Walking Back History Without TikTok
Outdoor Historic Towns
Photo Caption: The Colonials really knew how to keep guns out of the hands of children.
For over 11 years this travel column has recommended visiting great unique sites around that don’t attract crowds – so you spend the time sightseeing instead of siteswaiting. The “Been There, HAVEN’T Done That” – “no crowds” philosophy is even more applicable than ever during the Pandemic. This month’s Pandemic-related column also recommends unique great sites that are not crowed for yet another reason – to tour safely.
While we’re waiting to travel safely internationally – let’s travel outernationally – traveling outdoors. Summer and fall is the perfect time to visit floral gardens – sculpture gardens (as long as the statues are at least six-feet apart) – as well as zoos – (zoos that keep humans and animals outdoors). Tourism is already starting to open up. Before you know it outdoor amusement parks will be fully open – and “Three Flags Great Adventure” will go back to being “Six Flags great Adventure.” Even if you don’t go on rides at Disneyworld – it’s still a great place to walk. So while we’re waiting for cruising to return — how’s about cruising the streets. No, I don’t mean that kind of streetwalker — I’m talking about “walking tours.” In the summer of 2021 – telling someone to “Take a Hike!” isn’t an insult – it’s a safe travel recommendation.
If you’re never taken Boston’s “Freedom Trail” – walking one of America’s most historic routes – now’s the perfect time. (I took the Freedom Trail in reverse with a girlfriend who was dyslexic – and it was just as fascinating. Also highly recommended for bisexuals who go both ways.)
Philadelphia is another historic American city where you can spend days walking history. You can follow guides in 18th-century costumes or follow a 21st– century Philadelphia Walking App. While waiting to return to France to take a “Chateaux of the Loire” tour – why not take a walking tour of the “Chateaux of Philadelphia” – Philadelphia’s historic homes in beautiful bucolic Fairmont Park.
Walking Apps aren’t just found in America’s largest cities. Check some nearby smaller cities and towns – even your own town. As you probably could tell by now – I’m fascinated with the American Revolution — or what my British friends call, “The American War of Independence.” My favorite town-walking app covers George Washington’s Winter Headquarters in beautiful Morristown, New Jersey – just 35 miles from Manhattan.
In 21st-Century American whenever we hear the term “walking back” – it usually refers to politicians changing their minds. However, I long to see where great American politicians changed history by my walking back — walking back in time in America’s most historic towns which are perfect for outdoor walking. There are two categories of historic American towns – the most historic being towns with buildings on their original foundations – either restored or reconstructed. The most famous example of a restored and reconstructed American historic town is Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia – where you walk outdoors in the same streets, passing the same buildings where Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington lived and worked.
Speaking of going back in time – whenever I “go back” to Colonial Williamsburg I relive some of the best times in my life — finding something new every visit. And Colonial Williamsburg, VA – like Midtown Manhattan during rush hour – was made for walking.
Just as you change as person over time – your perception of your favorite destinations can also change upon every revisit as it does with me — and Colonial Williamsburg. When my parents first took me at the age of eight, we visited every building that was open to the public. They even cajoled the costumed guides to show us buildings that weren’t open. I was wowed by the historic and elegant interiors of Colonial Williamsburg — which at that age I thought were very sophisticated for an outpost in the colonies – remembering that a century later Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin. My most memorable site at that age was one that today I would highly recommend to the members of the NRA – the Governor’s Palace entrance hall with a display of guns on the ceiling forming a distinctive overpowering circular pattern.
My souvenirs from Williamsburg — postcards and photos – bring back great memories except for one. My brother and I begged our father to buy us the ubiquitous three-cornered hats all the other boys were wearing. My Dad (ever the professor) reasoned, “If you boys promise to wear them every day when it gets cold – you’ve got yourself a deal.”
