Friday, July 3, 2009

Rainy travels, part two: I keep wanting to call it Grey Gardens.

On Saturday, after a leisurely breakfast spent chatting, reading the paper, and solving half of the New York Times crossword puzzle, the three of us headed out into rainy, leafy Milford to do some exploring. We hopped in the car and headed out of town to Grey Towers, a five-minute drive up the road.

Grey Towers was the family home of Gifford Pinchot, two-time governor of Pennsylvania and the first chief of the Forest Service. Milford prides itself on being "the birthplace of the conservation movement," and Pinchot is the reason why. He's considered to be the father of conservation, the philosophy that we should use our natural resources sustainably.

The house was built in the mid-nineteenth century by Gifford's father, and the Victorian influence is very apparent, particularly in the great hall - which was too dark to photograph effectively, thanks to the complete lack of windows and all the heavy, light-sucking woodwork. Though it was only sprinkling when we left the hotel, the rain had become an absolute deluge by the time our tour began, and, as a result, Miles, Hall and I were the only members of our tour group.

Our affable guide, Ranger Lee, showed us all around the house - the aforementioned great hall, a quick trip upstairs to see Gifford's bedroom, preserved in its monastic glory, and then the library and living room, both redone by Gifford's dynamic wife, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot. She's the one who created the outdoor dining room, where the table is a slate-edged pool, and where you passed the potatoes by pushing a bowl across the water.

Cornelia's also the one who created the landscaping that makes the house so breathtakingly beautiful. In the Victorian era, infection was rampant and typically fatal, and so houses were built, with as little greenery surrounding them as possible. This kept away insects, and also helped ensure a constant flow of air through the windows. However, by the time Cornelia came to the house, there was far less need of such extreme measures, and the stark, stone-house-on-a-bare-hill aesthetic could be softened.

The resulting lush greenery, terraced lawns and one trompe l'oeil reflecting pool (it's 12 inches narrower at the distant end, making it look far longer than it is) are, for me, what made the house worth visiting. I felt like I had entered the perfect setting for a 1930s Hepburn screwball comedy - there's the pool, ready for someone to fall into, and there's the playhouse, where the hero who's outgrown it can kiss his plucky heroine for the first time.

Though, hopefully, in drier weather.

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