Austin’s Plant-Based Attractions

Not counting an early morning trip to my cousin’s impressive community garden in Austin, Texas, where we picked tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes, as well as peppers, onions, and eggplant, most of our touristy activities in the capital of the Lone Star State involved plants.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

It was hot, yeah, but the walkways through this lovely 284-acre facility are abundantly shaded. The center is the botanic garden for the University of Texas at Austin, and its educational mission is evident, but it’s not just for students. Homeowners go there to learn about the conservation of native plants and creating back yard environments compatible with local conditions. It was great to see little kids enjoying the water features, a sandy play area, and the animal sculptures. The grounds are planted with more than 800 native Texas species that, over the seasons, display successive waves of color. Naturally, the one plant that didn’t have a label was the one that fascinated us (woolly ironweed, above, which looked like fireworks), but the volunteers and staff were quick to sort us out! A lovely facility and nice gift shop too.

Zilker Park, Austin, waterfall

photo (cropped): Glen Pope, creative commons license

Zilker Botanical Garden

Located on 26 hilly acres in the heart of Austin, this is another shady retreat, with a lovely waterlily pond out front. Its Japanese garden has a small pavilion and a meandering stream stocked with koi that runs under a classically arched wooden bridge.

We walked the Woodland Faerie Trail, where organizations and families have constructed tiny scenes in which fairies might live. Those that used natural materials were the most charming. Minimal gift shop with excellent air conditioning! The facility includes many specialty and seasonal gardens, including a vigorously blooming rose garden. Alluring, but in full sun, no.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden

Umlauf Sculpture Garden

photo: Lanie, creative commons license

Charles Umlauf (1911-1994) was a widely-collected American sculptor, born in Michigan, and a long-time art professor at the Austin campus of the University of Texas. He donated his home, studio, and the surrounding lands to the city of Austin, along with some 168 sculptures. The grounds are now an outdoor sculpture garden displaying mostly his works, and an indoor pavilion houses temporary or more weather-susceptible exhibitions. Many of his bronze and stone sculptures on display here have classical or biblical themes, and he went for stylized facial features. Although his artistic style is not my favorite, it’s a pleasure to see his work in such a beautiful setting.

Books to toss in your suitcase

Paper Ghosts – by Julia Heaberlin, a young woman’s Texas road trip with a possible serial killer in her passenger seat

Fonda San Miguel: Forty Years of Food and Art – we ate at this beautiful restaurant. You can drool over the cookbook while you’re there, and recreate awesome Mexican food on your return home

Texas Two-Step – new crime novel by Michael Pool. Two Colorado stoners plan to sell their last marijuana crop in rural east Texas and become embroiled in bigger problems, with a Texas Ranger and Austin police detective on their tails.

On the Big Screen: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

The Death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

Steve Buscemi & Jeffrey Tambor

The Death of Stalin, from director Armando Iannucci (trailer) satirizes the cynical, self-absorbed group of leaders surrounding the Communist dictator and their desperate jockeying for position both before and after his death in 1953.

Banned in Russia, the film is based on a graphic novel by French writers Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin (Amazon link), full of one-liners and sight gags. Undoubtedly, some of the humor arises out of a characters’ sense of release—having lived under such extreme repression, day in and day out, guarding every word and eyebrow twitch, a giddy humanity bubbles up once the leader dies.

Late one evening, Stalin decides he wants to hear an orchestra concert that was broadcast on the radio. No one thought to record it, and the anxious scramble to recreate the concert illustrates the high-pitched fear of displeasing him. (Bringing in baffled street people to pad the audience was a nice touch.) Stalin murdered the pianist’s family, and she slips a vitriolic message into the recording jacket that causes the dictator have a stroke. His comrades can’t find a doctor for him because, they readily acknowledge, all the “good doctors” have been purged.

Stalin’s potential heirs include Nikita Kruschev (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi), who is put in charge of a lavish state funeral where things, inevitably, go awry. Due to his position on the Central Committee, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is “in charge,” with terror and venality at war behind his eyes. Vyacheslov Molotov (Michael Palin) is the only inner circle member unaware that Stalin’s unexpected death has spared him a grim fate in Lubyanka prison. The head of state security, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) oils his way into nearly every scene, always plotting and loathed by everyone.

As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, it’s a comedy, “grossly neglectful of the basic decencies, cavalier toward historical facts, and toxically tasteless” and “ten times funnier . . . than it has any right to be.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 95%; audiences: 79%.

