Octagon House, Washington, D.C.

The Octagon House looks like it’s about to be eaten by the AIA headquarters. Courtesy AIA

I was mesmerized by ghost stories when I was growing up. Once I exhausted the supply of ghost books from the library system, I turned to the Internet to feed my fascination. One location seemed to come up often: the Octagon House in Washington, D.C.

The story was the the building’s first owner, Colonel John Tayloe III, was a tyrant who killed not one but two of his daughters by shoving them to their deaths from the home’s grand central staircase. The building is also supposedly haunted by ringing bells, a man in black, and a lilac-loving Dolley Madison, who briefly inhabited the Octagon House with her husband, President James Madison, after the British burned the White House during the War of 1812. Add it up, and the Octagon was often bestowed with the title of most haunted place in D.C.–no small feat considering the White House is a few blocks to the east.

I recently relocated from Florida to the Washington, D.C., area, so on my first foray in the city it was only fitting that my first stop be the Octagon House. The building, designed by U.S Capitol architect William Thornton and completed in 1801, is owned by the American Institute of Architects and open for free, self-guided tours from 1 to 4 on Thursdays through Saturdays.

The Octagon’s surroundings have changed quite a bit since it was completed in 1801. Then it was a castle in the newly born city. Today, it’s ancient compared to the modern glass, steel, and concrete office buildings nearby. The AIA headquarters are just behind the Octagon, and the concrete hunk of a building appears about ready to eat the much smaller Octagon House.

The Octagon House does not appear as its name implies. Yes, it does have eight sides, but they’re not equilateral. It’s still a unique example of Federal style architecture. Its importance was recognized long ago as evidenced by the AIA’s purchase of the building in 1902. Now open as a house museum, the interior is sparsely furnished so as to not detract from the restored elements. I read some of the wordy laminated sheets available in each room, but I would like to go back for a guided tour, available for $10 outside of open hours.

Oh, and about that whole Tayloe was a daughter murderer story? Completely unfounded. He did have seven daughters, but none died at the house. The AIA actively tries to set the record straight, but it’s hard to quash a story that is more than 100 years old. No word on the validity of the other reported hauntings.

Links

http://www.aia.org/conferences/the-octagon

http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/dc22.htm

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Early 1900s view. Courtesy Harris & Ewing Collection (Library of Congress)

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Boy on stairs ca. 1920. Courtesy National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)

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Early 1900s interior shot. Courtesy Library of Congress

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Early 1900s interior shot. Courtesy Library of Congress

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The Octagon House today.

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Looking toward the main entrance.

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Incredible carved fireplace.

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The detail–wow!

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Looking up the infamous staircase.

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No ghost. Just my wife.

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The minimal furniture lets the real draw stand out: the architecture.

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Subtle door.

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The basement was less restored.

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Roebling’s Delaware Aqueduct

Roebling’s Delaware Aqueduct from Pennsylvania facing New York earlier this month.

In an era before flight corridors, interstates, and railroads, the Delaware and Hudson Canal was one of many manmade waterways dug in 19th century America to connect the fledging country’s coastal cities to its raw materials in the interior. The D&H Canal, which linked New York City to the coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania, took three years to dig and opened in 1828.

The journey was arduous. Mules dragged canal boats down the 108-mile-long tow path and had to pass through 108 locks as the elevation rose 1,075 feet. Dams originally were built where the canal crossed Rondout Creek and the Lackawaxen, Delaware, Neversink rivers. At these dams the mules and their drivers crossed on a rope ferry. Traffic jams plagued those four crossings, so in the 1840s the D&H Canal Company hired engineer John Augustus Roebling, fresh off his designs for two wire cable suspension bridges in Pittsburgh, to design aqueducts over the four waterways.

Completed in 1847, the wire cable suspension bridge over the Delaware River, known as the Delaware Aqueduct, consisted of four spans of a 134 feet each that ties Minisink Ford, New York, to Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania. The four stone piers were shaped like a V where they face upriver in order to break up ice floes before they smashed into the bridge. The wooden superstructure on top had a trough in the middle to hold the canal’s water and towpaths along the rim on both sides where the mules and drives walked. The canal operated until 1898. Shortly thereafter, water was drained from the aqueduct, and it was converted into a toll bridge first for wagons and then automobiles.

The bridge looked nothing like Roebling’s design by the time the National Park Service purchased the span in 1980. No longer needed to hold water, the trunk walls had long since been removed, and flimsy wood guardrails stood in their place. The stone piers and cable suspension’s remained, however.

