Newport, RI Mansion #4

The fourth house museum stop for our Newport, RI trip was The Elms.  Get ready for some beautiful gardens and general splendor!

4. The Elms

The Elms was our next stop, and it did not disappoint. Welcome to the foyer!

I really liked the scheme of the house: white, gold, marble, and black iron. The inspiration was the 18th Century Chateau d’Asnieres in France. Sarah and Edward Julius Berwind, of the coal fortune, built The Elms in 1901 so that they could host on a larger scale.

The Elms is famous for its gardens, so let’s have a look at those first:

I really loved that bench, and there were fountains, pavilions, and statues galore.

There was what I call a “sunroom” to bring the outside indoors. This included possibly the word’s plushest lawnchair.

The inside was equally lovely. Here are a few of the rooms, which definitely give you the impression of French grandeur (except for the green library, which was more homey). Look at those gorgeous ceiling medallions!

Did you spot both pianos?

I seemed to have collected pictures of a lot of different bedrooms, so I’m thinking there may have been more rooms available for viewing at the house than at the other houses. Here are a few of the bedrooms. (Never mind my sister gazing dreamily at that fainting couch.)

Oddly enough, I remember the portraits acquired by this house the most. This portrait of Elizabeth Wharton Drexel Dahlgren Lehr is quite famous. My sister bought a jewelry dish with this portrait on it while we were in Newport. Elizabeth’s first husband was the son of the famous Admiral Dahlgren (who, as a side note, is discussed by Shannon and her father in Northern Fire!) Her first husband died young. I remember her sad story of her second husband telling her on their wedding night that he had only married her for her money. (Note, this is not the owner of the house. I can’t remember why her portrait is at The Elms – maybe she is a relative?)

Another notable portrait at the house is that of Maria Cosway, an Englishwoman who had, shall we say, a more than casual acquaintance with Thomas Jefferson while he was Minister to Paris. This portrait was painted by Cosway’s husband. I’m not sure how the Elms acquired this original either. Here it is:

Does anyone remember how the Elms acquired either of these fascinating paintings? Comment below if you do!

Stop back by next week for our final mansion. I’ll also talk about some of the other stuff (including a lot of eating) that we did in Newport!

Photo of Maria Cosway: The Preservation Society of Newport County, https://www.newportmansions.org/learn/collections/fine-and-decorative-arts/paintings.
All other photos: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones

Newport, RI Mansion #3

The tour of Newport continues with Rosecliff today!

3. Rosecliff

On the third day of our trip, we went to Rosecliff, which is perhaps less famous than The Breakers and Marble House (even though it has been in several movies!). But I think it is actually my favorite of the Grand Dames along Bellevue Avenue because Rosecliff is *slightly* understated in comparison to the two houses we discussed previously.

Of course, it all started with an heiress. Theresa “Tessie” Fair was the daughter of an Irish immigrant who had hit it big in Nevada silver.  She met her future husband, Hermann Oelrichs, playing tennis in Newport.  (We actually had lunch one day at this tennis club/casino, which is still there!)  He was pretty wealthy himself, and together they purchased the property along the Cliff Walk and built Rosecliff.  [Just as a side note, Tessie’s sister married Alva Vanderbilt’s son (Alva, of the Marble House fame).]

Tessie couldn’t wait to start giving lavish parties at Rosecliff, and she certainly had the ballroom for it.  This is probably my favorite room in all of Newport.

One of the things I loved about Rosecliff is that it relies on artistry more than flash.  You can see that the ballroom walls are just white, but look at the ornate plaster and molding.  And the mural on the ceiling isn’t garish in the least; it is just the sky, like you’re looking through a glass ceiling.

Take a look at the art encapsulated in this fireplace in another room.

Here are a few more rooms.

The exterior was very elegant.  It puts you in mind of Marble House and the White House a bit.  It was fashioned after the Grand Trianon at Versailles.

I’ll leave a few more pictures below.  Spot the circular library table with books, and the modern bathroom.  I loved those.  Also, the staircase – wow! Enjoy!

All photos: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones

Newport, RI Mansion #2

Continuing our virtual vacation of Newport, RI, this week we’re stopping at the home of Alva Vanderbilt herself, Marble House. So sit back on your (expensive) lawn chair, grab something cool to drink, and enjoy the history.

2. Marble House

Marble House was built by William K. Vanderbilt, another grandson of the famed Cornelius, and a brother to Cornelius Vanderbilt, II.  You may remember Cornelius II as the owner of The Breakers, where we stopped last week.  I seem to remember that there was some sister-in-law rivalry during the design of the two houses. Richard Morris Hunt was the architect of the Versailles-inspired Marble House. He did a fabulous job, as usual, but Alva Vanderbilt’s stamp is all over it.  Mostly, that stamp takes the form of marble.

There is marble everywhere.  Just take a look at the dining room, the foyer, random halls…

Anything you can put marble on, Alva tried it.  Marble House was magnificent in the sense that you really got that feeling of European royalty.  Which, I believe, was one of Alva’s aims, given that she ultimately arranged a marriage between her daughter and the Duke of Marlborough.  This is the room where they most likely became engaged:

Called the Gothic Room, this one really stood out to me.  It had the solemn feeling of a church and duplicated the old history of some castles in Europe particularly well.  Even though the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and Sonny was doomed to failure, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a great place to get engaged!

Here are some other neat tidbits.  Does anyone else love library stairs?

What about fancy servants’ stairs?

Resplendent sitting rooms?

Or bedrooms fit for a queen?

At most of the Newport houses, they also do a great job of interpreting the lives of the servants.  You definitely get Downton Abbey vibes, for any lovers of Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes out there!