Upon return visits to Williamsburg as an adult — who has toured every country In Europe – I looked at Colonial Williamsburg from a totally new perspective – an outdoor perspective. After visiting Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors (like Williamsburg restored by the Rockefellers), the hammer-beam Medieval Hall of London’s Parliament and Throne Room at St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace (Hermitage) – I totally focused on outdoor Colonial Williamsburg — its gardens — from the impressive French (style) Formal Gardens at the Governor’s Palace to “Border Gardens” (flowers bordering grass) to herb and kitchen gardens. There are enough unique intimate gardens accompanying almost every building to appreciate and enjoy “Green Colonial Williamsburg.”
On another visit I was delighted when I saw that my college fraternity was founded in Colonial Williamsburg – not at the College of William and Mary – but at the Raleigh Tavern where in 1776 – Phi Beta Kappa began. (And, yes, I finally bought myself that three-cornered hat which I now display on a corner shelf at home.)
Every time I revisit there’s a newly-restored or reconstructed building added to Williamsburg’s 18th-century architectural repertoire. In 1987 I remember touring then Colonial Williamsburg’s newly opened Public Hospital Museum and hearing about the Smallpox Epidemic of 1747. Today, upon reflection, I find refuge in that memory recalling if 18th-century America recovered from a deadly plague – with their limited medical knowledge — and survived – there’s hope for us in the 21st century.
A less famous but equaling compelling historic American town – also with buildings on their original foundations are is Strawbery Banke – part of greater historic Portsmouth, New Hampshire which goes back even further in time from the 17th century and extends into the early 20th century and is home to America’s naval hero, John Paul Jones where you can actually visit his home. And it’s an easy day trip from Boston.
For those who are aficionados of early 20th-century world history — make an appointment to visit the nearby Treaty Room in Portsmouth’s Navy Yard – where President Teddy Roosevelt brokered the Russo-Japanese Peace Treaty in 1905 that garnered him the Nobel Peace Prize – the first for a US president.
You never know where historic restored towns will turn up. As a New Jersey boy (Perth Amboy) — who grew up across from State Island – since the pandemic I found two terrific historic towns (on their original foundations) right in my ‘hood. Waterloo Village, New Jersy and Richmond Town, Staten Island that – shame on me – I should have visited years ago.
Walking historic towns is not just an East Coast phenomenon. In fact, the west – and particularly the historic. “Wild West” has its own unique historic towns – former mining towns in which mines (either gold or silver) were abandoned and the towns remained. The whole family will love former mining towns – especially the minors.
You’ll find that “A mine (and its town) is terrible thing to waste.”
Two of my favorite former mining towns — which preserved their old 19th-century wooden historic core of saloons, bordellos and sheriffs offices (all in their original locations) – are Virginia City, Nevada and Nevada City, California. (For tourism karma, sadly there’s no “Nevada City, Virginia – but Virginia already has Williamsburg) They even look like sets in old Hollywood Westerns because many were sets in old Hollywood Westerns that were not filmed in Hollywood.
The other type of former mining town is the deserted mining town – towns abandoned along with their mine. In short – it’s empty. There are no inhabitants except for tourists. They’re what used to be called, “Ghost Towns” until the Travel Channel started exploiting and sensationalizing that term those sites. Sad to say, even ghosts abandoned those towns and started their own town – Casper (Wyoming). My two favorite abandoned mining towns are St. Elmo’s, Colorado and Bodie, California.
For the more “moving” outdoor historic-town walking experience– visit towns that were created from buildings that were moved to them –– literally! Just as tourists travel to get there – the historic buildings traveled, too.
Instead of demolishing buildings no longer in use — buildings were put on a truck and moved to another site. The largest and oldest such and most spectacular reassembled outdoor historic walking town is also my favorite, Greenfield Village, near Detroit, aka “The Henry Ford Museum.” Instead of merely acquiring famous American inventions – Henry Ford also acquired the buildings in which they were created. While I grew up near Edison’s labs in Menlo Park, NJ – to see Edison’s actual laboratory – my parents took us to Greenfield Village – which is the “watering hole” of American genius.