The NPS undertook a restoration of the bridge’s superstructure in the 1980s and 1990s to return it to its original appearance while remaining a vehicular bridge. Of the four aqueducts that Roebling designed for the Delaware and Hudson Canal, the Delaware Aqueduct is the only still in existence. It’s also the oldest wire cable suspension bridge in the United States and a National Civil Engineering Landmark. The entire former D&H Canal system was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

Roebling went on to engineer the Brooklyn Bridge, though he died in 1869 after he suffered injuries sustained while planning that landmark’s construction. His son Washington Roebling oversaw the bridge’s completion 14 years later.

Though nowhere near as grand and as celebrated as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Delaware Aqueduct is still a fascinating remnant of engineering history sympathetically rehabilitated to suit modern needs.

The aqueduct as it looked before the truck walls were removed. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Underside. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Aerial of the bridge after it was an aqueduct and before its rehabilitation in the 1980s. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Pre-rehabilitation. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

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Looking toward New York from Pennsylvania. The road and middle of the bridge was once the Delaware and Hudson Canal.

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The original cables still support the bridge. The wood trunk walls have been rebuilt to match what the bridge looked like in its aqueduct days.

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Three pieces are pointed facing upriver to break up ice.

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The north walkway. This is where the mules and drivers would have walked.

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Only one car can pass at a time.

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Early March ice on the Delaware River.

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Driving to New York.

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This toll house was built after the bridge switched form canal boats to wagons. It’s now a small museum.

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New York state historic markers are simple and to the point.

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Belle Haven Apartments, Sarasota

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The Belle Haven as it appeared in December.

One of the finest Boomtime buildings in Sarasota, Florida, is at risk of demolition after years of vacancy. Sound familiar? In the 1990s, it was the John Ringling Towers, which was razed in 1998. This time it’s the Belle Haven Apartments.

Designed by revered local architect Dwight James Baum in the Mediterranean Revival style, the Belle Haven debuted in 1926 as the El Vernona Apartments, luxury accommodations for seasonal residents on Sarasota Bay just north of downtown. Rooms featured linen and silverware, and guests could pass those frigid Sarasota winter days on the dock that stretched into the bay. The site was intended to be the centerpiece of the Central Broadway development, but the those plans were quashed in the 1927 land bust. The Belle Haven was converted into offices in 1984, and the building closed about a decade ago. Yet the building has remained relatively untouched in its nearly 90 years, surprising considering its location on such a visible and desirable tract. It was locally landmarked in 1984.

The Belle Haven’s surroundings sure have changed a lot in the past 90 years though. Sarasota went from winter getaway to thriving small city after World War II, and buildings sprouted up near the bayfront to reflect its heightened status. The bay itself is now farther away from the Belle Haven after fill was added in the 1960s. Next door, the hulking Quay entertainment complex rose in the 1960s and then came crashing down in 2007 when a $1 billion project was planned for the site. That project died during the financial crisis, and nothing has been built to replace it, so the Belle Haven sits idle amid a sea of scraggly grass lots.

Change is on the horizon. A developer bought the former Quay property and Belle Haven last year with plans to build a hotel, commercial space, retail, and residences. As of now, the Belle Haven is to be integrated into those plans. But that could quickly change. Or the Belle Haven could be left vacant and not maintained. It’s up to preservationists to remain vigilant and remind the developer and public officials of the building’s architectural significance.  Sarasota doesn’t need another loss like John Ringling Towers.

Source: Sarasota County History Center

The building was surrounded by empty lots when it was built. Now it’s surrounded by empty lots again.

1927 shot.

1946 aerial of downtown Sarasota. The pier belongs to the Belle Haven, which is in the foreground. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/246293

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The Belle Haven entryway today.

 

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The metalwork fire escape appears to be original.

 

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Florida Keys Memorial, Islamorada

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The Florida Keys Memorial with crypt in the foreground.

The cremated remains of hundreds of hurricane victims are encapsulated in a crypt in the Florida Keys Memorial near US 1 on Upper Matecumbe Key. The approximately 300 dead were killed on September 2, 1935, by the Labor Day Hurricane. The Category 5 storm had winds of more than 200 mph and is the most intense hurricane on record to hit the United States.

The victims–many of whom were World War I veterans–were in the Keys to construct US 1, a Civil Conservation Corps project. Weather forecasting was nothing like it is today, but people did know a storm was coming. An 11-car train was dispatched from Miami to travel down the Florida East Coast Railway tracks to pick up the vulnerable workers and locals. A series of delays held up the evacuation train, and it reached the workers at about the same time as the full brunt of the storm. People scrambled into the cars. The train crawled ahead in the slashing rain and wind. It only made it to Islamorada before tidal waves of up to 20-feet high shoved all but the locomotive and its tender off the track. An estimated 400 people died in the storm. About 260 were veterans.

