Monday, August 3, 2020

Washington DC: Octagon House

You begin your visit to the Octagon House with a self-guided tour of the lower level of the house. This is where the staff lived and worked, or rather, where the slaves worked. The Tayloe family, who built the house, were slave-owners from Virginia. Mr. Tayloe was a tobacco farmer and Mrs. Tayloe was the daughter of the governor of Maryland. They had Octagon House built as their winter home. Washington was deserted farmland when they took bids from Latrobe and Thornton for the construction of their new home. They took Thornton's bid mostly because it was one third the price of Latrobe's. In the final analysis, the price ended up being identical to Latrobe’s.

The lower level has a kitchen, servants’ hall, and storage rooms.

Plaques giving good information about what would have been happening in each of the rooms are located throughout. Renovations have uncovered a well, or a storage cistern, in the floor of the servant's hall. One of the unusual features was a bake oven; at this time, most homes didn’t bake their own bread. They brought the loaves to a community oven to be baked. The Tayloes were obviously very well-to-do.

Back upstairs, we were joined by a docent, Bob, who took us on a tour of the remainder of the house. He had an amazing number of anecdotal stories about the house's past and present. We spent a very enjoyable half hour or more touring with him.

Octagon House was completed in 1800. Early in the War of 1812, the French Ambassador lived here. Since he was a supporter of the monarchy, not Napoleon, the British didn’t burn the house. After he moved out and the White House was burned, the Tayloes offered the house to President Madison and his wife Dolly. They accepted and moved in. It was in the upstairs office that the treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, was signed.

Octagon House has for years been the center of a plethora of ghost stores. Some of them center on one of the Tayloe daughters who is supposed to have fallen or been pushed down the main stairway when she fell in love with an unacceptable suitor. This has never been proven.
Another story is that people have had the experience of smelling lilacs in the house, said to have been Dolly Madison’s favorite perfume. Now, I am not at all sensitive, but as my friend and I were finishing the tour and walking down the stairs, I was overwhelmed by a very heavy floral scent. I turned to my friend and asked, "Can you smell that?" Guess what? She could too. No one else was around, and neither one of us was wearing perfume. I can’t explain it. Was it lilac? Maybe!

Monday, June 29, 2020

Manassas Battlefield Tour Virginia

The Battlefield at Manassas, Va. has the unique distinction of being the site of two battles during the Civil War. The first battle in July 1861 was the first major skirmish of the War Between the States. Both sides thought that it was only going to take one battle to end the war and expected the battle to be short and sweet, it was neither. At the end of the day, over 900 young men lay dead and both sides realized that war was a violent and bloody business.

There are two visitor centers, the one at Henry Hill tells the story of the First Battle of Bull Run or Manassas. A film is offered on the hour called ‘The End of Innocence”. It is narrated by Richard Dreyfuss and gives a very realistic portrayal of the battle and the violence and chaos that ensued. I would not recommend this for young children or those who might be upset by blood and gore.

There is a small museum as well but most of it was closed for renovation in October 2014.

Ranger tours are offered several times a day, the schedule is located on a board in the Visitor Center. Our tour began at 11 a.m. and usually lasts for 45 minutes. As it turned out, our tour lasted an hour. The tour began in the Visitor Center and moved outdoors. We spent 20 or 25 minutes standing near the cannons that are located directly outside the rear door of the Visitor Center.

The tour detailed the Union position that morning and is specific to a couple of particular men who we met in the film inside. Honestly, there was more detail then I needed to have but the ranger was very knowledgeable.

We then moved over to the equestrian statue of Thomas ‘Stonewall” Jackson and heard about the Confederate positions on that day. Finally, we moved over to the right and heard about where the troops under Stonewall Jackson were positioned on that particular July day and how the topography of the area played such a pivotal role.

I recommend taking the tour if you have an interest in the details of the battle. You can, however, enjoy your visit completely without it.