The thing I most remember about Marble House is Alva.  She was a complicated, fascinating woman.  She undoubtedly pushed her daughter into marriage for social gain—and then, in order for her daughter to divorce and be happy, she testified before a court that she compelled her daughter to marry.  She was the victim of her husband’s adultery—and then divorced him, married his best friend, and moved across the street.  She was a champion of women’s suffrage and of art.  On the whole, she was a woman ahead of her time. 

So whom do I think won the sister-in-law rivalry?  Well, if you remember, Alice had those stunning verandas.  Then again, Alva had 500,000 cubic feet of marble.  Plus, she caught the Duke.  So you tell me.

Below, this happened to be my favorite photo from Marble House.  It reminds me of Alva and speaks to her strength—and to how she was (just a tad!) over-the top:

Photo Credits: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones

Newport, RI Mansions Tour

Since many of us couldn’t take a summer vacation this year, I thought it would be fun to take you on a tour of Newport Rhode Island by recounting my trip there in August of 2017.  My sister and I, both history fans, bought tickets from The Preservation Society of Newport County, which allowed us to tour five different Newport “cottages.”  There will be five posts, mostly dedicated to individual mansions, but I’ll give you details of some other stuff we got into, as well.  Here we go!  Buckle up; the ride starts in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cottage #1: The Breakers

As the plane touched down in Rhode Island, we could feel the cool air from the window.  It had been ninety-eight degrees when we had left the South. We looked at each other, thinking, “This is going to be a very good trip.”  And that premonition proved very true!

It had all started when my sister and I had, through various media (Downton Abbey, the book, To Marry an English Lord, numerous novels) become interested in seeing the “cottages” where these Robber Barons—ahem, American Royalty—had summered during the height of their wealth and prestige.  For those unacquainted with Newport, it is a beautiful coastal town in Rhode Island.  It has Revolutionary War history (there are lots of Colonial structures), and it had been a sort of resort town for Southern gentry before the Civil War. Flash forward twenty years after that, and an unprecedented level of American wealth had been created in a few families (the Vanderbilts, Morgans, Carnegies, Astors, etc.) by such industries as railroads, steel, oil, and finance.  It was royal-level wealth—more than that, in some cases.  And one place they decided to display that new money was in Newport.

An entire Newport season developed when the wealthy would retreat there during the summer.  For more information on this brief but vibrant era, I would highly recommend To Marry an English Lord by Carol McD. Wallace and Gail MacColl.  Newport is where the Duke of Marlborough courted Consuelo Vanderbilt, just to give you an idea of the match-making shenanigans you are in for!

For us, the journey started with one of those miserable bouts with TSA in the Atlanta airport.  Pat-down completed for me, we boarded and settled in for the flight to Providence.

It was about sixty-five degrees when we touched down.  In August.  We got into our rental, a Ford Escape we dubbed “Penn” (on account of its Pennsylvania tags), and drove the short distance to Newport.  We were staying on the third floor of a beautifully renovated Victorian home, which we loved immediately. 

After checking the condo out, we drove toward Cliff Walk, which is a walking/running path directly on the coastline of cliffs. It spans pretty much the entire distance of the city, the mansions behind you, the bay in front of you. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life.  We got out of our car near Salve Regina University (right there on the beautiful cliffs!) and just looked across the water.  We got cold.  And we were in sweaters or long sleeves.  Maybe you would have to be from the South to understand how remarkable this was!

Here are a couple of pictures from this moment:

For the first tour, we decided to go for gold: The Breakers, which is the grandest of the Newport mansions. It was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and I think it is most known for its beautiful verandas which overlook the bay.

Here is a picture of the back of the house:

And the side of the house:

We really wanted to see the views.  And that gate:

At all of the Newport Mansions, the tour is self-guided with a headset.  Headsets are a germaphobe’s worse nightmare, but they carefully clean them as soon as you return them.  I also remember only a couple of times that having the headset on was key to understanding anything.  You can leave them off and just enjoy the general splendor and put them on at the points where something sparks your interest.

Here is a picture of my sister with the headset on, listening to the story:

I will post a few collages of pictures from The Breakers so that you can see the general splendor, the minute attention to detail, and the vast fortune spent on this house.  Some of the highlights for me were the sweeping lawn overlooking the bay, the massive double staircase (with a fountain under it), and the molding and trim work everywhere you turn.  The house is supposedly an Italian Renaissance style palazzo.  I saw some of those touches.  But make no mistake: the main architectural style of this house was splendor, in every aspect.  The goal, I think, must have been to show the world that the Vanderbilts had arrived. 

Enjoy the pictures below!  Take in all of the exquisite details. And stop back next time as we continue our journey through Newport’s mansions!

Cover photo credit: The Preservation Society of Newport County: https://www.newportmansions.org/explore/the-breakers

All other photos: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones

Of Ryan Reynolds and House Museums…

I recently read Ryan Reynolds’s statement about his deep remorse for holding his wedding at Boone Hall Plantation in South Carolina.  The actor related that he saw a pretty venue on Pinterest but that, in reality, it was a place with a tragic past.  He felt that he had really made a huge misstep that perpetuated division.  I’ve read a few articles on the subject that seem to agree with him: that getting married on a plantation is a horrible thing to do.  One author called it “promot[ing] a whitewashing of history atop crimes against humanity.”[1]  The commentary on the subject shows that this is a really hot-button issue. 

