Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Boston Part 2: A Little Art is Good for the Soul

I love art, however, I'm no art afficianado.  When I look at a painting, I can appreciate what I see whether I like it or not.  But when it comes to things like shading, angles, color schemes and anything else that  you would pick up attending an art class, I'm clueless.  Those things are alien to me but I enjoy the environment that art museums have and the little things I am able to pick up on in a painting.  Today's entry focuses on The Institute of Contemporary Art, Museum of Fine Art and the Gardner Museum.

Art museums can be very strict about photography which is why there are no photos inside these sites.  This sucks because I would've loved to share some pieces with you on this blog but, rules are rules. 

**NOTE:  Harold made me aware that he thoroughly detests contemporary art so he stayed home that day.  Instead, his best friend Shamus came with us.  So, if you see a green Irish bear popping up in photos, don't be alarmed.

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) is one of the most impressive looking buildings in Boston.  So impressive in fact, that it won the Harleston Parker Medal in 2007, awarded to "the most beautiful piece of architecture" in Boston.  There needs to be an award for "Coolest Elevator" because the ICA would definitely win!  The ICA was originally in the Back Bay part of the city but moved to Seaport District of South Boston in 2006.  The mission of the ICA is to share the pleasures of reflection, inspiration, provocation, and imagination that contemporary art offers through public access to art, artists, and the creative process.  (taken from the ICA's website...yeah, i hate footnotes.)  Recognizing the fact that I know nothing about art then what I see outright in a piece of art and how it makes me feel and what it makes me think about, I can honestly say that I'm not a big fan of contemporary art.  But, this blog isn't meant to be a review of the art.  The ICA was surprisingly small and it seemed like my visit went by fast.  There were large paintings, works that took up an entire hallway and some photography.  The ICA showcased some works by Shephard Fairey and an exhibit of works by Mark Bradford.  A big "Good Job" goes to the ICA for showcasing and celebrating art done by artists from the Boston area. 

Shamus in front of the ICA

Shamus posing in front of a large work

Our next stop was the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), a popular destination for people who are like me and don't know the details of appreciating art.  This museum has been recommended to me ever since I moved here and I can see why.  It is one of the largest museums in the country and contains over 450,000 works of art.  The museum was founded in 1870 and opened in 1876.  The present building was built in 1909.  This place is a popular destination, especially on a holiday and especially when the museum opens it to the public for free.  The offerings of the museum include art that range from European to American, paintings to photographs, and furniture to musical instruments.  The highlight of the museum, at least in my opinion and artistic tastes, is the Art of the Americas wing.  This wing showcases art from North America, Central America and South America.  Some favorite pieces of mine that I discovered during my visit were Liu Xiaodong's "What to Drive Out?" and John Singer Sargent's "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.  Childe Hassam's "Boston Common at Twilight" offered a small glimpse of Boston in the winter during the early 1900s.  But the real highlights for me were the paintings of the colonial period.  Gilbert Stuart's unfinished works of George and Martha Washington were mesmerizing.  His portrait of George Washington became the most popular reproduction of the 1st President, which includes being the portrait that is now seen on the one dollar bill.  However, nothing, and I mean NOTHING compares to the brilliance of "The Passage of the Delaware" by Thomas Sully.  A gigantic work showing General George Washington leading his army across the Delaware River.  If you visit this museum, try and catch the spotlight talk of this work which offers interesting stories regarding it.

No matter what your artistic tastes are, even if you're like me and don't have a clue as to what makes art good or bad, the Museum of Fine Art is definitely worth visiting.  One of Boston's many jewels in its crown.