Initially, the plan in the aftermath was to collect the bodies and ship them to Miami for burial. But the intense heat accelerated decay and made the plan unfeasible. Instead, many of the bodies were burned in funeral pyres and the remains were collected.

The Moderne style Florida Keys Memorial, also known as the 1935 Hurricane Monument, was completed in 1937 at Mile Marker 81.5 to serve as a final resting place for the victims. It cost for $12,000. The 65-by-61 foot monument was built of coral limestone quarried nearby. It features an 18-foot tall frieze featuring waves and coconut palms blowing in the waves. The crypt is 22 feet long and has a tile map of the Keys on top. Artists with the New Deal’s Federal Art Project created the memorial. Harold Lawson came up with the memorial’s design, and sculptor Lambert Bemelmans carved the frieze. Ceramacist Adela Gizbet, craftsman William C. Shaw, and designers Allie Mae Kitchens and Emigdio Reyes completed the tile crypt.

More than 4,000 people attended the monument’s dedication on Nov. 14, 1937. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Islamorada and the Florida Keys have long ago recovered from the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, and visitors from across the globe congregate there to enjoy the year-round warmth and clear waters. In contrast, the Florida Keys Memorial is a powerful reminder of nature’s fury.

Read “Last Train to Paradise” by Les Staniford for more on the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.

The Florida East Coast Railway train sent to evacuate the people in the storm’s path. All but the locomotive and tender were flung from the track.

Veterans housing after the storm. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/149616

Miami Star Tribune coverage. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/4200

Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/4191

Bodies lined up. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/149614

Funeral pyre at Snake Creek. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/38356

Dedication ceremony on Nov. 14, 1937. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/149660

The casket’s remains contain an unknown veteran. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/149596

Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/39346

1957. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/57275

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Remnants of a sea creature in the limestone.

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Key West’s Eyebrow Houses

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525 Margaret St. built in 1886.

Many a Key West visitor has spotted the disproportioned roof on an eyebrow house and thought, The carpenter must have really screwed up on that one. But Key West’s trademark form of architecture is supposed to look that way.

The Classical Revival style eyebrow houses are side oriented gable-roofed buildings usually five bays wide and 1 1/2 or two stories tall. They are distinguished by a gable roof extension that creates a large awning over the top floor windows. The roof extension is the reason they have the eyebrow moniker, though I think “eyelid house” would be more fitting.

Most of Key West’s historic residences were built with one goal: block out the sun. Eyebrow houses take this to the extreme. Back in the late 1800s when most of these houses were constructed, sun-shading vegetation was sparse in Key West. There is no natural source of freshwater on the island, so, historically, Key Wester’s relied on cisterns and desalination plants–and they sure weren’t going to waste that precious liquid on water-chugging trees and plants. That changed once a water pipeline reached Key West in 1942, and the junglelike Key West we know today was born. The proliferation of shady trees–along with air conditioning–has freed up Conchs to focus on more important features when building homes, like where they’re going to put the bar.

Alex Caemmerer suggests in his “The Houses of Key West” that the eyebrow house is derived from either the Louisiana five-bay center hall house or saltbox of New England. Key West’s residents were inspired by both locales, so either makes sense.

The eyebrow houses repelled rays, but they probably didn’t do much for airflow on the top floor. Maybe that is why they seem to limited to Key West. According to the Historic Florida Keys Foundation, approximately 75 historic eyebrow houses exist. Photographed below are those I spotted while biking around the city last month.

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643 William St. built in 1889. It was built by Edward Roberts, a ship’s carpenter from Ireland.

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708 Southard St. built in 1874.

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623 Southard St. was built in 1874.

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410 Margaret St. built in 1892.

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917 Grinnell St. built in 1889.

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710 Ashe St. built in 1889.

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1115 Southard St. built in 1889.

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1108 Southard St. built in 1885.

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1121 Southard St. built in 1889.

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614 Grinnell St. built in 1889.

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618 Grinnell St. built in 1889. A number of Bahamians lived in the home until 1938, when it was purchased by Quaker activist Adele Scott Saul. She owned it until 2011. It was recently restored.

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804 Elizabeth St. built in 1874.

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The Sapodilla Villa at 807 Elizabeth St. was built in 1890.

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What a perfect example–a little too perfect. That’s because it was built in 1998 in the Truman Annex at 62 Front Street.

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Hermitage Artist Retreat

Sarasota County, Florida, had grand plans for the Hermitage and its associated buildings when they bought the property in 1986: they wanted to replace them with a parking lot.