As always, I do not wish to delve into political topics, and my desire is for this to be a respectful forum for all.  I can definitely see Reynold’s point: that having a happy-go-lucky wedding on top of soil that was once the sight of enslavement feels incongruous.  In addition, I have this weird (frustrating, to those around me!) ability to see both sides to almost every issue which arises. So I’m not writing this article from any desire to join this argument—just from a desire to be useful on a topic about which I can see that there is some confusion.

I have visited countless historic homes, in the North and South.  Like my modern heroine, Adeline, my real love is for old things and for architectural history.  Therefore, I’m looking mostly at weird antiques and interesting windows or cupolas while I’m touring (nerd alert!).  But I do think that I have learned a few things from these many tours that might be helpful to people who haven’t been on them, so I thought I would share. 

First of all, I will kind of explain the field that house museums fall into: Public History.  It’s an old field that relatively recently has begun to be treated as a discipline or wing of academic history. Public History encompasses archival documentation, museums, historic preservation, curatorial work, educational tours, and a few other fields.  It’s a really important field for all of us.  If these people didn’t exist, we would literally only know oral and archeological history.  Historians would have no documents to research, no buildings to visit, and no antiques to examine. 

In addition, Public Historians are the people with boots on the ground, so to speak, who make it their business to educate the public.  They give cemetery tours at Halloween.  They are the docents when we see the dinosaurs in the museums.  They are the ladies dressed up in Victorian garb who help schoolchildren learn to make candles.  They translate handwritten recipes for us to buy in cookbook format.  They are the men who sit in tights literally all day long in Williamsburg to show us how an eighteenth-century blacksmith wielded his hammer.  Academic Historians do their work for other historians and for the field.  Public Historians work so that all people will know the importance of history. (Shout out to my sister!)

So what does that have to do with this controversy?  A lot.  You see, unless a museum, house museum, or plantation is very underfunded, it is generally run by Public Historians.  One person, when speaking about the Reynolds wedding, commented on an article with a view that plantation house museums are built around a business model that perpetuates a rosy view of the past.  This may have been that person’s experience, and I’m sure that at one time in history, that was true.  However, that has not been my experience. 

The people who work at these historic sites, generally speaking, are not the fan club of or apologists for the families who owned them or for horrific things that may have happened there.  They are highly-trained academics who know that the history they are interpreting is problematic, and they are trained to address those topics. 

So far from brushing things under the rug, I have known docents to take a sort of macabre pride in laying out the nitty gritty details of the past for visitors.  I remember one instance in Savannah, Georgia, where the docent got so frank about the violence of slavery that I was glancing nervously at the children in our group, afraid they would have nightmares (luckily, the kids spoke only French!).  At Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, they shove back the furniture to show you huge blood spots on the wooden floors where men died during the Civil War (so much for romanticizing battles!).   At most plantations, you are shown just how small slave cabins were and how many families were forced to live in them.  There’s nothing like stepping into one of them for yourself to evoke poignant and painful knowledge of just how things really were for those who lived there.

I have learned a lot about slavery by touring Southern plantations and house museums—more, I think than I have learned in all of my academic studies. It was at McLeod Plantation in South Carolina that I learned from the docent that saying “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” was an effort on the part of Public History to remind us that the people who were held in bondage were just that: people.  They had lives and stories, and not all of them are lost to history if we look for them in the right places.  Almost all of the tour at McLeod is devoted to individual enslaved people whose lives the historians there have meticulously researched.  We learned who they were and what a typical day would look like for them.  I had always thought that enslaved people’s individual stories had been tragically lost.  For me, this excellent piece of Public History showed me that this was not true.

Again, if those I saw responding to the articles about the Reynolds wedding have had a bad experience at a house museum, that is truly a shame.  My guess is that, when it does happen that history is whitewashed in museums, it would likely be from a lack of training and funding, although, of course, there may be certain people who have, or had in the past, specific goals in mind when doing so.

You may be wondering what touring a house museum has to do with hosting a wedding there.  The argument could be made that the first is merely history, which is good for people to learn, and the second is a celebration of a personal event at a place of troubled history. Some may feel they chose a plantation venue for the wrong reasons.

But I have known of people to get married at plantations for a variety of reasons which include no cause for judgment or blame.  One was a girl who couldn’t find another venue in a rural area to take the burden of hosting off her family. One was an African American woman whose decision to marry at a plantation could only have held profound meaning for her family that I can’t even begin to understand.

And I could have taken this wrong, but I think Reynolds and the commentators weren’t just talking about the wedding: they were implicitly extending their feelings to house museums and plantations operating for business in any capacity.  That is to say, I think they felt they should all be closed for business.

And I think that belief misunderstands the nature and purpose of house museums as they operate today. Yes, we are dealing with humans who sometimes tell the wrong story or have the wrong beliefs, just like in any aspect of life.  But we are also dealing with a field that provides one of the few forums communicating directly to the public about the lives of people who were enslaved.

And to lose this forum would be a loss to all of us.


[1] https://www.themarysue.com/boone-hall-plantation-responds-weakly-to-ryan-reynolds-remorse-for-getting-married-there/

Southern Road Trip #5: Colonial Williamsburg

Well, Road Trip Enthusiasts, we have made it to our final (for now) December Girls’ Trip. The following details our trip to Williamsburg, VA in December of 2018. Enjoy!

    5. Colonial Williamsburg (December 2018)

After having to forego touring Colonial Williamsburg on our first trip to Virginia in 2013, we decided this state of affairs simply wouldn’t do and buckled up for a trip back across Virginia! In my post on our first trip to Virginia, I mentioned our love for Michie Tavern in Charlottesville near Monticello. Coming from Tennessee, there were two routes we could take to get to the coast, and knowing that Michie Tavern lay along the trail of one of them made that decision easy! We wheeled in there first and ate some delicious grub. It was this stop at Michie where we saw a beautiful French family with many children. (They were speaking French, so we assumed France, but they could have hailed from anywhere, of course.) We predicted they had come all of that way to tour Monticello, which was pretty cool!

