Monday, August 2, 2010


Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is a western Pennsylvania mountain retreat home built 1936-38 for the Edgar J. Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh, owners of Kaufmann’s Department Store. The home was used by the Kaufmann household, Edgar, Liliane and their only child until 1963. It was then opened to the public in 1964 after being entrusted to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy by their son Edgar Kaufmann, jr. (1910-1989); the lower case “jr” was his preference. The home, which forms a strong and innovative organic bond to its setting, is considered by many to be the most famous house in America. It is undisputedly one of the architectural triumphs of the 20th century.

The Kaufmanns were wealthy, well traveled, educated and sophisticated people who sought out artists and creative people all their lives as they moved about in international circles. As Jews they encountered obstacles to their position in Pittsburgh society, but they remained passionate about aesthetic beauty and loved outdoor activity, especially horseback riding and fishing. At the urging of their son, who was working for Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) at Taliesin (Wisconsin) at the time, they chose the storied architectural genius to design a home on their 2,000 acre woodland retreat in 1935, when Wright was well into his late 60s. At the same time, Wright was asked to design an executive office for Edgar in the Kaufmann department store. Wright designed the walls, furniture and all textiles (including the rugs). This room has since been removed from the store (now a Macy's) and displayed in several museums here and abroad. Edgar jr. subsequently donated it to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it is on permanent display (see photo at end of post).

Their son had been studying in Europe to become a painter, but made a career change in 1934 after reading Wright’s An Autobiography (publ. 1932), subsequently joining the Taliesin Fellowship of apprentices. In 1937 he began an 18-year association with the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), which eventually led him away from a career in retailing to his life’s work as a curator and scholar. Edgar jr. became a lecturer and authority on Frank Lloyd Wright as Adjunct Professor of Architecture and Art History at Columbia University (1963-1986). He remained a frequent visitor to Fallingwater after it opened to the public.

His generous transfer of Fallingwater to a conservancy has made it possible for millions of architecture enthusiasts to experience Wright’s masterpiece, located 72 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, in its original setting with all furnishings, books and artwork intact. The quality of art on casual display is exceptional: original works by Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, pre-Columbian statues and highly valuable sculpture placed both inside and out.

The woodland acreage was originally used as a summer camp and retreat for employees of Kaufmann’s Department Store, but the Depression years of the 1930s saw disuse of the property, since employees could no longer shoulder the expense of traveling to and staying at the camp. At that time the Kaufmann family decided to replace their log weekend house with a much larger home farther from the recently paved road. The rest is history. Today we can enjoy a visit to this landmark house just as it was constructed and furnished by the original owners. Fallingwater is surrounded by the conservancy’s 5,000 acre Bear Run Nature Reserve.

Click to enlarge: Guest house addition from 1939

The distinctive main house, which straddles a stream with waterfalls and boulders, was followed by construction of a complimentary 4-bedroom guest house in 1939. The two structures are separated by a winding pathway covered by concrete esplanades. The main house boasts 2,885 sq. ft. of interior space plus 2,445 sq. ft. of terraces (total 5,330 sq. ft.), while the guest house covers 1,700 sq. ft. The total cost for the house in the 1930s was $155,000, including $8,000 in architect’s fees and $4,500 for built-in walnut furnishings. Wright's original cost estimate had been $35,000. In today's dollars, $155,000 amounts to about $2.5 million, an extraordinary sum for a weekend house.

Although he had many ideas "in his head," Wright feverishly sketched plans for the house in a matter of a few hours. Months behind on the project, he rushed to have something to show Kaufmann, who had phoned to say that he was already on his way to visit Wright's office.

Wright exercised his typical control over interior furnishings and specifications, designing almost all the furniture and even the fireplace tools. He limited the palette to just two colors: a light ochre for the concrete and his signature Cherokee red for the metal surfaces (both may be purchased today from Pittsburgh Paints). There is liberal use of natural stone on walls, stairs and floors both inside and out.

The main house is approached by a stone-paved bridge spanning the cascading Bear Run. The sound of rushing water greets the visitor, but no entry door is apparent (it is in the rear). An innovative feature is a set of stairs that lead from one of the many terraces directly down to the stream. A plunge pool, walled off from the stream by stone, is adjacent to this area. Except for the stone chimney stack, the entire main house emphasizes horizontal planes and exaggerated cantilevers. The guest house, which boasts a 6-ft. deep swimming pool and a multi-car garage, is located uphill from the main structure.

Click images to enlarge:

Many of the local farmers and skilled workers in the area became part of the construction team that built Fallingwater. During the Depression, they were thankful for extra jobs and income. Walter Hall, a self-taught local builder, oversaw the construction project, including the guest house, for the sum of $50 a week. The stone used in constructing the house was quarried on site, and Hall himself taught many of the unskilled laborers building techniques they were able to use long after the Fallingwater project was completed.

Wright’s commission to design Fallingwater jump started a flagging career. This house became famous after being featured on the cover of TIME magazine in 1938. Many people expected Wright, who was 72 when Fallingwater was completed, to head into retirement. His renewed fame, however, brought him a flurry of commissions; more than half of the four hundred structures he designed were built after Fallingwater. Wright worked right up until his death at age 91.

More than 5 million people have visited Fallingwater since it was opened to the public in 1964. On average, about 150,000 people visit the site annually. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy completed major structural repairs in 2002 to strengthen Fallingwater’s extreme cantilevers, guarding against a possible future collapse and deflection. Attention was paid to leaks and problems with mold, as well.

