Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Christmas in D.C. - Next Best Thing to Being Home for the Holidays

Along Pennsylvania Avenue Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

Any time of year, our nation’s capital is an interesting and exciting place to visit with loads of attractions for a visitor to see, many of them free of charge. But, during the holiday season, the city sparkles and glows with a myriad of lights, tall Christmas trees like the one on the White House lawn, and elaborate toy train exhibits, including the ever-popular one at the National Botanical Garden.
I began my own Christmas visit with a walk through ZooLights, where 500,000 LED colored lights line the walkways through the National Zoo. The 40 minute round trip hike took me past topiary-like animals formed from strings of light, trees immersed in falling "snowflakes," whole gardens of flowers that change color in sequence and beautifully floodlit buildings - all contributing to a blaze of color set against the evening sky.
ZooLights Elephants at National Zoo Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

    Admission to ZooLights is free of charge and includes live entertainment, entrance to some exhibit buildings, special events and more  Holiday treats like hot chocolate, eggnog, gingerbread and holiday cookies are also available for purchase.
Christmas Scene at Nage Bistro Photo Credit Bill Rockwel
    Dinner that evening took me and photographer, Bill Rockwell, to Nage Bistro in Scott Circle across from the Australian Embassy where kangaroos on the lawn pull Santa’s sleigh, giving his reindeer some needed time off. We arrived on Burger Night (Monday), when executive chef, Dwayne Motley, offers three hand-crafted burgers made from ground chuck, steak and short rib and cooked to order over an open flame.
    The burgers come with a choice of home made fries (garlic or white truffle oil and herb or the potent Ghost fries, dusted with the third hottest chile in the world and 900.5 times hotter than your feeble Tabasco sauce). Note: You can see several courageous folks eating one of these torrid chiles (or trying to) at various locations on youtube.
Wild Mushroom Baklava at Nage Bistro Photo Credit bill Rockwell
    While the burgers were tempting, we went for more labor-intensive selections such as wild mushroom baklava with berry compote and chevre, grilled Gulf prawns on dirty rice, a little pumpkin stuffed with root veggies, quinoa and cranberries and a fall apart-tender braised short rib served on a bed of Yukon Gold potato puree with mustard greens. 1600 Rhode Island Ave, NW Phone 202-448-8005.
    Day Two took us first to the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art. I’d been to the I.M. Pei-designed East Wing before but never its NeoClassic older sibling, completed in 1941. Our main goal, besides exploring the wondrous rotunda under the dome was to view the current El Greco exhibit - up through Feb. 16, 2015. The exhibit includes seven paintings from the gallery’s own collection as well as three others on loan from regional museums.
Rotunda under the Dome at the National Gallery of Art Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

    As a follow-up, we took the 12-minute tour and talk on a related painting by Spanish artist Diego Velazquez titled "The Needle-Woman." The gallery offers many guided tours daily, including free audio tours and a do-it-yourself Collection Highlights tour. Www.nga.gov.
    Nearby, the "Seasons Greetings" exhibit at the National Botanical Garden features model trains and reproductions of many Washington buildings and monuments. This year, the exhibit’s theme "Exploration Along the Seas," includes lighthouses meant to navigate the way through the scenic wonderland. Interestingly enough, the model buildings are all made of plant material.

Ice Rink in Sculpture Garden with National Archives in Background Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    On the way to see the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in the National Archives, we lingered a few moments to watch ice skaters circle the rink in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden. The way most of the folks cautiously made their way around the rink gave me a deeper appreciation for those truly adept on the ice.
Entrance to Old Ebbitt Grill