But Monticello wasn’t on our agenda this time since we had already been. I made the last-minute suggestion, however, that we drop by the neighboring James Monroe’s Highland. In 2016, a huge discovery had been made at Highland. During an archaeological dig, the foundation for a much larger house was uncovered. The more modest house, which was thought for many years to be Monroe’s home, was actually just a guest house. You can find a fabulous article detailing this historic find here: https://www.history.com/news/major-discovery-at-james-monroes-historic-virginia-home.

I had been following this story fairly closely, as well as viewing pictures of their rare (and extremely cute) breed of sheep, so I thought it would be a good idea to swing by for a tour. There were good things about Highland: the staff was really laid-back and friendly, the grounds were pretty, and the story of James Monroe is not well-known but is certainly worth hearing. But there were some downsides, too: the archaeological find is amazing, but the sad fact is that the huge house Monroe had lived in isn’t there, so the tour is still limited to the guest house. There were Monroe family antiques in there, and it is a neat house in its own right, but it’s not a stimulating visual experience. In addition, Highland still gives the impression of being fairly new as a house museum. It’s not a well-oiled machine like Monticello, and, frankly, for a Presidential Home, I was a bit surprised at the lack of funds which had been allotted to it. As a personal grievance, the sheep were nowhere to be found (it was cold that day, so I assume they had retired to shelter, and this was no one’s fault). But still, I would recommend going to Highland to get a feel for the Monroe family and for the amazing discoveries being made there every day.

And then: on to Williamsburg! There is nowhere quite so cozy as Colonial Williamsburg at Christmastime. Colonial-style decorations fill every window and door. My mom actually bought a book which showed how to make the decorations, and we tried it this past Christmas with some success! We bought our tickets in advance, so we just drove to the parking lot of the visitor center, where they give you a bracelet and bus you into the park. It’s so cool, getting out and stepping right onto the grounds of the Governor’s Palace.

We toured the Palace first. I pointed at the rippled windows and said, “Those are really old.” The first thing the docent said when she began our tour was, “I’m sorry to tell you that the Governor’s Palace is entirely new construction.” And that’s the wonder of Colonial Williamsburg. They do good work. Everything there is built with 18th Century tools in 18th Century style (quite possibly while wearing 18th Century stockings). So it was a bit of a bummer to find out that the Palace had been reconstructed, but it is an excellent reconstruction. I particularly remember the ballroom and the stage the docent set for a Colonial ball while we were there. You can really imagine the hosting that would have taken place in the Royal Governor’s home.

Then we walked around the shops within the “park.” My sister bought an 18th Century-style straw hat, which is just as wearable on the beach as it would be for a costume. You get to see how all sorts of Colonial trades worked (blacksmithing, weaving, etc.). We visited the courthouse, which is an original building that has been used in several films.

The Capitol building was really fabulous (again, I’ve spotted it in several historical films). We got to watch the docent manufacture and carry through a trial with actors plucked from our tour group. The tour groups are huge, but this one was great because you got to fill up the parliamentary room. And of course, since most things are reconstructed, they are not persnickety about letting you sit on or touch things that look like historical gems. Except at the George Wythe House.

George Wythe was a philosopher and professor during the Colonial and Young Republic periods, and his original house stands within the “park” of Colonial Williamsburg. DO NOT EVEN TRY to chew gum in the George Wythe House. My mom got busted, to the amusement of her daughters. It was a bit like whip-lash to go from the “prop your feet up” mentality of all of the reconstructed buildings to the strict reverence for this historical house, but as long as you are forewarned, you will be alright.

There is a calendar of events for each day in the “park.” You can get a handheld copy at the visitor center, but I highly recommend downloading the app, which gives daily updates and neat tidbits you would otherwise miss. We saw on the app that there was a Fife and Drum assembly and presented ourselves at the proper time. And lo! Down the street come scores of irritated middle schoolers dressed in Colonial garb and marching to the beat of drums. They lined up and took off to the music of the flutes and drums they were playing, and it was neat to watch that visual history. I think there is another group you can see that consists of adults, but honestly, the kids were very talented.

One really great thing about Colonial Williamsburg is the food. The King’s Arms Tavern serves up Colonial fare and is quite tasty. There was a fantastic restaurant on Merchant’s Square, the street that kind of marks the end of the “park” area and the beginning of the regular town. (Don’t worry, everything is still very Colonial in Merchant’s Square. There was even ice skating.)

Speaking of Merchant’s Square, some of the shops were truly amazing. We finally got to go in Scotland House, and I bought a great necklace with the Colquhoun (pronounced Cuh-hoon or Calhoun, or, by my family wing, Cowan) crest. I also now have a scarf in the Colquhoun tartan, which my sister bought me there on a recent trip, so you can find great stuff if you have some Scottish or Scots-Irish family history and know your clan! We also bought some Christmas ornaments at some of the other shops. The quality is fantastic.

The one thing I will say is that Christmas seems to be a bit of a tricky time for Colonial Williamsburg. Summer is obviously their big season, but they expect (and have) many tourists at Christmas. However, I believe they are also preparing to go into maintenance mode in January. Therefore, some of the shops weren’t open, and not everything was quite fully staffed. For instance, we had been planning to go to a musical recital at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church (a fabulous building which is three centuries old and which hosted many historical figures), but we, and the others lining up, were told that they would only have the performance if they could get at least two volunteer interpreters to come into work. Why put it on the schedule if it’s not going to happen, we wondered?