Note: Kaufmann commissioned another architectural masterpiece for use as a vacation house. In 1946 he hired noted Viennese architect Richard Neutra to design a house to be built on the edge of Palm Springs, CA, as a retreat from harsh winters. Neutra had once been a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice and even named his son after Wright. Subsequent owners (including Barry Manilow) altered the Palm Springs house dramatically and insensitively, but a thorough and accurate restoration returned it to its original condition in the late 1990s. The house, a fabled example of the International Style against which Wright rebelled, was sold at auction in 2008 by Christie’s Auction House for $15 million.

Photo below: Fallingwater viewed from Bear Run.

Skeletons in the Closet:

Most visitors to Fallingwater come on a pilgrimage to the Holy Grail of modern architecture, where they are allowed to worship at the feet of a genius. However, Fallingwater was the scene of events lived on a less lofty plane. The house was a possession of a rich and powerful family that played by its own rules. Liliane and Edgar traveled to NYC to get married, because it was not then legal for first cousins to marry in Pennsylvania. Soon after she became immersed in the business of the department store and introduced the people of Pittsburgh to the fashions of Paris. While at Kaufmann’s, she turned the then-unprofitable 11th floor women’s shop into a successful boutique, Vendôme, a reflection of the elegant Place Vendôme in Paris. She traveled through Europe to keep it stocked with antiques, artwork, and interesting objects d’art. Liliane ruled the Vendôme floor completely, returning from buying trips to Europe with the flair of royalty, her attendants and chauffeur in tow. To her secretary at the time, Mary Michaely, it was like the return of a queen to her palace.

The Kaufmanns flaunted their money with an over-the-top lifestyle, regularly hosting extravagant themed parties that tipped toward debauchery. They shocked friends when they sunbathed in the nude. The Kaufmanns were given to avant-garde behavior and marketed themselves outrageously. Edgar was a notorious womanizer who favored women half his age, often showgirls; in 1929 Edgar fathered a child with a model from his store. Both Liliane and Edgar abused alcohol.

Liliane did not like Fallingwater, mentioning that the terraces made the bedroom hot (she had a bedroom separate from that of her husband), and that the location directly over a stream created problems with mold. And the roof leaked. She often retired to the guest house up the hill and swam in its pool, enjoying solitude there. She doted on her son, who withdrew from the family retail business in Pittsburgh for a career in New York City, where his homosexuality was more accepted.

Edgar Jonas Kaufmann Sr. (called “E.J.” by his close friends) frequently crossed swords with Wright (another notorious womanizer). E.J. commissioned another dozen projects from the architect, but never built any of them. Wright was offended when Edgar Sr. hired one of Wright’s own students, Richard Neutra, to design a winter home in Palm Springs. Liliane confided to Wright that she and Edgar seldom shared a house except for purposes of entertaining, and she approached Wright about designing a private retreat just for her in Palm Springs.

In 1952, Liliane died from an overdose of sleeping pills while at Fallingwater, after she learned that her husband had fallen in love with his much younger nurse (Edgar had chronic and often severe back problems). The coroner declared the death accidental, but Edgar jr. insisted his mother’s death was a suicide. After marrying said nurse (he was in his late 60s; she was 34), Edgar Sr. died only seven months later (1955) of bone cancer while in residence at his Neutra-designed Palm Springs home. Upon learning that Kaufmann had left the bulk of his estate to his charitable foundation, his new wife sued for $5 million, declaring that she needed to maintain her lifestyle and status. She had signed a prenuptial agreement, however, and after years of legal challenges, eventually lost the suit. She died in a tragic accidental fire inside her apartment in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, just 15 minutes before her maid arrived.

Edgar jr., deeply affected by his parents’ estrangement and his mother’s subsequent death, was eventually able to accomplish what he was unable to do while his parents were alive. He commissioned an extravagant mausoleum of earth-toned stucco and stone to be built on the grounds of Fallingwater; he transferred his mother’s body from Pittsburgh’s Homewood Cemetery and eventually interred his father there, as well. At last Edgar jr.'s parents were as he wanted them, joined together, side-by-side. Noted Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti created the crypt’s huge bronze doors, which depict two solitary bas-relief stick-like figures, a woman sitting against a tree on the right and a man standing far away on the left, facing each other across a barren valley. Kevin Gray, in a New York Times feature from 2001, described the doors as having “dark, stormy background branches evoking William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”

The tomb is several hundred yards upstream from the main house, reached by its own bridge, although tourists are not allowed to visit it. In fact, docents and guides will not reveal its exact location. Edgar jr's own body was cremated in 1989, and his ashes were scattered around the grounds of Fallingwater, as well as those of his long time companion, Paul

Edgar jr., as discrete as his parents were brash, had a substantial career as a learned and disciplined historian, an exact and graceful writer, a perceptive critic, educator and philanthropist – all without a traditional college education. One of his enduring legacies was co-founding, along with famed architects Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames, the GOOD DESIGN awards in 1950; GOOD DESIGN grants international recognition upon designers and manufacturers for advancing new, visionary, and innovative product concepts, invention and originality, and for stretching the envelope beyond what is considered ordinary product and consumer design. During the past 60 years winners have included Alessi, Porsche, Bang & Olufsen, Apple, Herman Miller, Bose and Knoll. The 2010 winners will be announced in September.