    Dinner that evening took us to the Old Ebbitt Grill, whose roots go back to 1856 and whose patrons included Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Harding and Theodore Roosevelt. After walking past two giant Nutcracker soldiers, which flank the entrance door, we moved into the historic eatery, which claims the city’s most popular oyster bar. As an appetizer, we took manager Dan Harding’s recommendation and tried the Peconic Bay Scallop Capellini, tender, thin and long, house-made noodles with meaty scallops tossed in a cream sauce. Yummy!
Interior Shot of Old Ebbitt Grill Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    Follow up dishes included duck breast and Atlantic Salmon with sautéed autumn vegetables, red quinoa, farro, kale and walnut pesto. On our way out, we noticed the big platters on the bar and some tables full of oysters, clams and shrimp. The platters come in five successively larger portions with the Orca platter at the top of the price list. For $126, Orca patrons get a 1 pound lobster, 6 Jonah crab claws, 6 clams, 24 oysters and 12 shrimp
Oyster Appetizer Plate at Old Ebbitt Grill Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    While it’s meant to be shared, Harding did say that a single customer once managed to down the entire platter without anyone else’s assistance. If you get a seafood craving and are on a fixed budget, keep in mind that from 3 to 6 p.m. and from 11 p.m. to closing, seven days a week, Oyster Happy Hour allows patrons to order any platter at half off.

    Day 3 started at the Newseum, located at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue right next to the modern Canadian Embassy. Outside, the words of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press, are inscribed into the face of the wall. Inside, after paying for your admissions ticket, which gives patrons two consecutive day access for the price of one, three theaters on the concourse level give an brief orientation to the Newseum along with the signature film "What’s News?"
Looking Down From Level Six at the Newseum Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    A current exhibition titled "The Boomer List" is made up of 19 larger-than-life photos by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders - one for each year of the Baby Boom Era (1946-1964). A more powerful exhibit made up of the most comprehensive collection of Pulitzer Prize winning photos dating back to 1942 can be found on Level One. Be advised that some depict quite brutal and emotionally charged images.
Pulitzer Prize Winning Photo of Starving Child in Newseum Collection Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    The museum brochure advises starting at the top on Floor Six and working your way down. At the top level, step out onto the terrace for a great vantage point high above Pennsylvania Avenue with the Capitol looming largely to the East.
    With a total of 15 theaters and 15 galleries, it’s a good thing the admission ticket allows a two day visit. The galleries cover everything from the Berlin Wall, 9/11 - which includes the wreckage of the radio antenna atop the South Tower, the Civil Rights Movement at 50, the FBI, with artifacts of the agency’s biggest cases of the past 100 years, press freedom (or the lack of it) in countries around the world, even photos of the Presidents’ dogs.
    With a mike in hand standing in front of a green screen, you can also try your skill at being a news reporter in the NBC News Interactive Newsroom, then take in a 4-D adventure through time and journalism history in a special theater with 3-D visual effects and seats that move as part of the screening. Phone 202-292-6100.
    To get an orientation overview of Washington, we decided to take a Big Bus Tour, offered onboard a double deck bus. Big Bus has four different routes, two of which take you across the Potomac into Virginia for a look at the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery.
    Accompanied by a knowledgeable guide who narrates all sorts of interesting information on the city, its history and its famous people, the tours last 2 and a half hours and allows people to hop-off at a landmark they’d like to explore further, then hop back on the next bus to continue the tour. eng.bigbustours.com/washington or 877-332-8689.
    Dinner that evening took us to Zengo, just off the Chinatown Metro stop, where the kitchen comes up with some very creative, adventurous dishes that blend Asian and Latin styles and flavors, and the decor is as sophisticated and eye-catching as the cuisine.
Trio of Shrimp Tacos and Octopus Bibimbap at Zengo Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    Our bill of fare included a trio of shrimp tacos, scallops and short rib tamales, octopus carnitas "bibimbap" served in a sizzling hot kettle with mushrooms, roasted corn, jicama, chile toreado and salsa roja-gochujang sauce. For dessert, the Mexican chocolate tart is incredibly delicious. Phone 202-393-2929.
Seared Scallops and Short Rib Tamales at Zengo Photo Credit bill Rockwell
    That evening we headed to the campus of Catholic University of America for Christmas Eve mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic church in the U.S. and North America and one of the ten largest in the world. Despite its size, the church had standing room only for the service.
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

