Posts Tagged ‘House Tour’

Cambridge, Mass.
Visited: July 28, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 321 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

It Was All Yellow=WHAT IS IT?
The quintessential American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, lived in this yellow Georgian mansion from 1837 to 1882. The house also served as temporary headquarters for George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

BEAUTY (2/10)
In the 1800’s painting your house a blandish yellow equated to wealth and success. We are glad that went out of style.

The insides of Longfellow’s mansion represent the worst of Victorian-era excesses: unending clutter, elaborate showiness and more marble busts than we could keep track of. Each room we entered got progressively uglier. “It can’t get any worse than this one,” we kept thinking. Oh yes it can. Our tour guide’s insistence on the room’s absolute beauty only made the situation more comical.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poet, teacher and creator of American legends through his grand epics Song of Hiawatha, Evangeline and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

Or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Glorified limerick writer, nostalgic, sentimental hack whose ridiculously dumb-downed themes and simplistic rhyme schemes are appropriately read primarily by first graders. We know which judgment we tend towards.

CROWDS (3/10)
Bad news all around. We missed the 11:30 a.m. House tour by 3 minutes and were not allowed to catch up meaning the next tour was at 1:00 p.m. We tried to piggy back onto a special college tour after an invitation from two considerate undergrads. No dice. Their leader ratted us out, told us to leave and we were left to wander the sweltering streets of Cambridge. Oh, if eyes could shoot daggers.

Washington Slept Here...No, ReallyEASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Site is about a half-mile from the Harvard Square Red Line T (Subway) Station. So that’s where we went. We enjoyed our unexpected lunchtime break on the Harvard University’s library steps and in a few Cambridge book stores. Time well spent.

Park literature recommends the T because street parking can very very difficult and time limited. From the Harvard Square Stop, travel west on either Church and then right onto Brattle. The House is located at 105 Brattle; the pleasant walk will pass Radcliffe College.

The Site is open only Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. through 4:30 p.m. Six tours leave daily: at 10:30; 11:30; 1; 2; 3; and 4. Harsh Boston weather shuts the Park down from October through the end of May; the Polar Bears and Sabre-toothed Tigers migrate back to Canada around Mother’s Day.

Its literary merits aside, the title of Harold Bloom’s anthology Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages (for sale here) captures the mood of the Longfellow NHS perfectly. Unbearably pompous, condescending and superior despite the fact that its subject matter is meant for children.

The historical fiction novel, The Dante Club, in which Longfellow is a character is on sale here in its best-selling glory as is the more intriguingly-titled Longfellow’s Tattoo’s which examines the body art and physical art Longfellow’s son’s collected while living in Japan in 1871.

COSTS (3/5)
Tours of the house run $3 per person, free with the National Parks Pass.

Six Ranger-led tours a day with a max size of 15 is not bad. Unless you are the 16th and 17th persons that is. Walking around Cambridge at noon was nice, it really was.

We might have forgotten about our meandering time had the tour been worthwhile. But like the Victorian designs, our lessons got laughably worse as we moved from room to room. We were not the only disappointed ones; we think the husband who dragged his pregnant wife onto the tour is still repaying her for her visible anguish.

Did we learn nothing or was there just nothing to learn? The Site has no intro film and no museum to answer that question.

Side ViewFUN (1/10)
Longfellow NHS successfully completes the trifecta of un-fun Historic Sites: 1) Dubiously distinguished dude; 2) Dreadfully dull discourse; and 3) Disastrously disgusting decor.

The 1:00 p.m. tour was not the first time we had to return to the Longfellow NHS. We came here on a gorgeous April, 2004 afternoon only to find out the Site does not open until May. You, good tourist, don’t have to worry about when the Site is open or not open because there is no need to come here.

TOTAL 25/80


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Stillwater, N.Y.
Visited: March 29, 2004
Second Visit: July 23, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 10 of 353

NPS Website; Local Website


Site of two pivotal 1777 Revolutionary War battles.

BEAUTY (5/10)
Hills mixed with forested terrain and open fields characterize the main portion of Saratoga NHP, the approximately 3000-acre battlefield site. A 10-mile self-guided auto tour route scurries the visitor around the countryside to the time-honored places of interest with able battlefield park aplomb. Helpful red and blue stakes throughout the Site remind the visitor of the battle lines held by the British and American soldiers respectively in 1777.

Once you leave the pavement and set off on foot, the landscape’s historical power sinks in. The up-and-down hike from Chatfield Farm to the Balcarres Redoubt delves into the forest, crosses a mild ravine and eventually delivers you to the Barber Wheatfield, and open field where hours of fierce fighting occurred.

The path is the same trail that the American soldiers took over 225 years ago. When you edge out of the forest and see the cannons pointed toward you and the British fortification stakes it is not hard to be transported back in time.

The Schuyler House and the Saratoga Monument sit eight miles northeast of the Saratoga Battlefield grounds and share the small New York town ambiance of their host, Schuylersville. The Schuyler House, country home of General and patroon Philip Schuyler, is a typical two-story yellow Colonial Georgian design, fully restored and ready to tour. The 155-foot tall Saratoga Monument is a surprisingly ornate obelisk that offers spectacular views of the not so spectacular scenery.


The National Parks Guidebook ranks the Battle at Saratoga as one of the 15 most decisive battles in World History. It was our nation’s first significant victory of the Revolution. A Park Brochure states that in 1999 the New York Times Magazine called it the “most crucial battle of the 1000 years.” We are not going to succumb to that kind of hyperbole.