It seemed like a practical decision at the time. The Gulf of Mexico had crept up on the Hermitage, a rambling board and batten residence erected in 1907, and was about to devour it. The other structures, built in the 1930s and 40s, weren’t doing much better after decades of abuse from the sun, sand, and water. So it must have come as a surprise to county officials when a vocal pro-preservation continent responded with a loud “nuh-uh” to their plans to add more parking at the Blind Pass public beach.

In 1907, Sweden-born Carl Johanson built a one-and-a-half story pine and cypress cottage on Manasota Key. He chose a site Calusa Indians had used as a midden, archaeologist speak for “trash dump.” The humble, 2.75 acre waterfront estate had a name befitting its remoteness: the Hermitage.

Johanson, his wife, and three youngest children lived on Manasota Key until 1913. They added a detached kitchen to the north elevation shortly after construction that is today a bedroom. A sleeping porch was also tacked on about 10 years after construction. That space is now the living room. The stone fireplace there was built in the 1920s. Other additions followed through the 1940s, including the current kitchen and two bathrooms.

The property earned its lasting reputation in the 1930s when it was operated as Florida Sea Island Sanctuary, an ambiguous name for a nudist resort. The Hermitage was only accessible by boat then, so Adam and Evan wannabes could frolic in the sand and sea without judgement. But the prude-free environment turned later in the 1930s when a shell road was laid on the key. Nudists packed their very light suitcases, and the Hermitage transitioned into a hotel, owned by former patron Louise Plummer.

In 1941, retired naval engineer Alfred Whitney, by all accounts a jerk, had an elevated house built on the parcel south to the Hermitage. His self-designed home, called Liability Lodge, included a corresponding pump house, garage, and cypress water cisterns. Whitney’s property was combined with the Hermitage’s after he died in 1946, and the tracts–totaling 8.5 acres–have remained joined ever since.

Writer Ruth Swayze, most famous for writing some episodes of the TV show “Taxi” starring the erudite Tony Danza, leased the Hermitage from the late 1970s until 1990. She and her daughter Carroll Swayze, a painter, invited their artist pals for stays in a foreshadowing of what was to come for the property.

Fine wine aged quicker than the time it took for the Hermitage’s revival. Shortly after Sarasota County bought the acreage in the 1980s, preservationists, including Ruth Swayze, implored officials to not clear the land for more beach parking. Surprisingly, they listened. Officials even appropriated $8,000 in 1992 to move the dilapidated Hermitage  away from the Gulf’s relentless tug until a plan for the building was in place. The general consensus at the time was that the Hermitage should be turned into a house museum to demonstrate to school children what life was like for early settlers–yawn. But the county wasn’t about to foot the bill for the work.

In the late 1990s, Syd Adler and others affiliated with the Sarasota Arts Council pushed the idea of converting the buildings into an artists retreat. Not only would the use preserve the structures, they said, but they would remain in an active use that would benefit the community. Works for us, county leaders said, and in 1999 the property was leased to the nonprofit Hermitage Artist Retreat Inc. for the princely sum of $1 per year.

The organization cobbled together funding, both grants and private donations. In all, the rehabs cost about $1.3 million, but none came from taxpayers. Work began on the main house in 2002. It was plopped on top of 4-foot tall concrete pilings and restored inside and out. The Hermitage welcomed its first artist, sculptor Malcolm Robertson, the following year. In 2009, the Beach Cottage was the last building to be completed, and earlier this year work wrapped on the pair of restored cisterns.

A nine member committee selects the established artists–painters, sculptors, writers, playwrights, poets, composers, among others–who are offered invitations to the Hermitage. Up to five artists stay at a time for up to six weeks, and their food is provided. Those who stay the six weeks are required to complete two acts of community service, such as a reading, exhibit, or performance. Not bad for an extended stay at such a scenic location.

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The Hermitage, as seen from the dune that separates it from the Gulf of Mexico.

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View of the south and west elevations.

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View of the east elevation.

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The Hermitage before its move.

Hermitage on the move in 1992. Source: The Charlotte Harbor Area Historical Society and Ulysses Samuel (U.S.) Cleveland Collection

Hermitage on the move in 1992. Source: The Charlotte Harbor Area Historical Society and Ulysses Samuel (U.S.) Cleveland Collection

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The dining room is one of two original ground floor rooms.

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Kitchen addition.

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View into the former detached kitchen, now bedroom.

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Tight quarters.

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The living room was a sleeping porch addition.

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I was there to do window restoration work. Source: Hermitage Artists Retreat Facebook page

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Clip books chronicle the Hermitage’s rebirth.

