Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “museums”

Freeway-Free in Texas – Houston’s Julia Idelson Library – a Hidden Treasure

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Some folks probably only visit’s Houston’s main library because you can get validated free parking in the library garage by making a visit to its downstairs lobby.  They miss a lot.

On my recent trip, I was attracted by the garden and wrought iron fence surrounding the OLD library building (now known as the Julia Ideson Building, located right next to the new concrete edifice which supplanted it. )Once in the garden, I had to take a look at the historic building’s insides.  And as often happens in old libraries (I am somewhat of a library junkie) I found hidden treasures.

In the downstairs lobby was an extensive exhibit of original letters and news articles in glass showcases, chronicling the struggle of Houston’s black population to gain entrance to the city’s libraries. It was fascinating and chilling to see how earnestly, politely, and stubbornly the black citizens of Houston staked their claim to equal access to the libraries their taxes helped pay for, and how circuitously, hypocritically, and stubbornly the city and the education system of 1920’s-40’s Houston resisted their claim. (Houston’s black populations did not have equal access to the libraries until the 1950’s, under pressure from returning black veterans and the Eisenhower administration.)

Upstairs we found a beautiful painted ceiling and plaster-relief fresco above the wood-paneled walls.  Off one side of the vaulted second floor landing was a wonderful old reading room, presided over by Venus de Milo herself.

And behind an updated glass door was another exhibit, featuring the first black student to enroll in a major university in the South, John S. Chase. He was an architecture student, and there was no black college in Texas where the university system could pretend to offer him a “separate but equal” education.  Despite many obstacles (e.g. Texas regulations had to be waived to allow him to get an architect’s license without having served an internship, as no architectural firm would hire him) Chase went on to become a successful architect and mentor to a generation of successors. 20180405_HLibrary1

On our way to the ladies’ room, we spotted a door at the end of the corridor marked “Authorized Researchers Only” . Of course we considered ourselves authorized researchers, and went in. Behind the oak doors was the original  children’s room of the old library, with its age-darkened bookshelves crammed with the children’s books which were too old, too little in demand, too overtly racist, or for some other inscrutable reason were deemed unsuitable for general circulation in today’s Houston Library network. 20180405_Hlibrary3

Of course, many of these books were very familiar to W and I and some had been much loved (Robert Lawson’s Smeller Martin and Elizabeth Coatsworth’s The White Horse were two I remember well and paged through once more with great glee, despite their racist stereotypes).  It was an Ali Baba’s cave to booklovers.

If you are in Houston with some hours to while away (I’m thinking maybe a rainy day, of which there are many) this would be a wonderful way to while.

 

 

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Freeway Free in Memphis: Graceland

20180511_105302The first record I ever bought (and I still have it) was Elvis Presley’s debut album, “Elvis”. So when we found we had a day to spare in Memphis, of course we decided to make a pilgrimage to Elvis’s realm at Graceland.

It was not what I expected.  True, the original house and grounds have undergone Disneyfication, with separate large exhibition halls devoted to his cars, his costumes, his movies (running all day long)  his gold records,  and his effect on music.  Each hall has its own souvenir shop, and there are also several restaurants on the grounds.

But the original house, accessible by shuttle van only, is like a time capsule of the late 50’s and early 60’s.  The house itself is relatively unpretentious.  Tourists are reminded that Elvis was born in a two-room shack with outdoor plumbing, built by his father in Tupelo Mississippi.  The family moved to Memphis in search of opportunity when Elvis was a teenager.  Memphis was his home town;  this was the place where the people lived whom he trusted, and whose opinion he cared about.  So when he wanted to build a family home, he didn’t think of Beverly Hills.  He bought one of the nicest homes on the outskirts of Memphis.  The previous owner had been a successful dentist.

Inside, the house is decorated in early 60’s middle-class style:  lots of mirrors, lots of white and gilt, lots of crystal chandeliers, lots of silver on display in china cupboards, lots of shag carpeting. The den is upholstered in paisley prints, the TV room with its adjacent bar is lacquered yellow and black, and has three vacuum tube TV sets so Elvis could watch all three major channels at once.  (I guess PBS did not rate its own set.)  We were told that most of the rooms had been redecorated several times, reflecting the taste of whatever girl friend Elvis was hanging out with at the time.  On his own, he tended to like a lot of purple and pink, but his mother (yes, his parents lived in the house with him)exercised some restraint, and would not allow him to fool around with the kitchen at all.