Cezanne: Portraits of a Life

Cezanne

Paul Cézanne, “Self Portrait in a Bowler Hat,” (1885-86)

This beautiful documentary, directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer), was created to accompany a joint exhibition of some 60 of Paul Cézanne’s portraits being mounted by London’s National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Better known for his still lifes and landscapes, the portraits, which New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl says were “the genre most resistant to Cézanne’s struggle” are nevertheless worthy of careful attention. Certainly the museum staff who provide commentary for the film have been captivated by them. Yet the artist’s struggle is evident in his letters to his friends, read in voice-over.

What I found most thrilling were the extreme closeups of the painted surface that seeing the works on a big screen provided. In a postcard (!) or print in a book, or even glanced at in a gallery, the paintings may look rather flat, but the huge enlargement allows you to see the many layers of color used to create that surface and to appreciate these works in a completely new way. Some of the landscapes and a few still lifes also receive this close-in treatment.

Although Cézanne masterfully depicted the faces and the hands of his subjects, he said that these were not what constituted the “portrait” of a person, but indeed the whole canvas—the clothing, the chair, the background, all together, were the true portrait. See it if you can.

The exhibit has had its Paris and London runs and will be in Washington March 25-July 1, 2018.

Bill Murray’s “New Worlds”

Otsego Lake

Otsego Lake; photo: Corey Seeman, creative commons license

Comedian and actor Bill Murray brought his “New Worlds” show, created in partnership with master cellist Jan Vogler, to Princeton last week. It’s an unusual, interesting, and often thrilling hour and three-quarters (trailer).

Murray reads excerpts from authors as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and James Thurber, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, accompanied by Vogler, Mira Wang on violin, and Vanessa Perez, piano. Murray sings, too—movingly on “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and comically in selections from West Side Story. He dances with Wang in a tango by Argentinean composer Astor Piazzola. Throughout, the music is sublime.

Murray and Vogler have created juxtapositions of text and music that are full of unexpected resonances. When Murray reads a lyrical passage about the beauty of Otsego Lake from The Deerslayer, the last of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, Vogler plays Schubert. Both Cooper and Schubert loved nature, but that coincidence is amplified by the revelation that Schubert was reading the Leatherstocking tales on his deathbed.

Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River” accompanied an excerpt from Huckleberry Finn in which Huck and Jim are on the raft, floating down the river at night, anticipating sight of the lights of Cairo, Illinois, where Jim will be free. There’s a startling coordination of images of moon, river, the shore lights that are not Cairo, and “two drifters off to see the world”—and, certainly, “my huckleberry friend.”

The audience exercises its lungs in George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” sung by Murray to a musical arrangement by, of all the unexpected people,  Jascha Heifetz. That irreverent selection is counterbalanced later in the program by a powerfully moving version of Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God.”

Reviewer John von Rhein in Murray’s home-town newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, says the actor has again reinvented himself “in a rather wonderful new species of performance art few others would have dreamed up or could have brought off so beautifully.” This unique and unforgettable show has many forthcoming dates around the country—and the world. See it if you can. And, if you can’t, Amazon will let you stream it.

Scottsdale, AZ — a Sweet Visit!

Ice Cream light fixture

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

A trip to sunny Arizona took us out of the slush of New Jersey for a few days earlier this month. Having seen and enjoyed the city’s museums and major attractions on numerous previous visits, we put together a set of new, easily managed stops, some of which might interest you, if you’re headed west.

Scottsdale Art Walk – We were in town on a Thursday night, when galleries all stay open in downtown Scottsdale. You pick and choose what to see from a “casual and eclectic” array, at your own pace. It’s always interesting to see what artists are up to.

We enjoyed the public art installation along the Arizona Canal, just west of Scottsdale Road. This is a changing exhibition, and might not be the same in a few months. What we saw was “Reflection Rising,” by Patrick Shearn and Poetic Kinetics—hundreds of thousands of strips of mylar (?) suspended in waves over the canal. Lovely.

Mandatory stop at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, 4014 North Goldwater Boulevard. You can probably time your visit to coincide with one of  the many author book signings they host, and the staff always has great recommendations on mysteries and thrillers. Our visit necessitated a trip to the post office to mail our purchases home—probably they would have arranged that if we’d thought of it before we got back in the car. Too excited about our treasures!

What’s not to love? At The Art of Ice Cream pop-up exhibit, 4224 North Craftsman Court—you get ice cream, you get photo opps, you get a small exhibit with lots of humor and spirit, including a canoe dressed up as a banana split. Note the ice cream-shaped light fixtures in the photo!

