Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

Typical Savannah street with beautifully planted medians

Two cities that have always attracted me in the US are Savannah and Charleston. They are very much alike and at the same time at the opposite end of the spectrum from one another. Savannah, founded by Oglethorpe in 1733 as the capital of the British colony was the Southern outpost to protect the Colonies from the French in Louisiana and the Spanish in Florida.

Charleston was founded in 1670 as Charlestowne was another major center for commerce and trade in the South. Like Savannah it was religiously tolerant having the 4th Synagogue in the US and only Huguenot Church in the Colonies (Savannah was 3rd Synagoge). Savannah is a few miles inland and was laid out along a great garden and square plan along the Savannah River, where purchasers of land along the central quadrant also got farmland on the outskirts. Charleston is a little more European in style by the way it is laid out along Charleston bay at the confluence of 4 rivers. Both cities relied on Plantations and the products of these for their wealth.

Today, both Cities today vie for Tourist dollars selling their quaint charm and history and flavors of the South. Savannah is a little grittier with gorgeous squares where dubious characters exercise their freedoms. Charleston is nicely painted like an elderly lady, with too much makeup offering the finest private gardens but few open parks. Both cities appeal to the romance in our life and the history we hear of the Old South.

Agapanthus planted square in Savannah

Tourist ride the beautiful historic tours of Savannah

Beautiful city home in Savannah

Another Savannah Antebellum Mansion

On the way to Charleston one finds marvelous surprises

Mansion along the Battery in Charleston displaying typical private yards

Grand entry to grand house that has witnessed a lot of American history

Courtyards, grillwork and alley ways a hallmark of the beautiful private gardens of Charleston

Many of the houses shown in these photos have remained in the historic families of these two cities. As the fortunes of both cities have changed and recovered from the Civil war and other misfortunes such as hurricanes they have had the opportunities to be repaired and repainted. Many years ago before Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston April 22 1989, it was a sleepy moss covered city much like Savannah. The recovery from Hugo created a new energy that changed Charleston. Today, what once was moss covered and mildewed is painted brightly along all the pastel colors of the rainbow. Change is wonderful but I long for mildewed and slightly decayed Charleston.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tampa Bay Hotel

The Tampa Bay Hotel was created in a world still in wonder of foreign and exotic lands. The leftover exoticism of Spanish and Moorish architecture was amply used to create this marvel of Victorian inventiveness and whimsy. Built by Henry B. Plant, of Connecticut, who made his fortune consolidating business, railroad and shipping interest after the fall of the South as a consequence of the Civil War. He brought the railroad to Tampa in 1884 in an effort to capitalize on the future of Florida. The Hotel opened in 1891 and was initially conceived as a seasonal resort open from December to April. Even then, they knew to stay away when the Florida heat and humidity kicked in! The hotel cost two and half million dollars with another fortune in furnishings and was one of the early destination resorts for those Yankees wanting to escape the northern winters. Now, the NY Yankees are in regularly in residence in Tampa for Spring Training (not at the hotel, of course). The hotel had 511 rooms. The building itself had a building foot print of six acres on 150 acres of gardens and other amenities that even included a racetrack.

Yes, it must have been magnificent to take a train from NY in a blizzard arrive in Tampa and take in the sunshine and relax in the balmy tropical breezes. Once relaxed you could continue your journey by steamship to Havana, Bermuda, New Orleans or any other destination. Alas, it was not to last long; the hotel ceased functioning by the 1930's, no doubt a victim of another recession.

Today it serves as the administrative building for Tampa College and as the Plant Museum. The public rooms now receive visiting guests, or serve for conferences and classrooms. The guest rooms have been converted into offices from the grand main floor all the way into the onion turrets where I tried to get access to the balconies just below the silver domes. In all, a magnificent structure that has been adapted to our modern, if sometimes, drab existence. I would rather it still be a hotel and enjoy it like its same vintage cousin the Belleview Biltmore in neighboring Clearwater also built by Plant said to be the country's largest wood hotel. That said I am glad it still with us and we can enjoy its dazzling architecture even if most of the gardens have been plowed into campus structures. The images that follow give you a sense of what it was and the detail that went into creating it.
entry fountain with its overlooking onion domes

miles of verandas

grander times

the snaking stairways rise to domes

corridors connecting half-mile long hotel

One of the many silver domes

under the domes: casino room, dining room, and entertainment venue

fountain commissioned by Plant's wife to honor his accomplishments in 1898

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gardens in Sinkholes?