Tip: If salacious details fascinate you, buy the cookbook available in the gift shop. Elsie Henderson was the personal cook for the Kaufmann household, and she reveals much more than favorite family recipes.
Exerpt (text accompanies a recipe for chicken/avocado salad):

Elsie often featured avocado in salads when Edgar Jr. and his companion, Paul Mayén, were at Fallingwater. “Mr. Mayén loved avocados.”

Elsie Henderson, an African-American, is today 96 years old. A portion of the cookbook’s profits help support her.

Mayén Connection

It is a curious fact that Paul Mayén, a Spanish-born industrial designer who for 36 years shared Edgar jr’s Manhattan apartment and retreat in Hydra, Greece, designed the gift shop, café and visitor center complex (built in 1978) set in the woods above Fallingwater. Everyone who tours Fallingwater passes through it. As well, one of Paul Mayén’s design creations, a red cubical sculpture, sits unheralded on the coffee table in Fallingwater’s living room.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who in 1956 had designed a retreat house known as Kentuck Knob for I.N. and Bernadine Hagan (just four miles from Fallingwater), suggested that they hire Edgar jr. and Mayén (as a couple) to assist in selecting furniture. Paul and Edgar jr. directed the Hagans toward furnishings by George Jensen and Hans Wegner. They selected Jack Lenor Larsen fabrics for the built-in Wright-designed seating area and purchased Moroccan rugs from Kaufmann’s department store in Pittsburgh. Now owned by a British Lord, Kentuck Knob is open for tours. While it is a fine example of a modest Usonian house, and in pristine condition, every interior surface is marred by excessive clutter from the present occupants. Wright would have had apoplexy.

In 1975, Mayén designed a country house for the Hagans in rural New York State. As well, Paul Mayén designed the jacket of a book about Wright, Drawings for a Living Architecture (1959), and provided photographs for a 1965 book about Fallingwater.

Given his professional contributions to such an iconic architectural site and his personal ties to its heir, it is astonishing that so little is known about Mayén and his work.

Below: Wright's office for Edgar Sr. at the Kaufmann Department Store, now on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Loretto, Pennsylvania: Catholic Pioneer Heritage

Loretto was founded in 1799 by Father Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin (statue at right) as the first English-speaking Roman Catholic colony west of the Alleghenies. Located 18 miles SW of Altoona and northeast of Johnstown, Loretto is home to St. Francis University (est. 1847), one of the nation's oldest Catholic institutions of higher learning. But it was two generous men - Father Gallitzin and Charles Schwab (a century later) - who transformed a backwoods Allegheny village into a place of remarkable importance to American Catholics. Two extant structures remind us of Loretto's extraordinary history.

Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel

The current stone Basilica, which stands adjacent to the site of Father Gallitzin's original log church, was built in 1901 with funds donated by Charles Schwab (then president of U.S. Steel), who was raised in Loretto. The architect was Pittsburgh’s celebrated Frederick J. Osterling, who designed the Romanesque church with a massive stone bell tower above the main entrance. There were notable Gothic details incorporated into the design. All the exterior sandstone was locally quarried, and the interior boasted barrel vaulted ceilings adorned with frescoes, all without visible post or column supports. The roof was surfaced with red paving tiles. Extravagance and fine craftsmanship abound. The elaborately carved pews were made from polished quartered red oak, and a 70-ft. long communion rail was fashioned from Mexican onyx. The four altars, all imported from Italy, were carved from Carrara marble, the same stone from which Michelangelo's Pieta was carved. In today’s value the $150,000 original cost converts to more than 4 million dollars.

An elaborate 3-manual organ (J. D. Didinger, Philadelphia) with stenciled façade pipes was placed in the rear gallery as a gift from Andrew Carnegie; costing $8,000 at the time, the organ was the only major expense not covered by the Schwab family. Carnegie, who was passionate about organ music, fully or partially funded more than 7,800 pipe organs during his lifetime.

Schwab, whom Carnegie considered a protégé, had worked his way up from the lowliest ranks at Carnegie’s steel mills, where he began as a stake driver and blast furnace operator, and Carnegie’s generous contribution to St. Michael’s reflected his high regard for Schwab. Unfortunately, after a meteoric rise in fortune and prestige, Schwab eventually lost nearly everything in the stock market crash of 1929 and died bankrupt in 1939. Schwab was interred in a neoclassical mausoleum on the grounds of the Basilica's cemetery, and Gallitzin's grave is located between the present church and the adjacent site of the 1799 log church.

The basilica, which seats 1,000 worshipers, was renovated in 1959 and again in 1993-94. On Sept. 9, 1996, Pope John Paul II raised this parish church of St. Michael to the status of a minor basilica. In 2007 a Mass was celebrated at the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel to recognize the nomination of Gallitzin for sainthood, only the eight American Catholic so honored.

Immergrün Estate Gardens

Charles Schwab, a steel industrialist, was raised a Catholic in Loretto from the age of five and always considered it his home town. Schwab even named his $100,000 private railroad car “Loretto,” which is today on display in Altoona’s Railroaders Memorial Museum. Schwab was a graduate of St. Frances University in Loretto. His 44-room summer home, a 1919 mansion he called Immergrün (“ever green” in German), sited on a hilltop in Loretto, is now home to the Mount Assisi Monastery (Franciscans, Third Order Regular), which offers public daily access to its celebrated gardens from dawn to dusk. A stunning stair-step cascading fountain forms the centerpiece of the estate grounds. The sunken gardens also contain a shrine to Fatima, which is visited by throngs of the Catholic faithful on the 13th of every month. In the 1920s Schwab employed 70 full time servants to staff his summer estate, which he lost just after the stock market crash of 1929.