A visit to the Henry House is worthwhile. While the house that is standing today is not the one that was there the day of the battle, it is on the same site. Judith Henry’s grave is still in the yard. You will learn who she is by watching the film. In October the house was closed to the public.

There is a monument to the patriots who lost their lives in the battle in the yard behind the Henry House commissioned by Union Soldiers.

Allow two to three hours to visit this area of the battlefield. There is an app that you can download to take a driving tour of the Battle of Manassas and much more to see beyond the Visitor Center. A walking tour is offered, you can pick up a brochure to help you with whatever tour you chose. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Hotel Stays in the Time of Covid-19

After a two-month delay returning north from Florida, we decided to head home on June 10. Not the perfect timing since the Coronavirus is spiking all over the place as things open up but it a pretty much now or never. We know that many other people will be considering a road trip this summer. Hotel stays in the time of Covid-19 scared the heck out of me. I did a lot of research and had to change my thinking about hotels as I did my research.

Best Western

They had the best explanation on their website of how Covid-19 was changing their operation. They talked about their new cleaning procedures and also explained how they would deal with breakfast which none of the other chains I checked did. Here is a link to their new cleaning procedures and procedures.

How did they implement them?
No brochures were in the lobby however the rack was right around the corner near the elevator.
The bed still had a decorative pillow and throw.
The book of hotel amenities was right on the desk in the room.

The desk did have plexiglass but the evening clerk was not wearing a mask and he wasn't after when he was sitting out in the room playing with his phone. So, I am not quite sure how to grade them, Right now, C- perhaps. The morning clerk did have a mask hanging on his neck.

Also when I went out at 8:30 am there was no sign of a clerk or a grab and go breakfast and the business section right on the lobby was being used and I suspect not sanitized after as was the help yourself coffee and cold water. I saw only one bottle of sanitizer and it wasn't near the communal ice machine. I asked about breakfast and one was put together for me. Muffins, granola bar and a bottle of water.

Fairfield Inn and Suites (Marriott)

A very helpful young lady at the desk welcomed us. No mask, no hand sanitizer in sight. I was asked for my license and credit card, no sanitation of cards. Visions of Covid-19 flashing through my head. 

The lobby was clean but everything seemed normal except the breakfast room was blocked off and no breakfast of any type was offered. Sign in the elevator says maintain 6-foot distance and if not possible wait for the next elevator. 

I found a lamp behind the couch with a thick layer of dust which was undisturbed so evidently, the switch had not been sanitized and the thermostat had dust on it as well.  Here is Marriotts cleanliness guidelines

In the morning I asked about masks, the morning clerk had a mask, she said they were required. I asked about sanitizer, she said they were waiting for the machines which are hard to find and take longer to get. I don't see why a pump bottle of sanitizer could not be put out but .... it is what it is. I rate Marriott a D in handling coronavirus.

Hyatt Place

Masks on but not pulled up, plexiglass separating the desk clerk, no sanitizer in the lobby or at the elevator. The room seemed clean but there are throw pillows on the sofa and a card with the channels near the TV. They still have a coffee station in the lobby. Talked to the general manager, not able to get the products they need. They are waiting But where does that leave customers?  Hyatt's commitment

Hyatt does offer a superior breakfast even at this time. Jimmy Dean egg and ham sandwiches, Oikos Greek yogurt, cold cereal, oatmeal fruit cup, boiled eggs and juice. For that reason, I am giving them a C but just barely. 

In the lobby, signs tell you not to sit on the furniture for now in this time of coronavirus. 

After three stops at three different brands, I have to say that they talk the talk but they are not walking the walk. Corporate has issued statements but not provided the help getting the necessary products to make sure you can be safe. I think you have to think long and hard about just what risk level feels comfortable to you. This may not be the best time to take a road trip. 

I chose to stay in rooms as simple as possible to cut down on the amount of cleaning that I would have to do. 

Did I feel safe? No, not really, I brought all my own cleaning products and completely disinfected the room. I brought my own pillows and I sanitized and washed my hands a lot. I sanitized the luggage cart, the door handles and every surface in the room that we might touch and I sprayed the bed and pillows. 

