Exploring Savannah’s Gem of a Cathedral

Lafayette Square in SavannahA week would generally be enough time to explore large sections of a city the size of Savannah, Georgia. Time to linger among the live oaks and Spanish moss in the historic squares, eat at the growing list of restaurants, visit the museums, and share stories with friends and strangers in the coffee shops and bars scattered throughout the downtown.

Plenty of time…unless one has a conference to run.

Well, run is actually much too strong a word.  While technically responsible for ensuring that last week’s PastForward 2014 – the National Preservation Conference went off without a hitch, there are many staff members who carry a far heavier load as we worked to reach that goal.  Much of my oversight actually took place over the past 18 months.  Once the week of the conference comes, I just “enjoy the field trip” as Candice – the former elementary school teacher – says at times like these.  At the conference, I often have my day structured by others: be here to welcome this group, then go there to say thank you to the folks who made it all possible, to be followed by a pre-arranged dinner with colleagues and partners.

But it all means that I had  precious little time to really explore Savannah.  That is just the nature of my job, and I am not complaining, as I get to see and experience so many wonderful places.  Candice – who was traveling with me to the conference – took a half-day bicycle tour of the city among other jaunts and still had time for 6-7 of the conference presentations.  Me? I was able to catch glimpses of the city while traveling between sessions and meetings.

So when I found myself with 90 minutes on Friday afternoon, between the closing luncheon and a scheduled tour of historic homes, I decided to stretch my legs and visit the church whose two spires were visible every time I opened the drapes in our hotel room.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The Spires of St. John the Baptist Cathedral

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is a gem of a building in the historic district and the mother church of the Savannah Roman Catholic Diocese.  It sits on Lafayette Square, and the outside of the building dates from the late 19th century.

The inside was rebuilt following an 1898 fire, and the results are beautiful.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist Interior

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist - Organ

I’ve visited Savannah on multiple occasions since the 1980s, but have somehow missed seeing the interior of this gem of a cathedral.  Earlier in the day, I had the chance to listen to my colleague and friend Tom Mayes speak to a full house about the place of beauty in preservation.  His blog post on the topic is a highly recommended and wonderful read that includes the following:

President Kennedy said, “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our National past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.”

I’ll take it as a bit of grace that 90 minutes popped open on a very busy schedule during this trip to allow for reflection about the beauty of this space and the beauty of the world I get to work in every day.

More to come.


From the Silly to the Sublime

Bean Selfie ChicagoToday we played tourist in Chicago – a great city with way too much to see in one lifetime, let alone one day.

Work takes me to Chicago three or four times a year, so with the exception of a 90-minute architectural tour taken by boat on the Chicago River – something everyone should do once (or more) in their lives – I turned Sunday over to Claire’s interests.

We left Aunt Susan and Cousin Zoe’s home in Evanston and took the CTA ‘L’ train into the city.  When we stepped out from the below-ground station at Lake, Claire started looking around and said, “This feels like New York.” What she meant as a first time  visitor was that the crush of people, the canyon walls of buildings, and the energy felt like a big city. The pep in her step was quickly evident, as we headed out to Millennium Park.

Why Millennium Park?  Because what self-respecting tourist to Chicago these days doesn’t want to take a selfie at Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (or – as everyone knows it, The Bean.)  Mission accomplished!

The Bean Chicago

Inside the Bean

Claire also wanted to go on the famous Ferris Wheel at the Navy Pier – the same Navy Pier where her grandfather – my father – was stationed during WWII.  So away we went!  Hope you enjoy Claire’s panoramic view taken as we were near the top.

Navy Pier Ferris Wheel

After a quick Chicago dog for me and a vegetarian “Green Bay” dog for Claire (she wanted the extra cheese), we headed over to meet up with Susan and take the wonderful Chicago Architectural Foundation river tour.  This is something I never tire of, and even though we had to dodge (or not) raindrops off and on for the 90 minutes, it was still a treat. I will spare you the 92 pictures I took, and will limit myself to three, beginning with Bertrand Goldberg’s iconic Marina City – in memory of the recently demolished Prentice Women’s Hospital, also by Goldberg.

Marina City by Bertrand Goldberg

Next, I loved seeing Jeanne Gang‘s wonderful Aqua Tower from the river, with the unique terraces and glass creating the illusion of water flowing.  As one of the best and brightest of the more recent additions to Chicago’s skyline, this was a treat to see from a different angle.

Aqua Tower from the River

Every time I take this tour, I see new buildings that have been built in recent years.  But I also enjoy the views of old friends like the Tribune Tower.