Directions: From Bedford, PA, travel north on Rte. 220 for 31 miles; at Hollidaysburg merge left at exit 28 onto west Rte. 22; after 9 miles take the Cresson/Summit exit, turning right onto Adm. Peary Hwy. After crossing the Cresson railroad tracks, bear slight right onto St. Joseph St.; after 4 miles St. Francis University will be seen on the left in downtown Loretto; turn left onto State Rd. 1001, Manor Dr., then a quick right onto St. Francis Street. The Monastery and gardens are on the right.

Loretto is an easy hour's drive north of Bedford, and the Bedford Springs Resort and Spa makes an excellent base for exploring this part of western Pennsylvania; Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater is one hour and forty minutes by car from Bedford Springs.

Father Demetrius Gallitzin (1770-1840) pronounced “GAL-it-sin,” was born a prince in the Hague, where his father served as the ambassador of Catherine the Great to the court of the Netherlands. The Gallitzins were a princely family of Lithuanian descent who figured among the nobility of the Russian Empire. Gallitzin's mother, Amalia von Schmettau, was a Countess of German birth. Young Gallitzin left his home in Germany at the age of 21 to see the New World, since the more typical aristocratic Grand European Tour was not an option, because much of Europe was embroiled in wars at the time. His mother had arranged for Father Brosius to be her son’s personal chaplain and escort during his journeys through America.

When they arrived in Baltimore in 1792, local Bishop John Carroll was less than pleased; he desperately needed German-speaking priests, and this one was tied up escorting a rich tourist. Carroll made the best of it by offering Gallitzin a place in his year old St. Mary’s Seminary (est. 1791 in Baltimore) as one of its first students; three years later, at age 25, Gallitzin found himself ordained as the first priest ever to receive all of his Orders (major and minor) for the Priesthood on U.S. soil. The Archdiocese of Baltimore was the first diocese established in the country (1789), and John Carroll its first bishop; the state of Maryland had been founded by a Catholic – Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore. At the time this Archdiocese included all of the territory of our nation’s original thirteen states.

Soon thereafter Gallitzin found himself traveling 150 miles on horseback to the western frontier (now southwestern Pennsylvania), to attend the call from a non-Catholic woman who was deathly ill and requested a visit from a priest. He gave her last rites, and she died a Catholic. Father Gallitzin asked Bishop Carroll to be able to relocate to serve the people of McGuires’s Settlement, as Loretto was then known. Because the local citizenry was unable to support a priest, Father Gallitzin used his personal funds to build a church of white pine logs in 1799, thus founding the Catholic colony of Loretto, which he named (note variant spelling) after the famous Shrine of Our Lady of Loreto, Italy.

Gallitzin set about baptizing children and many adolescents, as well, because there had been no priest present when they were younger. Indeed, many of the Catholics in this pioneer area had never seen a priest. In the decades that followed, Gallitzin transformed Loretto into the cradle of Catholicism in western Pennsylvania. Again, using his own money, he purchased large portions of land, which he sold in small tracts at a low price or often at a loss. He financed the construction of saw-mills, grist-mills and tanneries, and established other industries for the benefit of his flock. In so doing, he attracted more than four thousand residents to his Catholic colony (Loretto’s present population is fewer than 1,500). Father Gallitzin served the people of this area for forty years until his death in 1840, when he was buried on the grounds of his beloved log chapel.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bedford Springs, PA

Bedford Springs Resort and Spa is an historic destination that has played host to two centuries of presidents, politicians, financiers, industrialists and the merely rich, most of whom were caught up in the social springs scene that reached its heyday in the nineteenth century.

Bedford Springs Hotel, 1840 (Augustus Koelner)

Bedford, nestled in the scenic Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania, was known by native Americans, who were attracted by the area's natural springs. Later, in the late 18th century, settlers who drank the waters noticed that symptoms of rheumatism and ulcers troubled them less. Some who soaked their limbs in the water were cured within a few weeks. The healing qualities of the springs led local doctor John Anderson to purchase the land surrounding them in 1796. For 10 years he treated patients in makeshift tents erected on his property; those who sought his treatments included Aaron Burr and his ailing grandson.

As his cures grew in popularity, he decided to build a spa hotel. The Stone Inn, which opened in 1806, was built from locally quarried stone carried down the mountain by oxen; today this original stone building is still in use, housing the Frontier Tavern, a popular bar, restaurant and lounge venue at today's Bedford Springs Resort. Anderson’s spa hotel was an immediate success and soon attracted a wealthy clientele. Due to the lack of medications in those days, people flocked to Bedford Springs from great distances in search of a cure for their illnesses.

Bedford Springs 1817 (click to enlarge)

Early guests traveled by train to Cumberland, MD, and then made a 21-mile coach trip through the Cumberland Valley up to the hotel. The facility expanded regularly as its popularity increased. Bedford Springs was soon home to one of the first golf courses in America, originally designed by Spencer Oldham in 1895, just ten years after the first game of golf had been played in the U.S. The course would later be redesigned by A.W. Tillinghast (1912), and then by the renowned Donald Ross (1923). In 1905, the resort constructed one of the nation’s first indoor pools, complete with a musician's gallery, from which string quartets serenaded the bathers below; water was supplied by the spring waters. As well, the hotel was the first place in the country to boast an Olympic sized pool.