Museum of Fine Art
Art museums usually are designed to spawn conversation regarding the works that it displays, but when you visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum the conversation usually begins and ends with the greatest art heist in history.  Lets first give a little background.  The museum was established in 1903 by Isabella Stewart Gardner.  She hired an architect in 1896 to design a building in order to house her art collection.  She began collecting art after recieving a large inheritance from her father in 1891.  She collected everything, paintings, sculptures and even autographs.  She even held concerts in this building and even recieved autographed photographs from such musical luminaries such as Johann Brahms.  Her first major art acquisition was Vermeer's The Concert.  One of the most prized works in the museum is Titian's The Rape of Europa

So, lets talk about it now.  Shortly after midnight on March 18, 1990, thieves disguised as police officers worked their way into the museum, handcuffing two security guards and stealing 13 works of art valued at over $500 million, including Vermeer's The Concert and Rembrandt's only seascape The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.  The museum still displays the empty frames from these pieces.  Some believe its because there is a strict provision in Gardner's will that forbids the collection from being altered in any way.  This is not true, however, since only nine frames involved in the theft still hang.  Despite there being a $5 million reward for information leading to the return of the works in good condition, the case still remains unsolved.  The theft has spawned documentaries and books. 

Its unfortunate that the Gardner Museum has been a victim of theft, but in all honesty, itdoes add to the attraction of this site.  Other than that, the art is still compelling and the building itself can also be classified as a masterpiece just from the courtyard alone.  Some of the most interesting pieces are letters from Presidents in whom Gardner admired, including one from George Washington  in which he explained his nominations for certain posts to the father of Garnder's husband.  Chalk the Gardner up as a "Must See" when visiting Boston.  Even if you're not a fan of art, it makes for good conversation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Boston Part 1: A Little Baseball, Science and Politics

As you could probably imagine, Boston takes up the majority of The List, since it is the largest city in New England.  So, in order to get it all in and do all the sites justice, lets just make Boston our little "ongoing series".  There is no city in the country as steeped in American history like Boston, home to America's first public school and the first subway system.  It is often called The Cradle of Modern America or the Cradle of Liberty due to its great impact on the American Revolution.  The sites in Boston that are on The List certainly reflect and represent this rich historical aspect of the city but also incorporates other sides of Boston's personality. 

When one visits Boston, the first stop has to be Fenway Park.  Opening in 1912, it is the oldest Major League Baseball stadium in current use and is the oldest venue used by a professional sports team in the U.S.  The park has a few quirky features, such as "The Triangle", "Pesky's Pole" and most notably the "Green Monster" in left field.  Many other things have taken place at Fenway Park other than baseball.  It plays hosts to other sporting events such as football, hockey and non-sporting events such as concerts and political campaigns.  There are two statues in front of Fenway: one of Ted Williams and the other of "The Teammates", which commemorates the great friendship between the players of Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Dom Dimaggio and Bobby Doerr.  A must-see when visiting Boston.

The Teammates

Ever since moving to the area, it was recommended to me from nearly everyone I met that I had to take in the Museum of Science.  It almost became embarrassing to say that I had not been to the Museum of Science.  People's reaction to that news was astonishing.  "What!?  You've never been to the Museum of Science!?!?"  I got that response so much I was able to time it.  "You know, I've never been to the Museum of Science.  (wait for it...NOW!)"  Seven years later, and thanks to The List, I now had the motivation to go. 

Seated across the Charles River, the museum began as the Boston Society of Natural History in 1830.  After World War II, the museum opened as the Museum of Science and negotiated a 99-year lease  of the land where it sits on now, paying the state $1 a year for use of the land.  Construction began in 1948 and finally opened in 1951, becoming the first all-encompassing science museum in the country.  The planetarium opened in 1958 and has recently undergone a renovation to upgrade it.  The museum is home to the world's largest Van de Graaf generator, designed by Dr. Van de Graaf himself and donated to the museum by MIT in 1956.  It is used in the museum's electricity exhibit and is one of the most popular attractions.  Another attraction is located in the food court.  At first glance, they look normal, everyday stairs leading up to the planetarium.  When walked on, the emit a piano key sound with every step.  The Musical Stairs is a favorite among children, and yes, fine, I had fun going up and down it as well.  It was tough holding back my enjoyment. 

Dreams of being an astronaut

Staring contest--GO!