Sunken Gardens is a wonderful creation in a rather strange place located in a very nondescript area of St Petersburg, Florida. This garden was created by a plumber who was an a devoted gardener named George Turner Sr in 1903. For the next 50 years he developed this 4 acre sinkhole into a pretty spectacular spot where he kept a rather extensive collection of tropical plantings. Today the gardens has over 500 different species and as many as 50,000 plants in an environment of waterfalls and ponds. Some of the Koi are bigger than children! There are assorted creatures from a ridiculously large snapping turtle in a tiny pond that should be set loose to Chilean Flamingos and a variety of other plumed beasts. The garden tries to reach for areas that are not its forte such as a Japanese garden and a desert garden. The land these two occupy would be better served with more wondrous tropicals, but these are not without problems. St Petersburg is not a totally tropical location and yearly cold spells force the staff to put out as many as 130 space heaters to keep the really tender tropicals from freezing completely. The garden is now associated with a Children's museum that serves a greater and bigger good. All will enjoy themselves in this great spot. Best of all the sinkhole is a great place to escape the heat at street level just 15 feet above.

One of the many ponds

These were the largest Koi I have ever seen (even if the picture does not do them justice).

One of the many terraces throughout the maze of paths, ponds and waterfalls

Some pretty spectacular blue flowers I have never seen before. I have to find out what these are and unfortunately much of the garden is not labeled.

Terrestrial orchids like our NJ local Bletilla

The magical rare Mussaendra which I hunt in all my tropical travels

Brugmansia in all its glory loves the sinkhole. They have it in every color version that exists white, pink, peach and a variations of all of these.

A shot looking up one of the trumpets

The native vegetation of Florida is quite magnificent specially when compounded with crystal spring waters such as in this shot at the Weeki Wachii Springs State Park in Florida. Here the famous manatees that inspired our mermaid myths swim in their native habitat. When you finish your boat tour of the native spring you are free to swim in its cool 72 degree waters. It was incredibly refreshing and my cousins were screaming of how cold it was. They are used to the gulf water which in now are at 86 degrees and climbing. In another area crowds were amused in an underground theater watching teenagers in mermaid outfits swim around to the tune of piped music. I wanted so much to leave the controlled swim area and enter the underwater stage and really give my cousins a Show!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Greetings from Tampa/ St Pete

Welcome to Florida, sunny, hot, and not so humid, for right now Florida. I have come to take care of some business and in the process visit a few cousins in the Tampa/St. Pete area. This area has grown remarkably in the ten or so years I have been away. For right now, however, we shall go to old Florida and to neighboring Sarasota to visit John and Mable Ringling's little Venetian Palace home - The Ca de Zan on Sarasota Bay.

I am not going to get into all details but suffice to say that it was completed in 1926 when there were no taxes and the Circus still was a major form of entertainment. John bought a chunk of this area (66 acres remain) and now as the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art http://www.ringling.org/ adjacent to a complex of Florida State University, it functions as a cultural complex for Sarasota.

Ca de Zan entry gate

House approach
Detail of tiled compass
Main house was designed by NY architect Dwight James Baum and built in two years! Main Patio Courtyard. Designed to resemble the outdoors with furnishings from major NY properties such as the chandelier from the Old Waldorf Astoria (currently the site of the Empire State Building).
Terrace Surrounding House where major parties were held.
With my cousin Marilyn on the stairs to the boat dock where Mr. Ringling's yacht and Mrs. Ringling's Gondola used to dock.
The old swimming pool now filled in as a garden.

One of many Banyan Trees, Ficus benghalensis (native to Asia), originally gifted by Thomas Edison who lived down the road in Fort Myers. Eighty plus years since they were planted they are massive trees with buttressing branches throughout the grounds.

The Flamboyant Tree or Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia). Native to Madagascar and widespread in all tropical climates because of its glorious scarlet flowers and elegant shape.

Guess what? Another AARS Rose garden part of Mable's historic garden.

Besides the home and lush grounds there are numerous other buildings displaying Circus memorabilia, a fabulous miniature display built by a man named Howard Tibbals that comprises thousands of figurines evoking a full circus complex, and a traditional art museum with yardage of religious Renaissance art. This museum includes paintings by everyone from Titian, Velazquez and numerous other well and lesser known artists. It is not the Uffizi. On a high note, there were great traveling contemporary exhibits, in particular "Picturing Eden" a photographic exhibit.

The 18th Century Asolo theater appears to be a gem transported here from Italy in the early 1950's. A Royal Theater created to honor the memory of the Queen of Cyprus, Caterina Cornaro, is used today to show films and live performances. I say appears, because I did not see it. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I don't usually take no for an answer to matter of this nature, but all the charm and deviousness I could muster did not get me in.

Circus memorabilia: the Fabulous Flying Zacchini Cannon for human cannonballs

Detail of Tibbals Big Top Miniature
Ringling Museum of Art Italianate Courtyard

John and Mable and John's sister now are lulled by the condenser units a neighboring mansion's air conditioning. They must have been located elsewhere as the stones indicate they were interred here in 1991. What an inglorious place to finish one's stay when they gave so much to entertain so many. Below, a gardenesque vista on the property that might better serve should anyone want to relocate them again.