Bedford Springs Resort & Spa, 2007

President James Buchanan vacationed at the Bedford Springs Hotel over a period of 25 years. The only president from the Keystone State and the only bachelor president, Buchanan made the hotel his "Summer White House" from 1857-1861. He had his mail forwarded from Washington and conducted state business while in residence. In fact, it was from the steps of the hotel, and not Washington, that he announced he would not seek re-election.

Other notable visitors to Bedford Springs included William Henry Harrison, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Thaddeus Stevens, not to mention Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Henry Ford, John Wanamaker and Andrew Jackson. President Buchanan was in residence when he received the first ever trans-Atlantic cable message sent from England, by Queen Victoria on August 17, 1858. A few years earlier, in 1855, the hotel hosted the only Supreme Court hearing ever held outside the capital, for the purpose of discussing the Dred Scott case.

In the 1890s the resort was hailed the "Carlsbad of America," because it was determined that its magnesia springs were identical in analysis to those of Europe's famous Carlsbad Spa (Karlovy Vary) in the Czech Republic. A major enlargement and refurbishment took place in 1905 to accommodate increasing business.

The resort maintained a high social profile, as well; the hotel hosted hundreds of balls and weddings. Original glass in the windows of the library bear the inscriptions of brides who were married at the resort, most dating back to the mid-19th century. A real diamond would scratch glass!

Late 19th-century additions, recently restored

In the early 1940s, the U.S. Navy took over the hotel, which served as a communication training center during World War II. The soldiers, used to primitive mess halls, were taken aback at having waiters place linen napkins in their laps. The hotel and convention hall were remodeled to accommodate more than 6,000 Navy personnel. In 1943, the posh retreat also housed 200 Japanese diplomats and their families detained from Germany during wartime. "Guests" of the United States, they were later exchanged for captured American POWs in Asia.

With the completion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike after the war, the resort became an even more popular destination, as an exit was just three miles from the hotel. The resort remained open year round for the first time in 1950. The 60s and 70s were prosperous years, and Bedford Springs Resort was deemed one of the best remaining examples of “springs resort architecture.” But trouble loomed; it did not help that the last major upgrade had taken place in 1905.

Photo from the early 1930s

In 1984, a year after devastating flooding had decimated the hotel and years of negligence and declining occupancy had taken their toll, the resort was designated a National Historic Landmark and given endangered site status. It was too little, too late and, unfortunately, the resort entered into bankruptcy two years later and closed shortly thereafter. That's when things got really bad. An architect visiting the property in 2004 reported, "It was an uncontrolled mess. Parts of the building had no roof. The lobby had no floor, because a flood had washed it away. You couldn't walk into the lobby because it was a mud pit. There was water dripping down and plaster falling from the ceilings. Paint everywhere was peeling, and the smell of mold was overwhelming. It was like a movie set for a horror movie."

Although it subsequently defied eight attempts to get it up and running again, there proved to be still some life left in this historic, storied property. A plan was in place to demolish most of the original structures, replacing them with modern facilities, but the historical interests would not grant permission. Against enormous odds, a private group raised capital to perform an ambitious and extremely costly renovation, which began in 2005, culminating in the resort’s reopening in the summer of 2007 to great critical acclaim. To illustrate the pains taken to bring the property back to life, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation directed its workers to dynamite a path through a mountain to reroute Rte. 220 so it would pass behind the resort, instead of in front of it. That cost $11 million, just part of the total $40 million the state of Pennsylvania spent to revive this leisure attraction. An average of 750 trucks used to pass in front of the hotel daily. By rerouting the road, they were able to create a more relaxing environment.

Today Bedford Springs Resort and Spa is managed by Omni hotels. A member of Historic Hotels of America, this resort property boasts a restored golf course, new spa facilities and many of the original springs, all centered around a sprawling hotel. The recent refurbishment has returned the resort’s focus to its historic past as a celebrated spa resort, with 30,000 sq. ft. of a new wing dedicated to popular state-of-the-art spa facilities. The public areas and historic guest room wings have been returned to their 1905 ambiance, providing an uninterrupted, continuous façade more than 600 feet long. Wrap-around verandas are enhanced by Victorian fretwork trim and old fashioned rocking chairs.

Bedford Springs once again ranks with the remaining historic social spring resorts in the U.S.: The Homestead in Hot Springs, VA and The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, WV (thankfully without the lurid, garish interiors of the latter). The original hotel buildings of the Homestead and Greenbrier resorts do not survive, but Bedford Springs, with the exception of the new spa wing, is a series of seven connected original buildings, the oldest of which dates back to 1806. Bedford Springs has a leg up on these other grande dames, because its refurbishment has occurred when modern guests’ expectations include flat-screen televisions and iPod docking stations, today housed discretely behind doors of secretary desks, so as not to spoil the aura of time and place. The most recent restoration has reduced the number of rooms to 220, in order to offer more spacious bathrooms and guest quarters; however, the exteriors of the historic buildings remain unchanged.

During the course of recent construction, a new spring was discovered, lying directly beneath the modern spa facilities. After a 20-year slumber and a $120 million restoration, this landmark property combines the legacy of its storied past with all modern amenities.

Below: The Old Course, recently restored to its 1923 Donald Ross configuration.