Visiting relatives

The State House, or "New" State House, is the seat of government of Massachusetts which holds the state legislature and the offices of the Governor.  It sits in the neighborhood of Beacon Hill on land once owned by John Hancock, the state's first elected governor.  The architect, Charles Bulfinch, was inspired by two London buildings: the Somerset House and the Pantheon.  The State House is widely known for its golden dome, which is to signify a president came from the state.  The original wood dome suffered leaks and was covered with copper in 1802 by Paul Rever's company, who was the first American to successfully roll copper into sheets in a commercially viable manner.  The dome was first painted gray and then light yellow.  In 1874 it was gilded with gold leaf.  During World War II, the dome was painted black to prevent reflections during blackouts to protect the city from bombing attacks.  In 1997, the dome was re-gilded in 23k gold.  The dome is topped with a pine cone symbolizing the importance of Boston's lumber industry in the early colonial days and of the state of Maine, which was a district of Massachusetts when it was completed by Bulfinch.  The statues in front of the building are of General Jospeh Hooker, Daniel Webster, educator Horace Mann and President John F. Kennedy.  There are also statues of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer located on the lawns below the east and west wings.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Townsend: Revolutionary Rebels

Townsend is a small town that is just a spot on the map and can be easily overlooked.  However, it does have a bit of history to it.  It was incorporated as a town in 1732 and was named after Viscount Charles Townshend who was a British cabinet minister.    The town was thrusted into history when the British marched on Concord on April 19, 1775 and sent 73 men to join the other towns in fighting the British.  It was around 1780 when residents and town officials stuck it to the British again by spelling the town name by omitting the "H" and it eventually stuck.

As far as The List goes, it makes one appearance.  The town common is very well maintained with a gazebo and a memorial to soldiers serving in the Civil War.  The gazebo serves as the bandstand for town celebrations.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gloucester Part 1: A Fisherman's Mecca

There are fishing towns and then there's Gloucester.  The town's proximity to the Georges Bank and other banks off the coast of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland helped the fishing industry thrive in Gloucester, and soon became the center for Gorton's of Gloucester, a name you can find in your neighborhood grocery store in the frozen food aisle.  Today, it's also the center for fish research.  The town also prominently displays the dangers of seafaring and fishing.  In its 350-year history, Gloucester has lost over 10,000 men to the Atlantic Ocean.  Gloucester makes a prominent appearance on the list, needing to be broken up in different parts.

One cannot visit Gloucester without seeing the famous Fisherman's Memorial.  The memorial can be spotted by the 8 foot tall statue of the "Man at the Wheel", built in 1925.  The statue was modeled after Captain Clayon Morrissey, a prominent Gloucester fisherman and the Captain of the Effie M. Morrissey.  The inscription reads "They That Go Down To The Sea In Ships 1623-1923", taken from the Bible's Psalm 107:23.  It stands looking out over the ocean, facing the Fisherman's Memorial that bears the names and years of the fisherman lost at sea. 

There are other plaques all around the railing that lists the names of those lost at sea

One of the more scenic sites on The List in Gloucester is Hammond Castle.  The castle was built between 1926 and 1929 by John Hays Hammond, Jr. who was an inventor and pioneer in remote control holding over 400 patents.  The building is also a collection of 15th, 16th and 18th century architectural elements.  It also puts on artifacts and exhibits about his own life and work.  The real treasure of the castle lies in its scenic seaside view over the Atlantic.  This site has become a popular setting for weddings and various other functions. 

The view from the castle lawn

Stage Fort Park is the historic site of the first settlers of Gloucester in 1623.  There is a huge rock with a plaque dedicated to the settlers, although it is very hard to read because apparently the designers didnt care too much for appropriate reading angles.  To get a great view of the ocean, you can climb up on top of the rock.  Great place to go for a picnic, sit by the water or play a nice game of softball.