Chicago Architectural Tour

After a stop in the Chicago Bridgehouse Museum (recommended), we boarded the ‘L’ back for Evanston and a quick change into dry clothes, before heading out to carbo load at Walker Brothers – the original Pancake House. My oh my…how wonderful!

Claire with Aunt Susan and Zoe

Baha'i House of Worship

Susan, Zoe, Claire and I then headed up to the beautiful Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette for the last stop of the day, as the daylight was fading.  Previously, I had only driven by this marvelous structure – the oldest surviving Bahá’í House of Worship in the world, and the only one in North America.  So it was a treat to step into the visitors center and learn about how this structure was built, and then to tour both outside and inside (where photos are not allowed).  Magnificent.  This is a place that makes you feel like a house of worship should make you feel.

Baha'i House of Worship Panorama

It has been a  wonderful 24 hours with family we see much too infrequently.  Thank you, Susan and Zoe, for your wonderful hospitality.  While we started the day on a silly note, you certainly took  us to a sublime ending.

More to come…


Follow Your Passions

On the Friday following Thanksgiving, we decided to spend the day in Los Angeles.  We were on the west coast to holiday with our daughter Claire. Candice, Andrew, and I had flown cross country so we could be together.

The Los Angeles portion of the trip was one of those decisions made after discussing options that would appeal to the entire family.  In the end, we toured a place that had something for everyone…but the family was kind enough to also allow me to indulge in a bit of roots music fantasy along the way.

The Getty Center was the place on everyone’s list. I was the only one of the four who had previously visited Richard Meier’s masterpiece of modern architecture set in the hills above LA, but we had enthusiasm on all fronts.  Claire wanted to see the buildings and gardens, and instantly found the photographic exhibit on display as well. Andrew and Candice wanted to wander the campus and soak in Meier’s vision. I was eager to savor the passions everyone brought to the trip.

As soon as we walked onto the campus, Andrew began pointing out features of the building and the architect’s plan that built upon his modern architecture study in Spain last summer. We couldn’t turn a corner without Andrew or Candice commenting on the architecture – either the juxtaposition of the classic Meier white exterior with the rough-hewn travertine stone that helped set the campus in context, the wonderful view lines, or how the stone was generally set in squares and rectangles while the curves were executed in the aluminum cladding.  Candice became a Meier fan when he designed the High Museum of Art (1983) while she was studying architecture in Atlanta. Andrew saw Meier’s Contemporary Museum of Art (1995) in Barcelona this summer and was eager to immerse himself in more of the architect’s work. Candice and I – who have both studied our share of architectural history – loved having a passionate guide in the family.

When we entered the photography exhibition, Claire’s passions took over.  We all marveled at the Ray Metzker photographs of the city (usually Philadelphia or Chicago) and were glad to see the newest acquisitions of Robert Mapplethorpe’s works to the Getty collection. Claire’s photography training came to the fore as we discussed textures, lighting, and subject matter. I was reminded once again of what a special eye she has for lighting and composition as she called out features of both artists’ work that I simply didn’t see on first glance.

Claire took a few photographs on her iPhone, and I’ve included three here.  But if you want to see some lovely images of this special place, visit The Epicures, the blog of Gemma and Andrew Ingalls of Ingalls Photography.  They are simply stunning.

It is a wonderful thing to see your children (and wife) excited about their passions. And since we were on a day trip devoted to fulfilling our passions, I suggested we stop at a special place in Santa Monica to allow me to scratch a certain itch of mine.

I’ve written before about my desire to visit McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. It is one of those legendary music venues and stores in the roots music world. My fascination goes back to Norman Blake’s Live at McCabe’s album of the late 1970s. This album – recorded in the music hall at the rear of the shop – is a gem.

What has made Live at McCabe’s legendary among Blake’s fans is that it is the best showcasing ever of his flatpicking guitar skills. So much of Blake’s attention over the years has gone into other aspects of his music that it is possible to wonder why he is mentioned in the same breath as Doc Watson, Clarence White, and Dan Crary as one of the finest flatpickers ever. The reasons can all be heard on this great record.

So we pulled into a foggy Santa Monica, skipped the restored pier (because we couldn’t see it – or the ocean) and headed straight for McCabe’s. For the next 30 minutes, I roamed from room to room playing Martins, Collings, and Taylor guitars. In the last two years, I’ve bought a parlor guitar and a 000-sized instrument. I was amazed to find more than a dozen of these small guitars hanging on the walls, just waiting for me to pull them down and play a tune or two.  Thirty minutes later (not wanting to push my luck with my patient family), I left satisfied that my two guitars were the ones for me. Thank goodness there was no buyers remorse after checking out a number of other options (after the fact).