I should also mention something that first-time visitors might not know: Not everything Williamsburg does is covered in your admission ticket. There are some things, such as dinner with Thomas Jefferson, certain theatricals, etc. which sound really great but that you have to book (and pay for) separately. And book in advance if you want to do them. All of the extras were entirely booked by the time we got there. Still, there is a lot to do under a general admission ticket.

One thing that was super convenient was that the bus picks you up at various stops throughout Colonial Williamsburg, so you don’t have to kill yourself to walk back to your original stop. Just keep up with your map to locate all of the stops, and you’ll be set.

Outside of the park, we took a drive out to Newport News, since we had never seen it. It totally wasn’t worth it because of a torrential downpour. We came back and decided to go to the movies because of said torrential downpour and ended up at Movie Tavern (everything is a “tavern” in Williamsburg!), where they bring you a menu, and you order your supper during the movie. Our movie happened to be Mary Poppins Returns. We really enjoyed that.

It’s also worth driving by the (quite expensive) Williamsburg Inn to see the gentleman in full Colonial garb waiting to assist the lodgers as they drive up.

Also, we drove out to Yorktown, which is just a gorgeous little town – so picturesque!  That ended up being one of our favorite parts of the trip.

On the way home, we decided to take the second of the two routes for a change of scenery. This involved going quite near to Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, a Civil War stop on a decidedly Colonial trip. We decided we would drive in, even though we knew the Park was closed due to the government shut down during that time. That sounds like a bummer, doesn’t it, not to be able to actually go in and see the buildings? And it was. But there was a silver lining: we got to see the cite of Lee’s surrender to Grant totally devoid of tourists from high on a field nearby. We could see the entire little town with houses and the courthouse, and there was just something special about the peace and tranquility of the scene that we wouldn’t have gotten if the Park had been open. (By the way, if you want the same experience, the Park is currently closed again due to the quarantine.)

As a side-note, we also passed quite near Jefferson’s second home, Poplar Forest. I was game but decided not to harass my fellow-travelers, who bear with my historical enthusiasm admirably, and who were at this point exhausted.

And then…the really long drive home!

I hope you have enjoyed this Southern Road Trips series! I’m sure there will be more in the future, but that winds up our series of 5 December girls’ trips. Thanks for following us on the ride!

Southern Road Trip #4: Charleston, SC

We’re continuing our road trip through the South! In December 2016, it was my sister’s turn to choose and plan our girls’ trip, and she put together an awesome itinerary for a trip to Charleston, South Carolina.

  1. Charleston, South Carolina (December 2016)

Starting with our trip to Natchez, we began making fairly elaborate itineraries for our December girls’ trips. I don’t recommend strict itineraries if you are going on a relaxing vacation or a rambling road trip, but I do highly recommend them when there are several things you want to see and limited time. You save the time you would spend searching for a restaurant or tourist attraction and are able to put that much time back into exploring and taking in the culture. My sister compiled a beautiful itinerary for Charleston that started with, “Please do not blame Hannah for any problems that may arise.” This was our fourth trip, and by now, we had a catalogue of funny stories from things that went wrong, and she isn’t the sister of two lawyers for nothing.

On Day 1, we departed and drove to the Hampton Inn in West Ashley, a suburb of Charleston. Hannah was careful to put even the address of the hotel on the itinerary, which is another time-saver. We went up the road for dinner at a barbecue place and then just drove around the city. That might seem like wasted time, but it is actually what I remember most, seeing the Battery at night. Charleston abounds with beautiful mansions, and they know how to show them off with lights and fountains, etc. at night. It was one of those situations where someone is yelling, “Look over there! Oh, my gosh, this one is so pretty!” so much that you get whiplash.

On Day 2, we had breakfast at the hotel and then drove to Middleton Place for a tour. I will just warn you: the price was a nosebleed that left us standing there stunned for a few minutes before finally deciding it was worth it. The gardens there are extensive, and you get to ramble through them before you tour the house. Middleton Place is rather famous for its grass stairs leading down to the Ashley River. It looks like something you would see at a European castle. When we were planning the itinerary and narrowing down the house museums that we would tour, the moment I saw a picture of those grass stairs, I knew we had to go. And then…we promptly forgot to look at the stairs. Yes, I’m not kidding. We were afterwards so mad at ourselves for this that we still talk about it (jokingly, of course, sort of) as one of our life’s greatest regrets. But anyway, we enjoyed the gardens. The house tour was actually just a tour of what they call a “flanker” in Charleston. Charlestonian architecture often consisted of a main house in the center flanked by two long, separate wings. The main house and flanker were burned during the Civil War when the Union broke through the Confederate lines in the Spring of 1865. Therefore, the house tour wasn’t the most awe-inspiring I have ever experienced, but there were some pretty neat things about it, such as, for instance, the family had converted the flanker into a house once their lands were returned to them by the federal government, and they produced a very talented female artist in the family. (Side-note: I half-fictionalize this family and house in the Torn Asunder Series.)

Next stop was Edmonston-Alston House on the Battery. (Another side-note: I used this house as partial inspiration for the Ravenel-Thompson House which Adeline is restoring in the Torn Asunder series.) Edmonston-Alston is, in contrast to Middleton Place, a town house overlooking the Charleston Battery, so it has a very different vibe. My favorite room was the very unusual library. In contrast to most libraries of its time, it has white bookshelves and a very sunny feel. The balconies which look out over the harbor are absolutely magnificent. The residents stood on them and watched the Battle of Fort Sumter. The house is actually connected by family to Middleton Place, so these tours are great to do back-to-back.