There is a charming story told in a children’s book available at one of the gift shops, about how a young Elvis used to look in the windows of Lansky Bros. clothing store in Memphis, and one day the Mr. Lansky invited him to come in and take a closer look. The two chatted, and later when Elvis needed clothes for his first concert, Mr. Lansky extended him credit purely on his assessment of the boy’s honesty and potential.  , According to the story, after Elvis hit it big, he bought all his  clothes from Lansky Bros., who would sometimes just send out a van full of clothing for Elvis to choose from.

The costume exhibition and the car barn made me think most about the older Elvis, the raddled, paunchy, sequined, padded and corseted entity of the Vegas years.  But the house evoked the quiet, well-mannered young man whom everyone he met seemed to like, before fame took him in its grip.20180511_105635

 

Thoughts of Those Who Serve (Town Crier May 2,2018)

img_0056.jpgMy husband is something of a connoisseur of National Memorials, having been born and raised in Gettysburg, PA.  So on our recent visit to Hawaii we fulfilled his long-held wish to visit the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.

The monument now bears the cumbersome official title of “World War II Valor in the Pacific Nation Monument-Hawaii.” Not only could we visit the shrine over the sunken hulk of the USS Arizona with most of its crew permanently interred inside, but also tour the USS Missouri, on which the final surrender was signed by the Japanese, and the submarine USS Bowfin. Large interactive exhibitions explain the lead-up to Pearl Harbor, the attack, and the role of submarines in World War II. An excellent audio tour led us through the exhibits located both in the galleries and around the grounds, ending at a theater giving even more vivid detail about the attack.

It had been a quiet Sunday morning, some of the sailors still in their bunks recoving from the gaieties of Saturday night, others about to raise the flag to signal the official beginning of duties, when the Japanese planes roared in.  The attack was finely targeted to take out the US  battleships,  lined up neatly on Battleship Row. Over a thousand men died in the USS Arizona alone when it sank to the bottom of the harbor with no way out.

Of the 2403 people killed that day, only 49 were civilians.  But this was still the largest number of civilian deaths due to military action on US soil since the Civil War, and remains the largest number today, (discounting 9-11-01 as a terrorist, not a military action.)\The US and Canada were unique among the major combatant nations in WWII in having almost no civilian fatalities on their own soil.   Russia lost over 4.5 million civilians, Germany over two million, Japan three million, and China over twenty million. Civilians in Great Britain, France, and Italy died in the hundreds of thousands.  But the war stayed far away from us. Including the 49 lost on December 7, 1941, mainly due to faulty anti-aircraft shells falling in residential areas, the total civilian deaths on US soil came to 55.

US civilians have been sheltered from war by our broad ocean boundaries to east and west, and our good neighbors to north and south. Except for the Civil War,  we have always been able to keep our wars on other people’s territory.  During the current wars in the Mid-East  we send our “military advisers” far afield with  our  drones and our missiles, and if a few of them blunder across a home-made land mine or get caught in crossfire, we might heave a sigh as we read about it at the bottom of  page 4 of the newspaper.

Both my brothers are Army veterans.  Both spent a good part of their service overseas.  One was repeatedly shot at, the other wasn’t. Both survived without physical injury, but not without mental and emotional scars. I am tremendously proud of both of them.  They signed up to to be strangers in a hostile land, to run risks , to be targeted, so that you and I could be comfortable.

Our soldiers, sailors and air force are our gladiators, fighting  our proxy battles in foreign arenas, so that we can be safe in our homes from invasion. Don’t wait until Memorial Day to honor the dead, but smile at a living person in uniform today, while he or she can smile back.

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Freeway Free in Texas: A Stop-Over in LaGrange – a GEM!

20170407_122257.jpgW and I decided to spend some time in LaGrange primarily because it is conveniently about halfway between Houston and Austin.  We found a lot more to like than we had expected.

