Thursday, September 28, 2017

No Yachts, No Mansions

From Dave Brigham:

What's the first thing you think of when I say Newport? Mansions built by 19th century robber barons that they referred to as summer cottages? The America's Cup yacht race? The International Tennis Hall of Fame? Loads of windburned preps with names like Muffy and Skip wearing Nantucket Reds and spilling white wine while howling with laughter over tales of cheating on exams at Hahvahd?

On a recent family mini-vacation to Rhode Island's toniest address, we managed to miss all of that. But we saw plenty, on both the front and back sides of this wonderful, historic city on Narragansett Bay.

As regular readers of this blog know, whenever I'm on vacation, I make time to find the backside of whatever city I'm in. I spent part of one early morning doing just that, but a lot of my discoveries were made while just walking through Newport's commercial and restaurant areas, as well as on a tour of a fort just a few miles from downtown.

(Fort Adams)

(View across the front yard of the fort, with housing in the background.)

Built between 1824 and 1857, the current Fort Adams replaced a predecessor established in 1799. It was an active Army post until 1950. We toured part of fort (there was a reenactment going on taking up a lot of the interior space), including some of the listening tunnels.

(Our tour guide took us on a short walk through some low listening tunnels, in which soldiers garrisoned at the fort could station themselves so they could hear attempts by the enemy to dig under the fort.)

We had lunch one day at Buskers Pub, a quiet respite from the overflow crowds at so many other eateries. Amid all the memorabilia, both real items and knockoff ones peddled by restaurant decor companies to give diners that oh-so-important cozy feeling of fake nostalgia, my wife spied this beaut.

Know what it is? I'll give you a hint: it's used in a game that few Americans have seen, and even fewer understand, a game that originated in the Basque region of Spain. Give up? It's a jai-alai cesta! Newport used to have a fronton -- what you call the enclosed court where jai-alai is played -- but it's been closed for years. Now the building holds a casino. My friends and I frequented the Hartford fronton back in the '80s.

There are loads of cool historic buildings along the main drags and in the neighborhoods of Newport.

(Now housing retail and office space, this circa-1894 music hall looks great, and surely must have been the cat's pajamas in the 20th century.)

(Home to the Newport Blues Cafe, the former Kinsley Building started life in 1892 as a Aquidneck National Bank, hence the "SAFE DEPOSIT" etched into its facade.)

(The Seamen's Church Institute provides "education, hospitality and a safe haven for those who work, live and play on or by the sea." This building was erected in 1930.)

Driving up to our hotel, I looked across the street and my heart skipped a beat.

The park had a similar feel to Doubleday Field at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, which I had the pleasure of playing on a number of years ago. So I knew it was old.

Bernardo Cardines Memorial Field is indeed long in the tooth, and is considered one of the oldest baseball fields in the good ol' US of A. Home to the Newport Gulls of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, a summer league sanctioned by the NCAA and Major League Baseball, the field isn't anything fancy, but I really wanted to get inside to watch a few innings.

Alas, there were no tickets to be had, as the season had ended earlier in August.

Meandering just a little ways from the hotel and ballpark, I came across The Point neighborhood (also known as Easton's Point), one of the oldest in Newport.

(The Callender School in The Point. Built in 1862, closed in 1974 and renovated into apartments in 1979-81, it was named for John Callender Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church in Newport, who lived from 1706 to 1748.)

(The Point is filled with so many amazing old houses that have been beautifully restored. The neighborhood has one of the highest concentrations of Colonial homes in in the U.S., per Wikipedia.)

(The Sarah Kendall House in The Point dates to 1871, when it was built for the wife of a wealthy shipping merchant, according to the inn's web site.)

(On the outskirts of The Point sits Ten Speed Spokes, a bike store with a cool retro sign.)

Inevitably, I stumbled across some railroad tracks.

Once part of the Old Colony & Newport Railway that connected to Boston, these tracks have been abandoned for quite some time. But there's a small, restored station just up the railbed.

About 20 minutes out of town you can ride the rails. Not on a train, mind you, but on a rail cart. No, not a handcar like you've seen in old-timey movies. You pedal along for about six miles, hands-free, while you enjoy views of Narragansett Bay and the quaint surrounding towns. Here's some video of the trip my wife, kids and I took with Rail Explorers:

Pretty cool, eh?

Finally, while we didn't hit any mansions or board any yachts, we did check out one of Newport's major tourist attractions: the Cliff Walk. Sandwiched between the Newport shoreline and the backyards of Gilded Age mansions, the walk extends 3.5 miles, although we only walked a small portion of it because my kids are kinda lame.

(Mystery box located along the Cliff Walk, at Salve Regina University.)

We had a great time in Newport. There were so many great restaurants, shops and museums that we only strolled past, because again, our kids were with us. I'd love to get there with my wife and take advantage of more of what this great little city has to offer.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

One-Stop Barnstorming Tour

From Dave Brigham:

I've never smoked, other than a few times experimenting with cigarettes and stogies as a teenager, but tobacco is a minor theme in my life. I grew up in a Connecticut River Valley town that was once known worldwide for growing shade tobacco for the cigar industry. When I was a kid in the 1970's, local teens would rise early during the summer to pick tobacco alongside migrant workers. There were tobacco barns at the edge of my neighborhood and scattered throughout the town and others in the area. Some of those barns are still standing, although I don't think any of them are in use.