From there, we went to Poogan’s Porch, where we had lunch. The house special that day were sweet potato dumplings with collard greens. It was to-die-for. I should mention that Charleston cuisine is “fancy.” It is a mix of French, Gullah-Geechee, and Southern cooking. It takes you just a moment to get used to it, and then you’re ready to try all sorts of new things. They have many world-renowned chefs in Charleston, so you may try many creative and delicious dishes, or you can just stick with the city special: shrimp and grits.

The Charleston City Market was next on the itinerary. We had to mark it off the list because we ran out of time, but I went on a subsequent trip, so I can highly recommend it. You’ll find local crafts, including the famous seagrass baskets. When my sister and I went in 2019, we struck up a conversation with a brother-sister duo with a Gullah-Geechee family history of making baskets. We told them about our family history of making split oak baskets in Woodbury, Tennessee, and they were very interested and told us we should come sell them at the Market, since no one sells split oak there. Not a horrible idea, if only we knew how to make them!

Next stop: Drayton Hall! This house was THE inspiration for Santarella, so if you visit, you will pretty much know what Shannon’s country house looked like! (Note: Drayton is on the Ashley River, and I placed Santarella on the Sea Islands, so there is a slight difference there.) The house is still owned by descendants (as is Edmonston-Alston), and they still have get-togethers there. I can’t remember if this is the reason there is no furniture in the house or if it’s because they have placed a real emphasis on preserving the bones of the house. And they have done an exceptional job of that. There is a colonial vibe in the house, since it is that old, and the double staircase really made my sister freak out. There is even an emphasis on preserving the old trees and vegetation surrounding the house, so you really get the feeling that the property is in good hands. Like Middleton, there used to be two flankers surrounding Drayton, but now, only the main structure stands.

Finally for that day, we had dinner at the West Ashley Crab Shack, which was delicious. And that was the close of an extremely busy day!

We slept soundly that night and woke up the next morning and had breakfast at the hotel again. Then we drove out to Boone Hall. You may know it from its appearances on movies and shows, particularly from North and South, where it was used as Orry Main’s family plantation – help me here, Mont Royal? Anyway, for that reason, it is probably the most touristy of the house museums in Charleston, featuring wagon rides over the property and fun activities like that for families. We were given a house tour by an extremely charismatic gentleman in a period-appropriate costume. Our Tennessee accents came up again since he needed help conceptualizing the Southern accent for the rest of the large tour group, most of whom weren’t from the South.

After that, we had planned a carriage tour, but we were either exhausted or it rained, because we marked it off. We went instead to Jestine’s Kitchen, which featured excellent Southern cooking, Charleston-style.

Then we drove out to Sullivan’s Island, another memorable part of the trip. It was December, but warm enough we took a refreshing walk on the beach before going to a restaurant on the island called the Obstinate Daughter, a play on Charleston’s Revolutionary War roots. This was DELICIOUS. I had a cold shrimp sandwich and Geechee Frites, which were actually fries made of grits. The whole meal was a play on Charleston’s shrimp and grits theme. We also went to a gelato place called Beardcat’s next door, where I tried red velvet cookie dough gelato. Heavenly.

We drove around a neighboring island, Folly Beach, one of the days we were there. There was an excellent ice cream place there called Dolce Banana. Are you sensing a theme here? I blame my sister.

On Day 4, we woke up, had breakfast at the hotel again, and then drove out to James Island to tour McLeod Plantation. We argued the entire way there about how that would be pronounced. (It is pronounced Mick-Loud run together really fast so that you hear the word “cloud”. I think. My mom had guessed right, and I was wrong, for the record!) This was our first experience of a sea island plantation, so again, there was a very different feel from the others. The masters and their families spent very little time on their Sea Island plantations, so you can really feel the influences of the Gullah Geechee culture that were able to ripen on such plantations. This tour focused on the enslaved people who had once lived and worked on the island, and the curators had done a remarkable job finding names and stories of those people to share and bringing their experiences to life. There were descendants of those once enslaved living at McLeod all the way through the 1990’s. There is some fascinating history about the enslaved on the Sea Islands during the Civil War, but I won’t spoil it: you’ll have to go yourself to find out!

Go to this link to learn all about Edmonston-Alston and Middleton and to see those stairs at Middleton: https://www.edmondstonalston.org/about/

Alright, that’s a wrap! Next time: we’re going back to Virginia!

Southern Road Trip #3: Natchez, Mississippi

This post continues my Southern Road Trip Series, which are blogs I am posting for #traveltuesdays. The story continues with a girls’ trip to Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi, in December, 2015.

  1. Natchez, Mississippi

This week’s stop…Mississippi! Every year, we take turns planning the trips, and this year was my sister-in-law’s turn. She took us first to Vicksburg, where we hoped to see some fabulous history. Since it is a bit of a drive to Vicksburg, we went first to eat at a restaurant downtown and then hopped back in the car to go to the battlefield in the last hour of daylight we had. Normally, there would have been a charge to drive through, but since we made it so late, they waved us on through the gate – bonus!

I cannot say enough about how beautiful the Vicksburg National Military Park is. The views are breath-taking. The Union monuments were beautiful. Vicksburg is unexpectedly very hilly right there on the banks of the Mississippi River. You really get a feel for the siege and battle which took place, and, being a dork, I find things like that rather moving.

That night, we stayed in a Hampton Inn which featured a cannon on the front lawn. Try to beat that, history lovers! Then we took a drive through Vicksburg, hoping to find some historic homes to tour. Sadly, there are plenty of historic homes, but they are falling into disrepair and dilapidation. Calling all preservationists! Seriously, Vicksburg is a gem waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, the historic buildings will either disintegrate beyond repair or be torn down if no money or care is put into them.  A rather sad fate for such an important city during the Civil War.

