Thursday, August 30, 2012

Modern Meets Southern Vernacular at The Inn at Middleton Place

 Charleston Is Not All Porches and Palaces
Strangely enough, for two Nomads who grew up in the South, we had never been to Charleston when we decided to celebrate our thirty ninth year of wedded bliss in one of the epicenters of traditional, southern revival architecture. Or more precisely, about fifteen miles from said epicenter at a fifty five room boutique hotel in the bucolic low country along the famed Ashely River. The Inn at Middleton Place, while located in the 6,500 acre former rice plantation, is certainly not of the estate which boasts America's oldest landscaped gardens. In fact, you can see none of the plantation proper from anywhere on the grounds of the Middleton. Instead, the architect designed Middleton to stand on its on as a modern response to vernacular southern architecture. And stand it does.  The Inn is the modern architectural equivalent of the Bas Luhrman variation on Romeo and Juliet. True to the spirit of a place, yet accomplishing that spirit with a completely new design motif.

Much has been written about the importance of this unique property as a seminal work of architecture and its response to the southern vernacular most associated with locales such as Charleston  and Savannah. Like all good design, it has a distinctive, timeless quality. According to the architect, the conceptual idea of the hotel was that of a southern ruin. As you approach the massive, unadorned, vine covered, concrete/stucco walls you come to the conclusion that this place has, indeed, been here for centuries. And since you arrive on a long winding dirt road (there is not a single square foot of asphalt or concrete), the experience of discovering a secret place is much intensified. I remember, as a kid, walking in the woods near my grandparents' farm and happening on an old brick chimney or stone wall covered in kudzu and finding it such a compelling place of discovery. The Middleton Inn evokes that same kind of emotion when you arrive at this unlikely collection of modern buildings at the end of the proverbial road less taken. And once you are there and see the ancient Ashley River meandering between the Middleton bluff and the low country marshes in the distance, you realize that you are not in your grandfather's Charleston anymore.

This Place Is Not For The Canopy Bed Crowd

From my perspective, the explosion of the typical B&B, with chintz curtains, club footed tubs and overwrought canopy beds has hindered the development of unique small inns and boutique hotels in the United States. Almost all small, cutting edge hotels are located on the coasts and usually in large urban areas. And they usually cost a fortune. The Post Ranch Inn in California is $1,200 a night! The Middleton is even more compelling as a small, modern hotel when you consider its price. With our discount, we paid $170 per night for a river view through a floor to ceiling wall of glass. In the world of boutique hotels, that is an All American Steal. So, in the interest of full disclosure, if you do not like clean, minimalist design that is devoid of the classic "southern" aesthetic, the Middleton is not for you. If, however, you like design which incorporates crisp detailing, natural materials and unadorned surfaces that become one with their surroundings,  then The Middleton will fulfill your every wish as a true Modern Nomad.

Upon arrival at registration, the very professional staff checked us in effortlessly and explained the inn's numerous attributes and available activities. After going through the main gate and down the  old curving dirt road, we arrived at our room - No. 333. I recommend requesting a room in either Building 3 or 4. They are newer than the main building and they are in the woods and very private. And make certain you reserve a river view. After settling in with our luggage, the first thing I noticed was the smell. The accent wall behind the bed is butt jointed cedar. In addition to the obvious clean aesthetic this renders, it also creates an always fresh smell to the space. The fireplace wall, the other walls and the vaulted ceiling of the mammoth bathroom are unadorned, simple concrete with a natural stucco finish.  This adds further to the minimalist, natural aesthetic. The warm materials and simple design play a supporting role for the main event. You view the famed Ashley River through a wall of glass from end to end and floor to ceiling. Adding to the enjoyment and the utility of the space, the glass wall is covered with folding wood shutters, allowing you to close off the bottom glass for complete privacy, while leaving the upper glass open for viewing nature at its best. The furnishings in the room include classic modern wood chairs, a small writing desk and a bed to die for.