Nevertheless, had we not won, the Britons would have effectively cut New England from the remainder of the breakaway nation, dooming our chances for success. From the victory came French support and perhaps most importantly an impetus to France to rekindle war efforts in Europe against England. No Saratoga victory, no United States.

CROWDS (8/10)

During our first visit, in March of 2004, we saw very few people, just locals walking their dogs and joggers enjoying their isolated park. In March, the auto tour road had not even opened for travel. You can use your car only from April through November.

In August, however, the Saratoga area becomes a tourist mecca with the beginning of Saratoga Spring’s racing season and jam-packed waters of nearby Lake George. Given the season, the Site’s crowds were still not as large as expected. We had the hikes and the auto tour road largely to ourselves.

Schuylerville, N.Y. is ten miles east of Saratoga Springs and I-87, Exit 14 via the winding New York Route 29. The Battlefield is a further eight miles south on U.S. Route 4. Once the auto tour road is opened, the Battlefield is very accessible. But during any time of the year you owe it to yourself to get out of the auto tour rut and walk. Short paved trails to and through the Redoubts make your excursion easy.

Ornate Obelisk
As would be imagined, the Store stocks a good selection of Revolutionary War texts. We bought a nice postcard of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the handsomest man of the War and designer of the Saratoga Battlefield’s redoubt defense system.

We are pretty sure no other National Park Site vends bottled Saratoga spring water outside its Visitor Center.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $5 per car into the Battlefield portion of the Park. Admission is free with the National Parks Pass and free from November through March (when the roads are closed).

The Schuylerville sites are both free. You can climb Saratoga Monument and tour the Schuyler House without spending one penny. What a bargain!

There are very helpful Rangers at the Battlefield Visitor Center. Once you get out on the auto tour, however, you are on your own.

It is a different story in Schuylerville where stellar, knowledgeable Rangers spew Revolutionary info at both its attractions.


The Saratoga NHP Visitor Center Museum has seen a flurry of recent additions. In 2002, a new film debuted while in 2005 the Museum welcomed a gargantuan fiber-optic map and new exhibit panels. We were not overly impressed by any of the improvements, especially the 15-minute+ electric map program, which would have been perfect with a good deal of editing.

Kosciuszko's OverlookThe Site’s educational forte is its Rangers. Their talks and understandings are indispensable. Our Ranger-led tour of the Schuyler House was one of the most skilled, subtle and perfect historical teaching talks of our entire trip. A different Ranger, posted at the Saratoga Monument, talked our socks off about Benedict Arnold, the Monument’s quirks, answered dozens of our questions and enchanted us with his vibrant personality.

FUN (8/10)
When we came through Saratoga NHP the first time, we thought a 5-mile hike through the battlefield was sufficient. We were wrong. While we may have gotten the gist of the battles, we missed out on a great house tour and an equally impressive monument, each with their own stories. We made the right choice stopping in Schuylerville this time around.

We toured the Schuylerville sites with wonderful fellow central Pennsylvania tourists and a set of friendly New York history buffs and golfing enthusiasts. Our conversations and laughter with our traveling cohorts were the highlights of our return visit and made us thankful that we had given this Site another chance.

Yes. It is such an important part of American history. If you are in the delightful and historic town Saratoga Springs for the races in August, definitely come. If not, Saratoga NHP deserves far more pilgrimages than it receives. At least as many people as the throngs that flock to Gettysburg.

TOTAL 58/80

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Flat Rock, N.C.
Visited: October 26, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 270 of 353
NPS Website

Longtime home (and goat farm) of Carl Sandburg, famed 20th-century American poet and Abraham Lincoln biographer.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The Sandburg’s whitewashed clapboard house is probably the least impressive home along the streets of Flat Rock. Its interior is equally drab, save for Carl’s thousands and thousands of books. Furniture and wall hangings are sparse, at least that’s what we were told. Much of the home’s items were under plastic wrap during some necessary restoration work on windows and walls.

If we lived in the Sandburg home, we would spend much of our time where Carl did: outside. Connemara’s 245 acres overlooks the rolling pastures dotted with Mrs. Sandburg’s prized goats, a lake stocked with trout and the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

Carl Sandburg wrote about a 1/3 of his literary output here at Connemara. Sandburg is remembered as singularly American because of his populist poetry, his Illinois prairie roots and his vast and iconic Lincoln biography, often called the best work written about America’s most-written-about hero.

Lovely ConnemaraCROWDS (7/10)
Tours of Connemara max out at 15 people. Our 9 am tour of the house reached capacity and felt even larger since we had to squeeze past several NPS employees already working inside. We were carefully herded through the halls and around the protected belongings of the Sandburgs. Space was tight. This house tour is not for the claustrophobic, especially when there are acres of pasture, forest and a lakefront to enjoy.

Flat Rock, NC is just south of Asheville, NC and north of Greenville, NC along I-26. Carl Sandburg Home NHS is reached via exit 22, US-25. Once you are on US-25, turn on to Little River Road which is between the post office and the Flat Rock Playhouse (Flat Rock is a very small town), go just 0.1 mile and the parking lot will be on your left.

The Site’s brochure says just follow the signs to the Sandburg Home NHS, but if you are coming up from Greenville, signs are less prevalent and the exit is easy to miss. We did.