On a recent trip to visit with family in Windsor, Connecticut, I stayed in a hotel right off the highway. I'd stayed there before, and had a vague feeling that there was something worth exploring in the immediate area. As often happens when I sleep in a hotel, I awoke early. I left my wife and kids sleeping in their cozy beds and struck out on foot along the busy road heading west. There were no sidewalks, and although there wasn't much traffic on this Saturday morning, I felt ill at ease. After just a few minutes, however, I veered onto a side road.

My hotel was on Day Hill Road, a busy thoroughfare with other hotels, business parks and office buildings, so when I saw the side road sign said "Old Day Hill Road," I knew I'd find something good.

This is one of three old tobacco barns on this farm. There were crops all around, but I couldn't tell you what the farmers are growing. Seemed to be mostly vegetables. I would've explored more, but there was an SUV a short distance away that I'm guessing belonged to someone charged with keeping folks like me away.

The sun was already hot at 8:00, and I didn't have a hat or sunscreen, so I didn't walk too far on Old Day Hill Road. After returning home I discovered that there are some old potato barns just up the road a piece from where I stopped. Bummer....

Upon my return to the hotel, once my family was awake, I opened the curtains in the room. And got this wonderful view.

I wrote about another tobacco barn and the former church that served the little community of agricultural workers in East Granby, CT, last year (see July 19, 2016, "Tobacco Road").

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Hub Holdout

From Dave Brigham:

I think about the backside of America a lot. This doesn't surprise you. I try to snap photos of shuttered buildings as soon as I notice them, because in this strong Greater Boston economy those places get bulldozed and turned into gleaming glass monoliths faster than you can say "gleaming glass monoliths."

Thankfully, some places have been able to not only defy the wrecking ball, but also thrive by ignoring the ways of The New. On a recent subway trip into the Hub of the Universe with my two kids, I had plans to walk by the Mother Church of Christian Science, and perhaps dip our toes in the reflecting pool outside. Construction along Huntington Avenue, however, left us unable to easily access the church, and we found the pool empty.

But then I looked across the street, and pulled out my ulterior ulterior motive.

Looks like the setting for an episode of "Spenser: For Hire" doesn't it? The MidTown Hotel is certainly an anomaly amidst all the high-rise condos and skyscraper hotels in Boston. This place would fit in along Route 1 north of the city, although much of the midcentury charm of that roadway is gone (see this article about the old Hilltop Steak House, and this one about the famous Route 1 orange dinosaur).

Built in 1962, the hotel looks much better on the inside than the outside would leave one to believe. Located near Symphony Hall, the Prudential and Copley malls, Northeastern University, Copley Square and much more, the place shows no signs of fading away. For a nice ode to the MidTown, read Thomas Farragher's column in the Boston Globe from two years ago.

As if all the amenities, attractions and restaurants close at hand weren't enough, you can also get your hair styled.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Duck Duck House

From Dave Brigham:

The first time I saw this cute little place, I thought it was a dog house that somebody tossed overboard into Boston Harbor. "Fido! You've chewed your last slipper!" And you thought Mitt Romney had canine issues.

That was a few years ago, before the folks at the oddly named Waterboat Marina affixed a sign indicating this is a duck house.

Huey, Dewey and Louie have a pretty sweet set-up: gigantic pool; easy access to the ice machine; an abundance of mollusks, algae and beer spilled by those who overdo it at the nearby Tia's Restaurant; the cachet of owning a trendy tiny house....

For a write-up about a different kind of duck house, see January 14, 2017, "Beautiful Duckling."

Friday, September 1, 2017

For What the Bell Tolls

From Dave Brigham:

It's human nature, I suppose, to ignore the history in your backyard that folks travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to see. I've lived in the Boston area 27 years and have yet to set foot in the Bunker Hill Monument, for instance. Or Paul Revere's house. Or Old South Church. Or the liquor store where Whitey Bulger conducted his heinous affairs.

As regular readers know, I seek out the hidden history, the decrepit buildings, the rusting heaps in the woods. But recently my family spent just a small amount of time in nearby Lexington, Mass. ("The Birthplace of American Liberty") and checked out the American Revolution-related plaques and memorials around the famous Battle Green.

I won't lie to you: this was an outing taken as a result of the need to get out of the house, rather than an insatiable thirst for historical knowledge. My kids rejected a walk in the woods, said they wanted to do a "city walk." Well, we've spent a lot of time in Boston and Cambridge over the years, so I thought of Lexington, with its quaint shops and restaurants (most importantly, an ice cream parlor). I figured strolling through a few sights from the American Revolution would be gravy.

The historical markers around the Green -- related to meeting houses, the first casualties of the Revolution, and the iconic Minute Man -- were of some interest, as was the massive flagpole in the center of it all. But when I saw a sign for "The Belfry," I knew I had found my true destination.

Located just a musket-shot away from the Green, the belfry was built in 1762 in its current spot, and moved to the Green in 1768, per the Lexington Historical Society web site. The bell was used to summon folks to worship, and tolled upon the deaths of townspeople. But on April 19, 1775, the belfry realized its greatest glory: sounding the alarm calling the local militia men to the Common in advance of the approach of the British Redcoats.

Eventually the belfry was moved back to its original location. The original was destroyed in 1909 either by fire or by a strong gale, depending on which historical account you believe, and the town had a reproduction made in 1910. The bell tolls each year to signal the start of the Patriots' Day reenactment on the Green, according to the historical society.

As for that ice cream parlor, we ended up there after our less-than-stressful adventure. Rancatore's is pretty good, and is located in a nice old circa-1903 building known as the Hunt Block.