Okay, that’s my historic preservation pitch! Moving on, I was agog to see one of the caves which the citizens of Vicksburg had dug in order to protect themselves from the Union’s 47-day siege. They had fitted such caves out like houses, with furniture and cooking equipment, etc. (Lest you think this is cute, things got pretty rough in there – we’re talking rat-eating.) But when I asked at the Military Park where I could find one, they told me that they were all privately owned. However, the Park Museum did have a very good replica inside, so I was satisfied.

Onward to Natchez! From there, we slid on down to Natchez, which is one of the most fabulous Southern cities I have ever visited. It is positively teeming with beautifully preserved antebellum homes, has great food, and boasts sweeping vistas of the Mississippi River. Just be forewarned that all of the restaurants are closed on Mondays.

We toured Rosalie Plantation first, which was absolutely stunning with Greek Revival columns, a view of the Mississippi, and a great story.  From there, we toured Stanton Hall, a mansion all in white, which was one of my favorites due to its architecture and clean look.

Then, it was on to Longwood, one of the creepiest (and most fabulous) places I have ever toured. It was built in an octagon shape and had sooo many levels of floors, but on the inside, only the first/basement floor was completed before the war… And that’s all that was ever completed. So you walk into this massive and exquisite house to find that it’s largely a shell. It is the oldest incomplete home in America. This tour was very moving due to the story of the people, owner and enslaved, who lived there. (It is this blog’s feature picture.)

My sister-in-law had arranged for us to spend the night at Historic Monmouth Inn. It is an antebellum plantation turned bed and breakfast, and it was an extremely cozy experience. A bellhop meets you to help with your baggage and takes you to your rooms. Yes, the room where you spend the night looks straight out of a Civil War film. There are free appetizers right before suppertime, as well as cocktails for those who imbibe made by a man named Roosevelt, who has worked at Monmouth for many years and is apparently a legend. You have free range of the house at night, which is both wonderful and eerie. Also, the gift shop stays open late, so my sister and I slipped down and bought my mom a Christmas ornament since she collects them from our December trips.

The next morning included breakfast at a venue across the lawn, and I specifically remember a British family being there and taking great interest in our accents. Also included was a tour of Monmouth, during which I got inspiration for one of my novels from a letter the docent read us. Hint: I’ll tell you about it when we get to Book 3 of the Torn Asunder Series.

We wanted to tour Melrose Plantation and went there and took some fabulous pictures of it, but tours didn’t start until an hour later, so we had to hit the road back home. And I will just say that, with all of those house museums I have mentioned, we barely scratched the surface of all of the houses in Natchez. In addition, there is something distinct and lovely about Natchez which sticks with you – it’s a little bit New Orleans, a little bit Memphis, and a little bit pinky in the air posh.

We were sad to leave, but we hopped on the Natchez Trail…and nearly ran out of gas miles from anywhere. But we survived!

See you next time!

Stop #4 is…Charleston! You heard me. 😊

Southern Road Trip #2: Asheville, NC

This post continues my Southern Road Trip Series, which are blogs I am posting for #traveltuesdays. The story continues with a girls’ trip to Asheville, North Carolina in December, 2014.

#2:  Asheville, North Carolina

Our next post-Christmas trip was a little shorter, this time just consisting of one city. I had been to Asheville before, but only to the outskirts where Biltmore was, and the awesomeness of the downtown really took me by surprise. It’s big and crowded and a great mix of old and new. Speaking of crowded… Apparently everyone goes to Asheville right after Christmas, so beware! We tried, if memory serves, four different hotels before we finally found a vacancy. The streets were teeming with pedestrians, and the streets packed with cars that honked at the most trivial things!

Our destination was, of course, Biltmore. We had pre-reserved tickets for the Christmas candlelight tour, which, I have to say, was pretty awesome. The lights were dimmed, the trees lit, the hot chocolate flowing (not inside the house, of course). There were some of the costumes from Downton Abbey on display at the time we went, and it was interesting to see them in their natural, time-period-appropriate habitat. Right now through April 7 at Biltmore is the full Downton Abbey exhibition, which I have heard is phenomenal.

Biltmore really is a revelation. The dining hall looks like something out of a medieval castle. The library, my favorite room, is reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast, with balconies and ladders and shelves reaching to the skies. The bedrooms are really amazing, and the servants’ quarters are straight out of Downton Abbey. The view is not to be missed either. There is something special about looking at the mountains from the balconies at Biltmore, something that caused George Vanderbilt to build his dream home there despite huge obstacles.

There is also a really awesome pizzeria and taproom in downtown Asheville that we went to for lunch. I cannot remember the name (can you tell that this was after my first semester of law school?), but it had Art Deco touches on the ceiling, and we speculated that the building was at one time perhaps a speak-easy. (If you’ve been there and know the name, give me a shout!)

Not to be forgotten is the Smith-McDowell House, which we also toured while we were in Asheville. This has a much different vibe from Biltmore, since it was built in 1840 and has much more of an antebellum estate feel, but we had a really good experience there. It claims the title of the oldest surviving house in Asheville, so it’s something that you want to at least see if you’re there and like history.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one last thing: Asheville is home to The Tobacco Barn, which is an antique store that features 77,000 square feet of antiques. Yes, you heard me. My mom, our resident antique afficionado, was absolutely not going to miss this. I have been wracking my brains as I prepared for this post to remember why I didn’t go in. I knew it was because I was too tired, but why? If you know me, you know I’d have to be pretty tired to miss this. And then, the answer came back: law school. But…my mom highly recommends it. At the time we stopped, they had lots of old supplies for restoring old homes: doorknobs, windows, doors, etc., which sounds pretty neat!