And then there is the bathroom. First, it is huge. With a massive wooden sliding door, the bathroom features a  vaulted ceiling, slate floors, exquisitely detailed wood shelving and the largest tub and shower I have ever seen in any hotel. This is all highlighted by a sandblasted curved glass block window wall. This combination of elements makes for a true sanctuary of peace and tranquility. Again, in the interest of full disclosure, if the hotel would update its bathroom fixtures, install better sliding door hardware and do some minor maintenance on some of the exterior wood, the room and the building in general would rate a 10+ on the Nomad Architect's scale of excellence. As it is, these items are so minor, that the room and the place still gets a 9.999 on my list. Having said that, as you settle in to this unique place, it does what all great design does. It becomes natural to your experience of the room, the architecture and the unique environment of this mesmerizing low country of marshes and the slow moving river.  I highly recommend staying at least three nights at The Middleton. Your arrival day is usually taken up with the inevitable "settling in" at any place. And with all there is to see and do at The Middleton and Charleston, you owe it to yourself to stay more than just the weekend.
Thoreau and Olmsted Would Love This Place

The poet and naturalist Henry David Thoreau would have marveled at the natural beauty of the marshes, the river and the unencumbered vistas found in this bucolic area of South Carolina. Likewise, Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed designer of Central Park, would have been smitten with the vision and realization of the grand landscape design of Middleton Place. As we ventured out to explore the former rice plantation and the nationally known gardens, we became utterly enchanted with the beauty and elegance of the plantation proper. Of course, as you would expect, water is everywhere. And its not just that water is everywhere. The integration of landscaping, water features and the establishment of intimate places and long vistas is visually stunning. And when you realize that all of this design and manipulation of land and water was accomplished without any of the modern land moving equipment or technology available today, it makes it all the more compelling. Prepare to walk at least a couple of miles to see the entirety of the plantation, its historic structures and gardens. The next day, we rented bikes from the main lodge, and enjoyed nature at its most silent and finest along the many bike paths that have been carved out of this simple, mesmerizing low land. The only evidence that man was ever there was the rutted bike path and the occasional old wood bird watching stand or crumbling fence.
And If You Are Going To Eat In Charleston You Need To Take Long Walks and Bike Rides!
Like New Orleans and Savannah, Charleston is a place where it is virtually impossible to get a bad meal, as long as you stay local. The following summary of the places we ate and why you should add them to your Nomad's List of Places To Eat, is provided for your culinary planning and pleasure.
Day One
Arriving in Charleston around 1:00 PM we pulled up to the Cru Cafe, a small, intimate bistro  in a  typical old southern house in downtown Charleston. We took our seats on the wraparound porch, sat back and enjoyed the day, the food and each other. Where else but Charleston can you get an absolutely fresh and delicious Fried Oyster Wrap and a Shrimp BLT?  After lunch, we found a Harris & Teeter Grocery and picked up some crackers, cheese and fruit. After a late check in, we decided to relax, eat our munchies with a good pinot noir and get acquainted with the place. A great way to end the first day on any trip. 
Day Two
After rising early, we headed over to The Lake House, one of the many outbuildings run by the inn, for a delicious breakfast of a Dirty Crab Omelet, Eggs, Bacon, Biscuits and Charleston Stone Ground Yellow Grits. Oh Baby!! After the roughly two mile walk to see the plantation, we headed into town and planted ourselves at the  Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar. I had the Marinated Tomatoes + Hearts of Palm, Fresh Goat Cheese and Fried Shrimp. My bride had a Shrimp Po Boy. Outstanding on all accounts. With reservations for our late dinner, we savored a culinary Coup De Gras at The Middleton Place Restaurant. With a very clean, minimalist design added to one of the old houses on the estate, the ambiance was perfect and the meal was, in the humble opinion of this Nomad, five star beginning to end. Starting with She Crab Soup and ending with a melt-in-your mouth main course of Filet Mignon and Potatoes,  with a wine and mushroom reduction, accompanied by an excellent cabernet. The Middleton Place Restaurant is truly one of the most romantic places with amazing food and service you will ever encounter.
And what about desert you say? After our lunch at Amen we decided to check out a place that I had found on the web that specialized in bakery items. Official Nomad Architect Culinary Alert!!!  If you ever go to Charleston you cannot leave without going to this place - The Saffron Bakery Cafe. To quote the dapper Turkish founder, when I said there was so much to  choose from - He responded in an elegant Turkish accent - "It's paradise". And a foodie's paradise it is.  After purchasing more than we could ever eat, we left with a plethora of delights for breakfast and dessert for the remainder of the trip. After returning to the room after dinner, we enjoyed a cream cheese strawberry shortcake that was pure sin!
Day Three
To get ready for our bike ride, we rose early and dove into some almond croissants and other goodies from Saffron, while enjoying the view from our room. After the bike ride, we headed over to the lodge and ordered up a quick ham and cheese panini, prepared by another friendly staffer, Michael. After hanging out and enjoying the grounds of the inn for the afternoon, we headed into town for a romantic dinner at Trattoria Lucca, one of the most lauded eateries in Charleston. The salad alone was worth the visit. Hearts of Romaine with the most delicate Lemon Vinaigrette and Fresh Shaved Parmesan.  Susie had the Veal. I had a duck/pork pasta. This place is a keeper.
Day Four
Well - day four -  we had to leave.  But, as they say - Not so fast my friend!! Dead battery. But not to worry. Within minutes of calling the front desk, two young staff, Bryan and Corey, jumped us off and we headed to checkout, where two  exceptionally smart and gracious young ladies, Erika and Kathryn, assisted with our checkout and application of a coupon I had found on the web. I cannot say enough about the staff at The Middleton. Unassuming and utterly professional, they are 10+ in my book.
As we reluctantly left The Middleton, we headed to Pooogan's Porch in Charleston for, what else, Shrimp and Grits. In a word - HEAVEN!! Susie had the Fried Boneless Chicken Breast, Collards, Mashed Potatoes and Biscuits. To paraphrase southern author and poet James Dickey  - All cultures are judged by the originality of their cookery. After shrimp and grits at Poogan's Porch, you really do understand just how amazing southern cuisine truly is.
As we pulled onto I-95 for the inevitable slow trip home, I thought how blessed I was to be able to enjoy the delights of a great place like the Middleton with my one and only of thirty nine years. As my long betrothed pondered - What will we do next year? I said, like the Nomad I am - Just hang on - I got a plan!