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Stairs to the 2nd floor.

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Second floor bathroom, originally a bedroom.

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View from the tub.

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Second floor bedroom.

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Drift wood dolphin.

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The Whitney Garage.

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The Whitney Cisterns.

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The Whitney Pumphouse, now studio space.

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The Whitney House was built in 1941 and designed by a naval engineer to be hurricane resistant. So far, so good.

Whitney House interior. Source: http://hermitageartistretreat.org/

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The Beach Cottage. It too was moved back from the dune.

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The Beach Cottage before restoration.

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View from the cottage’s front porch.

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Walkway over the dune to the beach.

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Saratoga Race Course

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Waiting for the races to start. These seats filled up quickly.

The hand-rung bell signaled that the next horse race at the Saratoga Race Course was 17 minutes away. This is just one of the many traditions at the historic venue, established in 1863 and the oldest of its kind in the United States. For the non-hardcore handicappers on the grounds that day–and there were many of them–the sound was their cue to put down their drink, pause their conversation, and pick up their program to quickly choose a horse to bet on.

For 40 days each summer, the thoroughbred horse racing syndicate converges on scenic Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Horse racing’s popularity is freefalling, but Saratoga Race Course seems to be OK considering the drastic drop in patronage and handles at other tracks. More than 20,000 people attended on the Thursday I visited earlier this month–a lot considering that Saratoga Springs, a town of 27,000 permanent residents, is surrounded by a whole lot more trees, hills, and lakes than people.

Unlike most tracks, Saratoga does not rely exclusively on gambling to spin the turnstiles.  The track has grown in spurts in its 150 years but has managed to cling to its Gilded Age appearance and feeling–all while accommodating modern conveniences. This commitment to historic preservation attracts people from all social realms, from the bigwigs in the clubhouse dressed in bespoke suits to the family in the picnic area dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Yes, some of the racegoers were there solely to try it hit it big. But the majority were there to enjoy the ambiance with their friends and family.

The tone for my day at track was set once I got out of the car. Usually, the journey from the parking lot to a venue the size of the Saratoga Race Course (capacity 70,000) is a hurried walk through a concrete maze of vehicles. Instead, on my way to the entrance, I walked down a grassy corridor beneath shady maples. To the north was the practice track, which was originally the main track for a year back in 1863 when Saratoga opened. Today it’s tongue-and-cheekily called Oklahoma because of its perceived distance to the main track, about a quarter mile away.  To the south were historic stables, filled by horses and tenders. Parking areas were marked not by numbers or letters but by the names of the many legendary thoroughbreds that have galloped on Saratoga’s hallowed dirt.

The harmonious design extended to the main track. The nonhistoric Union Avenue entrance was stately yet reserved and blended well with the other structures. The grandstand nearly doubled in size after a 1960s addition but it matches the original in scale and appearance, though it utilizes different materials. Flowers and decorative ironwork serve as decorative elements and are scattered throughout the grounds. The trademark peppermint-striped awnings added flair and provided additional covered seating areas. Everything is meticulously maintained.

The lag between races passed quickly with so much to explore on the 350-acre property. I observed the jockey-mounted horses trotting through the crowd on their way to the track, gulped my first Shake Shack milkshake, listened to a bluegrass band playing in the gazebo, and drank the putrid water spouting from the Big Red Spring. Not even rain showers kept me in my seat for long. This left little time to handicap, as evidenced by my lightened wallet by the time I left. All well. It was a wonderful day nonetheless.

1890s.

Ca. 1900. Library of Congress. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994001584/PP/

Enjoying the lawn in 1940. Source: Courtesy of Saratoga Springs Historical Museum, George S. Bolster collection

Racegoers in the 1954. Source: Times Union Archives

Affirmed, the last Triple Crown Winner. Times Union Archives

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The Union Avenue entrance.

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The grandstand, expanded in the 1960s, is a quarter-mile long.

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The oldest portion of the grandstand and clubhouse.

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A festival-like atmosphere permeates the grounds on other side of the grandstand. The area includes live music, food tents, and pop-up shops. Oh, and lots more betting windows.

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Equestrian designs are everywhere.

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TVs showing the races allow picnickers to watch the action while under the maples.

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A spring bubbles up on the grounds and is named after Secretariat and Man O’War.

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The water tasted like a metal pipe colada.

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The paddocks are in view for racegoers.

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The horses strut through the crowds on their way to the starting gate.

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There are no shortage of betting windows.

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Vintage signage.

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Here they come.

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View of the finish line from the grandstand.

 Links

http://www.saratoga150.com/

 

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