LaGrange boasts a real town square, with a Victorian-vintage courthouse which includes an interior courtyard with a fountain and a beautiful carved oak staircase.  Surrounding the courthouse are a number  of 1910-20’s vintage buildings , and some charming shops tucked inside those vintage buildings.

If you are hungry, Bistro 108 just off the main square offers some excellent eats.  On our visit the soup of the day was a corn chowder so good I wanted to lick the bowl, while the special of fried catfish was the best I have eaten of that species since I left Texas behind as a girl.

20170407_132055.jpgAfter lunch, a stroll around the square will bring you to the Texas Quilt Museum, a riot of color and pattern, usually with a special exhibit,  and staffed by friendly, well-informed volunteers. Their gift shop includes some great cards for sewers as well as wonderful textile crafts and some delectable antique quilts for sale.

The above quilts were part of a display from an International Quilt Exhibit – the leftward one is from Japan, the rightward from the US – I was fascinated by the complementary spiral motifs and colors from such disparate locations and cultures.

If you need some fresh air after the museum, Monument Hill/ Kreische Brewery State Historic Site is just a short drive out of town, and commands a spectacular view of the town of LaGrange and the entire Colorado River Valley.  The monument in question commemorates a squadron of LaGrange citizens who went off to fight the Mexicans during the Texas War for Independence, and were ambushed and either killed or imprisoned.

We missed the Texas History Museum which would have told us more about the ambush, but we did find a plaque honoring one of the town founders.  The plaque concluded its biography of the founder with “John Henry Moore died at he age of 80 on December 12, 1880…. The local newspaper carried a lengthy obituary extolling his many accomplishments and virtues. One week later a rebuttal was printed refuting these claims.”

Once in a while, you get to love Texas history.

Freeway Free in Texas: San Antonio beyond the Alamo and the Riverwalk

20170404_062510.jpgWe walked down the Riverwalk to La Villita, an  art area in a restored old section of San Antonio, replete with marvelous old tilework. Had a simple but ample breakfast with a server who was a cross between Jack Black and chirpy Ranger Tatum.

Next we drove to the Medina River Natural Area. We hiked mostly level trails along the river bank, with a few ups and downs between riparian and chaparral ecosystems.  I counted 21 varieties of wild flower plus four types of butterflies, and heard many bird songs. We were warned about some feral pigs in the area but saw none.

 

 

Lunch at Lai Wah’s Place, a modest Chinese restaurant in a strip mall thronged with locals, very good Cantonese-style food, old-fashioned fake paneling and suspended ceiling decorAFter , waitress moving at top speed at all times (hence the blurry photo), did not even have a chance to impress her with my Chinese.20170404_111118.jpg

 After lunch we continued our explorations to the  Denham Estate Park to see the beautiful Korean pavilion donated by San Antonio’s sister city Gwangju in Korea. ( I wonder what San Antonio sent in exchange?)  The pavilion is very lovely sitting over a pond on lovely grounds.  Unfortunately the  Denham home which is in the center of the park is loudly marked “no trespassing, no public restrooms.” A bit off putting!. 

 

Next on to the marvelous McNay Museum in northern San Antonio, in a  mansion which seems to have been blended from elements of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite and the old plaza in Santa Fe.. Lots of stenciled roof beams,  tiled stairways and benches, an interior patio, iron grill work…

…and some amazing art, ranging from medieval to Monet and Mary Cassat, plus some Southwestern ethnic stuff.  Outside in the sculpture garden another LOVE sculpture, as previously seen in Taipei, Tokyo, Albuquerque, and Philadelphia. And some Rodin. 

Blown away by all this exercise, culture, and art, we finally made it out of town, having skimmed a lot of the cream of San Antonio.

Freeway Free in Texas: What my Texas History book forgot about the Alamo

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I had not been aware that the Alamo is only one of five San Antonio missions which together comprise a National Historic Park as well as a World Heritage Site.  The Alamo, of course, is the famous one, enshrined in national memory by a succession of movies – Fess Parker as David  Crockett, Steward Granger as Jim Boweie, John Wayne as David Crockett again, all making this bit of history larger than life.  I learned a lot that I had not taken in during my 7th Grade Texas History class, including:

Davy CrockettDavy Crockett went to Texas to try to recoup his fortunes after a failed attempt at reelection to his Tennessee Congress post.  He was essentially bankrupt.

