Monthly Archives: October 2017

Pitch Perfect Carnegie Hall

“Everywhere in the world, music enhances a hall, with one exception:  Carnegie Hall enhances the music, ” said Isaac Stern.    Violinist Stern rescued Carnegie Hall in 1960 when it was about to be demolished.  As the result of his efforts, the main hall, which seats 2,804, was renamed the Isaac Stern Auditorium.  There are 2 other, much smaller venues in the building that we didn’t see on our tour.  Stern was correct about Carnegie Hall’s acoustics. They have amazed audiences since 1891.

Carnegie Hall was named for Andrew Carnegie, who funded its construction.  Carnegie was born in Scotland.  Mimi, our tour guide and an enthusiastic concert goer, told us that he was VERY poor and left school at the age of 13 to work.  However, his luck improved.  He eventually moved to New York City to build bridges and developed a new method of steel production.  When he sold his steel interests to J. P. Morgan in 1901 for $480 million, he became the richest man in America.  However, he dedicated the rest of his life to spending his fortune and became famous for building 3,000 libraries.   80% of his money went to education.  He founded CIT, which is now Carnegie Mellon University.  I didn’t know until Mimi told me that Carnegie loved church organs and was a profound pacifist who married for the first and only time at the age of 52 because he had promised his mother that he wouldn’t wed while she was alive.

Carnegie Hall cost him one million dollars, and he hired a cellist named William Tuthill to design it.  Tuthill avoided corners because sound might hide in them.  His main hall is full of curves and has no chandeliers to interrupt sound.  Nothing is amplified.  Even the mohair in the seats helps the sound.    Tuthill used concrete, plaster, and, of course, steel in the construction plans.  He also included a large ice room to cool the building, a clever early form of air-conditioning.  Carnegie is Tuthill’s only concert hall.

Carnegie Hall isn’t just a venue for classical music.  Our tour ended in a museum with tributes to the many performers who have graced its stage like Judy Garland, Bruce Springsteen, and Jay Z.    When the Beatles sang there in 1974, some greeters mistakenly called him John, but he signed the program Paul McCartney anyway.   I know because it’s on display in the museum.

Mimi insisted that I couldn’t photograph the stage when someone was on it, so I had to wait for the piano tuner to finish before I took the picture below.   A committed New Yorker, she emphasized the fact that Carnegie Hall, when built, was the only structure besides the Dakota that existed this far north on Manhattan Island.  Aghast at the horse manure that must have collected in New York’s 19th century streets, Mimi spoke of this hall’s renovations, its threatened closings, the thrill of attending performances, etc.   I highly recommend this guided tour and hope you get to meet Mimi too.



Washington’s Old Post Office Tower and New Trump Hotel

A ranger in the Old Post Office Tower told me that the Washington Monument I was staring at would be closed to the public until 2019 so that the elevator can be redone.  The grids over the window made it impossible to take a decent photo of it.   The observation tower’s excellent viewing area affording perhaps DC’s best sight of the Smithsonian, the White House, the Capitol, etc. is equal to a 12-story-building ‘s height.  This tower is attached to the new Trump Hotel but is not part of it.

I was in a bad mood.   Ruth had gone into the Trump lobby to look around while I took photos of the hotel’s exterior.  I walked completely around this huge property, and as I approached the entrance 2 men told me to put my camera away.  They told me that inside I could only take pictures with my cell phone.  The lobby was elegant and understated.  As I walked around  admiring the decor,  another man approached me and I had the distinct impression that he wanted me to leave.  He began by giving me directions to the Old Post Office Tower indicating that it, unlike the hotel with its $500+ per night rooms, was for tourists like me.  He denied that I was being asked to leave but I took his attitude personally.

Ruth and I headed for the tower looming over the Postal Building that has been converted into a Trump hotel.   All of its 263 rooms were spoken for on the day we were there.  I know because Ruth inquired about availability.   The building was erected between 1892 and 1899 to become 3 facilities:  the main Washington, DC post office, Postal Department headquarters, and a Dead Letter Museum displaying what could not be delivered.  By 1934 Washington’s 1st steel-frame building was a candidate for razing because it already seemed old-fashioned and out-of-place.  Instead, it became government offices and increasingly distressed like an old downtown train station.  The Government saved it again, and it was put on the National Register of Historic Places.  In 2013 the GSA gave Trump Hotels permission to renovate the building.   They spent $200 million turning it into a well-placed and deluxe Pennsylvania Avenue hotel property.