Having seen Sedona multiple times, this trip our out-of-town sojourn was to Payson and the Mogollan Rim, a 90-minute drive northeast. The countryside becomes thick with trees, and once you arrive, there are a couple of interesting things to do in this historic town. The Rim Country Museum and Zane Gray Cabin both had cheerful local volunteer guides who were natural storytellers. Nearby was the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, with the world’s largest natural travertine bridge.

An annual event, the Indian Fair and Market was on view at the Heard Museum. We didn’t set foot in the museum itself, which is always a great experience, but wandered the tents of the market and a bit of the surrounding Old Phoenix neighborhood.

And another must-do Scottsdale event, is lunch at the Sugar Bowl. I asked the valet at our hotel what the cross-street is for the Sugar Bowl, but he wasn’t familiar with it. “What? You don’t like pink?”

LA — Outdoor Attractions

On a January day when the winter wind’s noise is nearly constant, new snow is sheeting around the corner of the house, and the temperature forecast for Saturday is minus 5, I happily return to memories of the 90-degree days we enjoyed in Los Angeles just six weeks ago. In addition to a tour of the landscape garden at the Getty (threatened by the wildfires soon afterward), we visited these three major outdoor attractions.

The Arboretum

Los Angeles, Queen Anne Cottage

The Queen Anne Cottage – photo: Vicki Weisfeld

We walked the 127-acre Los Angeles Arboretum & Botanic Garden on Thanksgiving Day, when not much else was open. Griffith Park (the largest urban municipal park in the United States), which has a zoo and an observatory just seemed too much to deal with. It probably would have been a better choice. There’s not much to the Arboretum, located west of the city. It contains large areas planted with species from Australia and Africa, small herb and rose gardens, a couple of greenhouses, and, on Thanksgiving Day, not much was going on. Gift shop was closed.

The most attractive feature was the Queen Anne Cottage and coach barn. The Victorian-era cottage is set on a lake and extensively restored. Charming, but closed that day. We finally found a place to get a cold drink and sat on a terrace surrounded by greenery and screaming peacocks. Kids seemed to enjoy running on the expansive lawns. Under other circumstances, this could be a gem, but wasn’t.

The Huntington

Los Angeles, Japanese garden

The Huntington – photo: Vicki Weisfeld

On another day—when, thank goodness, the marvelous gift shop and restaurants were open—we visited The Huntington. It’s near the Arboretum, but a world away in terms of interest. The Huntington combines a library, art collection, and botanical garden on the former ranch of early California railroad and real estate magnate Henry E. Huntington. Huntington began collecting rare books, art, and the specimens for botanical gardens during his lifetime.

The library is one of the world’s leading independent research libraries and has an extraordinary collection of some seven million manuscripts, 430,000 rare books, and more. Starting with The Gutenberg Bible, it has originals of The Canterbury Tales, folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays, letters from the hands of the Founding Fathers, and one of the world’s leading collections related to the history of science. The exhibits of these materials are interesting and well planned. (We did not tour the art museum, home to such world-famous works as Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie.”)

The enticing grounds are laid out with many noteworthy features, including the Chinese Garden of Flowing Fragrance, and an elaborate, multi-level Japanese garden that displays an extensive bonsai collection. We enjoyed the rose and herb gardens, and the Shakespeare garden. The heat kept us out of several other areas (the desert garden, the Australian garden), but left us with a reason to return.

LaBrea Tar Pits

Sabre-toothed cat, Los Angeles, toy

Sabre-toothed cat–OK, not a real one–photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Unexpectedly (to me), the LaBrea Tar Pits are on Wilshire Boulevard, smack in the middle of the city. The Page Museum there includes some astonishing and hands-on displays about the animals whose bones have been found in the pools of bubbling black gunk. Kids love it, and the displays are intriguing for adults too. Take a docent-led tour of the outdoor tar pit area and active dig-sites in order to get the most out of your visit. You will have questions, and the guide we had was able to answer those of visitors ages seven to seventy.

The Craftsman

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665

The world premiere of Bruce Graham’s play The Craftsman, held over until December 17 at the Lantern Theater Company in Center City Philadelphia, explores a thought-provoking dilemma from the fine art world.

You may remember the post-World War II scandal created by an exceedingly minor Dutch artist (Han van Meegeren) charged with high treason for stealing his country’s cultural heritage. He’d sold hitherto undiscovered paintings by Johannes Vermeer out of the country, one of them to German Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. The crime was the more heinous because of the very small number of Vermeer’s works. Only 34 of his confirmed paintings survive.

