Last Friday I took the Acela Express to Washington, D.C., picked up a
Zipcar stashed two blocks from Union Station, and spent the next four hours slogging through hard rain, high winds, and holiday traffic. All told, the Tropical Storm Formerly Known as Hurricane Ernesto dumped something like a foot of water on me, but I turned up the stereo and paid it as little heed as I dared. (Should you find yourself in similar circumstances, I recommend Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, and The Bob Brookmeyer Quartet.)
My destination was the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Staunton, Virginia, a handsome pile of red brick built in 1924 atop whose roof stands an old-fashioned neon sign that flashes its name far and wide. I can’t say I felt entirely comfortable staying in a hotel that bears the name of a Confederate general, but then I’ve never felt entirely comfortable anywhere in the Old South. It is, I suppose, a generational thing: I know Virginia has changed since I was a boy, but segregation is still a living memory for me, so Civil War nostalgia, however innocent, is apt to make me queasy. Be that as it may, the hotel in question is a most agreeable place. The staff was friendly, the rooms spacious and comfortable, and I was amazed to discover a splendid-sounding vintage Wurlitzer pipe organ on the mezzanine. As if that weren’t enough, the St-n-w-ll J-cks-n Hotel is next door to the Blackfriars Playhouse, home of the American Shakespeare Center, where I saw Othello, As You Like It, and Macbeth performed in what the ASC bills as “the world’s only authentic re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater.” (To take a “virtual tour” of the Blackfriars Playhouse, go here and scroll down.)
I took Mr. My Stupid Dog to Othello on Friday night. The theater reviews he posts on his blog from time to time are unfailingly shrewd, so it came as no surprise that he turned out to be a knowing companion, not to mention a sound judge of restaurants. We dined before the show at Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant and Bakery, a comfort-food emporium that serves tasty Virginia ham dished up by pretty waitresses with sugar-sweet southern accents, and it was at his urging that I lunched the next day at a Five Guys, a regional chain that specializes in fat hamburgers (get ’em with fried onions) that are fifty percent grease and a hundred and fifty percent good.
On Sunday morning I hit the road again, rambling up twisty back roads to the accompaniment of the rough mix of Nickel Creek‘s forthcoming greatest-hits album, for which I’m writing the liner notes later this week. Early in the afternoon I arrived at the Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria. The Pope-Leighey was the first of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses that I saw in person, just two days after I paid my first visit to Fallingwater in 2003. (I blogged about it here.) Since then I’ve seen a half-dozen other Usonians and spent the
in two of them, an experience I wrote about
last fall in The Wall Street Journal:
To turn the key of a Wright house is to step into a parallel universe. The huge windows, the open, uncluttered floor plans, the straightforward use of such simple materials as wood, brick, concrete and rough-textured masonry: all create the illusion of a vast interior space in close harmony with its natural surroundings. Instead of walls, subtly varied ceiling heights denote the different living areas surrounding the massive fireplace that is the linchpin of every Wright house. This unoppressive openness–both from area to area and between indoors and out–is what makes even a small house like the 880-square-foot Peterson Cottage, which was boarded up for two decades before being rehabilitated in 1992, seem so much larger than it really is.
For all their essential similarities, Wright’s houses affect their occupants in very different ways. The Peterson Cottage, built in 1959 on the edge of an isolated, heavily wooded bluff overlooking Mirror Lake, is so tranquil and serene that I felt as though I could sit in meditative silence by its great sandstone hearth for hours on end. The 3,000-square-foot Schwartz House, on the other hand, is in a built-up residential neighborhood and has the friendly, slightly down-at-heel look of a place that has been occupied by children ever since it was built in 1939. To put it another way, the Peterson Cottage feels like a work of art, the Schwartz House like a comfortable home that just happens to be heart-stoppingly beautiful….
While a visitor might well sense such things in the course of a daytime visit, it’s only when the sun sets that you take full possession of a Wright house and start to imagine what it would be like to live there around the clock. After dark I turned on all the lights in the Schwartz House, stepped into the back yard and reveled in the warm amber glow that photographs only suggest. Then I went back inside, plugged my iPod into a pair of portable speakers and filled the house with the spacious, all-American sounds of Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata and Pat Metheny’s “Midwestern Night’s Dream,” both of which were ideally suited to Wright’s prairie-evoking interiors. You can’t do that on an hour-long tour!
Nor can you sit quietly and reflect on the soft-spoken beauties of the Pope-Leighey House, whose brisk, well-informed guides lead batches of tourists through the interior twice each hour. Would that I could have spent even fifteen unaccompanied minutes there, but that’s not allowed. Though I’m not much given to envy, I get a little green around the gills every time I visit a Usonian house. At least I’ve had the unforgettable experience of staying in two of the best ones.
From Alexandria I drove to Washington, returned my Zipcar to its parking place, checked into the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, took a quick shower, and strolled over to the Shakespeare Theatre Company to see the opening-night performance of the company’s new production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.
I arose on Monday and had breakfast with the three nice women who run Washington DC Accommodations, the superlatively reliable service that I use to book the hotel rooms in which I stay whenever I visit Washington. (I’ve been talking to them on the phone for over a decade now, and they decided it’d be fun to find out what I looked like.) Then I walked to Union Station, pulling my suitcase behind me, and boarded the next train to New York. Now I’m home again, tired and happy and unbelievably glad to be back where I belong. At some point in the past day or two I shook off the chest cold that laid me low a week ago, but I’m still short on steam, and it was with no small amount of relief that I looked at my calendar and saw that I won’t be making any more overnight trips until I leave for Chicago on September 22. As much as I love to travel, I’d say it’s about time I spent a couple of weeks getting reacquainted with the Teachout Museum, chipping away at Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong, and sleeping in my own bed.