The hallways and public spaces are graced with hundreds of historic artifacts and photographs, and the main bar and lounge, located in the refurbished Stone House, contains the original cooking fireplace where food was prepared for the very first guests in 1806. In addition to tennis and golf, there are diversions from an earlier age, including a badminton court, horseshoes and lawn bowling. There is a year-round fire pit for roasting marshmallows, extensive trails for hiking and biking, fly fishing, volleyball and bird watching. Carriage rides are offered seasonally.

Guests at Bedford Springs Resort & Spa may choose from first-class rooms and suites, six dining options, a 30,000 sq-ft spa that utilizes water from the healing springs, a 20,000 sq-ft conference center, restored historic golf course, gold medal trout stream, tennis, river rafting, carriage rides, mountain nature trails and Cannondale bikes to traverse them, a new outdoor wedding grotto, plus indoor and outdoor swimming pools. There are diversions from an earlier age, include a badminton court, horseshoes and lawn bowling. There is a year-round fire pit for roasting marshmallows, extensive trails for hiking, fly fishing, volleyball and bird watching.

Those who feel compelled to leave the resort property may visit over a dozen covered bridges within a 20-mile radius, and downtown Bedford, a treasure trove of antique stores, is just a few miles away. As well, Old Bedford Village is a reconstructed cluster of buildings and historic sites that harkens back to pioneer days and colonial times; Old Bedford was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Bedford Springs Resort & Spa
2138 Business Rte. 220
Bedford, Pennsylvania

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Brazil's Snake Island

Off the shoreline of Brazil, almost due south of São Paulo, is Ilha de Queimada Grande (Snake Island). The small 100-acre island is untouched by human development, for the good reason that the island is infested with deadly poisonous snakes, a pit viper known as golden lancehead. It is estimated that between 5,00-7,000 golden lanceheads occupy the tiny island. The snake, which has no natural predators, feeds mainly on migrating birds and small lizards. Like most vipers, golden lanceheads give live birth to their young; August-September is mating season.

The snakes on Queimada Grande are a unique species of pit viper, the golden lancehead (Bothrops insularis), a genus of snakes responsible for 90% of Brazilian snakebite-related fatalities. Golden lanceheads are found in no other place on earth and grow to an average of only 20 inches long, but they possess a powerful fast-acting poison that melts the flesh around their bites. Unlike other venomous snakes that tend to strike, release, and then track their prey, the golden lancehead keeps its prey in its mouth once it has been injected with venom.

Each golden lancehead’s venom is five times more potent that of its closest relative, the fer-de-lance, responsible for most snakebite deaths in South America. This place is so dangerous that a special permit is required to visit.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hum, Croatia

Hum, a hilltop medieval town on the Istrian peninsula of Croatia, holds the record as the smallest town in the world, population 17-23 (varies). Located in northwest Croatia near the Slovenian border, Hum is one of the rare preserved and untouched examples of urban development inside medieval walls. Since the 11th century up to the present moment, no completely new structure has been built except for the 19th century Italian school. Older structures have been altered, most notably a bell tower addition in 1552 and a new facade added to the church of St. Jerome in 1802. The entire town consists of just two streets and two churches. The sole restaurant Humska Konoba serves smoked meats with sauerkraut and signature doughnuts for dessert; there are frequent lines out the door formed by curious and hungry tourists who wish to enter the ancient and atmospheric stone and wood structure. They serve biska, a local grape brandy.

It must be noted that Hum is not a village, but a genuine town with elected officials and a town government. As such Hum is the Guinness World Record holder for the smallest town in the world.

Each year on the Day of Hum all men from the parish elect their prefect in the municipal loggia according to the old tradition, by engraving votes on a wooden stick known as raboš. The town prefect is responsible for his parish, for settling disputes among residents and imposing penalties for disorderly conduct in Hum and the surrounding villages. The election is followed by a folk festival in which traditional dishes and homemade wine and brandy are featured. The local home-made brandy, biska (made from grape-brandy, mistletoe and four herbs), is based on a two-thousand-year-old recipe.

Hum is also the mecca of Croatian Glagolitism where you can see the first monuments and trace the very beginnings of Croatian literacy, as well as get to know the old Croatian alphabet Glagoljica. The Aleja glagoljaša (Glagolithic Avenue) is a series of 11 monuments dedicated to the Glagolitic script, placed along the 4-mile route between Roč und Hum. This set of monuments was erected between 1977 and 1981 to celebrate and preserve Glagolitic script, a 9th century alphabet devised by Saints Cyril and Methodius. All 34 letters also have a word meaning and numerical value. The script for the letter K also means “how” and the number 40. The Glagolitic script became disused in general in the 15th century, but lasted in small coastal pockets of Croatia until the 19th century.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Seborga – Italy’s Rogue Principality

Near San Remo, Italy, just a few miles northeast of Bordighera, the tiny, self-proclaimed principality of Seborga sits on a hilltop six miles inland from the Italian Riviera. On clear days its neighboring principality, Monaco, seems just a sword's throw away.