At his trial, Van Meegeren mounted an unexpected and now-famous defense that shook the art worlds in The Netherlands and beyond. He claimed he painted the “Vermeers” he sold himself. The critics who’d authenticated the works wouldn’t back down, making the trial a legendary showdown.

The Craftsman, directed by M. Craig Getting, covers the arrest of van Meegeren (played expertly by Anthony Lawton) by former Dutch Resistance officer, Joseph Pillel (Ian Merrill Peakes), flashbacks of the scathing criticism of van Meegeren’s own work by noted art critic Abraham Bredius (Paul L. Nolan), and the trial.

In this small theater, a clever L-shaped set, designed by Meghan Jones, effectively works as van Meegeren’s cell, Pillel’s office, and the courtroom. Janelle Kauffman designed projections of Vermeer’s paintings and the disputed works that turn the walls into an art gallery, enabling the audience to consider for itself the controversies the case raises.

If you saw the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, you will recall that Vermeer’s characteristic style, as the “master of light,” has engendered admiration for hundreds of years, and special exhibitions of Vermeer’s paintings draw record crowds.

By exploring the van Meegeren episode, The Craftsman asks a series of interesting questions: “what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer?”; what are the limits of connoisseurship (a timely question, given the recent $450 million sale of a painting that may or may not be by Leonardo da Vinci); and, for that matter, how is the value of any creative work established?

Can’t Get to Philly?

The Art of Forgery, by Noah Charney, profiles van Meegeren’s escapade, and many other famous forgeries throughout history, reviewed here.

Tim’s Vermeer, an entertaining documentary about how a non-artist used a camera obscura in an attempt to duplicate Johannes Vermeer’s technique, reviewed here.

Girl with a Pearl Earring: A Novel, by Tracy Chevalier, a romance about Vermeer’s most famous painting; made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson.

LA Cultural Forays – Travel Tips

Los Angeles is more than surfing dudes and starlets. But you knew that. Our recent visit included a toe-dip into some truly world-class cultural institutions.

The Museums

LACMA

Streetlamps on Parade

In conjunction with a visit to the adjacent LaBrea Tar Pits, we visited three museums in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) complex. We wandered down the serene walkway of the Pavilion for Japanese Art vaguely reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s sinuous Guggenheim—a sure cure for I-10 traffic stresses. We didn’t allow time (perhaps a week-and-a-half!) to fully take in the other buildings’ exhibits, but did hook up with a Resnick Pavilion tour of a temporary exhibit about artistic cross-fertilization between SoCal and Mexico, “Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico: 1915-1985.” Led by a knowledgeable and interesting docent, we got a lot out of it.

We walked through the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, happening upon Chris Burden’s delightful Metropolis II (see it in frenetic action here), which actually runs only limited weekend hours. Even at a standstill, amazing.

On another visit, I want to check out the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the Museum of Tolerance, and the Automotive Museum, all of which are in LACMA’s vicinity.

12/12 UPDATE – The Getty Center reopened 12/8 after a two-day closure due to wildfires in the vicinity. Buildings were kept closed to protect the collection. Why the art can stay.

Getty Center

Bougainvillea bouquets at the Getty

The lengthy trip (in terms of time, not distance) to the Getty Center ends at a tram stop, from which you’re whisked uphill to the art museums proper. Again, there are multiple buildings, with views to the hills, the Pacific, and downtown in between them. We took a grounds tour, learning about the architecture and construction choices, as well as the landscaping, which is equally part of the complex’s design. The “museum highlights” tour sounded like an efficient idea, but is totally dependent on the current whims of its docent-leader. Ours had a deep affinity for Saint Jerome. Even so, she got us in and out of several buildings. Paintings are distributed over the top floors of several of the pavilions, where they can get better light, and decorative arts occupy the bottom floors. A temporary exhibit I gladly spent time in was “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas.” (One of my many odd passions.) So much was lost, and what was saved is so remarkable.

Music and Theater

Walt Disney Concert HallWe weren’t willing to take out a new mortgage on our house, so did not purchase tickets for a concert at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. However, we took the acoustiguide tour of its several floors, which allowed us to see many parts of the building, excluding the auditorium itself—too much demand for rehearsals, they say. Beautiful, and the building’s curved aluminum skin changes color and appearance as the light changes. (You can take a virtual tour at the website above.) And within walking distance, theoretically, to our hotel.