In Greenfield Village instead of merely reading about great American inventions we got to see them and the spaces in which they were created – genius at work. And we got to ride in Model Ts. While we saw the Wright Brother’s Bicycle Shop — sadly we did not get to ride in the Wright Brother’s plane or even on one of their bicycles. And since Henry Ford was not known as a city planner – but as the creator of the automobile assembly line – he assembled famous cars in addition to buildings such as JFK’s limo, FDR’s limo and even the first Mustang off the assembly line. There’s even a famous bus – Rosa Park’s. And there were other once in a lifetime exhibits – or rather death-time exhibit -– the chair Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot in Ford’s Theater. (However, there is no chair that Gerald Ford sat in when he visited Lincoln Center.)
Other outdoor towns perfect for historic walking excursions — in which buildings from all over a state or region – are reassembled for assembling tourists are early 19th-century Sturbridge Village, (MA) and 19th-century Mystic Seaport (CT) – a recreated whaling town complete with whaling and other ships – a day trip from New York City. Mystic Seaport is what I call a “South Street Seaport on steroids.”
The ultimate in recycling is not reusing a plastic bottle – it’s preserving an entire building with all the materials that went into it. As a professor of architecture and comedy – I say that my architecture career has been building four walls and my comedy career – breaking the fourth wall. However, as an advocate of historic preservation I’m all for preserving all four walls.
While erudite tourists gawk in awe at period rooms preserved in indoor museums such as the Met Museum’s Wrightsman Rooms, Paris’ Musee Carnavalet and London’s Geffrye Museum — many of those old buildings should have been should have been saved along with their rooms and décor.
Preserving entire buildings by moving them and creating new “old” towns for them is nothing new in Europe. In fact, in Scandinavia it’s a tradition. There’s
Denmark’s Frilandsmusee, Norway’s Norsk Folkemuseum, and Sweden’s Skansen in Sweden in Greta Thunberg’s hometown – Stockholm. Skansen is something she can be proud of — recycling buildings. (Although considering her somewhat belligerent personality, I think Greta Thunberg could start a new aspect of historical preservation – “Hysterical Preservation.”)
If nature’s your thing, during the Pandemic many travel journalists have been advising visitors to travel to the great outdoors – National Parks. While they’re great and outdoors — not everyone lives near a national park. However, most people live near a park. Rediscover your local park. And there are many gardens near cities such as the beautiful Longwood Gardens (a former Dupont family property) in Kennett Square, PA which even has gorgeous fountains.. Nearby in Delaware is another is another former Dupont estate — the Winterthur Gardens and Museum –also a great museum of American Art.
There are many beautiful outdoor gardens in or near New York City such as Wave Hill in the Bronx and the most stunning – the New York Botanical Gardens – also in the Bronx. And, if you can’t make it to Japan or Washington, DC for cherry blossom time – visit the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens with its outstanding rose garden that’s also a lesson in horticulture – even naming the rose and the year that variety was created.
My local park happens to be Central Park – which for years was mainly a convenient short cut to walk to Lincoln Center. However, since the Pandemic – I’ve rediscovered it. I’ve even waken up and smelled the flowers – in an insolated formal garden with a fountain – the Conservatory Garden across from the Museum of the City of New York. (The Conservatory Garden is a really a rare NYC outdoor site with more flowers than tourists.) As a museum lover – I now view my favorite museums from Central Park – the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, which even has its own delightful park.
Instead of eating outdoors in a shack (that’s not a Shake Shack) — that “suks” –looking like a hut leftover from the Jewish holiday –sukkot — I recently rediscovered two restaurants that were deliberately created for traffic-free outdoor dining within Central Park – Tavern on the Green with its large secluded outdoor dining patio and the Boathouse overlooking a lake with rowers keeping social distancing with their oars.
Now put down your Kindle and start walking. Here’s a suggestion for sneaker manufacturers: Promote walking and leisure travel at the same time – start giving out “Frequent Walking Miles.”
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