Until his death in November, 2009, Prince George I had ruled over the 362 citizens of Seborga ever since they reestablished their independence from Italy in 1963. A flower grower by trade, George (in photo above) was elected ruler by the villagers and then went on to appoint a parliament of twenty-four priors and eight cabinet ministers. He even drew up the principality’s blue and white crest. When the prince finally succumbed to a long illness, the obituary in the New York Times stated, “He took to the throne with panache, wearing sash, sword and large rosette medallions as he held court at the Bianca Azurra bar.” He accepted no salary, never invaded another country, and never taxed his subjects. He would leave his table at a restaurant and greet visitors to his principality with a heartfelt handshake. Prince George was referred to, then and now, as “His Tremendousness” (Sua Tremendita Giorgio I).

Seborga issues its own stamps, license plates, passports and currency. The Seborgan “luigino” is worth around US $6 and can be spent in local bars and shops. The approximately 100,000 tourists who descend upon Seborga each year gobble up these coins, stamps and passports while supporting local restaurants and four B&Bs (there are no hotels as yet).

Seborga has a patron saint, St. Bernard, and even a Latin motto on its coat of arms – sub umbra sede (sit in the shade). The blue and white sentry box at the Italian border does just that – it sits in the shade.

The town center is Piazza San Martino, with its fine mosaic courtyard in front of the colorful parish church and the Palazzo des Monaci. A web of hilly alleyways, low colonnades, and cobbled streets leads from there to all corners of the village. Photos from top: the Palazzo, street scene and the Church of St. Martin.

Seborga enjoys an exceptionally mild Mediterranean climate, which facilitates the principal industry of cultivating and exporting flowers world-wide, as is the case with its surrounding Ligurian neighboring villages.

Seborga's history is ancient and colorful. In 1079 Seborga became the first Cistercian state, as the abbots were also Princes of Seborga. Thus it was Prince-Abbot Edward who ordained the first nine Templars (Knights of St. Barnard) at Seborga in September, 1118. In 2006 Prince George I reestablished the order of the Knights of Seborga.

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna excluded Seborga in its redistribution of European territories after the Napoleonic wars, and even later the tiny principality was not included in the listing of territories incorporated in the unification of Italy in the 1860s. Thus monarch Victor Emmanuel II never held sway over Seborga.

In 2006, when the Prince announced his abdication, there was some tongue-in-cheek bantering between Prince George I and Princess Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet (photo below), who came forward to claim to be the rightful heir to the throne of Seborga. She wrote to Italy’s president, offering to return the principality to the state.

But Prince George I claimed the "princess" had no right to give away his realm. The only thing they did agree on is the belief that Seborga is the oldest principality in Europe.

George I, formerly known as George Carbone, declared Seborga’s independence from the Italian state because, he claimed, when the principality was sold to the Kings of Savoy and Sardinia in 1729, the sale was never officially or properly recorded. Ever since then, Seborga has been missing from historical records that would challenge its independence, including the aforementioned effort to unify Italy in 1861 and the formation of a republic in 1946. Local historians note that Benito Mussolini himself said that Seborga “certainly does not form part of Italy.” The Vatican also supports the independence of Seborga.

"Princess" Yasmine claimed to be a descendant of a much earlier ruler of the principality, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor in the 13th century. “This girl cannot give away something she does not own,” said Prince George, convinced that his challenger is “not even a princess,” because neither the Holy Roman Empire nor the House of Hohenstaufen still exists. And besides, it is Prince George who, upon discovering the town's charter in 1950, led the populace in re-establishing themselves as a Monaco-like independent city state, after the populace had elected him Prince Regent.

Prince George I, at the age of 70, announced his abdication in January, 2006, after an uninterrupted reign of 43 years. While the declaration by the Prince stated the reason for his abdication as “a need for renewal, as the throne needs new energy,” it appears that the Prince and the Italian Mayor of the town were locked in a bitter dispute over modern paving materials that the Italian authorities wanted to install in the forecourt of the ancient (1258) Cistercian church of St. Bernard (shown below).

The Prince bristled that the Italian representatives were not respecting the history and importance of the church site to the citizens of Seborga. Adding to this crisis a pretender to the throne knocking at the door, in November, 2006, the Prince, in a shocking turn of events, rescinded his announcement of abdication. It was reported in the press as “His change of mind,” with a capital “H.” Ironically, it was in this same church of St. Bernard that a solemn funeral mass for Prince George was held on December 5, 2009; the Prince had died on November 29 at the age of 73.

Italy itself doesn’t pay too much attention to Seborga’s claims to independence, so long as the citizens continue to pay taxes to Italy and vote in national elections. Seborga also has a mayor, who serves as the official representative of the town to jurisdictions of Italy. Skeptical Italians have accused Seborga's independence as being nothing more than a ruse to attract tourists. Well, it hasn’t hurt.

August 20 is celebrated as Seborga’s National Day, with the Festival of St. Bernard (St. Bernard, the Patron Saint of Seborga, died on August 20, 1153, during the Crusades). Your humble blogger was on Seborgan soil on August 20, 2001, when hundreds of blue and white flags were waving their welcome to any and all comers.

Our party even shared a luncheon with H.R.H. Prince George I, by simply taking a table in the restaurant where the Prince was enjoying his midday meal. We were received warmly and were well nourished by a plate of local rabbit with a mustard sauce. Unfortunately, we had business in Monaco and could not stay in Seborga for the subsequent religious procession, chamber music concert and parade. Imagine our dismay to learn that we had missed the annual “Seborga Tutta Birra” (beer festival) held in late June; in addition to barbeques and live music, we had been denied personal witness to the annual “Miss Maglietta Bagnata” (Miss Wet T-shirt) competition organized by the Seborgan Tourist Office. Apparently Seborga celebrates traditions both ancient and modern. We also learned, by reading a pamphlet in the tourist office, that in the previous year Seborga had officially applied for membership in the United Nations.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Burj Khalifa - Dubai

Burj Khalifa (Dubai) 2,717 feet, a few feet shy of being twice as tall as the Empire State Bldg (1,454 ft.).