Native born residents of the province of Tejas were mostly mixed-blood of indigenous and Spanish settlers, and were called Tejanos.  Immigrants from the United States were mostly from the Southern states and were called Texians.

 

220px-Antonio_Lopez_de_Santa_Anna_c1853Santa Ana was not just the general defeated by Sam Houston at San Jacinto.  He was the Mexican general who led a coup against the established Federalist government of Mexico after Mexico gained independence from Spain.  He quickly established himself as the center of power, and had already put down revolts against his coup in three other Mexican provinces before moving north to put down the rebellion in Texas.  Following his defeat in Texas he was in and out of power as the President of Mexico for another twelve years.

 

Many Tejanos joined the rebellion against Santa Ana because they resented the loss of local control under the new centralized authority.  Many Texians rebelled because they had moved to Tejas with their black slaves, and the new centralized government outlawed all slavery.

William Travis, leader of the troops at the Alamo, had a black slave, Joe, who survived the battle and was allowed to go free to carry the news of the defeat to Sam Houston and the other rebels.  Sarah Dickinson, a Texian woman whose husband was killed in the battle, was also allowed to go free, just in case a slave’s tale would not be believed. (Or was it the other way around?)  The Tejano women and children who survived were also freed.  Joe was reported to have impressed the Texas Cabinet with “the modesty, candor, and clarity of his account“, but all the same he was returned as chattel to the heirs of the Travis estate.

So in some ways the war for Texas independence was a preliminary skirmish in the Southern defense of  their “peculiar institution” of slavery.  Somehow the heroic defense of the Alamo did not come across that way in my 7th grade Texas History class.

Voices from the Past

Browsing along my mother’s bookshelf, I found “The Greek Way” by Edith Hamilton – a name I recognized as the translator/curator of the book on Greek Mythology I had read for extra credit in junior high. This volume was attractively packaged as a “Time/Life Book Selection” and I took it home for bedside reading.

At first, Hamilton seems hopelessly dated.  She speaks of the contrast between vibrant, materialist Western culture (sparked in her view by the Greeks) versus the introspective,  un-worldly culture of the East.  In our current world it is China and India who are galloping into materialism. The West is urging less emphasis on things and more on simplicity in the pursuit of happiness and, incidentally,  the salvation of the planet.

Hamilton devotes almost a chapter to contrasting the elaborate color and detail of Asian art with the austerity and simplicity of Greek marble sculpture.  But the exhibit “Gods In Color”, currently finishing its run at the San Francisco Legion of Honor, explodes this comparison. We now know that those pure white marble friezes and statues gracing the Parthenon and other Greek antiquity sites were once flamboyantly painted and decorated.  It is age, not austerity, which has given them that pristine simplicity.

She devotes another chapter to Pindar.  He is, per Hamilton, a poet on the level of Shakespeare or Milton, but completely incapable of being translated because of the different aesthetics available in the original Greek. Western poetics admires metaphor, comparison, restatement in multiple ways of a central theme – traits visible in Shakespeare’s sonnets and the King James Bible, as examples.  The Greeks deplored re-statement, instead valuing the single statement of an idea with exquisite clarity.  The beauty of the Greek poetry of Pindar comes from its movement, meter,  and sonority, none of which can be translated into English.  Kipling, says Hamilton, comes the closest among English poets to using meter and movement to drive his poems, though she judges  that Kipling’s poetry is far outshone by  Pindar’s.

By this time I was a bit impatient at Hamilton’s claims for Pindar. How could I challenge them, never having read a word of Greek?  Then I recollected my struggles in China to understand the high regard the Chinese aesthetic pays to beautiful calligraphy, an art which simply has no counterpart in European culture. Perhaps the real lesson here is how many ways there are to perceive beauty, and how tragic it will be when no-one can read classical Greek any longer, and Pindar’s genius will be as irrelevant to our lives as the Mayan carvings.ChineseCalligraphy

Edith Hamilton was born in 1867, at a time when well-educated people were expected to be familiar with Greek and Latin literature in the original. This shared knowledge was an unspoken and perhaps un-realized network of connection between diplomats, rulers, businessmen and scholars throughout Europe in  the 19th and early-20th centuries.

