Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Watch This Space

This is the site of the new Courtyard by Marriott hotel to be built on the corner of Caroline and Charlotte Streets, across the street from the Visitor Center. It’s supposed to be a 4-story structure with 98 rooms, conference space, an indoor pool and a fitness center. The hotel was designed by local architect James McGhee, which bodes well, but I haven’t seen an artist’s rendering. And even if I had, artists’ renderings are intentionally designed to make everything look warm and inviting, with soft colors and lots of landscaping, and the reality of new construction is never quite so dreamy. So I’m interested to see if this turns out to be a welcome addition to the downtown scene, or a huge eyesore that blocks out the sun. I’ll post photos of the construction as it progresses.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Few. The Proud. The Marines.

On Saturday, we went to the new National Museum of the Marine Corps, next to the Marine Corps base in Quantico. The museum is beautifully done, from the striking architecture, designed to evoke the flag raisers of Iwo Jima, to the sophisticated museum displays and interactive exhibits. We spent over two hours there, and didn’t come close to seeing everything. At the museum’s center under the soaring glass roof is the Leatherneck Gallery, highlighting Marine technological innovations. Smaller galleries around the perimeter are devoted to the making of a Marine, combat art, and the contribution of the Marines throughout history, focusing on World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the war on terrorism.

Unlike many museums that depend on lengthy panels of text to tell the story, this museum is largely visual. In addition to the usual museum displays of artifacts, there are lifesize tableaus with very realistic cast figures depicting critical moments in Marine history. Multimedia displays combine sight and sound to create “you are there” experiences. See and hear young men and women on the bus to boot camp describe their feelings, and then step into a booth and hear the voice of your drill sergeant screaming at you. In unique “immersion” exhibits, you are put right into the scene of Marine missions. You’re aboard ship as your commander briefs you before the invasion of Iwo Jima, and then prepare to storm the beach from the landing craft. You feel the cold as you walk through a battle scene from the Korean War. You debark a helicopter into the site of a military maneuver in Vietnam. It’s powerful and at times frightening.

The focus of the whole museum is on one thing: the selfless devotion of the Marines to their mission. Honor, courage, commitment. There are no politics here, no selling the public on whether a particular military stance is/was right or wrong. Regardless of how you feel about the foreign policy of the current administration, or about the war in Iraq, you can’t leave this museum without a new respect for the men and women who are carrying out the mission. Semper Fi.

Above the ground level displays, the 160-ft high glass atrium is filled with military planes.

Close-up of one of the realistic figures, cast from real Marines.

I know a Marine combat artist who lives in Fredericksburg, and who has done tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, so I was anxious to see the gallery of combat art. I was thrilled when at the very end of the exhibit, I saw this piece: “Moving into Position by Moonlight,” by Warrant Officer 1 Michael D. Fay, USMCR. Way to go, Mike!! For an eye-opening look into the world of this talented Marine, check out his blog here.

We didn't get to see all of the exhibits in depth, and there is a park that surrounds the museum that we didn't explore yet, so a return trip is in order.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Mid-Atlantic New Painting 2008

Walk around downtown Fredericksburg, and you’ll find local artwork around every corner. Galleries have been carved out of all kinds of spaces. The Fredericksburg Center for the Creative Arts is in the 1785 Silversmith’s House (duck your head going down the stairs). LibertyTown, in a former plumbing warehouse, has hundreds of works of art hanging in cubicles and along hallways. There is the Brush Strokes gallery, best for small works of art because the space is too narrow to back up very much, and the ArtFirst space, where opening night receptions in the small gallery get so crowded you can hardly move. You can enjoy local artworks while you sip coffee, eat dinner, or browse for books downtown. I’ve been to art shows in apartments, lofts, and shops, and seen work exhibited in the unlikeliest nooks and crannies.