The music played on the organ with choir accompaniment was incredibly beautiful, and when the congregation lit their hand-held candles, the lights in the church dimmed and a procession of clerics and laity brought the infant Jesus through the basilica, then laid him in the manger near a side altar. It proved to be an emotionally charged, magical and spiritual evening.
Basilica Interior Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
 For a place to stay, the Harrington Hotel, 436 11th Street in Washington, opened on March 1, 1914 making it the nation’s oldest continuously operating hotel. Just a half block from Pennsylvania and two blocks from the White House, the Harrington is within walking distance to many DC attractions and the Metro.
    While not in the luxury class of DC hotels, the Harrington is clean, tidy and has some excellent family-friendly room rates, although the decor is a bit outdated. The hotel, celebrating its 101st anniversary this year, also houses a full service restaurant and pub. Phone 202-628-8140 or www.hotel-harrington.com.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Convergence of Talent Makes "Or," Something Very Special

Cast of "Or" Ethan Hova, Erika Cuenca, Robin Abramson Photo Credit: Off the Wall Theater

How lucky for Carnegie’s Off the Wall Theater that it managed (again) to combine the right elements to make for an exceptional theatrical experience. "Or," like the Steelers of late, is a winning team  made up of playwright Liz Duffy Adams, a cast of three superb actors and a gifted director, John Shepard, who wowed local audiences this summer with his directorial skills in Quantum Theatre’s production of "Tamara."
"Or" takes a look at the 17th century playwright, Aphra Behn, credited as one of the first professional woman writers in England and someone who made important contributions to the development of the English novel. The play opens in a 1666 debtor’s prison in London, where Behn finds herself locked away and destitute.
Quill pen in hand, she implores King Charles II (after a prologue meant to explain the title of the play among other things) to pay her for her services as a spy in the service of the crown. Charles has just regained the throne following Cromwell’s draconian dictatorship, and the Restoration promises a relaxation of Puritan strictures that included the reopening of the theaters which kindles Behn’s desire to write successful plays.
Off the Wall’s rather modest set is a stark contrast to the trio of regal or notorious and colorful personalities that form the core of Or,’s" action, namely Charles II himself, the celebrated actress with polymorphous perverse tendencies, Nell Gwynne, and Behn, the aspirating playwright.
Witty and cerebral, the dialogue also has its fair share of ribald comedy that explores all sorts of sexual orientations when it’s not poking around in more serious matters like affairs of state, plots to assassinate the king and 17th century cultural and social norms.
With four doors to come in and go out at the back of the stage (plus two more on an armoire that plays a pivotal role), the scene is set for farce, which the playwright does exploits - but not to excess.
As Behn, Erica Cuenca steadfastly tries to finish a play to meet the deadline set by a wealthy patron, all the while juggling a hodgepodge of amorous advances initiated by the king, an ex-lover and even the libidinous Nell Gwynn. Cuenca’s performance nicely balances her character’s inherent intelligence with her voluptuous charisma and ambitious maneuverings to stay in the good graces of both the king and her theatrical benefactor - all the while trying to keep control over her feisty and somewhat daft maid and reprobate ex-lover.
It falls on Robin Abramson to play multiple roles that include Gwynne, the maid and Lady Davenant, a theater impresario and patron. Abramson enlivens the play with her electric humor, dashing around in various costumes and taking the secondary characters to hilarious heights.
Ethan Hova also does double duty, making the changes from Charles II to William Scot, Behn’s former lover, and back with the donning of a different wig, transforming from king to peon and back with remarkable credibility.
"Or," will probably be one of the last plays I’ll see in 2014, but it’s also one of the best I’ve witnessed this entire year.
"Or," is at Off the Wall Theater, 25 W. Main Street in Carnegie through Jan. 10. Phone 724-873-3576 for reservations.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Pick of the Week - A Double Bill at Off the Wall Theater

Cast of "Uproar" Taylor Quinn, Glenna Clark, Christian Ross, Darren McArthur, Luke Paulina Photo Credit Off the Wall Theater.
    Pittsburgh area audiences know by now that the team at Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie likes to push the envelope.  From edgy productions of topical, thought-provoking plays, to risqué humor, to powerfully intense modern dance – being unique is the provocative  theater’s life force.
  So as not to disappoint, they’ve done it again!  This holiday season, Off the Wall is staging two shows simultaneously: the Acting Company’s hilariously ribald production of Liz Duffy Adams’ comedy "OR," (directed by John Shepard and starring Erika Cuenca, Robin Abramson, and Ethan Hova) and fireWALL dance theater’s "UPROAR," a delightful spectacle of original choreography by Elisa-Marie Alaio and music by Ryan McMasters.