From The Low Country, 
D.L. Stafford

Travel Quote of The Week - “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” ~ Susan Sontag

Video Artist of The Week - Jack Johnson - Former surfer and acoustic rocker brings us some great lyrics with a laid back vocal style that just makes you smile.The tune  Better Together makes you smile when you think about the one you love.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Thirty Nine Years of Wanderlust With My Better Nomad

Then I Saw Her Face Now I'm A Believer

OK - I am taking a rare leap here and letting everyone in on something that only a few people know. The first time I ever saw my wife (aka My Better Nomad) was the spring of 1969 and, appropriate for any young slacker college student, I was in my red '67 GTO driving pretty fast down a side street in Madison, Florida going who knows where. Like some random cosmic event, I saw her out of the corner of my eye. And, as I have done so many times in my life, both literally and figuratively, I slammed on the brakes, backed up and watched this insanely hot chick walk into the back door of her parents' house. Little did I know, as I drove away, too much of a wimp to stop, knock on the door and ask her to be mine forever, she would eventually be a blind date arranged by two mutual friends. If that is not divine providence, then there is no such thing as divine providence. It was love at first and second sight! After a whirlwind summer romance and four years of a long distance courtship involving many road trips and more fun than two people should ever be allowed to have, we joined hands and hearts  thirty nine years ago this week. These facts are important because, whether you are taking the voyage through life or a road trip to your favorite little place, it must be with someone that gets you. And even though I have yet to fully comprehend my lover, friend, muse and mother of our two incredible kids, one fact is indisputable - that fateful day in 1969 brought this amazing person into my life who still intrigues me and is always on this Nomad's right arm as we vagabond our way through life together.

We're Always Better When We're Together

And going we are. To celebrate our thirty ninth anniversary, we are going to a very cool, small boutique just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, The Inn at Middleton Place. It has been a long established tradition for us to go somewhere new for our anniversary. I highly recommend this for all couples. It gets you away from the the normal every day commitments you have as part of your busy life in a world growing more complicated every day. It also allows you to focus on just each other and experience something new that will make you closer and appreciative of your lives with each other. Like the Jack Johnson song says - "We're Always Better When We're Together". The Middleton has been on my Nomad's List of Places To Sleep Before I Die since I saw the award winning boutique on the cover of an architectural journal some twenty five years ago. The idea of designing and building a minimalist, modern boutique hotel a stone's throw from a plantation that was established in 1678, only a few minutes drive from Charleston, a quintessential southern city with over 2,800 historic buildings , is truly remarkable. I love going to places that I have never been before. It is what travel and discovery is all about. I mean you really can't appreciate the insanity of London or the colors of Tuscany until you actually go there.