 

One evening we attended a performance at the Ahmanson Theatre, across the street from the Disney Concert Hall. The theaters in the complex have a full season of opera, plays, and other performances. We saw the musical Bright Star, written by Edie Brickell and Steven Martin (yes, that one). The story was more than a bit predictable, but the production and cast were first-rate.

So You Shouldn’t Starve

Patina, a $$$$$ restaurant in the performing arts complex serves delicious food, with (more of a rarity these days) impeccably gracious service. It was our gastro-splurge. We had a nice lunch at the Getty, as well.

Books to Toss in Your Suitcase

Columbus

“A lot of today’s Hollywood films don’t have a lot of patience. They sort of expect the audience to get bored really quickly, so they’re like, ‘We’ve got to have an explosion every 10 minutes.’” That was said about the dystopian science-fiction sequel Blade Runner 2049. It’s hard then to imagine how a film like Columbus, the debut film of writer/director Kogonada,  got made at all or that American audiences would sit through it. I liked it.

Set in Columbus, Indiana, home to an astonishing collection of modernist architecture, the buildings speak to a young city resident, Casey (played by Haley Lu Richardson). She’s been offered a chance to go to Boston to work and study with a prominent woman architect, but has decided to stay where she is, shelving books in the local library. She lives with her mother, recently recovered from a bad meth habit, and is afraid to leave her. They treat each other like thin-shelled eggs that require constant vigilance. She has an admirer at the library (Rory Culkin), who, like her mother, urges her to go.

This stasis changes when she meets Jin (John Cho), the New York-based son of a prominent Korean architecture scholar who suffered a stroke while visiting the town. He’s in the hospital and may never recover consciousness. He and Jin have had a distant relationship and Jin feels little connection now. He wants to get back to his life. The father is probably closer to his long-time assistant (Parker Posey), who, like Casey, has given up her individuality to play a supporting role.

Richardson and Cho bring great depth to their parts, and it’s a pleasure to watch them—indeed, the entire cast—work. There’s not a lot of yelling or acting out. And not one explosion.

The example of Casey, denying herself so much to protect her mother, weighs on Jin, just as his encouragement to follow her dream inspires her. This sounds simple, but the movie never drifts into the banal. The healing power of architecture is often referenced and the Columbus buildings, lit from inside at night or seen from odd angles, are stunningly beautiful. They loom over the characters studying them like benign watchmen. Arty, and satisfying—as Sean P. Means said in the Salt Lake Tribune, “a tender, beautiful gem that should not be overlooked.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 84%.

Meadow Brook Hall: SE Michigan Gem

Meadow Brook Hall

photo: Mark Goebel, creative commons license

If you’ve visit Southeastern Michigan, you probably know about charming Greenfield Village and The Henry Ford Museum. You may have taken in  a Ford factory tour (conducted in the super-automated Ford F-150 plant, not the grimy industrial behemoth nearby. PS—if you are tempted to blame off-shoring for the loss of American manufacturing jobs, one look at the floor of this factory will give you second thoughts. The culprit isn’t just foreigners, it’s automation. Hardly an assembly-line worker in sight.)

You’ve enjoyed the fantastic murals cropping up in downtown Detroit. And the area’s stunning museums, the zoo, Belle Isle, Hitsville, USA. The trendy upscale restaurants. But if you sojourned in the Motor City without wheels of your own, you may have missed another compelling attraction, Meadow Brook Hall and gardens, 40 minutes north of downtown in a bucolic section of the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

Personal Tragedies & Great Wealth

The 180-room Tudor revival mansion was the home of Alfred and Matilda Dodge Wilson. Her first husband, John Dodge, died in 1920, a victim of the Spanish influenza epidemic, and his younger brother Horace died less than a year later. She became one of the wealthiest women in American when she and her sister-in-law sold the brothers’ automotive business for the equivalent of more than $1.3 billion in today’s dollars.

John left Matilda with three young children, and in 1925, she married wealthy lumber merchant Alfred Wilson. Tragedy continued to stalk her, however. John and Matilda’s young daughter Anna Margaret died the year before her remarriage. In 1938, her only son Daniel died on his honeymoon, when he drowned off Ontario’s Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron.

By then, the Wilsons had built Meadow Brook Hall, now a National Historic Landmark, completed in 1929. Everywhere you look, inside the house and on the grounds, there are details to intrigue and delight the eye and loads of great stories. Once Matilda was surprised by a party, when the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra struck up “Happy Birthday” for her, and a young Frank Sinatra sang.