The walk from the parking lot up to the Sandburg home and Park VC is a steady incline which may prove difficult for elderly visitors or those with physical disabilities. Luckily, there is a small information building at the foot of the walk with a phone. You can call up the hill and, if staffing allows, a Ranger will come get you in a little shuttle.

The best bookstores are ones that offer treasures to every budget range. Mr. Sandburg’s writings were available in lovely hardbound editions as well as dollar paperback versions.

COSTS (2/5)
A tour of the Carl Sandburg house runs $5 per person, free with the National Parks Pass. During our tour the House’s star attraction, Sandburg’s vast book collection, was hidden behind dust-resistant covers for cleaning and inventory purposes. If we had paid the $5, we would have been very disappointed.

We found two Rangers at the Goat Barn letting the goats out to graze. After oh so many goat portraits, we wandered back to the house where another Ranger invited us in the basement Visitor Center, gave us our tour tickets and settled us in for the film. We assumed she would be giving the tour. Not so.

A kind, but less than knowledgeable volunteer escorted us through the Sandburg home. With a limited timeframe and a tour group that tended towards tangential questions, we would have appreciated a more dexterous and informed guide.

We were even more frustrated by this bait and switch when we peeked through half-opened doors to find several Rangers engaged in inventory inside Connemara.

The Park’s introductory film is a must-see whether you are a Sandburg scholar or are just taking a side trip from your Asheville fall-colors vacation. The film is just a rebroadcasted Carl Sandburg interview done by famed journalist Edward R. Murrow. Sandburg sings, recites poetry, speaks philosophy, plays with his goats over the course of 20 minutes. His personality jumps off the screen and pleasantly frames the rest of your visit. You see Sandburg’s quirks and whimsies in his books, his farm, his views, his house and his life.

The volunteer-led tour was not so great. Your experience could be different. Sandburg 14,000 books were covered; you could not even see the titles. Had we known, we would not have taken the tour.

FUN (8/10)
Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats!

Well, HelloWhat is more fun than running around a stunning Appalachian mountain estate with friendly goats? We say nothing. Well, maybe listening to Gab’s impressions of Carl Sandburg reading his poetry. Maybe she can upload a .wav image, because you cannot capture her mimicry skills in print.

The wonderful thing about Carl Sandburg’s vast estate is that it is now Americas to enjoy. He has given it back to the people. Five miles of trails weave through the mountains and pastures. His views are now our views, his inspiration now ours.

The NPS’s roster of literary-related sites will do nothing to dispel the myth that writers are bonkers. Edgar Allan Poe, Eugene O’Neill and now Carl Sandburg. While Poe and O’Neill’s sites might throw you into a severe depression, Sandburg’s will just make you feel good. He was kooky and lived in a separate planar dimension but he loved life, humanity and America. It is impossible to leave Flat Rock without a warm feeling towards the bard, his wife, his wonderful prize-winning goats and even yourself.

TOTAL 52/80

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Danville, Calif.
Visited: June 17, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 204 of 353
NPS Website

Aaaaaaah!WHAT IS IT?
Home where Eugene O’Neill, our country’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright, wrote his last six plays which included Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh.

BEAUTY (5/10)
Eugene O’Neill and his third wife, Carlotta, designed their house in accordance to both Taoist principles and their own personal fancies. The O’Neill’s so-called Tao House is more interesting than beautiful.

Taoist influences include outdoor paths and indoor hallways that turn sharply at right angles. There are false doors, protruding walls and colored mirrors, all designed to keep the bad spirits outside. Some personal touches include recessed windows, spine-tingling masks and dormitory-like white brick walls. It is hard to remove Eugene O’Neill’s soul grabbing black mirror and his frightening devil masks from our consciousness.

The Tao House sits atop the East Bay hills overlooking the San Ramon Valley. The House’s grounds offer beautiful views of Mount Diablo, the area’s highest point.

Eugene O’Neill is undoubtedly America’s greatest playwright but his plays were much more personal than political. His focus was his own inner demons. The tour goes into great depth about O’Neill’s troubling past and fails to analyze his plays and their impact.

CROWDS (8/10)
There are no casual walk-in tourists at the Eugene O’Neill NHS. The mandatory advanced reservations stop that. Instead, everybody on the tour has some sort of interest in Eugene O’Neill. One woman on our tour had been to O’Neill’s house in Connecticut. Her personal knowledge of the playwright enhanced our experience.

O’Neill’s Tao House is located in the Oakland Hills very close to the quaint town of Danville. You cannot drive to the site because it is located within a gated community. As a result, you must arrange your visit ahead of time. The phone number is (925) 838-0249.

A Ranger leads tours of the house twice daily. Meet at the Danville Park and Ride, located just off the I-680 Sycamore Valley Exit, and pile into the NPS minivan. The Ranger chauffeurs you through Danville and up to the House. There are no tours on Monday and Tuesday. Tours fill up; plan accordingly.

Good but not great. Copies of all O’Neill’s plays are for sale as are a few DVD’s and videotapes of his plays’ performances. We wish the bookstore carried plays and/or books written by his contemporaries. We felt lost in a literary sense during our entire stay because of the tour’s emphasis on O’Neill’s life. A more comprehensive bookstore would have helped us place O’Neill among his peers.

Here the Demons Will Be Confused
COSTS (5/5)
Eugene O’Neill Tao House must be visited via a guided Ranger tour. Both the tour and entry are free.