So, while my brain was fuzzy, and my body exhausted, I do have very pleasant memories of Asheville.

Have you ever been?

Stop #3 is…Natchez Mississippi – one of my favorites!

Photo Credit: Biltmore®

Southern Road Trip #1: Virginia

Most Decembers, my mom, sister, sister-in-law, and I go on girls’ trips right after Christmas and return home on New Year’s Eve. In honor of Travel Tuesday, I thought it would be fun to tell you about our travel destinations so far and tell you a little about what we have done on our Southern Road Trips! The first road trip we took is detailed below, and I will try to post about each of the rest in succeeding weeks!

Stop #1: Virginia (December 2013)

In 2013, I was wanting to look at a couple of the law schools to which I had been accepted. My girls were up for a road trip, and thus the December trips were born. Right from the beginning, the trips were heavy on history. Our first stop was in Lexington, Virginia, where I had been accepted at Washington and Lee. Very friendly people! Lovely campus! Also, while we were there, we did a drive-by of VMI. Very impressive fortress! The town of Lexington was cute, and, of course, packed with history. Stonewall Jackson once taught at VMI and was very much a part of the Lexington community, and Robert E. Lee served as the president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) after the Civil War. Just be cautious about the stop lights! They are not above the car but are instead on the sidewalks beside you. We blew through about three of them before realizing they even existed.

From there, we drove to Charlottesville, where we had supper at a fabulous Mexican restaurant called Plaza Azteca. My sister-in-law spoke fabulous Spanish with the waiter, a gentleman who corrected me on my own Spanish and made exemplary guacamole at our table. Of course, the destination was Monticello. You park, and they take you in fancy little buses up Jefferson’s hill. The tour of the house and grounds is awe-inspiring. Monticello is actually a World Heritage Site now, and it’s easy to see why. As my mom said, “You can really feel Jefferson’s presence here.” Monticello was and is a very loved house. There is also a new exhibition on the Hemingses of Monticello, which was insightful. The staff operates like a well-oiled machine, and the gift shop is not to be disdained. I actually ordered a colonial-style wreath from them this Christmas, and it arrived all the way from Virginia in perfect condition.

Then we went just around the river bend to Michie Tavern, which is a revelation in and of itself. It was originally a tavern and inn, which continued in operation until around the time of the Civil War. It opened as a museum in 1928. Today, you walk up to the big wooden door, knock, and a person in period-appropriate attire comes and welcomes you in. Then you get in line and are given a trencher, which more costumed interpreters fill with typical Southern fare. Our favorite menu item is what we call “Jefferson’s tomatoes,” although we cannot establish whether he actually ever had the recipe. Basically, they’re stewed tomatoes with biscuits crumbled in and a dash of sugar added. Heavenly. You then go out into the tavern dining room, which is appropriately dimly lit, and you are served drinks from metal mugs. It is delightful and delicious.

From there, it was on to Richmond! Rain was pouring down, and our time was limited, so we only got to do two things. We drove down Monument Avenue, lined with mansions and monuments, which you have to do if you go to Richmond. We also went to Maymont, which is a Victorian estate. This is like touring Biltmore Estate in North Carolina or some of the cottages in Newport, Rhode Island. It is the same era, and every bit as fancy. The family story is fascinating, as are their antiques. The house and estate is beautifully preserved. It was very crowded the day we toured, and a little chilly, so I suggest that if you have to wait for your tour under similar circumstances, do not sacrifice your place in the gift shop (they will tell you when they are at capacity). Otherwise, absolutely get outside and explore the grounds, which are still intact with gardens, a carriage house, an arboretum, and some of the buildings used while it was a working estate. The tour is free, but they love donations.

Then we went on to Charles City County, a still-very-remote and untouched area where lots of historical movies are filmed. The destination was Shirley Plantation. However, my mom saw a sign for Berkeley Plantation and made a rapid left turn. We then proceeded down a driveway with no gravel while it continued to pour rain, wondering whether we would ever get out. My mom, however, was quite determined, and we made it. Berkeley was the home of the Harrisons of Virginia (as in Benjamin, William Henry, etc.). While there, we had an excellent tour from a man in an 18th Century waistcoat and tights, admired the odd pink color of the walls, and learned that the Harrison men were very attractive, or at least very photogenic in portraits. Taps was also composed and first played there, to top it off, while the Union Army was encamped there. Talk about worlds colliding!

Then we went to Shirley Plantations, which is *ohmygosh* FABULOUS. First of all, there was a cat in the gift shop called Tuna. How do you top that? Established in 1613, Shirley claims the title as the oldest farm in America and is still owned and operated by descendants today. Maybe it’s just the structure and architecture of the house that I love so much, or maybe it was the deeply colonial feeling of it when you walk in… Either way, it resonates!

And then, our final destination was Williamsburg. Our main point in going there was to see William and Mary, which I was considering attending. Beautiful campus! Amazing setting! We didn’t have time to tour Colonial Williamsburg (do you see a Part 2 coming soon? ), but we did drive around the stunning town and had a great supper at a swanky seafood place which was a little over our budget. But our waitress was really nice and told us about her home in Czechia, which was really memorable. We also went to the great university bookstore on campus and found a Scottish store with accessories in the crests and tartans of the original clans from Scotland (go Clan Colquhoun!). Sadly, the latter was closed, so we made plans to return.  And then…the fourteen-hour drive home!

Next time: Asheville, North Carolina!