Notice the angle of the sign which makes it hard to read

Gloucester City Hall is the creme de la creme of city halls.  Its exactly how a city hall should look like.  The building was built in 1869-1871 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.  Its quite the imposing structure when looking at it.  The bell tower is being renovated and it is in need of a paint job but it doesn't take away anything from it. 

If Gloucester had a crown jewel it would be its Downtown area.  I've always pictured small towns as if they were out of a movie, busy center of town with a variety of stores and restaurants.  Anything you could ever need in life can be found in the center of town.  But Downtown Gloucester isn't just a center of town where you can get anything you need, it has character.  With Main Street running through it, one could walk up and down on a nice sunny day, window shopping or popping in and out of stores all day.  My favorite part of the stores was how generic some are.  You can walk by a worldwide coffee chain restaurant and on the corner  you see a shoe store that simply says "SHOES!"  What more do you need to know?  For my first visit to Gloucester, the downtown area was very nice and felt tucked away.

Harold made friends

Friday, November 12, 2010

Machester-by-the-Sea: Where the Beaches Sing

Everything you want to know about a town is in it's name, and Manchester-by-the-Sea is just that.  The town was founded as "Jeffrey's Creek" but was changed later on to Manchester.  It was around the mid-1800s when residents took a cue from railroad conductors and began referring to the town as "Manchester-by-the-Sea", since there seemed to be enough towns named Manchester.  The town name was officially changed in 1990 and all town documents and the town seal have the full official name.

The town's uniqueness doesn't stop with it's name.  There are three sites on The List and each one is as different and interesting as the next.

Our first stop was the famous Singing Beach, a place I've heard a lot about but never visited.  I have heard about singing beaches before but have never been to one so I wasn't sure what to expect.  Singing sand is sand that produces sound either by wind or by walking on it.  There are certain conditions that have to come together for sand to "sing": 1) the sand grains have to be round and between 0.1 and 0.5 mm in diameter, 2) the sand has to contain silica, and 3) the sand needs to be at a certain humidity.  The noise my be generated by friction between the grains or by the compression of air between them.  Alright, now with all that scientific aside, let me say that Singing Beach was a beautiful beach and having grown up and lived in Virginia Beach for 20 some odd years, I think I am qualified enough to know a good beach.  I heard it gets crowded in the summer and dogs are not allowed on the beach but since our visit was during the off season, the dogs were out in full force.  And yes, I was like a little kid walking on that sand since it was my first time on singing sand.  :)

Singing Beach at sunset

The Historic District of Manchester was a pretty relaxing walk through the center of town.  The historic district included the Trask House, the 1661 cemetery, the Tappan Cemetery, the First Parish Church and the library.  The Trask House is also the home of the town's historical society.  The two cemeteries were odd because they were directly next to each other, separated by a stone wall.  The Tappan Cemetery is the resting place of the Tappan Family, which I know nothing about.  The 1661 Cemetery is just an old cemetery from 1661.  Walking around and seeing these historic buildings is a break from the hustle and bustle of the city and the highways in the area.  This was a scenic seaside town and as soon as you park your car and take a look around, the relief and serenity seeps in.

Trask House--home to the Historical Society

1661 Cemetery

Tappan Family Cemetery

The two cemeteries right beside each other

First Parish Church

Public Library

Manchester-by-the-Sea Common

World War I Statue on the Common

For nature lovers who enjoy taking a nice walk around a lake and onto field next to the ocean there is Coolidge Reservation.  The reservation is located on Coolidge Point, a peninsula once owned by the Coolidge Family.  It was where the family's "Marble Palace" designed in 1902.  The mansion no longer exists but its foundation is traced by a marble line on the ocean lawn.  Walking the trails around the lake was peaceful and informative.  There are little black boxes with instructions where visitors can log in water level measurements using measuring poles that are placed in the lake.  You place the log sheet back into the block box to allow other visitors to do the same.  This was a great final stop in visiting Manchester-by-the-Sea.  Nice and relaxing.