Last night, I went to my first art show at the Ridderhof Martin Gallery on the campus of Mary Washington. What makes this gallery different is that it was designed from the ground up to be exhibit space. It feels like you’re in a room at a major art museum...just one room (plus an alcove or two), but a very clean, serene space. The show was titled "Mid-Atlantic New Painting 2008," a juried exhibition which billed itself as “highlighting new developments in painting” throughout the region, and featuring an eclectic mix of styles from 33 artists from Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. Although there were quite a few pieces that could hardly be considered “new developments,” I thought the quality of work was a cut above most of the locals-only, unjuried shows I’m used to seeing. And despite a good turnout for the opening reception, there was still plenty of room to view the art without being crowded. A number of Fredericksburg artists that I'm familiar with had works in the show, including David Lovegrove, Cliff Satterthwaite, Heidi Lewis, and UMW art professors Steve Griffin and Joseph DiBella.

The show runs through March 2, and admission is free. The gallery is open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. It’s right on College Ave., between DuPont and Seacobeck, and I bet it’s empty during the day. Stop on in during your lunch break and take a quick look—I think you’ll be impressed with the quality of the work.

Above: This oil painting on scrap tin, "Spoon on a Horizon," by Michael Fitts, was my favorite of the show. Even in this photo, you can see how 3-dimensional it is. No, it's not a collage, just a flat painting of a spoon. Check out more of his work here.

Above: "The Proposed Relocation of the Embrey Dam," by David Lovegrove. Of the 33 works, this is the one that most needs to be hanging over my fireplace. I love his wit and use of vibrant color.

Above: Heidi Lewis' "Daily Correspondence," the runner up for over-the-fireplace honors. This one won third place in the show (and was the only award I agreed with).

Above: This painting, "Strata #17" by Steve Griffin, was hanging across from the bathrooms. I wonder how many people missed this one. More great color.

Top left: "Astroland," by Melissa Kuntz. Old New Yorkers like us know Astroland is an amusement park on Coney Island. Again, I love the color and the offbeat subject. In fact, I'm in love with all of Melissa's work. Check it out here.

And now, the sad tale of the artwork that got away: When my husband and I were in our early 20’s, we went to several outdoor art shows at the Fredericksburg Park & Shop shopping center, where artists’ booths lined the sidewalk from one end to the other. One year, at the booth of a young artist from King George was an offbeat piece titled “Chef Bob Grills Steaks in Your Bedroom.” It depicted exactly that: a chef in a white toque, grilling steaks on the BBQ grill while a couple in bed watched. It was odd in a totally delightful way, and my husband and I both loved it. Sadly, we were on a tight budget and passed it by. This was a mistake. Nearly 30 years later, I can still picture it in my head. So if you ever see something hanging on someone’s wall that fits this description, I’d love to know. I still comb the outdoor art shows in the area, hoping to see Chef Bob make a reappearance. This time, I won’t pass him by.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Garden Sculpture at Roxbury Mills

Roxbury Mills has been around since 1929, first as a grain and feed store, and then as the farm and garden center it is today. It’s the kind of old-fashioned place you still find in small towns—where you can still buy seeds in bulk, where old-timers can answer tricky gardening questions, and where everything in sight isn’t encased in plastic blister packs. In the middle of January, there’s not much in bloom, but on a recent walk through the nursery, we found an unexpected surprise--a collection of odd statuary. I’m not exactly sure who buys these things for their gardens—maybe no one does, and they are just there for the amusement of customers. I’m a complete non-gardener, so I admit I’ve spent very little time here, but now I'm going to have to check back in from time to time to see if the curious exhibits in this everyman's sculpture garden change with the seasons, or are part of a more permanent collection.

Who doesn't need a bear topiary? I'm thinking either one of my brothers would love this for their birthday. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Road to Salivation

No, that’s not my (clever? awful?) pun, that’s actually what the city of Fredericksburg has nicknamed Restaurant Week. This is the third year that the city has hosted the event, where restaurants offer three course prix-fixe meals for $20.08, but it’s the first year my husband and I have checked it out. We chose three restaurants (of the 11 participating) that we’ve eaten in and enjoyed before. We assumed that for $20, the menu options would be limited, and we anticipated that portions might be smaller, so we thought our expectations were realistic.