Would I travel again anytime soon? Not unless I really had to. Hotel stays in the time of Covid -19 are risky at best. Maybe in a few months when hotels have had the time to get things right it will be better but as of early June 2020, no it isn't there yet. 

Monday, June 1, 2020

Touring Historic Hanover Tavern Hanover, VA.

Hanover Tavern is located across the street from Hanover Courthouse. It was the place where the litigants and their attorneys would have gone to get a little sustenance during a trial. The tavern that sits here today is a combination of a family home and the 1800s tavern connected with a hyphen. The original tavern which was built in the early 18th century was razed and a new one put in its place so while Patrick Henry would not have dinned in the current tavern he might well have visited the Thilman family in their home.

The tavern over its lifetime has had many famous guests including George Washington, General Cornwallis, the Marquis de Lafayette and Edgar Allen Poe as well as any number of both Confederate and Union generals and soldiers.

You enter the tavern from the rear which is the side that used to face the original road, the road was moved to the other side with the arrival of the railroad in the mid-19th century. You purchase your ticket and you are given a map and an audio guide. The tour begins on the front porch. You will receive an introduction to not only the tavern but the court complex and stone jail across the street.

In the main hallway of the Thilman home, you will learn about Patrick Henry’s first famous case right across the street at Hanover Courthouse. The current exhibition in the Thilman dining room was being taken down and a new one about the architecture will be taking its place.

13 stops make up the tour and they included the former bar which was also the post office. The Washington Room has a lot of information about transportation and how it affected the tavern and also the refugees who stayed here during the Civil War. In the Thilman Parlor, there is a display that tells you about Gabriel’s Revolt. Some of the Thilman family slaves were involved in the revolt which is why it is featured here.

Today, Hanover Tavern has a dinner theatre, the restaurant and of course the historic tour. It is a popular venue for events and weddings. A new building is going to be added behind the current one. Allow at least an hour for the tour, more is even better. Plan your visit so that you can have lunch or dinner here, you won’t regret it. Their gift shop has a nice selection of books and made in Virginia items.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Lewis Ginter was a businessman who lived in Richmond. During his lifetime he had many careers and earned and lost several fortunes. In 1884 he purchased this property and built the Lakeside Wheel Club as a destination for local bicyclists.

In 1913 his niece, Grace Arents, purchased the Wheel Club from his estate. She renovated the house and opened it up to sick children as a place to convalesce. When it was no longer need she moved into the home with her companion Mary Garland Smith and willed it to her for her lifetime. Ms. Smith lived until 1968 at which time the property passed to the City of Richmond. Grace Arents' will stipulated that the property be turned into a botanical garden and named in honor of her late uncle.

In 1987, the Lewis Ginter Botantical Garden opened to the public. Located on 80 acres of land, 50 acres are cultivated. Today, the gardens are open year round and every month of the year offers flora to enjoy. Be sure to visit their website to see what is blooming when you plan to visit.

In October, the roses were still glorious. It is an amazing collection of old-world roses in a vast array of colors. More than 1800 roses bushes can be found in the Louise Cochrane Rose Garden, they are chosen for a variety of reasons but fragrance is one of them, the smell is delightful.

Children will enjoy the Children’s Garden and Activity Area, parents were enjoying the tranquility as well. A walk around the lake is an enjoyable way to spend time in the garden.

The conservatory is gorgeous. It dominates the view over the gardens and there is an outstanding collection of orchids inside as well as a palm house.

Two dining options are offered at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, the Tea House and the Garden Café. The Tea House is not open every day so be sure to check the days and times.

The gift shop is one of the best I have ever visited. An extensive selection of garden-related items as well as a whole lot more is offered. I purchased quite a few Christmas gifts that were unique. 