The same tireless spitfire of a Ranger does both the Eugene O’Neill NHS and Port Chicago Naval Magazine N MEM tours. She is amazing and seems to be the only Ranger on educational staff at both sites. Because the tours’ numbers are limited, she is able to avoid being completely overwhelmed.

First, we must embarrassedly confess to never having read an O’Neill play. Before our visit to this Site, our perception of O’Neill was limited to the fact that he had won a Nobel Prize and colored by Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of him in Reds.

NPS assumes, and not unjustly, that if you have gone through the trouble of securing reservations, getting yourself to a Park and Ride lot and allow yourself to be shuffled into a shuttle van that you have at least a cursory knowledge of the man whose home you are about to visit for the next two hours.

By the time the O’Neills built and moved into the Tao House, 35 of Eugene’s plays had been published; three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize had been won, O’Neill’s greatness as a literary figure well-established. This is the starting point of the tour.

We wandered the gardens and toured each room of the house, learning a little more about O’Neill’s parents, his relationship with Carlotta, his children and his vices with each step. Touring the Tao House gives you an introspective look at the man behind the pen in the setting where he wrote his five most famous and autobiographical works. We learned a lot; we would have learned more had we done a little homework before the tour.

Since Michael occupied the front seat in the van, he used the ten-minute ride both to and from the site to fill in some blanks. Why have O’Neill’s plays declined in popularity over the years? “Well, it’s not fun stuff. Nobody really wants to be depressed, do they?” was the Ranger’s frank response.

Where The Iceman was WrotethFUN (6/10)
Two of O’Neill’s sons committed suicide. He disowned his only daughter because she married an actor, namely Charlie Chaplin. He suffered from a laundry list of unrelated but serious illnesses. One of these, a rare degenerative disease similar to Parkinson’s disease disabled him from the physical act of writing. O’Neill, being an impossibly stubborn man, refused to write at all once he could no longer transfer his words from “head to hand to paper”. He produced nothing in the last ten years of his life. Not exactly fun stuff.

What was fun was the chauffeured drive through a lovely town and up the hills into a gated community, a guided tour of a quirky house whose inhabitants interpreted Tao philosophy to suit their decorative needs and the opportunity to see the writing space and into the psyche of one of America’s greatest artists. Did we mention it was free?

Are you interested in the life of Eugene O’Neill? If you are not, then a tour of his house might not be a day well spent. If you are an admirer, then you owe yourself a visit.

TOTAL 50/80

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Atlanta, Ga.
Visited: February 5, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 144 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Civil Rights Walk of FameWHAT IS IT?
Two blocks in the historic Atlanta district of “Sweet Auburn” that tell the story Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life as framed by the greater struggle for civil rights in America.

BEAUTY (5/10)
A short promenade where visitors can match their footprints to those on the Civil Rights Walk of Fame leads from the parking lot to the red-brick Visitor Center. Parts of the MLK Jr. NHS blend in with neighboring structures dedicated to the memory and vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. such as the King Center, the MLK, Jr. Community Center and the new Ebenezer Baptist Church. Sweet Auburn is still a residential area. Homes on historic Auburn Avenue look much like they would have when MLK Jr. was growing up here.

The most well-known leader of America’s civil rights movement was born and raised here. The Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church which is part of the NHS served as a religious center for the King family whose members preached and worshipped here, as well as a setting for meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the SCLC and later the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) with the principles of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to unfair and immoral laws. This site is dedicated to the life of the “most eloquent spokesman for racial justice of his time”, as well as the continued quest for equality in America.

Hand in HandCROWDS (7/10)
People filled the Visitor Center, courtyard and streets connecting the Site’s buildings. Luckily, the third most visited historic site in the National Parks System is designed to handle a crowd. Exhibits encourage movement. There is plenty of room for everyone. We wished tours of the King birth house would have been given on a more frequent basis. We were able to wait four hours but most of the tourists left wanting more.

The King NHS is located just a mile and a half from downtown Atlanta. Innumerable signs lead you off Interstate 75/85 exit 248C (Freedom Parkway/Carter Center) right onto the Boulevard and immediately right again into the large parking lot area. We were there on the first Saturday in February. Despite the large crowds, there was plenty of parking room. Free parking downtown in one of America’s largest cities – what a concept!

The bookstore, which is located in the back of Historic Fire Station No. 6, tries to keep pace with the Site in exploring and expanding upon the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, it spreads itself a little thin. One of the Site’s many free handouts lists contact information for organizations such as the American Red Cross, Amnesty International and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The handout’s other side recommends 19 books to read. Only six of these books are actually for sale at the bookstore.

Just one of the many inexplicably missing texts is Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years: 1963-65, part two of Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize winning history of the Civil Rights Movement set around the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

COSTS (5/5)
The Site is entirely free. Free guided tours of the Martin Luther King, Jr. birth house take place hourly. Spots fill up fast. The only tickets available at noon were for the 4:00 and 5:00 tours.

Two Rangers were positioned at the main Visitor Center; two more were outside the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. Given the amount of people here on this beautiful Saturday afternoon, these Rangers served more as pointers and directors than as interpreters.

King Birth HouseTOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
Grown-ups will have to crouch to read the first exhibit at the Visitor Center, designed not for them, but for “Children of Courage”. The exhibit chronicles events in young Martin’s childhood and adolescence which shaped his beliefs and teachings, explores the role of young people in the 50s, 60s and 70s and ends with a reflection: “Who Can Take the Lead in Ending Injustice?” Open the door to see a future leader.