Our first stop was Poppy Hill Tuscan Kitchen. The Restaurant Week options included a choice of soup or salad, a choice of two entrees (salmon over shrimp risotto and chicken over pasta), and homemade cannoli for dessert. Although we’ve found Poppy Hill to be inconsistent at times in the past, dinner this night was quite good, and well worth the $20. I’m an especially big fan of their homemade tagliatelle.

Second on our list was TruLuv’s, and here is where we hit bottom. We’ve enjoyed dinner here before, and friends have confirmed that the food is usually good. I can only assume that the chef-owner really just didn’t want to do a Restaurant Week menu. For our sake, he shouldn’t have. We were given a choice of soup or salad, but only one entree: a limp piece of bland tilapia over a lump of mushy brown rice, with a few stalks of asparagus, and coated with a gelatinous “Asian sauce.” It tasted like the kind of entree you’d get at a badly catered business luncheon. No choice for dessert, either, just a dish that was possibly the worst excuse for a dessert I’ve ever had in a restaurant: frozen strawberries and peaches, defrosted and put in a bowl with a dollop of what tasted like Cool Whip. If the idea of Restaurant Week is to introduce new customers to your food, I would have expected chefs to give at least a small taste of what’s best about the menu. By all accounts, this meal was the worst I’d expect to get there.

We finished up the week at my favorite restaurant, Bistro Bethem. Here, it was clear that the chef-owner embraced the notion of Restaurant Week, with a special menu that included a choice of 3 appetizers and 6 entrees. Our meal was excellent, from my salad of field greens with shaved lamb (shown above) and my husband’s fried oysters, to our entrees of shortribs and free-range chicken. The only glitch was that there was no third course included in the $20, as the website advertised. But the meal was so good that we didn’t quibble, and splurged on desserts anyway.

So the bottom line is this: We probably won't be rushing back to Restaurant Week. But if your budget doesn’t allow for eating out at fancy restaurants, it can be a wonderful opportunity to get a special night out, and try some places you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford. Just expect limited menus and some half-hearted efforts.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

High School Musical

My husband and I have been going to high school plays for years. Usually, we’ve known someone in the production: our kid’s babysitter, the child of a friend, and for a few years, our own daughter. We’ve seen comedies and tragedies, musicals and one-acts, outstanding efforts with high production values and cringe-inducing flops. After many years of high school theater-going, I feel relatively qualified to review last night’s performance of The Sound of Music at Stafford High School.

Stafford High's theater department had an outstanding reputation for years, so my expectations were pretty high. I wasn’t disappointed. In a nutshell, the production was fantastic. Neither my husband nor I can remember a better high school musical. There really is just one thing you must have to mount a successful musical production, but you’d be surprised how often this element is missing: singers. No, not just one kid with a good voice, but an entire cast of kids, a few with great voices (for high schoolers—don’t worry, I know it’s not Broadway), a lot with good voices, and no one with a bad voice. Last night was a real surprise, with at least 4 or 5 standout kids with remarkably strong voices, and not an American Idol reject in the entire large cast. In addition, this high school had wireless mics on every actor with a speaking role. You’d be surprised (or not) how difficult it is for high schoolers to project to an auditorium without amplification, and not being able to hear what’s being said or sung is typical of high school productions. So kudos to Stafford and the school system, or the theater boosters, or whoever came up with the bucks for that. In addition, I appreciated the choice of a crowd-pleasing, well-known musical (although I had never seen the stage version, so the addition of a few unknown songs was a pleasant surprise), the sets and costuming and lighting were all above average, there was a live pit orchestra, and everything came off without a major hitch. Oh, the wireless mics presented a few glitches here and there, with some static and some cutting in and out, but not a real distraction. And miracle of miracles, except for the woman behind me who crunched a bag of food for about 5 minutes (no food allowed in the auditorium, lady!), the audience was well-behaved.