Meadowbrook Hall

Meadow Brook Hall offers a house tour several times a day—our guide was knowledgeable and talked more about the history than the minutia of decoration which so often bog down tour guides. You also hear about Mrs. Wilson’s significant charitable enterprises, including providing land and funding for the establishment of Oakland University, and her brief stint as Lieutenant Governor of Michigan. The Hall offers a “behind-the-scenes tour,” which includes servant quarters and the attic (I wonder whether you can climb Alfred Wilson’s secret staircase!). Also a walking tour of the estate, woods, and playhouses. The garages hold classic Dodge vehicles from the early 1900s.

Top off your visit with an outdoor concert at the nearby Meadow Brook Amphitheatre.

Books to throw in Your Suitcase

  • Once in a Great City – by David Maraniss, highly readable history of the many facets of Detroit—cultural, racial, economic, political—in 1963
  • The Turner House – by Angela Flournoy, a novel about a large black family as the city of Detroit changes around them. My review.

Capitol Ideas

California capitol

The California Capitol; photo: Jeff Turner, creative commons license

Two years ago a visit to the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield revealed such a feast of 19th c. stenciled decor, state capitols have been added to my must-see list. Let me guess: you haven’t seen the capitol in your state since junior high. (Visiting school groups is a good reason to plan your visit for the summer or off-hours.)

Capitol buildings generally offer tours, or you may be able to roam freely, helpful brochure in hand. The legislature may or may not be in session. Either way, those chambers and the building as a whole are likely rich with history, symbols of the state, statues, portraits, and murals, as well as sheer decoration and impressive domes. Tour guides are especially interested in telling you how much things weigh.

The California Capitol

The capitol building in Sacramento (completed 1874) was a little hard to get into in June, with construction on the grounds and some entrances closed for security reasons. The south entrance, facing N Street, is open. The building is set in a forty-acre park that contains a lovely rose garden and memorials. The Vietnam War memorial was especially moving, as were the tributes to fallen firefighters and peace officers. Inside is a small museum, with permanent historical exhibits and a feature gallery.

The House and Senate chambers were beautiful—perhaps the hope is that surrounding legislators with elegance will lead to lofty thoughts—the House mainly green (for California) and the Senate mainly red (patterned on London’s Houses of Parliament), or so the guide said. It was fun reviewing the portraits of California governors that line the hallways to see whether I could recognize any of them. I did identify Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the basement, where the tour starts, are murals painted in a particular dark style called “California decorative” that is repeated in some works at the nearby Crocker Art Museum.

The Pennsylvania Capitol

Harrisburg is such a down-at-heels city, this seems like a dubious destination, but the capitol is beautiful. When President Teddy Roosevelt dedicated it in 1906, he called it “the handsomest building I ever saw.” White marble and gold leaf are everywhere in the lobby (lobbyists, too), and the floor comprises Pennsylvania-made Moravian tiles interspersed with mosaics symbolizing animals, industries, occupations, and historical features of the Commonwealth.

Pennsylvania Capitol Dome - Harvey Barrison

Pennsylvania Capitol Dome; photo: Harvey Barrison, creative commons license

Looking up, you can see the 272-foot, 52 million pound dome, reportedly inspired by the one in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, while the lobby’s grand staircase and three-tiered gallery were designed with the Paris Opera House in mind.

William Penn was a Quaker and a highly religious man, and biblical quotations abound in the capitol’s décor and in the rich symbolism of the many works of art (another attempt at fostering high-mindedness, perhaps). Many of the murals, including those in the Supreme Court, were painted by Philadelphia artist Violet Oakley. Oakley was the first woman artist to receive such a commissions, which began when she was only 28 years old. Over a period of 25 years, she painted 43 murals for the capitol.

Books to throw in your suitcase

For Sacramento:

  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston – an award-winning memoir about Chinese immigrants in California (and so much more) – this one I’ve read and highly recommend, even though it takes place in Stockton, not Sacramento
  • Locke 1928 by Shawna Yang Ryan – if you are particular as to place, this is the story of the tiny town of Locke, a few miles outside Sacramento, which was a hotbed of vice
  • The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler – hey, you’re on vacation

And Harrisburg:

  • Visit The Midtown Scholar independent bookstore
  • Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley – classic reminder of life before women’s lib, set in Philadelphia
  • Plain Missing (An Amish Mystery) by Emma Miller – the writing of mystery and romance novels set in central Pennsylvania’s Amish country has become a cottage industry