Cast of "Or" Ethan Hova, Erika Cuenca, Robin Abramson Photo Credit: Off the Wall Theater

  The theme of female empowerment rules in both productions. The play "OR," tells the story of Aphra Behn -  poet, spy and one of the world’s first professional female playwrights.  Set in Restoration London, bawdy hilarity ensues as Aphra works her way through one interruption after another in her quest to write a play in one short night (Note: This production contains adult language and naughty sexual situations).
    In "UPROAR," the dancers take us through the creative process of a female writer, with all the twists, turns and triumphs she experiences while creating her ultimate masterpiece.
Off the Wall is inviting everyone to witness the dance production or the play – the choice is yours.  Better yet, see both!  Each production runs for four weeks, so you, friends, family and acquaintances can all enjoy the Off the Wall experience.
  "UPROAR" is at Off the Wall from Dec. 18, 2014 through Jan 11, 2015. "OR" will run from  Dec. 19, 2014 through Jan 10, 2015. The Off the Wall Theater is located at 25 W. Main Street in Carnegie. Tickets are $ 5.00 to $ 35.00 and available either online at http://www.insideoffthewall.com/  or by phone at  888-718-4253.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Holiday Cabaret Celebrates Life of One of Pittsburgh’s Great Divas

Opera Diva Mildred Miller Posvar

    If the Holiday Cabaret planned for this Friday evening is anything like the ones that followed the mainstage productions of the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s Summerfest, Pittsburgh audiences are in for a rare treat.
   While enjoying seasonal goodies like mulled wine/cider and small plate appetizers (available for purchase), patrons will also be able to sit back cabaret-style and listen to Kevin Gavin and friends break out of the opera mold and sing lighter fare sure to warm the ballroom of the stylish Art Deco Twentieth Century Club. To add a bit of filigree to the musical soiree, Robert Frankenberry, Marissa Knaub and Matthew Feczko will accompany the singers on piano, harp and double bass respectively.
   More importantly, the gala event will give patrons to rub elbows with one of Pittsburgh’s greatest divas - Mildred Miller Posvar, who is celebrating a milestone birthday this month on Dec. 16 (rumors I’ve heard claim she’ll be 39). Mrs. Posvar, wife of late Wesley W. Posvar, former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor, plans to attend the event to cut the birthday cake that she'll share with the audience.
    Tickets for the Holiday Cabaret which begins at 8 p.m (doors open at 7:30 p.m.) are $35 or half price for students. Phone 412-326-9687 or online at otsummerfest.org. Tickets will also be available at the door.The Twentieth Century Club is located at 4201 Bigelow Blvd. in Pittsburgh's Oakland section.
     A mezzo-soprano, Mrs. Posvar was a featured artist for 23 consecutive seasons at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She appeared with every major opera company in the United States and the leading houses of Europe and toured the world as an acclaimed recitalist.