I did know one of the littlest von Trapp kids, and I work with the mom of one of the nuns, and having someone to pay extra attention to is always fun. But even if you don’t know anyone in this cast, it is worth the $10 admission charge. The play runs again tonight (if it doesn’t snow) and on Tuesday, so don’t waste another night in front of the TV—get out and support your local high school musical. The curtain rises at 7.

The von Trapp kids. Excuse the blurry photos--I'm a polite audience member who would never take a flash photo during a performance.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

As you undoubtedly know by now, downtown Fredericksburg is historic home heaven. Despite the fact that Fredericksburg is a highly sought after location for homebuyers, not everyone wants to deal with the quirky features and high maintenance that comes with an old home. So here and there, interspersed among the historic homes, is new construction. Sometimes, homeowners choose homes that, while new, complement the historic ambience of an older neighborhood. And sometimes not.

On our walks, we’ve come across new homes that blend seamlessly with the neighborhood. Yes, they are sometimes oversized and dwarf their neighbors, because Americans do love their huge houses. But even so, care has been taken to use architectural elements that evoke an earlier time. Here are a few houses that play well with others:

Above: This house, on lower Caroline Street, is bigger than most of the houses on the block, but it's at the end of the street, across from an unattractive adult care center, so it is a nice addition to the block. Because it backs up to the river, the lower level is open to allow floodwaters to flow through.

Above: This one is on Lafayette Blvd. across from the train station, and is a big improvement over its neighbor.

Above: Once this home loses its newness, you won't be able to tell it apart from the renovated historic homes on the block.

But every now and then, a homeowner has a personal vision that is at odds with the neighborhood. And while Fredericksburg does have an active Architectural Review Board, designed to prevent residential monstrosities from being built, their rules, when followed to the letter (rather than the spirit) allow for homeowners to build the proverbial sore thumb. Here are a couple of those thumbs:

Above: Some people literally believe that their home is their castle. I think this homeowner spent a few too many hours playing with his Lego castle set.

And last, below is the house I refer to as "The Big Ugly." While I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and art is subjective, I have yet to find anyone who thinks this house is anything but an eyesore. It might have been okay on the homeowner's private multi-acred estate, but right in the heart of the historic district, surrounded by charming 19th century homes, it looks like a warehouse. According to the Architectural Review Board, a home has to be in scale with the other homes on the block (this is across from the library, so apparently it could have been even bigger), and in keeping with the architecture of buildings elsewhere in the city. So as long as there are ugly warehouses in Fredericksburg, a house like this can be built. As my husband says, the ARB prevents you from building the ugliest house in Fredericksburg, but second ugliest is fine.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Religious Freedom Celebration

Yesterday, Fredericksburg held its annual commemoration of Thomas Jefferson’s drafting of the “Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.” The Knights of Columbus (gotta love those hats) sponsor the event, which starts with a parade (a very tiny parade), and ends at the Monument for Religious Freedom on Washington Street, where, as I mentioned on Saturday, there were speeches. And prayers. Yup, speeches and prayers, with some patriotic songs thrown in for good measure, really sums up the event. With the Knights of Columbus in charge, it’s not exactly the celebration of religious diversity I would have liked. A few of yesterday’s distinguished guests were non-Christian, including a Buddhist monk who was invited to give the benediction. But along the way, we were asked at several junctions to bow our heads in prayer to God, and to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, and to acknowledge the Biblical teaching which says that man shall be the head of the household. Yes, I know the Knights of Columbus have the right to express their own personal religious beliefs--that's what the Statute is about, after all. But in a public ceremony like this, it would have been nice if the mayor, who was the keynote speaker, might have encouraged a bit more ecumenical approach to the public prayers. Next year, I think I’ll take a pass.

Here is the laying of the wreath ceremony at the monument. On the left is Mayor Tomzak, for whom I will always hold a soft spot in my heart, ever since he forcibly extracted my son from me 20 years ago (yes, he was my obstetrician).