One of these days I’ll get around to setting up a bucket list.  And when I do, I’ll be able to check off “visit McCabe’s Guitar Shop.”

Friday was a great day to remind me of the joyous parts of following your passions.  I was fortunate enough to indulge in three:  great architecture, my family, and roots music. What a lucky man!

To leave this post, enjoy a bit of Norman picking Randall Collins and Done Gone with the Rising Fawn String Ensemble.

More to come…


Architecture Old and New

Too often college campuses can be poorly designed landscapes for a hodgepodge of mediocre buildings.  So when you come across good – or great – buildings in the academic setting it is a real treat.

On this year’s vacation/college tour, we’ve seen some of both, but I’m pleased to say we’ve been fortunate in visiting colleges that through the years have been thoughtful about their buildings and their settings.

We’ve now become old pros at the campus tour.  Andrew and Claire head off with one tour guide so they aren’t intimidated (if they ever are) by having the folks in the same group.  Candice and I then follow a second guide.  Candice pays attention to what the guide is saying, while keeping her eye trained on the design and maintenance of the buildings.  I take pictures of the architecture and any landscape feature that strikes my fancy.  We all come together at the end and share what we’ve seen and heard.

Hey, it works for us!

At the end of week one, we’ve seen some great buildings and several beautifully conceived and landscaped campuses.  While you would expect that I’d have my eye on the historic buildings, there have also been some modernist structures that caught our attention.

The photo at the top of the post is of Frank Gehry’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College.  It was raining the day we saw this building and the photo doesn’t do it justice.  But this is a very good piece of architecture that works well in its setting – something that’s important for Gehry’s sculptured designs.  I think Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell got it right in describing this as a performance piece that works once in this setting.  The brushed stainless steel covering is beautiful – even in the rain.

When visiting the Yale campus, we certainly saw what some critics call “one of the nation’s richest sites for modernist architecture.” While driving, we turned a corner in New Haven and came upon the David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink, one of the best known buildings of Eero Saarinen.   Much has been written about this 1958 building, but at first look it doesn’t disappoint.  Saarinen’s swooping roof certainly captures the motion of ice skating in a unique and unforgettable way.

I’ve shown it in an earlier post this week, but Gordon Bunshaft’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale is worth a second look.  Andrew and I toured around the building and inside as well, and were both surprised and taken with the translucent marble that allows beautiful, low-level light into the library.

Yesterday was my first visit to the Vassar campus, which is a treasure trove of good design, both old and new.  The Main Building – a National Historic Landmark which once held every element of the school – was designed by Smithsonian architect James Renwick, Jr.

The Cesar Pelli-designed renovation in 2003 of the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film (shown below), which preserved the original 1860s facade of Avery Hall but was an entirely new structure, may not be every preservationist’s delight.  But along with the Ferry Building, designed by Marcel Breuer, and Pelli’s Lehman Loeb Art Center, the campus has certainly made a name for itself with modernist architecture.

But, I must admit I’m a sucker for great libraries and the Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar didn’t disappoint.  The outside is fine early 20th century Gothic, but the inside is terrific.  I could study here all day!  As a friend of mine said in response to an earlier post, these really are cathedrals for learning.

The first week of vacation has been an architectural treat.  From this point on, it may be more about the landscapes…which isn’t a bad thing to look forward to from my perspective.  Just keep an eye open for more over the next few days.

More to come…


Not So Fast, My Friend

The next time you hear someone say, “I understand preserving truly historic buildings, but I don’t think we should try and save this structure from the 1950s (or 60s, or 70s)” remind them that the Art Deco architecture of the 1920s and 30s use to be similarly dismissed.

Reporting from the South Beach Art Deco Historic District in Miami Beach…

More to come…


Calatrava’s Samuel Beckett Bridge Opens for Traffic

Santiago Calatrava’s beautiful Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin opened for traffic this morning following an official ceremony marking the event yesterday.

This is a work of art that I was privileged to see in September while it was still under construction.

To view Calatrava’s work in the context of the other historic and contemporary Dublin bridges along the River Liffey, check out my September post entitled Santiago Calatrava’s Dublin Bridges (And More) By Dawn’s Early Light.

More to come…


Phone Booth Library

My late mother – the librarian – would have loved this post I found on the RADDblog.

What an innovative use of a structure that has lost its original purpose.  (These days you have to explain to kids what a pay phone was.)

Check out the post – there’s another great photograph along with a listing of ways others are using these historic British phone booths.

More to come…