There Are Places I Remember - All My Life - Hope This One Will Remain

As I have stated numerous times in this blog, while I adore serendipity, you gotta have a plan when you travel. So I have done a lot of research, including a couple of emails to the concierge to make sure that my bride isn't disappointed. According to all of the reviews and the photographs, The Middleton has everything you could ask for in a romantic get away. Great setting, great food and the oldest landscaped gardens in the US.  There will be those unexpected pleasures that will make this trip one to remember. And the best part? I am going to this really cool place with the best Nomad I know to make sure the memories never end.

The Fab Four said it best:
And I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
And I know I'll often think about them
In my life I loved you more

I'll let you know if The Middleton  is worth remembering next week.
See y'all when we get back.

D.L. Stafford

Travel Quote of The Week - “The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Video-Music Artist of The Week - This one is old school  . One of the first romantic "talking" records - "The Sea". With a music score by award winning composer Anita Kerr, instrumentation by the famed San Sebastion Strings, words by best selling and much maligned poet Rod McKuen and recitations by actor Jesse Pearson, this  platinum selling album was a mainstay in every lover's record collection in the late sixties and seventies.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Windy City Is Mecca for All Nomads & All Architects

Why Do They Call It The Windy City Anyway?

Well, it depends on which urban myth, historian or bloviating journalist you choose to believe. Yes, Chicago is a windy city due to its proximity to Lake Michigan. And, like many large urban centers, it is more windy because of its many tall buildings. The notorious wind of Chicago was immortalized by the great soul singer Lou Rawls in a classic monologue/soul/blues tune "Dead End Street". The urban myth which seems to be the most plausible, however, is the contention that Chicago is known as the Windy City because of all the hot air produced by its politicians. That seems particularly appropriate given the political history of one of America's most corrupt cities. And it seems particularly relevant given today's current crop of local and national Chicago politicians. There are many accounts verifying the history of booster ism and braggadocio of former and current City Fathers of Second City.

You Know You're Special When The Chairman of The Board Sings Your Praises

Frank Sinatra placed Chicago squarely in our cultural consciousness with his classic "My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)". After many visits to Chi-Town, I have come to embrace Chicago as the best big city in all of the US of A. New York has The Empire State and The Chrysler and the soon to be finished Freedom Center, but Chicago has more great architecture per square inch than any other American City. Some of the world's greatest buildings, large and small, have come from the fertile minds of great architects like Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Roe. The list of "starchitects" from Chicago is indeed impressive. While historians and critics may argue over the details, the architects of Chicago have had a profound influence on design and architecture internationally and stateside. Here is my partial Nomad's Top Ten List of Great Chicago Buildings, in no particular order, of the must sees for Nomads to ponder, peruse and otherwise ogle while in my kind of town:

The Farnsworth House - Mies van der Rohe. This residential  masterpiece of steel and glass by the transplanted head of The Bauhaus is proof that modernism is more than just "Less Is More". The original "glass house" is just an hour from Chicago.

The Rookery - Burnham & Root / Frank Lloyd Wright. A Chicago Landmark, this rather small building by today's urban standards, is a must see for all those interested in the roots of Chicago architecture. The Light Court is the central focal point of this National Register Masterpiece.

The Robie House - Frank Lloyd Wright. Near the University of Chicago, with floating cantilevers, integral detailing and exquisite art glass windows, this house is the best example of the master architect's Prairie Style, a term Wright loathed.

Frank Lloyd Wright House & Studio - Frank Lloyd Wright. You can see the living laboratory of the twentieth century's greatest architect. Oak Park also has numerous other Wright houses that warrant visiting.

Millennium Park - Frank Gehry et al. One of America's great public parks with The Jay Pritzker Pavilion by America's reigning architectural genius of form or fantasy  set designer, depending on your point of view. Make sure you stop and watch the kids playing in the Crown Fountain water feature. You will smile.

Sears Tower/Willis Tower - Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The tallest building in the western hemisphere, in addition to being one of the most innovative skyscrapers ever built, can also boast its place in cinematic history. Who doesn't remember Ferris, Cameron & Sloan viewing downtown Chicago while playing hookie from the observation deck in the classic Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Unity Temple - Frank Lloyd Wright. Another masterpiece by the master in reinforced concrete. The interior is mesmerizing. A must see work of art.