This guy was protesting at the parade, although I'm not sure exactly what he was protesting:

And here's a car that my son says is a DeLorean, and therefore blogworthy:

I will leave you with a quote from Thomas Jefferson:
"I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent."

-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Millard Fillmore and John Paul Jones

Last night, we went to a birthday party at our church in honor of Millard Fillmore, our largely forgettable 13th president (clearly, an unlucky position). Millard was never actually elected—he was Zachary Taylor’s VP, and assumed the presidency upon Taylor’s death, and then failed at two subsequent attempts to get elected. He is one of the “lesser” presidents: most people couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, his presidency is largely undistinguished, and historians have called him inept and uninspiring. Except in our case, he inspired a party. And in the dead of winter, when you need a good excuse for some fun, Millard’s birthday does quite nicely (his actual birthday is Jan. 7...same as my husband).

In another piece of historical trivia, did you know that the only home in America of John Paul Jones (Revolutionary War naval hero of "I have not yet begun to fight!" fame) is located right downtown on Caroline Street? Before achieving fame as an officer in the Continental Navy, he had a checkered past. His real name was John Paul, but he adopted the surname Jones and fled to Fredericksburg, where his brother lived, in an attempt to escape some nasty charges from his early days as a merchant shipmaster that he killed a sailor under his command.

After years as a lighting shop, the building, which is across the street from the train station, is now getting ready to open as the “Seafarer’s Coffee House” to serve the commuters. Hmm...while Portsmouth, New Hampshire, lays claim to the John Paul Jones House, a historic home that JPJ once rented a room in (damn those New Hampshirites!), we let our authentic John Paul Jones House get turned into a java joint. Where are the historic preservation people when you need them?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Masonic Cemetery

Fredericksburg has a number of historic cemeteries, and today we stopped in at the Masonic Cemetery, tucked in a quiet corner on Charles Street, next to the James Monroe Museum. Most of the gravestones here have been worn down to illegibility by the passage of time, but an information sheet is available to help locate the monuments to some of the town’s more prominent citizens. George Washington’s nephew, Robert Lewis, is buried here (son of George’s sister Betty & husband Fielding Lewis, who lived at Kenmore).
So is Revolutionary War General George Weedon, who wintered at Valley Forge with GW, and later ran the Fredericksburg tavern where Thomas Jefferson penned the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (the statute which, coincidentally, we will be celebrating in Fredericksburg tomorrow with a parade and a lot of speechifyin’). And Christiana Campbell might be a familiar name to you if you’ve been to Williamsburg, where you can eat dinner in a replica of the tavern she ran for many years in the 1700’s before retiring to Fredericksburg, where she died.

Now there's a family that really loved their mother.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Good Eats

The Fredericksburg area post-holiday calendar of events is, well...a bit uneventful these days. So in lieu of an actual adventure, I submit this photo as evidence of a culinary adventure I had this past Monday:

My husband requested Indian food for his birthday, so I dusted off Indian Cooking by Khalid Aziz, and made this feast. Starting with the big bowl at the top, and going clockwise, there is Murgh biryani (like a chicken fried rice), toasted flatbread (store-bought), Tarka dal (pink lentils with a spicy topping), mango-lime chutney (storebought), and Gajjar bhajji (carrots with cashew nuts). The whole meal got very good reviews.

And speaking of food, Restaurant Week in Fredericksburg has started, and runs through Jan. 21. Eleven downtown restaurants are offering three-course prix fixe dinners for $20.08. This is a great opportunity to try a new restaurant, so check out dinefred for a list of who’s participating. We’ve got reservations at Bistro Bethem, Poppy Hill Tuscan Kitchen, and TruLuvs. Because our motto is "When all else fails, eat."