Our local high school still offers three years of Latin as a World Language option, as well as Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese.  Perhaps some of the old network of shared knowledge will survive.  And more than likely a shared knowledge of the  “Analects of Confucius” in the original might prove equally useful to tomorrow’s diplomats, rulers, businessmen and scholars. 20171221_114953doc - Copy

Freeway-Free in Colorado: Boulder Beyond the Campus and the Mall

Chatauqua Hall

Chatauqua Hall

The Flat Iron Mountains loom over Boulder’s western side, and many of the hiking trails in and around these peaks begin or end at the equally picturesque Chatauqua Institute.  This is a wonderfully conceived set of Victorian-era buildings arranged around a grassy meadow with the intent of promoting adult education in a healthful and beautiful setting.  It has been in continuous operation since the late 1800’s, and continues to fulfill its mission with artists-in-residence, concerts, films, and as a bonus, delicious food available during the temperate months on a wide veranda overlooking the meadow, and in the cold season inside a cozy lounge with a huge stone fireplace. 20170817_181344web

The films and concerts take place in a huge beamed barnlike structure which has burned several times over the history of the Colorado Chatauqua , but has always been reconstsructed in the spirit of its predecessors – think of a giant barn with good acoustics and lighting.   On a recent summer evening I attended a showing of a couple of Buster Keaton silent films, with an expert live piano accompaniment providing authenticity.  The audience of about 500 only half-filled the vast space, but the gleeful giggles of the kids seeing Keaton’s acrobatic pratfalls for the first time filled the space beautifully.

 

For  a different kind experience, visit the Celestial Seasonings factory just north of Boulder.  Here you can sip samples of dozens of different teas, and take a tour of the factory where the teas are stored, processed, boxed, and prepared for shipment.  Be warned:  If you are sensitive to odors you may be in for sensory overload here;  on the other hand if you are suffering from nasal congestion a few moments in the special room where the mint tea is stored will clear you out amazingly.

If you are interested in  more modern types of architecture, the National Center for Atmospheric Research is just a bit further up the road from the Chatauqua Institue, in a fascinating building designed by I. M. Pei.  The group of rectangular forms juts out of a ledge of the Flat Irons as though created by some upheaval.  The exterior is made of red sandstone that blends perfectly with the surrounding rocks, and the views from the exterior plaze and the restaurant inside are to die for.  I have not eaten at the restaurant, but with that view how could the meal be less than delightful?  The exhibits explaining how cyclones form, how ocean currents affect climate, and so on, are also interesting, though you will likely have to compete with a busload of elementary school field trippers to get close to them. 20170727_105455doc

 

 

Freeway-Free in Colorado: Boulder Beyond the Rocks

The Flat Irons above Boulder

If you’ve heard of Boulder, CO at all, you probably know that it is one of the hippest college towns in the country, surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery, and with a tech-savvy population. (89% of households have broadband access, the highest rate in the country.)

But you might not know that Boulder  also boasts an I.M.Pei-designed National Center for Atmospheric Research, that it is home to one of the original Chatauqua Institutes (established, oddly enough, by a group of Texans who felt that the weather in their home state was just too oppressive to host conferences), and that its Leanin’ Tree Museum of Western Art had one of the largest private collections of Western-themed art in the country [Note: Unfortunately, this Hidden Gem closed in August 2017, soon after my visit. And it is also the headquarters of the Celestial Seasonings tea company.

Boulder is a wonderfully walkable town, once you get there, and happily, you can get there without having to drive.  If you fly into the Denver Airport, you can get to Boulder by bus for less than it would cost to pay the tolls on the E-470 tollway just outside the airport. 

When you land, grab your baggage and head for the whale’s-tail shaped Westin Hotel  at the east end of the lobby.  Instead of going up the escalator to the Westin lobby, hang a U-turn at the ATMs and you will find yourself in the  RTD Transportation Center. The SkyRide bus for Boulder costs $9 for a 70 minute ride to downtown Boulder, and leaves from Gate 8 at least once an hour beginning at 4:25 AM and ending at 12:55 AM.  The bus will be full of UC – Boulder students no matter what time of day or night you get on, so be sure to purchase your ticket right away and stand in line for the next bus.