Pull-out drawers allow kids of all ages to see how black and white stereotypes found their way into dolls, toys, and magazines from each decade and how these images evolved over time. A 15-minute film accompanies the exhibit.

The adjoining room has several cubicle-type exhibits centered around life-sized statues memorializing the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. Each cubicle contains museum items, interpretive panels, quotes and a video exploring either an aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life or his leadership in the struggle for civil rights.

The Visitor Center hosts changing temporary exhibits. Powerful black and white photographs of human rights heroes from over 35 countries lined the walls during our visit. Speak Truth to Power now begins a Latin American tour to Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil, and in France, Germany, and (pending) India. The MLK Jr. NHS was an ideal setting to expand this movement’s audience.

Only one thing prevented this Site from earning a perfect score and that was the condescending tone of the young Ranger from New Jersey who led our tour of MLK’s birth house. Although most of the audience had probably spent the better part of the day touring the Site waiting for the next available house tour, he began his talk as if we knew nothing about MLK, the Park Service, or anything really. His patronization was enough to make us leave the tour before we set foot inside the house. We handed our tickets to a dad and a young boy peeking inside just as the Ranger was about to turn them away.

Even without a tour of the house, the Site offers much to its visitors. Takeaways from the MLK NHS include a booklet entitled, 101 Tools for Tolerance Simple Ideas for Promoting Equity and Celebrating Diversity and a Pledge Card asking visitors to Respect all people; live a life of loving, not hating; choose patience over anger, non-violence over force; and actively promote freedom, justice and world peace.

Ebenezer Baptist ChurchFUN (9/10)
It was wonderful to see so many people of all colors, age and nationality remembering and learning about the incredible life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. together.

Absolutely. This is a must-see National Parks destination as well as one of America’s treasures.

TOTAL 64/80

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near Jacksonville, Fla.
Visited: February 2, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 140 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Kingsley PlantationWHAT IS IT?
46,000 acres existing mostly of salt marshes that border the slow urban sprawl of greater Jacksonville. The historical part of the preserve consists of a Sea Island cotton plantation and scattered Timucuan Indian ruins.

BEAUTY (3/10)
The Preserve is that garbled part of your northeastern Florida map where the Atlantic Ocean meets the fresh water of the St. John’s River. The terrain is mostly flat marshland, palms trees and many shades of green. The plantation home is stately, white and inaccessible to visitors because of structural damage. The slave quarter ruins reveal buildings constructed of tabby (oyster shells).

The Site’s historical presentation is a sprawling, jumbled confusing mess made even more vexing by its lack of Park Rangers, interpretive or otherwise. The Preserve covers at least four completely separate peoples and periods of history: pre-Columbian Timucuan Indians, 16th-century French Huguenots, 19th-century Sea Island slaves, and 1920’s socialites.

Many of the stories are fascinating but are told on neighboring exhibit panels and easy to mix up. The Preserve Museum and the Fort Caroline N MEM are one in the same. We found it difficult to get our heads around who, what, where and when. With Ranger assistance and clearer historical delineations, this site could be a trove of historical gems.

We believe we learned that the Timucuan were giant men averaging over 6’6” in height and that the Kingsley Plantation was run by a freed slave who was an African princess. She married Mr. Kingsley and they sold the Plantation after Florida became a part of the United States. The racial climate among slaves and owners in New Spain differed greatly than the “intolerant prejudice” found in the new American nation.

We wish it had been easier to learn more about this area’s intriguing past.

CROWDS (5/10)
Two vanloads of students proved more than the Plantation’s tiny Visitor Center/Bookstore could handle. Space restrictions have dictated the bookshelves’ place directly next to the entrance door. As a result, we struggled to get into the building and out of the rain; a dozen plus students were browsing the titles and blocked our way in. The volunteer on duty struggled to make sense of the chaotic scene around her while answering numerous questions. We came back later once the crowd had dispersed.

Without a sea kayak, 75% of the Park is inaccessible. The Timucuan Preserve Visitor Center is located at the Fort Caroline N MEM, which exists only as an adjunct to the Preserve. There are a few hiking trails scattered throughout the Park.

Welcome to Jacksonville
The Site’s historical centerpiece is the Kingsley Plantation, located on Fort George Island. A wide range of publications, including the USA Today, recommended the Plantation as a nice excursion during Jacksonville’s Super Bowl week festivities. The publicity has not warranted a paved road to the Plantation. It is a two-mile journey north from Route 105 down a single lane road reminiscent of a jeep trail seen in Jurassic Park.

Bookstores at Fort Caroline N MEM and Kingsley Plantation have little in common although they service the same Ecological and Historical Preserve. A few books on people known as the Timucua can be found among the Fort Caroline histories. Some Florida-specific titles are among ubiquitous bird and nature guides. Looking through the store, there is little to explain what is special about the area or why is celebrated with a unique NPS designation.

Kingsley Plantation offers familiar essays and books by African American authors and a few site-specific gems like the collection of Zephaniah Kingsley’s writings entitled, Balancing Evils Judiciously where he elaborates his pro-slavery, pro-black views. Slave narratives and modern accounts of African American life in Jacksonville give this bookstore more focus and substance than its counterpart a Fort Caroline.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free, but it does not really get you much. You cannot go into the Kingsley Plantation.