I was wrong to get upset.  It was October 11 when we were there and I learned from NBC4 that on this month’s 1st weekend someone had spray painted “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice No Peace” on the entrance where I had been taking pictures.   The police, to my knowledge, are still looking for the man in the yellow shirt who did this.  No wonder security was so jumpy!

The Old Post Office Tower is being run by the National Park Service.   It has been opened to the public for about a year.  After walking down a long corridor with walls displaying historic photos and maps featuring Washington, DC, visitors are taken by elevator to The Tower for that great 360° view of Washington.   At one point we saw the President’s helicopter taking off from the White House.  Elevator riders get a fine view of the hotel’s lobby where everyone bustling about looks like he and she runs either a corporation or a country.


Charlotte & Columbia & Clovis CA

Why did Ruth & I go to Chattanooga?  I got to thinking about how many cities of 100,000 or more in the United States that we haven’t been to and started wondering what we’re missing.  I went through a 2017 Rand McNally Atlas and came up with 22 of them, like Tallahassee, Florida, which we’ve been near but never to.  Chattanooga certainly has a lot for tourists.  So do Columbia and Charlotte, 2 other cities that made my unvisited list.  Perhaps we went through some of the 22 on our way to other destinations many years ago but didn’t linger long enough to get an impression.

As I made my list, a problem developed.  Many towns of 100,000 or more have blended into large cities and grown as a result of that.   Is Plano, Texas, a part of Dallas, or is it a stand-alone town?  Is San Bernardino now part of the Los Angeles megalopolis?  Is Edison, New Jersey, now said to be in the New York city metro area?   We’ve been in all three.   There are about 20 cities of 100,000 or more that are now so close to very big cities that they might be considered part of them.  Look at Jurupa Valley in Southern California and tell me if it’s part of LA or an independent city.  I had to make a decision and ended up listing for visiting only what still seem to be stand-alone towns far enough away from huge metros, like Flint, Michigan, which brought up another issue.

If we are attempting to travel to the 22 on the list, are they worth it?  Travel can be a hassle, but when we go someplace like Chattanooga, it’s full of focused, appreciative visitors.  Is Flint really worth visiting?  It certainly has been in the news recently with it water problems.  Is Erie, Pennsylvania, another city we haven’t been to, worth the effort to see?   Only going there can answer this question satisfactorily.  Being in Charlotte and seeing its go-go development is critical for understanding it.  When I told a friend that Ruth and I were going to Columbia, South Carolina, Pat beamed and told me there was a lot to do there.  He was right!   I certainly now have fond memories of Trinity Cathedral, the Governor’s Mansion, Mr. Friendly, etc.

So now we’ve been to 3 of the cities on my unvisited 100,000 list.   All were worthwhile destinations.  However, when we were in New York City the first week of October, 2017, we planned to take a train to Waterbury, Connecticut.  Its population is over 108,000.  We’ve never been there even though we’ve traveled to Hartford and found lots to do there.  Waterbury has grown close to Hartford, and I couldn’t find much to see other than the Mattatuck Museum Arts and History Center and some churches.  We never made it to Waterbury because there was so much to do in Manhattan.

We’ve never been to Rochester and Syracuse, New York, so we’re planing to include them on a trip in 2018 when we go to a great city we haven’t been to for a few years, Toronto.  Should we include Erie?

There’s one major city with many tourist attractions among the 22, and I can’t believe that I’ve never been to Orlando, Florida.  However, it’s true.  To be continued.



Charlotte, a New South City

The Levine Museum of the New South is devoted to telling the story of Charlotte, NC, since 1865.   Its street level contains a relatively permanent exhibit called “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers”, a succinct phrase that neatly captures Charlotte’s history since the Civil War.  The second level has changing exhibits that cover contemporary issues.  Both were very busy when Ruth and I visited on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon, and it struck me as a good idea for a museum in a part of the United States that seems to be the starting place for many thorny issues, most recently the pulling down of Confederate statues.  Our guide at the Chickamauga Battlefield said that, in some ways, the Civil War has not ended.

This city calls its downtown Uptown and seems to be thriving.  Uptown has so many skyscrapers that it seems like a larger city center than it is and promotes the idea that Charlotte is the financial hot spot of the New South.  As we explored this community, we saw very little urban rot.  Old buildings have either been updated or are in the process of being redone.  The building pictured above, for example, used to be a cotton mill and is now full of inviting stores and eating places on the CATS transit system.