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

HB to ME

Today it's my birthday. So there.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Happy Birthversary

Today is hubby's birthday and our anniversary. So happy birthday to my terrific husband (and silent partner in blog adventures), and here's to our 30 years together. It's been a great ride...I can't wait to see what's next.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

It's About Thyme

We had a wonderful overnight getaway to Culpeper. It really is a little jewel, at least to the casual visitor to the restored historic commercial center. Our first stop was the Visitor Center to pick up a map and guidebook, and then we headed off on a walking tour of the town’s architectural highlights, with a little side stroll to a charming park in the heart of downtown. We did some shopping, then bought a late lunch of cheese and bread at the gourmet food markets on Davis Street, which we enjoyed in our room at the Thyme Inn.

My husband and I have been to quite a few inns in Virginia, and this ranked among our nicest stays. The inn is just 3 rooms above the Thyme Market, and has a very European feel: lots of exposed brick and stucco, chandeliers and lamps that cast a golden glow, wrought iron balcony overlooking the street, a bathroom right out of a Kohler commercial. I am a sucker for all of the amenities that historic inns provide, and this place had them in spades: the gazillion thread count sheets and stack of pluffy bedpillows, the thick towels, robes & slippers, the fancy French toiletries, the jacuzzi tub, and most importantly, a fireplace. We usually visit inns in the cold weather, and almost always stay in rooms with working fireplaces. And we generally don’t stay at B&Bs, but prefer inns that have full service restaurants for the upscale gourmet dining experience. There’s nothing nicer than enjoying a wonderful, multi-course meal, and then having to travel no further than up the stairs to get “home.”

So of course we had dinner at the adjacent It’s About Thyme restaurant, which specializes in European country cuisine. We had been to lunch here before, and couldn’t wait to get back for dinner. We weren’t disappointed. The place is similar in atmosphere to Fredericksburg’s Bistro Bethem, where you get wonderful food, but wouldn’t feel out of place in jeans. The place was packed all night with a lively quiet, intimate corners here. The list of specials is almost as long as the regular menu, and the Cordon Bleu-trained chef offers a variety of innovative dishes that are as beautifully presented as they are delicious.

But as we walked around town, we found a couple of other restaurants that looked very promising as well (Foti's, Hazel River Inn Restaurant), so we certainly plan to return. And if you are looking for an easy day-trip from Fredericksburg, and haven’t been to Culpeper in a while, I think you’d be surprised at how nicely it has changed, even in just the last 5 years. Definitely worth the trip.

Clark's Hardware, the old-timey kind:

Vintage sign on the brick wall of a restaurant:

Cheese from the Frenchman's Corner:

Bread from the Thyme Market:

Shopping at the Cameleer for gifts and upscale hippie clothes:

Our room at the Thyme Inn:

The nighttime view from our balcony:

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Culpeper, VA

On Monday, my husband and I will have been married 30 years. I suspect that he and I will be using this as an excuse to celebrate all year. This weekend, we will start the anniversary celebration with a trip to Culpeper, a small town of about 15,000, just 30 miles west of home. Culpeper is not unlike a small-scale Fredericksburg. It has loads of Revolutionary and Civil War significance, but for much of its modern history, its historic downtown was in decline. Over more recent years, Culpeper has been slowly transformed into a tourist destination, complete with upscale restaurants, gourmet food & wine markets, antiques and gift shops, art galleries and winery tours. It’s even been written up in Southern Living magazine. The main difference between the two towns is that so far, Culpeper hasn’t been the victim of suburban sprawl the way Fredericksburg has. Yes, there are subdivisions and shopping centers springing up, but it will be years before the Culpeper area is as traffic-clogged and overdeveloped as Fredericksburg.

Here are a few photos from a trip I took to Culpeper last spring. Like Fredericksburg, Culpeper has a renovated train station (above, it doubles as the Visitor Center), restored downtown shopping district...

historic courthouse...

Civil War monuments (this one to the Confederate soldiers)...

and a vintage streetcar that serves as municipal transportation (Fredericksburg's trolley is strictly for tourists).

More Culpeper to come!