Mildred Miller Posvar as Cherubino in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro:" Photo Credit Sedge LeBlang
    Her operatic roles include Cherubino in "The Marriage of Figaro," (her debut role at the Met and her exclusive domain there for a decade); the title role in "Carmen;" Octavian in "Der Rosenkavalier;" Suzuki in "Madama Butterfly;" Rosina in "The Barber of Seville" and Dorabella in "Così fan tutte."
    As a recording artist, she holds the Grand Prix du Disque for Bruno Walter’s only recording of Mahler’s "Songs of a Wayfarer," which has since become a classic. She appeared regularly on radio and television, polarizing the classics on The Bell Telephone Hour and The Voice of Firestone. She has sung to audiences as far-flung as Borneo and as all-American as the White House during the Nixon Presidency. She has also won special acclaim for her singing of German Lieder.
    In 1978, she founded the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh as a professional company featuring emerging singers and dedicated to education and audience development. She fashioned the company after Boris Goldovsky’s New England Opera Theater where she performed before beginning her career as a principle artist at the Metropolitan Opera. She has taught at Carnegie Mellon University for several years and conducts master classes throughout the country.
    Former classical music critic for the Pittsburgh "Post-Gazette" and retired professor and chair of the Voice Department at Duquesne University, Robert Croan, has followed Mrs. Posvar’s career for many years starting as a teenager growing up in New York City. For the past four years, he's also served as a fellow judge of the annual Mildred Miller International Voice Competition.
    "I’ve heard Mildred sing many roles including Cherubino, Carmen and Siebel in Gounod’s ‘Faust,’" Mr. Croan said. "At that time, not many opera singers could act as well as sing, but she was great at both.."
"To me, her artistry and phrasing were at the highest level, and I’ve admired her all my life. She had a beautiful, penetrating and honeyed lyrical voice and colored her words in a beautiful way."
    After Mr. Croan moved to Pittsburgh he heard her sing with the Pittsburgh Opera and met her at several functions. One of the roles with the Pittsburgh Opera that stands out in his mind is that of Elizabeth Proctor in Robert Ward’s "The Crucible." She could also be equally spellbinding in recital
    "She once gave a recital as part of the Y Music Series that was just simply wonderful," Mr. Croan said. "And when I got to take a German lieder master class with her, I realized that she is also a great teacher of the highest level. She is truly a remarkable woman."
    In a recent phone interview, Mrs. Posvar said she’s looking forward to the Holiday Cabaret that will feature lighter music as well as some Christmas songs.
    "The cabarets that followed our Summerfest performances were so popular it’s only natural to have another during the holiday season," she said. "It’s a wonderful outlet for our singers, headed by Kevin Glavin. At the cabaret, people can sit around tables, drink, talk if they’d like and listen to our wonderful singers. I’m really looking forward to it."
    They can also get a chance to honor one of Pittsburgh’s greatest names in opera. Happy birthday, Mrs. Posvar, and enjoy the Holiday Cabaret.

A Recent Photo of "Millie"  at the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh Gala: Photo Credit Amy Crawford

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Around Town - The Chuck Connelly Exhibit at the Warhol

Slag 2013 Courtesy the artist

The Andy Warhol Museum is currently presenting an exhibit titled "Chuck Connelly: My America" as
its contribution to the 2014 Pittsburgh Biennial. The exhibit runs through January 4, 2015 The exhibit features 21 of Connelly's works created from 1979 through 2013.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1955, Connelly graduated from the Tyler School of Art,
Philadelphia, in 1977 and, by the mid-1980s, was recognized as a key figure among
the New York-based Neo-expressionist painters. Known for using thickly layered
brush strokes and bold palettes, his subjects have varied widely from religious
imagery to cosmic visions, portraits, landscapes, and Victorian homes from the
Philadelphia neighborhood where he now lives.

Homo 1979 Courtesy the Artist

"During Connelly’s rise to prominence in New York the hip hop, post-punk, and street art movements had coalesced and artists such as Jean- Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were incorporating their graffiti fonts and character onto neo-expressionist paintings,"  said Jessica Beck, the Warhol’s assistant
curator of art, who arranged the exhibition along with Nicholas Chambers. "In 'Homo,' one can see Connelly’s multilayered approach as he renders an Old-Master subject in contemporary style. The face of Santa is modeled after a Peter Paul Rubens portrait and the text applied in silver spray paint drips to the edge of the frame like a graffiti tag. Like Warhol’s comic strip paintings, Connelly employs a sexual slur with a children’s fictional character. However, the text appears impulsive and alters, almost defaces, his canvas of laborious detail."

"Connelly is a prodigious painter, working for nearly 40 years, which is why this first solo
museum show feels long overdue. 'My America' represents his personal story through the decades, shown in a progression of works that interweave grand art historical themes with contemporary social

Critics have compared Connelly's art to Soutine and Van Gogh, but his urban
landscapes also conjure the grittiness of the American realist George Bellows.
Connelly infuses an element of the surreal, seeming to portray untold narratives and
an otherworldly dimension.

"Chuck Connelly’s lush, heavily layered canvases remind us of the resilience and
force of painting. His surreal, uniquely tragicomic vision of the world is both
familiar and yet completely new and foreign," said Beck.

