private owner died with great suddenness in 1973. This meant that all of the family belongings (books, china, art, silver, etc) were still inside and were acquired along with the house. It looks and feels like a home that somebody lived in…and that is a major part of the context it’s hard to get a feel for in those later, larger mansions.


Then came what I can safely say was the highlight of our trip, a visit to the too-little known National Museum of American Illustration. I can’t say enough good things about this experience — our jaws were dropping. The experience is a double whammy. First, it is located in the gorgeous 1898 mansion Vernon Court, designed by the firm of Carrere and Hastings (who also designed the Frick), so at its base level it’s yet another house tour (of an extremely tasteful and beautiful house). But…on top of that, it’s full to the rafters with original paintings and drawings by so many of the American illustrators the Marchioness and I both love: Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, John Clymer, and many others.  And also, there were countless John Rogers sculptures, a not entirely dissimilar artistic phenomenon. Our eyes were popping out of our heads. This place deserves to be better known. It’s relatively new — founded in 1998, by polymath collectors Laurence and Judy Cutler. We don’t just want to go back, we want to live there. Not so much for the mansion as for the art. I declare the National Museum of American Illustration the most significant museum of Rhode Island, more important in its way than the RISD museum.  The benchmark for this bold statement being, “What museum has the sort of collection that you HAVE to go to this particular museum to see? And WOULD you travel to this museum to see it?” Not to pick on the RISD Museum, I love it, but it is the sort of place I might pop into if I happened to be in town. But I might easily be persuaded to travel 180 miles JUST to see the Illustration Museum.

But we had places to see and…places to see.

The last (and my favorite) of the big mansions we saw was The Elms, built by coal magnate Edward Julius Berwind in 1901, designed by Horace Traumbauer in the style of a French chateau. A bit slavishly perhaps. It seems a very faithful copy to my untutored eye, and that was what I liked about it. There seems to be more taste in its conception and very little monkey business. The house is full of art, prints, paintings, sculpture, tapestry, but it all seems appropriate, it seems to fit organically. (Although the Marchioness was amused by the bust of Caesar presiding over the dining room table from a nearby mantelpiece. As she observed, these houses seem designed to intimidate one’s enemies as much as anything else). Here she is surveying the grounds in her new birthday sun hat.


After a quick and cheap lunch at Griswold’s Tavern (the meaning of whose name we wouldn’t learn until the next next day), it was on to the day’s next big event: a harbor sail on the schooner Aquidneck. 

schooner Aquidneck

This was just a pleasant 90 minute excursion around the harbor, scheduled at dusk for maximum beauty. The crew of three not only manned the sails, but kept topping off our complimentary cups of champagne. It’s the only way to travel. I had never actually sailed before (not even on a sunfish), so it was a wonderful experience for me when the canvas was unfurled and the vessel began to move ahead silently, with the engines cut. It was quite magical.

aquidneck sail

A view of the Newport bridge from Narragansett Bay:

newport bridge from bay

The birthday girl in restful repose:

Carolyn on sail boat

A lousy photo of Fort Adams State Park: (So close and yet so far! The Newport Folk Festival was opening the next day, featuring a pair of our favorite entertainers Flight of the Conchords, but we had to get back to the city, and it was sold out anyway):

fort adams

Hammersmith Farm, the family home of Jackie Bouvier (Kennedy Onassis). It was formerly opened to visitors…but now is not. Interestingly, it’s virtually next door to a house that Eisenhower used as a summer White House.

Hammersmith Farm

We capped off the evening with the Marchioness’s birthday dinner at the historic White Horse Tavern, established in 1673. It was easily the best food I ate during our stay, and the unseemly faces I made while I consumed it hopefully communicated my appreciation.



Amusingly, while were were surrounded by pewter and stoneware and colonial antique furniture, the music being piped in was Sinatra and Tony Bennett — the combination felt very Rhode Island.


Last day! And for once I woke up early enough to spend a couple of hours taking some history snaps around the city while the Marchioness slept in. I basically had the town to myself, the only sounds were me and the sea gulls. It was lovely.

Touro synagogue

This is Touro Synagogue, a source of pride for any Rhode Islander with half a brain. It is the oldest synagogue in the country; and America’s second oldest Jewish congregation. It eventually dawned on us why we saw the occasional Orthodox families running around this still-WASP-ish enclave. They were making a pilgrimage!

WASP or no WASP, I feel a close affinity to this congregation, for its founders and my own ancestors came to this place for the very same reason. As I blogged here, Rhode Island is one of the first places to make true freedom of worship the law of the land.