Architecturally, I think this building wins over ANY modern tall building. This $1.5 billion edifice opened on January 4. Unfortunately, it had to be shut down on February 7 after an elevator car full of tourists became trapped between floors for 45 minutes. No reopening date has been set. This is yet another humiliation for Dubai, to which many people had arranged special trips solely to be able to visit this building. On February 18, the web site for purchasing tickets to the world’s highest viewing platform (three quarters of the way up) says this:
“Please be advised that online tickets to At the Top are temporarily on hold due to maintenance at the attraction.”

Opening night fireworks display.

In a brief statement responding to questions, building owner Emaar Properties blamed the closure on "unexpected high traffic," but then suggested that electrical problems were also at fault. A spokeswoman for Emaar was unable to provide further details or rule out the possibility of foul play. It is known that some new and untested technologies are incorporated into the structure. A method of efficiency is achieved through high voltage supplies of electrical energy, in contrast to the common low voltage supply in most contemporary designs. High voltage allows for less lost energy when powering up the building.

However, a newspaper reported that visitors to the Burj Khalifa's observation deck had to be evacuated by a service lift after one of the public lifts broke down, stranding passengers for 45 minutes. "Visitors queueing to descend from the observation deck heard a crash and the sound of breaking glass from the lift shaft. Dust then billowed back into the room through the small gaps in the lift shaft doors. The 15 passengers inside the elevator were left stranded for 45 minutes before they were rescued by staff who dropped ladder into the shaft and helped them climb out of the observation deck."

Early visitors say that the attraction just wasn’t ready, observing that the windows were caked with dust from sand storms, and that no other part of the building was open. The opening was originally set for last September, but the eventual opening date just after New Year's was meant to coincide with the anniversary of the Dubai ruler's ascent to power.

The newly built skyscraper is 1,000 feet taller than its next tallest competitor (Toronto's CN Tower) and bears a striking resemblance to a 1956 theoretical design by Frank Lloyd Wright for a mile-high tower (unbuildable).

The structure contains 57 elevators and 3,000 underground parking spaces (it is impossible to get around Dubai without a car). More than 1,000 condominium residences are contained in the building that will also offer 160 hotel rooms in the coming months. During the peak of construction, as many as 12,000 workers were on site. From the building's "At the Top" visitor level, computerized telescopes allow visitors to zoom all the way to street level (see rendering below), and there’s an outdoor terrace to take in the air at 124 stories. On clear days the vista spreads out for 60 miles.

Dubai is one of seven sheikdoms that form the United Arab Emirates. Tourism accounts for 20% of its economy, and Dubai had hoped that Burj Khalifa would be a legitimate major draw, a much needed shot in the arm to help resuscitate its flagging economy, based heavily on the sale of condominiums to absentee owners seeking a haven for flight capital. 65% of Dubai's 2 million residents are foreign born. In light of the faltering world economy, and because Dubai imprisons debtors, many have simply fled the country, abandoning their homes and luxury cars, even Rolls Royces and Bentleys. Over three thousand vehicles were abandoned at the airport in 2009.

Most of the building’s three million square feet of interior space is given over to condos and hotel rooms; office space is a distant third. A one bedroom 850-sq-ft condo is marketed at $2,975,000. And boy, are they not selling. Over-built Dubai has led to reports that Burj Khalifa is “the latest in a string of monuments to architectural vacancy.”

The fountain show can be seen in this video:

By the way, the fountains and the lake adjacent were designed and built by WET, the same company that created the fountains at Bellagio, Las Vegas. Only the lake in Dubai is 25% larger, and the water cannons can shoot up to a few yards shy of 500 feet (Las Vegas is just shy of 300 feet). The price tag for the 900-ft-long attraction, including the lake, was $217 million. The fountain show is timed at 20-minute intervals.

As if recent assassinations, a financial meltdown and exploding elevators in the world's tallest building were not enough, Dubai faced a new crisis on February 25 – the world's most dramatic water leak. The 2.5 million walk-through aquarium, which houses 33,000 fish, leaked so much water through a crack in the structure that the mall (directly opposite Burj Khalifa and adjacent to the dancing fountain feature) in which it is housed had to be evacuated. At first the official spokesmen for the mall denied that there was a leak, saying that the spilled water was the result of a valve malfunction, but cell phone photos revealed water spewing from a significant crack in the aquarium wall.

Burj Khalifa, originally named Burj Dubai, mimics the Y shape of the 1989 Mirage Resort in Las Vegas (a mere 30 stories). Essentially, Dubai has replicated all the top Las Vegas attractions, including the walk-through aquarium at Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino, the over-the-top swimming pools at Caesar’s Palace, the fountains of Bellagio and the theme-park shopping malls found along the strip. And, just like Vegas, they’ve gone bust doing it.

Because Dubai lacks the oil resources of its neighbors, many wonder how the emirate will produce the millions of gallons of fresh water its developments, including its famous palm tree-shaped artificial islands, require every day, where it will produce its future electricity needs, and where its garbage will go. As an escape from these ponderous thoughts, visit the building's web link below.