Three Florida State Parks border the Timucuan Preserve. They all charge admission fees.

No Rangers at the Timucuan Visitor Center (Fort Caroline N MEM) or the Plantation. And it was Super Bowl week.

The Fort Caroline N MEM volunteer did not place historical value in the Plantation as she curtly disparaged the freed African slave woman who ran the farm. At the Plantation, we found only a frazzled but helpful volunteer.

There is no video at either Visitor Center. No Ranger-led activities. A black and white pamphlet and a photocopied piece of paper were all we had to guide us around Kingsley Plantation. Even those were absent at Fort Caroline.

Exhibits in the Fort Caroline Visitor Center are pleasing to the eye, but difficult to follow. Low ceilings and bad acoustics don’t help.

RuinsFUN (3/10)
What little fun we derived from the day came at the expense of Jacksonville, which became the punch line for most of our jokes.

Not in its present state. The Kingsley Plantation was especially disappointing. Nothing about this sea island location was familiar to us. We drove down its dirt road and felt transported to another era, a place whose history we have never learned or properly understood. At Kingsley, we found the physical historical resources but none of the necessary interpretive help. We hope that this will change.

TOTAL 29/80

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Tuskegee, Ala.
Visited: December 13, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 124 of 353
NPS Website; University Website

Original Building

The grounds of the University that Booker T. Washington literally built from the ground up. The Site celebrates the life and accomplishments of both Washington and George Washington Carver, who spent over 40 years of his life teaching at Tuskegee Institute. The school itself is the National Historic Site.

BEAUTY (7/10)
Tuskegee Institute’s buildings, quads and atmosphere feel collegiate. African American architect R.R. Taylor who was, in 1892, the first black M.I.T. graduate designed most of the buildings. The red-bricked structures are built in a mish-mash of classical American architectural styles. Not only were these the first major works done by an African American architect but the bricks were laid and the masonry done by the first Tuskegee students.

Tuskegee Institute NHS’s place in the Park System is to represent post-reconstruction African American life. Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver were two of the greatest Americans of their era. While they both enjoy their own National Park Sites (located at their respective birthplaces), Tuskegee Institute is where they accomplished most of their successes. Their stories are unbelievable. Both were born slaves in 1864 and by 1915 had become prominent Americans in their widely dissimilar fields.

Washington and Carver were not without their African American detractors. The Park’s film does a good job of introducing the W.E.B. Du Bois – Booker T. Washington debates on the progress of the black race. Washington has faced much criticism, both from Du Bois and from present-day historians for his many accommodationist attitudes towards white oppression.

This Site ably acknowledges the criticism. It shows Washington to have been a complex man, one who believed that industrial knowledge begat economic and monetary advancement. He did not push to regain the lost African American suffrage or for basic human rights issues. The Site explains his path by placing him within the social milieu of Deep South Alabama, describing the hostile political and racial climate around Tuskegee in contrast to the Massachusetts upbringing of Du Bois.

Lifting the VeilWashington ran Tuskegee Institute from 1881 until his death in 1915. Under Washington’s tutelage, Tuskegee emphasized vocational industrial education and became notable for its extraordinary achievements in agriculture (under Carver), architecture and practical chemistry. The Institute elicited large donations and patronage from the North’s white luminaries such as Andrew Carnegie, President William McKinley and John D. Rockefeller.

Even though they do not fit into the timeline of Washington’s reign at Tuskegee Institute, we wondered why the NHS’s Museum made no mention of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments. The United States Public Health Service’s injection of syphilis into unwitting black men occurred here from 1932 to 1972 and deserves Museum space. Dozens died untreated and many of the test subject’s spouses and newborn babies were unknowingly infected. This is a disgusting period of American history and cannot be forgotten or pushed under the table.

CROWDS (6/10)
There were not many tourists at the Site. We had the Museum to ourselves. Walking around campus was nice. There was a crisp bite in the autumn air and we felt collegiate with our backpacks and our quest for historical knowledge.

The Tuskegee Institute is four miles south of Interstate 85, exit 38. While there is ample parking space set aside for visitors nearby Washington’s home, The Oaks, students had taken many of these spots. We parked in a lower lot, located below The Oaks. The Carver Museum and NHS Visitor Center is a confusing quarter mile walk northwestwardly. We eventually found our way. Currently there is no access into The Oaks. Tours are no longer given because of the home’s structural problems.

Dozens of books, many of them dog-eared from browsing, are crammed into a small corner next to the front desk. Topics spanned centuries from Black Stars of the Civil War to Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century. People like W.E.B. Du Bois and situations like the Tuskegee Experiment that were underrepresented or completely absent in the Museum found a place here at the bookstore, next to black history books for all ages.

Local farmers and Alabama households could get Carver’s instructional booklets free of charge from his Agricultural School on Wheels. The scientist wrote hundreds of small papers, like How to Grow the Tomato and 150 Ways to Prepare Them for the Table and Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace for Tuskegee’s rural neighbors. Visitors can buy copies here for a nominal cost.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free.

One Ranger, Gab, Michael and one other tourist.

Tuskegee’s First Chem LabTOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
The Site shows two 28-minute films one regarding Carver and one regarding Washington. Their relevance and educational skill suffers none even though both are over 20 years old. The Washington film takes an interesting and effective narrative approach; one necessitated by its venerable and controversial subject.