Once you are in Boulder, you can take advantage of the many whimsically-painted and whimsically – named  (HOP, SKIP, JUMP, DASH, STAMPEDE…) Community Transportation buses to get just about anywhere in and around town.

Next: What to see when you get to Boulder

Freeway-Free in California – Santa Barbara by Pedal, Foot, and Trolley

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With another day of 90+-degree heat threatening Ojai, we decide to head for the coast and the Queen City of Santa Barbara just thirty miles west. .  We slide off Highway 101 on xxxx, the beach-front road which stretches the length of Santa Barbara beach from the tony Fess Parker Inn down to the harbor. We are a bit daunted by the slow flow of traffic, the hundreds of beach parasols, and the cars seeming to circle the pay parking lots, but Griselda – the-GSP-lady steers us to the far end of the harbor, where we score Free Parking  at the community college stadium, buzzing with hardy athletic types running steps. No more car for the day!

Griselda also points us to a Visitors Center at the Coast Guard Museum adjacent to the harbor. It is 10:40 AM ad the center does not open until 11.  The very pleasant gray haired man behind the kiosk at the museum gives us three copies of a Santa Barbara beach/downtown map, tells us about the shuttle downtown, and directs us to bike shops near Shear Wharf at the end of State Street.  We walk along the promenade.  It is already hot, but we find a breeze to cool us, and get to the Wheel Fun Rentals bike shop before 11.  Three bikes and a dragged -out search for helmets that fit later, and we are on our way, teetering on old-fashioned cruiser bikes with coaster brakes and high handle bars.

We biked all the way to the end of the promenade past the Fess Parker Lodge, where I had stayed a decade ago with my husband and mother-in-law and admired the authentic Davy Crockett coonskin cap under glass.  Then we turned and went all the way to the other end near where we had parked the car, then back to Start, in just under an hour.  Along the way we admired surfers, micro-bikini-wearers, and a bus load of choristers serenading the beach-goers as the end of  State Street.  A perfect way to begin, though I was already wishing I had worn my long pants as protection against the sun.20170708_114546web

20170708_120656webWe proposed at first to walk uptown, but W noticed signs for a shuttle going up and down State street every 1o minutes.  The trolley was open air, crowded with tanned beachgoers and families, and at 25 cents for Seniors , 50 cents for youth, it was a bargain.  Looking for historic Santa Barbara, we set down at the Paseo, but we were disappointed to find that it was merely a modern shopping center dressed up in red tile roofs and Adobe.

We did pick up a Santa Barbara walking and business map from the tourist table set up at the entrance to the Paseo, and as we walked up toward what looked like a likely cluster of restaurants, we happened past the Tamira Restaurant, offering an Indian buffet which promised a nice change from tacos or deli sandwiches.  Delicious chicken marsala and butter chicken,  I didn’t try the tandoori) and vegetables and salad with spicy cucumber dressing and marinated vegetables.  No dal.


Lunch having been taken care of, we moved on to the Santa Barbara Art Museum, which had conveniently located all its most interesting pieces on two rooms while the back wing was undergoing renovation.  My ROAM card from membership in the San Francisco Asian Art Museum  got all three of us in for free.  We spent an hour looking at beautiful things in elegant air-conditioned surroundings – W even spent time in the gift shop!

 

Then to the lovely Santa Barbara Courthouse, with its beautiful sunken garden inner quad, and of course there was a bride, and an adorable little blond ring-bearer, and a self-conscious flower girl, and a bunch of groomsmen gleefully showing off their argyle socks under their tuxedos.

By that time we were dragging, too over-dosed with Adobe and red tile even to peek into the beautiful library or walk a couple of blocks down to the official Old Town.  We caught the Shuttle all the way back to the harbor and then spent time  in the Maritime Museum, fascinated by exhibits of storms and wrecks and deep-sea expeditions – definitely a Hidden Treasure!
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