Ascending Man 1986 Courtesy the artist

Friday, December 5, 2014

Messiah Sing-A-Long - Pittsburgh's New Holiday Tradition

Music director, Brian Burns leading the choir in Handel's "The Messiah"

At a special concert, Pittsburgh music lovers will not only be able to hear George Frideric Handel’s "The Messiah" by candlelight and surrounded by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s magnificent stained glass windows, they’ll also be able to sing along on five beloved choruses.
The concert will take place at 4 p.m. in the restored Calvary United Methodist Church
971 Beech Ave. at Allegheny on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Music director, Brian Burns will lead a choir of 50 and an orchestra of 12 with David Bridge on organ. Soloists include Anna Singer, soprano; Mary Beth Sederburg, alto; Christopher Quigley, tenor and Matthew Hunt, baritone.

    Tickets are $12 general admission and $8 for seniors 62+ and may be purchased via  ShowClix through noon on Saturday, then at the door at 3 p.m. The concert is presented in support of outreach ministries on Pittsburgh's Northside. Audience members are asked to bring one-pound, non-perishable food items for the Northside Food Pantry.
    Family-friendly, the concert admits children 12 and under, veterans, and current military service members at no charge. Children receive an activity packet with information on music and "The Messiah."
A cookie reception will follow the concert.
    At the moment, Calvary United Methodist Church is restoring its rare 1895 Farrand & Votey pipe organ, featured in "The Messiah.". New pipes have been added to blend smoothly with the original pipes while music director Brian Burns continues extensive hands-on repairs and improvement. The organ is only one of two such instruments still in use in the US and is in restoration under Burns’ care.
    The church interior and exterior have undergone extensive restoration - from the repaired and cleaned stained glass windows by Stained Glass Resources to the sanctuary, also designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s studios. Much of restoration over the past 12 years has been led by Allegheny Historic Preservation Society. Calvary’s spaces and systems have been revived so that the building serves not only as an awe-inspiring setting for worship, weddings, and community events, but is a hub for dinners, meetings, arts events and more. The church held its first service on Dec. 24, 1893 when the building’s chapel was completed.

Pick of the Week - "The Nutcracker" Leaps into Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center

PBT Dancer Olivia Kelly in a  Scene from "The Nutcracker" Photo Credit Rich Sofranko

Those lucky enough to get a ticket to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Christmas season production of "the Nutcracker" are in for something special. Artistic director, Terrence Orr, has given the classic work danced by countless professional companies around the world each December several Pittsburgh touches including the setting.
The opening act is set in the F. W. McKee mansion on Fifth Avenue in Shadyside, which was eventually demolished to make way for an apartment complex. Another Pittsburgh landmark that makes its way into designer Zack Brown’s set is a rendition of the beloved Kaufmann’s clock, which once graced the exterior of the iconic department store on the corner of Smithfield and Fifth. The audience should also expect new Pittsburgh surprises and nuances from Orr and Brown in this year’s  production which was first mounted in 2002.
To tweak the story line a bit, Orr called on Milan Stitt, professor and head of dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon University and together they selected elements from the original E. T. A. Hoffmann story and gave them a more colorful dramatic focus. And to create the sleight of hand and disappearing acts carefully executed at the party by Godfather Drosselmeyer, Orr enlisted the services of local magician Paul Gertner.
Along with lush sets and the timeless music of composer, Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, played live by the PBT Orchestra, the production allocated $50,00 for materials for the requisite 215 costumes, more than half of which were built in Pittsburgh at PBT.
PBT will stage 23 public performances of "The Nutcracker" from Dec. 5 to 28 and feature 170 dancers on the stage of the Benedum Center. For tickets, phone 412-456-6666 or online at www.pbt.org.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Giving West Point a Second Look

