Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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It Takes a Village – HISTORIC Village

In our 14 years together I’ve taken you to cities around the world introducing

great overlooked seldom-visited cities and overlooked sites within well-known cities.


I’ve heard it said that “In the heart of every traveler is an adventurer.” And if you like visiting cities as much as I do, I will add that “In the heart of every older city is a village around which it grew up.” In Manhattan, I’ve taught for years in a “village” – NYU in “Greenwich Village.” One of the courses I teach, and I also conduct as tours, is “Great Planned Cities.” And even planned cities such as magnificent St. Petersburg, Russia still grew up around its first settlement, a village, “The Fortress of Saints Peter & Paul.”
London, Paris and Rome all started as villages and today those former “villages” expanded around their historic city centers.


London started in Westminster with Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall. (Parliament). Paris: The Ile de la Cite with Notre Dame Cathedral and Rome with its Ancient Roman Forum. In Manhattan, we’re always looking up at new additions to the city – skyscrapers, many of which are self-contained cities within buildings. In Rome, when we dig, we dig down through time and former villages are rediscovered in new sites dug down deep from Ancient Rome, such as the recently revealed Palazzo Valentini and Crypta Balbi.


Many cities have excellently preserved historic centers because barriers were built to keep new parts of the city from growing up around them – and those cities are “Walled Cities” in which the surrounding city walls act as frames do for paintings – calling attention to what’s inside the frame/walls. Among my favorite walled cities are Split, Croatia with Diocletian’s Palace. Aigues Mortes, a silted city in Southern France near Nimes; Chester, England; Montagnana, Italy and Xian, China.


Except for city planners and architects, I’ve yet to hear any traveler say, “Let’s visit the latest suburbs” of London, Paris, Rome and Manhattan!” It’s usually the old city center that’s the center of major sightseeing.


Now let’s go from former villages – today’s historic centers – to villages that remained villages and there are two types, and both are very “moving.” There’s the historic village in which surviving buildings are restored and important destroyed buildings are reconstructed. There are even more “moving” historic villages with most of their historic buildings physically MOVED from other locations.


Earlier this year I wrote a column on my favorite, palace, the Palace of Versailles. The palace itself is comprised of the main palace with two smaller palaces, the Grand and Petit Trianons. You must be thinking — “They’re palaces — NOT a village!” And you’re right — and you’ll be missing just one of the world’s most historic villages just a petite walk from Versailles’ Petit Trianon a fake village — a Peasant Village recreated by the richest woman in France, Marie Antonette, so she could play “peasant.” It’s “Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet.” Speaking of “Hamlet” the fake village and other extravagances led Marie Antoinette and her family to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune — The French Revolution. America didn’t have an imaginary village that became a major site until the 1950s when a French-named city- planner, “Walt Disney,” created “Fantasyland.”


It was an American who restored Versailles Palace and its imaginary Hamlet and made it one of Europe’s must-sees — John D. Rockefeller Jr. Addicted to the 18th century, Rockefeller also used his fortune to take America back to its time before its revolution — the American Revolution. Rockefeller took a rundown early 20th-century college town and made it look even older! He financed the recreation of “Colonial Williamsburg” out of dilapidated Williamsburg — home of the Collage of William & Mary. While I didn’t attend Wiliam & Mary, I do belong to a fraternity that was created in Williamsburg, Phi Beta Kappa, at the colonial Raleigh Tavern.


When I was in my early history – my childhood – my parents took me to Colonial Williamsburg, that was created by knocking down buildings which were not 18th century, restoring buildings which were 18th century, and reconstructing 18th-century buildings that no longer existed, such as the Governor’s Palace and the Capitol, where Patrick Henry famously said, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death!” (Both requests were subsequently filled.) Looking back, the archaeology of architecture was quite advanced for its time, the early 20th- century, with reconstructing new buildings on their old foundations.


Two things stood out to this child, the spanking new-looking 18th-century buildings and the employees of this colonial town wearing spanking new 18th- century clothes. Brazen little me wrote to the head of Colonial Williamsburg suggesting that the town looked as if every building was recently visited not by Benjamin Franklin, but by Benjamin Moore: every building looked unrealistically freshly painted. Whereas in reality in every town many buildings would look as if they needed painting. My other suggestion was the acceptance of the 18th-century look by my dad, hoping he’d buy me a tricornered hat all the boys my age were wearing there. My dad finally gave in and bought me a tricornered hat on the condition that I promise to wear it in school. Never to break a promise, I did wear my tricornered hat in school — for my class’s Halloween Party.


You never know where you’ll find a restored town. I grew up in Perth Amboy, NJ, across the river from New York City – actually across from NYC’s most rural borough, Staten Island. It wasn’t until I became a frequent guest on WABC radio’s radio show “The Other Side of Midnight with Frank Morano” when, the brilliant Frank Morano, who lives on Staten Island, told me about Historic Richmond Town, a restored Staten Island town with 28 historic buildings in situ dating from the 17th century. Shame on me for not discovering it when I lived in Perth Amboy.  Shame on New York City for not promoting it. (How’s this for a coincidence, Historic Richmond Town is located on “Amboy Road”!)


As an architect, when I hear the term “Moving Day,” I think of newly designed and newly constructed houses ready to accommodate their owners. I envision the owners and their moving van pulling up to their new house. Visiting my favorite 19th-century historic towns conjures up yet another type of “Moving Day” – when a truck pulls up to a vacant lot, unloads and deposits the actual house!


There are many more historic villages in the Northeast – most of which are early 19th century towns consisting of very few original buildings with many more early 19th centuries transferred and moved in to create an entirely new early 19th-century town. Among the best are Sturbridge, Massachusetts and Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, a recreation of a 19th century whaling town, with everything but a real whale moved to its location.


Near Detroit is an historic town unlike any other – Greenfield Village – home of the Henry Ford Museum, which consists of historic buildings that made history elsewhere and were moved to Michigan such as Thomas Edison’s birthplace, the Wright Brother’s bicycle shop. It also contains spectacularly depressing exhibits such as the chair Lincoln was shot in at Ford’s Theater. (And that was years before another chair was associated with death – the electric chair.) major attraction is the 1961 Lincoln convertible that Kennedy was shot in. The most amazing site in the Henry Ford Museum is a photo of the legendary antisemite Henry Ford with acclaimed Jewish architect Albert Khan!


Across America there are many more historic and unusual historic villages, some for movers and shakers. We already covered many of the “movers” — people and buildings — now let’s cover the Shakers, a Christian religious group with many unique historic villages such as Canterbury Shaker Village, New Hampshire.


If Horace Greeley were alive today, he’d probably work for the Travel Channel updating his well-respected advice, “Go West, young man, Go West, young woman and Go West, all GHOSTS!” Which is exactly where they did wind up. Many American towns and villages became “ghost towns” when shopping malls started moving nearby. For some reason almost all the ghost towns are out West. Maybe they wanted to get into the movies?


And that’s exactly where one did wind up. My favorite ghost town is where ghosts actually did appear for many years – and their appearance is recorded — in supernatural movies featuring – GHOSTS. Those “haunted” movies were filmed in a real ghost town – a ghost town actually built as a movie set – Pioneer Town, California, which is a ghost town that’s to visit and enjoy. And then return to your Airbnb or hotel and watch TMC or YouTube and actually see ghosts instead of just hearing the discussion of ghosts on the Travel Channel.


Now you know why I love visiting villages all over the world. However, I hope that doesn’t make me “The Village Idiot.”


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