Auditorium Building - Adler & Sullivan. One of the great masterpieces by Wright's mentor Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. Still in operation today, it is a tremendous venue for opera, dance and theatre.

860–880 North Lake Shore Drive - Mies van der Rohe. Designed by one of the founders of The International Style, this exquisitely designed Apartment Building, built in 1921, is on the National Register.

John Hancock Center - Skidmore Owings & Merrill. Another masterpiece by the big boys at SOM. We called it the big walkie talkie in architecture school. It's innovation at its best with the merging of great architecture and cutting edge engineering.

If you want to enjoy the beauty and power of the Chicago Skyline, I highly recommend paying a visit to The Chicago Architecture Foundation. They are committed to everything Chicago and everything architecture. You have a multitude of options for seeing the great buildings that are everywhere in Chicago.  Whether you prefer walking, biking, or the river, they have something for every taste and pocketbook. They even have an "EL" tour on the famous elevated rails of big bad Chicago.

Sleep, Eat and Be Merry

Like its architecture, Chicago boast some of the best hotels on the planet. You have many options from the smallest boutiques to some of the largest international hotel towers anywhere. Just remember, like all big cities, sleeping in Chicago ain't cheap! Since The Nomad Architect generally spurns big hotels, my recommendation is based on my personal preference for hotels which combine a unique concept with great design and great service.

The James Hotel Chicago has the concept, the design and the service. Located just off the Magnificent Mile, the James combines minimalism with very polished design details and great art. As you would expect, its rooms boast great beds and killer bathrooms. Because of its location, The James is within easy walking distance to numerous activities. World class shopping, great public spaces and all the night life you can handle is just a few steps away. And the Theatre District is a short five minute cab ride. The James also boasts one of the best steak houses in Chicago or any other city - David Burke's Primehouse. It's right next door and THE place to get a steak. All of the beef is aged in their own salt lined aging vault. We were offered a guided tour of said vault, but declined. Eating a steak is one thing but seeing them hung out to dry is quite another matter. And, every steak comes from a herd that has been sired by one bull whose name is, you guessed it, PRIME! Now, that's called having your steak and eating it too.

Of course Chicago has so many choices for Foodie Nomads that you should utilize the excellent concierge at The James for suggestions. However, one place is a must  for the hardiest breakfast you can get outside of Nashville's Pancake Pantry. Lou Mitchell's, in operation for over eight five years, is a Chicago institution.  It's crowded and it's loud with wise cracking waitresses, a fun loving owner and a menu which offers everything and anything to locals and visitors alike. Everything is made fresh and from scratch. And to add to the allure of this great place, they give away donut holes and serve up a little palette cleansing vanilla ice cream at the end of the feast. I recommend you get there early to avoid the lines.

Chicago has its share of great theatre, dance troupes and comedy clubs. The great Joeffrey Ballet makes The Auditorium Building and Theatre its home and should not be missed. And if you want to get your laugh on, there simply is no better comedy club than Second City. Countless luminaries of the comedy world count themselves as alums. Alan Arkin, Gilda Radner, Robert Klein, John Belushi, Chris Farley and Dan Akroyd are just a few of the famous that have graced the main stage. We laughed until it hurt when we visited this cutting edge gathering place for improvisational comedy.

Finally, you cannot go to Chicago without getting a taste of the blues. Great clubs abound. Buddy Guy's Legends offers up great local blues players as well as icons of rock and roll such as Clapton and The Stones. And if you want some spirit with your morning coffee, then The Gospel Brunch at The House of Blues is an absolute must. Not only is the food to die for, but, the music, which always offers up the best local and national gospel choirs, small groups and singers will lift the spirit of even the most cynical unbeliever.

So get to Chicago, sit back and enjoy all that America's best big city has to offer. And one last thing - Whether you fly into O'hare or Midway, take the train in. If you take a cab, you will spend a whole lot more money and waste a whole lot more time.

When In Doubt - Just Laugh

D.L. Stafford

Travel Quote of The Week - It's a 106 miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes; it's dark and we're wearing sun glasses. Hit it! - The Blues Brothers

Video Artist of The Week - Lou Rawls. The Chicago native delivered on the promise that great jazz and soul music is well - great. If you want to hear what truly great soul and jazz singing is all about, then you must get Lou Rawls Live - 1966.  My copy still plays, even though I played it a few thousand times when I was in high school and college.