The Ocean Lawn at Coolidge Point

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rockport Part 1: A Seaside Retreat

The List has brought Harold and I to Rockport, MA which has seven sights on the list.  Due to scheduling conflicts/arrangements we were only able to visit six of the seven, hence the "Part 1" in the title.  Visiting this small, quaint oceanside town was very rewarding for lots of reasons.  The town has a long history dating back to the 1600s and was a supplier of granite to the East Coast up until the Industrial Revolution.  Its become an artist's retreat of sorts thanks to Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous.  It is home to one of the most painted/photographed sites in the world, which made The List, of course.  Rockport was the site of the revolt against rum.  In 1856, a gang of 200 women led by Hannah Jumper came through town and destroyed anything containing alcohol and banned alcohol from the town.  The town remained one of fifteen dry towns in Massachusetts for years until recently it was voted that alcohol could be served at restaurants, but liquor stores are still illegal.  In a restaurant we ate at it was stated on the menu that you can bring your own beer. 

Motif Number 1 is one of the most popular buildings in America to art students and art historians.  Its a shack that sits on Bradley Wharf and its composition and the lighting of its location, not to mention it being a symbol of New England maritime life, has become a favorite for painters and photographers.  Painter Lester Hornby is believed to have given the shack its name, a reference to its appeal to artists.  It was sold to the town in 1945.  The Blizzard of 1978 destroyed it but an exact duplicate of the shack was built that same year.  The building can be seen in films such as The Proposal and in Finding Nemo.

The Headlands was probably the most peaceful spot to go and look out at the ocean, see a sunrise or just take a walk.  To get to the Headlands, we had to take a a small, public footpath that, at first glance, looked like a space between bushes.  There were two concrete benches placed there with quotes to represent the beauty and serenity of nature. 

Entrance to the footpath that leads to The Headlands

The footpath

The Headlands

The Headlands

The view from The Headlands

When you come across a place that has a unique name you always wonder where it came from.  Bearskin Neck is just the place.  The name came from a bear caught by the tide and killed in 1700.  It was the commercial and shipbuilding center of Rockport for 150 years.  The first dock was bult there in 1743.  It was also the site of Stone Fort and sea fencibles barrack during the War of 1812.  These days its a tiny street lined with shops and opens up at the end to the view also seen at the Headlands, which is directly across the water.

Not bad for a bear that died 300 years ago right?

At the end of Bearskin Neck

Halibut Point State Park used to be the Babson Farm granite quarry, made of sheets of 440 million year old granite.  It was purchased by the Rockport Granite Company in the 1840s.  When the Cape Ann granite industry collapsed in 1929, 17 acres on the eastern side of the quarry were purchased and given to the Trustees of Reservations.  The remainder of the area sat unused until late in World War II when a fire control tower was constructed to provide aiming information for the massive coastal defense guns that guarded Boston and Portsmouth Harbors.  The tower is now the park's Visitor's Center.  The park doesn't have a lot of trees due to the shallow soil, constant exposure to onshore winds and a history of frequent fires.  The vegetation that is there is mostly catbriar, bayberry, blueberry, arrowwood, shadbush and other types of wildflowers.  Looking from the overlook, one can see Crane Beach in Ipswich all the way to Mount Agamenticus in Maine.  One of the more unique things seen in the park is an area which I called Rock City, where people can build things out of stones.

The quarry

The ocean

The overlook

Rock City

Harold trying to construct something in Rock City

In the center of Rockport sits the Rockport Art Association, one of the oldest art associations in the United States.  It started out as an artist's cooperative and became a gathering place of New England artists of the 20th century.  It can always be visited for its variety of exhibitions and is a great place for a wedding, but looking at the prices of the works of art on display, I will never be an art collector.

The Shalin Liu Performance Center is in the building that used to be the Haskins Building, dating back to the 1860s.  The building used to be the gathering place of the "Sociables", holding balls and galas for the Sandy Bay Yacht Club.  It was selected in 2005 to be the site of Rockport Music's new home, the performance center it is now. 

For those keeping track, we have officially been to 49 sites on The List.