Because I am descended from colonial Newport Quakers like Christopher Holder and Edward Thurston, and am related to the Hopkins family (you may recall the Quaker Stephen Hopkins from the musical 1776), I took great interest in this:

Quaker mtg house 4

The Freinds’ Meeting House was interesting:  huge and barn-like, unlike any other buildings in the area, reminding me of places much farther afield like Pennsylvania (which makes sense) or the South.

Quaker mtg house 3


quaker mtg house 1

In surroundings such as these, one might be forgiven for mistaking Quakers for Houyhnhnms (look it up).

Also, there is this. Newport’s United Baptist Church is essentially the second Baptist church in America. The oldest, in Providence was of course the one founded by Roger Williams, my (10th) great grandfather who fled persecution not only in England but also in Massachusetts and Plymouth. My (9th) great grandfather Obadiah Holmes was one of the first pastors at the Newport branch.

Baptist Church 1


Baptist Church 2

After this I managed to locate the remains of one of my ancestors in tiny Coddington Cemetery:

Coddington cemetery (edward thurston)

Here is the marker for my (10th) great grandfather Edward Thurston:

Edward Thurston grave

It is amazing how much maintenance these markers require. Thurston’s is covered with lichen at the moment. But here is a photo of the same stone someone took a few years ago:


I also walked to the outskirts of town to the Common Burying Ground where I know many of my relatives are interred. But there are 5,000 graves there, and no time to sort through them all. So after a brief sweep, I pressed on.

It seems like almost every house in Newport has a sign telling its age and its original inhabitants, and the surnames are more often than not names from my family tree. In most cases I’ll go out on a limb and say I and those people will be related, with earlier colonial ancestors in common. (Most of these historical houses are from the 18th or early 19th century. The common ancestors would be from the 17th century.) I photographed a couple, but quickly realized it was silly…there were too many. But this one is particularly interesting:

Wantan Lyman Hazard 2

The Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House is the oldest house in Newport (built c. 1697). I am related both to its original builder and owner Stephen Mumford, and to a later owner Daniel Lyman, a Revolutionary War soldier and Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court.


Wantan Lyman Hazard 3

And, just becuz, here’s St. Mary’s Church, where JFK married Jackie. It is the first Catholic parish in the now heavily Catholic State of Rhode Island, dating from the early 19th century (more evidence of Rhode Island’s religious tolerance):


St Marys

This is the tee shirt shop I mentioned above, where I worked to earn the money to go to theatre school. I had to hunt for ages to find this place. It had been 30 years!  It’s a pretty crucial piece of my life. If only I’d known about my family history in the area at that time — I only dug out these facts about a year ago.

tee shirt shop

Okay! Now the Marchioness was up, and so we squeezed in a couple of additional museums before we catch our train. Both were practically next door to our hotel.

The first was the WONDERFUL Redwood Library and Athenaeum, established in 1747. This is just the kind of quirky local institution  I can’t get enough of. A private membership library and club, and public museum. Its merits are too many to name: the building itself was designed by America’s first architect Peter Harrison, and there are the library’s original collection of centuries-old books, and antique clocks, and 18th century portraits by local artists with national reputations like Charles Bird King (from Newport) and Gilbert Stuart (who is from just across the bay in Saunderstown). And there was a traveling exhibition in the space, about mid 20th century futuristic car design, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. But because of the weird multipurpose nature of the institution, the place had a sort of tension which I relished. There was a very funny portrait on the wall of a minister with crossed-eyes. I wanted to show it to my girlfriend so we could laugh together about it, but there were two club members sitting in high backed chairs, scowling, reading the newspaper and clearing their throats.

The last place we visited was sadly the least impressive. The Newport Art Museum may have enjoyed the early support and involvement of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and may have shown many important artists over the years, but its mission may be said to be more artist-friendly than visitor-friendly. Its mission seems to be to support work by contemporary local artists. And we did see some interesting work. But we were in town for the history. Maybe if we lived there, we’d find it more engaging. By the way, this museum is located in the John N.A. Griswold House, designed by Richard Morris Hunt (which is reason the pub we mentioned above bears the name — it is across the street). the Griswold House and Redwood Library feel of a piece and of a time with nearby Kingscote, an earlier era than the monster mansions up the way.

At any rate, shortly after this we came down off our cloud and boarded the bus for home. And if there is anything that will bring you down to earth, it’s taking the bus.




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