In the film, a skeptical and unsympathetic filmmaker interviews Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, a rich white patron of Tuskegee Institute and others. The film has unusual depth in its portrayal of all sides of the story. No clear cut conclusions are made, the viewer comes to understand Washington’s motivations while seeing him caught up in his world, the “Tuskegee Machine”. The viewer must come to their own conclusions about Washington; no answers are spoon-fed.

The Carver film is a nostalgic look at the pious agricultural chemist. Little debate surrounds the greatness of the humble creative genius. The film is a feel good educational tool. Good-hearted men do exist and do succeed.

The Site’s sprawling George W. Carver Museum, dedicated in 1941, contains many personal artifacts from Carver’s lab beakers to his oil paintings. As its title implies, the Museum’s emphasizes Carver rather than Washington. It is unfortunate that our visit could not have been balanced by a tour of The Oaks. Signs mounted in front of all the original buildings aid the pleasant walk around campus.

FUN (6/10)
Who doesn’t enjoy walking around a college campus on a bright autumn morning?

Tuskegee Institute is an important place. Its effect, and therefore Booker T. Washington’s effect, on both African American education and the American experience as a whole is clear after a visit. The Washington-Du Bois debates and methodology shaped the way the first generation of people freed from chattel slavery were to integrate into a new United States. Both viewpoints are necessary to achieve an understanding of who we are as a nation. It is a shame and a historical injustice that the NPS has chosen only to honor the Washington side of the argument.

TOTAL 55/80

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Springfield, Ill.
Visited: July 13, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 66 of 353
NPS Website

Pick Me a WinnerWHAT IS IT?
The house Abraham Lincoln and his family lived in for 17 years, from 1844 to 1861; the only house Abe ever owned. The Site also includes four blocks of buildings restored to their 1860 appearance.

BEAUTY (5/10)
The tree-lined shady streets are pleasant but not spectacular. Lincoln’s home is large but modest. Other than the brass nameplate on the door, little sets it apart from the other reconstructed homes on the street.

Lincoln and Springfield are intertwined. Abraham Lincoln practiced law here, married here, raised his family here, prepared for the Presidency here. Springfield wept when Lincoln left to take Office, but has grown now as a thriving town because of his residency. In Springfield, it’s all about Lincoln.

FYI, Abraham Lincoln still holds the record for number of cases tried before the Illinois Supreme Court.

CROWDS (2/10)
A lot of people visit Lincoln’s Home in Springfield. House tours are frequent. We went on the 9:50 a.m. tour. There was also a 9:45 and a 10:00. Lincoln’s house was packed. The narrow hallways ballooned with our 20-person tour group. We were unable to squeeze into half of the rooms during the Ranger talk. Even though the Ranger encouraged questions, our enquiries had to be screamed over the crowd’s din and answered while we swiftly moved to the next room. We had to clear the way for the next group. Our visit was severely hindered by the Site’s inability to control its large crowds.

Springfield, Illinois lies in the center of the state at the intersection of Interstates 72 and 55. Signs point you to the “Lincoln Sites”. We were confused because the entire city is a Lincoln site. Nothing pointed us specifically to the Lincoln Home NHS. The streets’ overwhelming tendency to be one-way did not help.

The Lincoln Home had narrow hallways and steep staircases. We were uncomfortable during our entire tour. We were rushed through the rooms and had little time to take in and appreciate our surroundings.

Our tour guide told us that Abraham Lincoln is the most written-about person in American history at nearly 10,000 books. The Site bookstore did not have many of them. The store’s cramped space made browsing difficult among the many visitors.

Just Like Abe KnewCOSTS (3/5)
The Lincoln Home NHS is free; however, the NPS parking lot is $2 per hour. We parked on the street about three feet from the parking lot entrance for $0.50 an hour.

There were four Rangers working themselves ragged giving back-to-back-to-back high-speed tours through the Lincoln Home. We saw them during our entire stay but never without a tour group. The questions that we did not sneak in during our tour were left unanswered.

We entered the Visitor Center and were immediately asked if we wanted to join the next tour of Lincoln’s home. Of course! Our tour was scheduled for 9:50 a.m., just a few minutes away. We were told to go wait by the sign in the middle of the road. We wandered over and saw not one, but two clusters of people – one kind of near a sign, but another sitting in the shade with a Ranger already speaking to them. Were we late? Did the tour start early. Through whispers with a kind woman near the edge of the group, we learned that this was the 9:45 group. She thought the 9:50 might be over in the opposite direction.

One tour at 9:45 and another at 9:50? That should have been our first indication that it would be a busy day.

Our Ranger came rushing over, almost breathless from his previous tour which must have ran late. He didn’t even pause to take a breathe before he asked the group the time and what time our tour was supposed to begin. Looking at his watch and seeing it was 9:50, he wasted no time telling us about Lincoln and his life and career in Springfield. We waited outside to give the 9:45 tour some room, but not much. We crowded into the small foyer and tried our hardest to stay on the carpeted runners that led through the preserved house.

The Park Service has done an admirable job restoring the house and retrieving items belonging to the Lincoln family. We wish we had more time to appreciate its work. Because of size and time constraints, each group was led through the house by Rangers who knew their lines by heart. Not to say our Ranger wasn’t knowledgeable. He was. But he was also very aware of the time of his next tour.

The video in the Visitor Center is a rehash of the Ranger-led tour through Lincoln’s home. We actually saw things closer in the video than we did in the house. However, the costumed guide in the video is currently in first place (by a large margin) for the Worst Acting in a NPS Film for this month.