Cadet Chapel at West Point Credit: Bill Rockwell

About eight years ago, I planned an early September driving tour up the Hudson. Starting in lower Westchester County, New York, where I went to the best dog show ever at the Westchester Kennel Club, I was supposed to end my excursion miles upriver in Olana, home to Frederic Edwin Church, a central figure in the Hudson River School of landscape painters.
Blessed with wonderful weather, I left the aforementioned dog show and headed up river to Sunnyside, the charming home of Washington Irving, then on to Lyndhurst - the Gothic Revival country home of rail tycoon Jay Gould, Kykuit - home to four generations of Rockefellers, and finally to West Point, all of which have magnificent views of one of eastern America’s most beautiful rivers.
My luck turned sour the morning after my stay at the Thayer Hotel, which actually sits on the base of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. After discovering that my car wouldn’t start due to a faulty alternator, my itinerary was thrown way off whack, and I decided to return home, but with the intention of completing my original travel plans at a later date.
Watching every episode of the Ken Burns’ series on the Roosevelts on PBS this September rekindled my interest in visiting Hyde Park, part of my original itinerary. My curiosity piqued, I decided to set out at the beginning of October to pick up where I left off years ago on my Hudson River excursion.. The fact that the fall leaf colors along the Hudson were expected to be at around 25 percent peak gave me an extra impetus to go.
Thayer Hotel at West Point Credit:Bill Rockwell

After a seven-hour, GPS-guided trip, I arrived at the Thayer for another overnight stay. With plans that evening for dinner at the Bear Mountain Inn, seven miles down the road, I still had time to reacquaint myself with the Thayer.
Named for Sylvanus Thayer, cited as "the Father of the Military Academy and 1808 West Point grad, the hotel, built in 1929, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The list of dignitaries and historic figures who stayed at the hotel is staggering. And, because of its West Point  location, I wasn’t surprised to learn that many of the ballrooms and public spaces are named after presidents and military figures like Washington, Jefferson, Grant, Pershing and MacArthur, with the naming rights to the tavern going to General Patton.
The hotel’s location high above the Hudson and its beautiful gardens make it a prime location each year for an average of 80 weddings, many of them outdoors. Speaking of the outdoors, I especially enjoyed the hotel’s  Zulu Time Rooftop Bar and Lounge which has a great view of the Hudson Valley.
Looking Down on the Zulu Hour Lounge and Hudson River at Thayer Hotel

Forewarned that the traffic leaving Bear Mountain later that evening would be heavy due to the annual Oktoberfest at the Bear Mountain Inn, I was told to make a right at the traffic circle on Route 9W, then head toward Perkins Tower. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the 40-foot tall tower at the summit it was closed, but the view from the mountain top was spectacular nonetheless. On a clear day, it’s said that visitors can see four states - New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, as well as the Big Apple skyline 40 miles south.

Autumn Sunset on Bear Mountain Credit: Bill Rockwell

Bear Mountain Inn Gives Off Warm Welcoming Glow Credit: Bill Rockwell
By the time we got to Bear Mountain Inn, most of the Oktoberfesters had left and the traffic had dissipated. Built in 1915, the regally rustic stone and timber inn was bathed in a warm, inviting glow flowing through large plate glass windows. Entering, we made our way up to the 1915 Restaurant on the second floor..

Seated near the massive stone fireplace, our glasses of Lyric by Etude Pinot Noir stimulated our taste buds and paved the way for a truly memorable meal that started with mussels and ended with lamb chops and Blue Bunny Dulce de Leche ice cream for dessert.

Lamb Chops at 1915 Restaurant; Credit Bill Rockwell

Up early the next morning, we waited at the Visitor Center for our bus pickup for a guided tour of West Point. No self-guided tours are permitted on the grounds of the military academy, but our informed guide made us glad they aren’t because he was both informative as well as entertaining. Besides relating the history of the academy starting with fortifications along the river in 1778, he pointed out many of the major buildings and landmarks.

Superintendent's House at West Poin.t Credit: Bill Rockwell

There are only two stops on the hour long tour where visitors are able to get off and walk around. The first is the amazing gothic revival Cadet Chapel, home to the world’s largest pipe organ with 23,511 pipes. The second stop, Trophy Point overlooks a curve in the Hudson and is named for the collection of canons, some of which date back to the Revolutionary War, exhibited on the grounds
Behind the visitors center, the West Point Museum is the oldest military museum in the nation and focuses on everything from the history of West Point to the history of warfare from the Egyptians up through Desert Storm. Its large collections of arms, flags, uniforms and armaments include Hitler’s gold-plated pistol, Napoleon’s sword and Washington’s pistols. Depending on your interest, you could easily spend several hours taking it all in. The collection even encompasses paintings, including some by Hudson River School artists
For more information on West Point and Orange County, phone (845) 615-3860 or visit website www.OrangeTourism.org.