Monday, March 2, 2020

South Carolina: Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon Charleston

This was one of my favorite buildings in Charleston. This is not one of those beautiful, romantic houses of the rice or cotton barons. This building just reeks of history. Charleston was one of three walled cities in North America, along with Quebec and St. Augustine, Florida. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, the town quickly outgrew the original walls and they were torn down. One piece that still exists is in the lowest level of the Old Exchange. This is where your tour begins.

The first part of the tour is guided. Tours depart from the lobby every 20 minutes. A live guide, as well as animatronic guides, narrates the tour. Frankly, the animatronic figures are a lot more entertaining than the live guide. He seemed bored at best. Some of the animatronic figures are pirates. This is your opportunity to learn about the history of Charleston and how they finally rid themselves of the scourge of piracy. You will also get to meet Stede Bonnet the Gentleman Pirate. You will also find out how gunpowder was stored in the basement so well that the British never found it during their occupation.

After walking through the vignettes, your guide leads you back to several cases of artifacts mostly related to the pirates. You then take the elevator back up stairs to begin your self-guided tour. We, however, were lucky enough to meet Tony on the second floor. He was very knowledgeable about the history of this building, so we got a bit of a private tour. The Old Exchange is a very historically significant building. It was here that the Charleston patriot Isaac Haynes spent his last night, a prisoner of the British. 

The Royal Custom House was a goal during the British occupation of Charleston, and Cornwallis had his office here. In 1791, George Washington danced with the women of Charleston in the second floor Great Hall. Rumor has it that he danced with 200 ladies, not bad for a 61-year-old.

My favorite display though was The DAR Room, which is on the first floor Here you can learn the story of the Charleston heroine Rebecca Motte. The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution bears her name, and it is to them that the restoration of this building can be attributed. When it was scheduled for sale in 1912, they managed to acquire the deed and save the building.

Monday, February 24, 2020

South Carolina: Gibbes Museum of Art Charleston

This is a small and charming art museum. I am going to suggest that you stop here after you have learned a little about the history of Charleston. One of the things that I found of particular interest was seeing the portraits of some of the characters I had heard about at some of the other landmarks around town. There were portraits of Thomas Middleton, by Benjamin West, and General Charles Pickney, and an amazing portrait of Charleston’s favorite son, John C. Calhoun, by Rembrandt Peale. For a good idea of what Charleston looked like in 1846, look for Henry Jackson’s "A View of Charleston."

There is more to this museum than just local history. They have a very pretty "Angelika Kaufman," a luscious still-life with watermelon by Thomas Wightman and a Gilbert Stuart portrait of General John Fenwick. There is a very lovely pastel on paper by Henriette DeBeaulieu Dering Johnston. She was the first professional female artist in America. There are less than 40 works in the world attributed to her.

The Elizabeth Wallace Miniature Rooms has eight miniature rooms from historic houses in America and four rooms form around the world. These look like the most fantastic dollhouses I have ever seen. They have great detail, from the historic wallpaper to the pictures on the walls.

The museum has some beautiful sculpture - one in particular charmed me. It is the head of a woman with a gauzy covering. I can’t imagine how they can create this out of marble.

In a small room by themselves is the most amazing collection of miniature portraits I have ever seen outside of England. They date from the early 1700s to the 20th century.

The Oriental Gallery houses the collection of early Japanese block prints.

While looking at their collection of architectural prints, I was delighted to find that St. Finbars Cathedral was designed by P. C. Keely. He is the same architect who designed my home parish of St. John in Middletown, CT. Even more amazing, the brownstone from which St Finbars was constructed comes from our quarries in Portland, CT. It really is a small world.

In addition to highlighting their own collection, the museum has regular exhibits on loan from national and international collections. They have an ongoing series of lectures, seminars, and classes on many different aspects of art.

Even the building itself is a beautiful example of Beaux-Arts style. Dedicated to James Shoolbred Gibbes, it has been a Charleston institution for 100 years. Stop by the gift shop on your way out. They have a very nice collection of note cards and jewelry. If you become a museum member, you will receive a 10 percent discount.