FUN (4/10)
The heat, the crowds and the confusion weighed down this score. Once we left the small four-block area of the National Historic Site and wandered through the rest of Springfield, our spirits lifted. The Old State Capitol was lovingly restored by the city of Springfield. We talked at length with a historian there who gave us the time and the answers that the Park Ranger was unable. Down the road, we peeked into the windows of the almost-ready Lincoln Presidential Museum where, pamphlets announce, “no expense has been spared.” We felt privileged to get a sneak preview of what will undoubtedly be one of Springfield’s, perhaps Illinois’, primary attractions.

Mr. Lincoln I PresumeWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
Michael’s grandfather loved Abraham Lincoln. Our trip to Springfield was a pilgrimage not only to see Lincoln’s home, but to honor his grandfather’s memory and his hero. When his grandparents traveled to the Site over 25 years ago, he knew through their retelling that they felt closer to Lincoln. We did too. Our feelings came primarily from the nearby Old State Capitol and especially Lincoln’s Tomb and sadly, not the National Park Site. Springfield exists as both the Capitol of Illinois and a shrine to our sixteenth president. Our recommendation is for Springfield more so than the Lincoln Home NHS. Next year a massive modern Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum will open two blocks from the Old State Capitol. We might have to find our way back to central Illinois.

TOTAL 39/80

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Mentor, Ohio
Visited: May 3, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 34 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Lawnfield. The farm estate built in 1876 by then Ohio Congressman and future 20th President of the United States James A. Garfield.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Due to its two large-scale additions, Lawnfield is a mish-mash of architectural styles; let’s just say modified Queen Anne. The House has been lovingly restored and freshly repainted a grayish-blue color. It looks immaculate. The large and historically notable front porch defines the House.

The House’s interior is oddly quirky and very personal. You think you are in a stately Victorian furnished room until you take a closer look and see, for example, the fireplace mantle surrounded by inlayed tiles painted by Lucretia Garfield and her children. There is subtle whimsy everywhere. The House feels very comfortable and lived in even though it has been a museum for six decades.

James A. Garfield was a prominent Ohio Congressman when he bought a rundown nine-room farmhouse in 1876. In the spring of 1880, Garfield added a second story and 11 rooms to the structure. Shortly thereafter, he was unexpectedly chosen at the Republican nominating convention (on the 36th ballot no less) to be their candidate for president.

Nearly all of Garfield’s presidential campaigning took place on Lawnfield’s porch. At least 17,000 people visited the House that summer to hear the famed orator speak. His “front porch” campaign set a new standard, as aggressive appeals for votes would become the norm.

1st Presidential LibrayCROWDS (6/10)
We took the tour alone. It would have been nice to see more people but having the guide all to ourselves was a huge plus. We asked so many questions that we almost felt guilty.

The James A. Garfield NHS is easily located on U.S. 20, about 25 miles northeast of Cleveland. The Site is very close to Interstate 90. Brown NPS signs point you on your way. There is plenty of parking.

The Site was completely accessible for people with disabilities.

A nice mix of Victorian knickknacks and standard NPS books. There were a few books on Garfield, which is probably a definitive collection.

COSTS (3/5)
A guided tour of the house costs $6 per adult. AAA discount knocks off a dollar. Its $3 per person if you have the National Parks Pass.

Our guided tour of the Garfield House was done by a Western Reserve Historical Society member, not a Park Ranger. She was a fantastic guide, one of the best we’ve had so far. She sparked our curiosity. She seemed to know where from, what, and why about every decoration, furniture piece and painting in the entire house.

For example, Michael saw a picture of John Brown hanging in a corner of an upstairs room. Before he could even say ‘Is that John Brown?” our guide was ready with her answer: “Yes it is John Brown”. “It is not an original to the House, the Historical Society purchased it years ago and decided to hang it in a bare space,” she said. “There is a connection, you know. Garfield was an abolitionist supporter but he probably wouldn’t have hung up a picture of John Brown, especially when he was running for president. Still, John Brown lived nearby and while there is no record, he and Garfield probably met.”

WindmillTOURS/CLASSES (9/10)
Everything about the Site is first rate: the interactive museum, the short film and especially the guided tour. Before we arrived in Mentor, Ohio, we knew nothing about James A. Garfield, except that he was assassinated.

By the time we left, we felt like we knew the man, his wife and his family. We even gained both strong admiration and affection, so much so that we visited his mausoleum in Cleveland.

FUN (7/10)
The tour and the museum were great but who knew that the personality and life of James A. Garfield would be so interesting. He was the last president to be born in a log cabin. In his life, he moved from canal worker to student to university president to ordained minister to Ohio state senator to attorney to decorated Union General to Congressman to Smithsonian Institution regent to U.S. Senator to president of the United States.

Driving into Mentor, we both joked that we would be in and out of the site within the hour. Garfield was only president for 200 days, how much could one say about him? We weren’t sure what to expect but we were pretty sure we would be only mildly interested. So wrong. Lawnfield is a gem. It did what all historic sites should do – make the visitor want to learn more.

Thanks to the historian who guided us through the house and the house itself, we continue to seek out information about James and his wife Lucretia, whose personality is evident throughout the house and in the fact that she created what some say is the first Presidential Library to honor her husband and his collection of writings and resources.

TOTAL 53/80

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