On the Levine Museum of the New South’s first floor the word Piedmont is often used.  It’s the common name for this geographic area of rocky rivers and small, not-so-prosperous subsistence farms.  However, cotton grows well here.  The Civil War affected the supply of this commodity and pushed prices up.  Charlotte, for centuries at a place where two native American trading paths met, was ripe for an economic explosion.  Railroads helped turn it into a New South city of thriving churches and cotton mills, a growing city surrounded by poor tenant farms.  By the 1920s The Piedmont roared past New England as America’s foremost textile manufacturing region.  By the 21st century Charlotte was home to 8 Fortune 500 companies.  Today Lowe’s, Family Dollar, and NASCAR maintain headquarters here in a city where a company called Radiator Specialty patented and produced those ubiquitous orange traffic barrels and citizens elected the first African-American mayor in a Southern city.

Over time, unpleasant social issues included poor, ex-slave tenant farmers, dismal school enrollment, the Ku Klux Klan, segregation, etc.   All and more are thoroughly explored in “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers”.   Long-term problems have set Charlotte up for dealing with the contemporary social issues that are explored on Levine’s 2nd floor.   The temporary exhibit that I saw, “Know Justice Know Peace” has closed.  It was, to my knowledge, the first museum exhibit to deal with police-involved killings.   It commenced with timelines focused on local events related to school policy, housing, and criminal justice.   What I most appreciated were up-to-the-day updates of several cases about controversial killings involving police.  Being from St. Louis, I was most interested in the Ferguson details.  I don’t know when “Let Love Reign” will be taken down or what is coming next.

The Levine Museum of the New South challenges visitors by exploring contemporary issues that often make people uncomfortable.  This makes it both worthwhile and unique.





Exceptional Congaree


I didn’t know about Congaree National Park for a couple of reasons.  I live on the West Coast and it’s near the East Coast.   It’s not the newest National Park, but it wasn’t created until 2003, the year Ruth & I moved away from the Midwest.    Ruth and I were in Columbia, SC, when I saw it on a map.  It seemed fairly far from town, but then I realized that it was only 18 miles from our hotel.  We had to go.  It turned out to be a memorable, 5 Compass experience.

Congaree’s glory is its nose-pleasing pine scent and eye-filling trees.   After intense logging by pioneers, some of this ancient flood plain forest survived because, when logging operations were about to resume in the late 1960s environment-minded people resisted.   Congress finally declared the area a National Monument in 1976 with the word swamp in its name  That it was a swamp saved many old-growth trees because they were difficult to harvest and often surrounded by water.  As a result, the largest tract of unharvested bottomland hardwood forest in the United States survived.

Congaree’s Visitor Center is one of the finest I’ve been in.  It’s unexpectedly large with a helpful and knowledgable staff, excellent displays, and a fine introductory film.  Ruth and I could have spent hours there, her staring at the massive tree that delights teachers with information about what inhabits a fallen, dead tree and me admiring a Belted Kingfisher and learning about the rich variety of trees-loblolly pine, bald cypress, sweetgum, etc.-that exist in this National Park’s 27,000 acres.   One display informed me that Congaree’s tall trees beat old-growth forests in Japan, the Himalayas, and Europe and are similar to those in the southern regions of South America.


However, a ranger named Jonathan showed me a brochure for a 2.4 mile, self-guided boardwalk tour that ended back at the visitor center and we were off on an adventure.  He told me to pay special attention to #11 of 20 stops to see one of the tallest (over 150 feet) loblolly pines in South Carolina.   Once the state champion, experts now suspect that taller ones exist in Congaree’s vast expanse.  On the walk Ruth & I delighted in dwarf palmettos, bald cypress knees (one theory is that these projections seen below are part of the tree’s root system and support it in swampy areas) that were like nothing we had seen before, oxbow lakes, etc.  Those we met and talked to on this boardwalk-German tourists, a group of teenage girls who knew about feral pigs, field trip groups, etc.-were as excited to be there as we were.  At the end of this hike, we wished we had time for other trails.  Congaree has 25 miles of them and is also quite popular with canoeists.

We were very lucky to have a beautiful autumn day for our walk.  Congaree experiences floods about 10 times each year, and boardwalks are sometimes under water.  Some evidence of 1989’s Hurricane Hugo can still be seen on the walk.  After we left, we learned that 3 species of fireflies light up Congaree in late May and early June giving us a definite reason to return to this magical place.