Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Pursuit of Authenticity

It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that Boy and I share an obsession for architecture, art, and design.  Not only are we students of it in our day-to-day leisure hours, but we also spend many of our weekends and vacations visiting historic houses, museums, and sights, soaking it all in.  We, as a nation, are fortunate indeed to have many philanthropic organizations dedicated to preserving and displaying our country's architectural and artistic treasures, and promoting our appreciation of them by making them available to us to visit.

Boy and I are happiest when exploring a new (to us at least) city, museum, historic house, area, or bi-way, and where we come across something--whether exalted or quotidian--that is a complete realization of what it is or can be, and where it hasn't become degraded or cheapened beyond recognition from what it once was.

When traveling, we are interesting in learning the whys, hows, and wherefores of what and where we are visiting, its history, and the people who made it, or--in some cases--the visionaries who preserved it.  We are curious to learn what makes what we are looking at unique or special.  We are not, however, focused only on exploring the fanciest or most elevated examples of what is available to see or experience; we take great pleasure in simplicity, too.


We are particularly gratified when we come across something in our travels that is the very essence of its type, regardless of provenance or age, and that is not an imitation of or "in the style" of something else, but rather the real deal.  And that doesn't just apply to the fine and decorative arts, but includes ancillary arts, too, such as culinary, domestic, or performed.

Just as we enjoy seeing the kitchens and support buildings of the grand historic houses we visit, we are as pleased to sit at a picnic table and tuck in to a luncheon at a justifiably famous old-style seafood shack as we are to slip in to a banquette to dine in what is considered to be the best restaurant in town (sometimes infinitely more so).

What I find noteworthy, and what makes such forays worthwhile for me, is when I come across a place or experience that is resolutely and quintessentially what it is, whether highbrow or low.  In other words, when it is truly authentic.

The reason I am pondering this subject of authenticity is that Boy and I recently spent a long weekend in New Orleans where we enjoyed a fascinating and stimulating three and a half days taking in as much of the city as we could see--that is when we weren't busy eating (and drinking) our way through it.  Neither of us had been to New Orleans for many years, and we knew relatively little about it, except that it has a reputation for incredible architecture, amazing food, devil-may-care nightlife, plagues and disasters, and an indominatable, unbreakable spirit.

And such a reputation is well-founded, we learned during our all-too-brief visit.  I was, frankly, astonished not only by the City's beauty, majesty, and level of preservation in the face of great calamity, but also by the integrity and authenticity of much of what I saw.  And it got me thinking about this topic as a worthwhile subject for this blog.

Over the next several weeks I plan on interspersing my regular postings with a number of essays about aspects of our trip to New Orleans that I found particularly compelling, and which I hope you, Gentle Reader, will also find of interest--particularly should you plan to visit the Crescent City at some point.

Tell me, is there something that you've come across recently that you consider particularly authentic, that resonated with you?


  1. That's why I moved to Savannah. Absolutely beautiful and authentic. The level of historic preservation work here is very high, unfortunately the interior design is not always as good.

  2. One the of the largest preservation entities in the US -- I'm glad to see that you recognized the National Park Service -- I spent a week at a seminar with NPS people -- I was amazed at their passion and knowledge not only for their "park" (for not all properties are Yellowstone) but the other properties as well.

    We live in a historic town as well -- old for the prairie (but not old for the East coast) and I'm grateful for everything that has been saved and restored.

    It is a great subject and I'm looking forward to hearing more.

  3. The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown is heaven.

  4. On Boy's recommendation, I once spent an absolutely frigid January day at Drayton Hall - near Charleston. The house, grounds and interpretation remain vivid and I would love to return.

    The Augustus Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site - - was also fabulous. The artistic comfort of the house, the stellar sculpture & bas-reliefs, the loveliness of the grounds on a clear New Hampshire July day, all made for a memorable experience that I would be happy to repeat.

  5. Mystic Seaport! Just visited this week for the first time since I was a child and it was fantastic.

    I'm looking very forward to the New Orleans posts.

  6. Wearing all three of my hats at once---as an antiques dealer, as president of the board of an historic house museum, and as a lover of architecture and member of a local preservation committee, I thank you for this post. 'Authenticity' is a nebulous thing, and can occasionally become almost theme parkish (Nantucket). Hard to quantify what is authentic. But some places come close---I actually had a startling sense of going back in time at the farm at the edge of Sturbridge village. Or WWII era store at Strawberry Banke---which brought back the corner stores of my 1950's childhood with a vividness I could never have guessed. Never have I seen the country more in need of a renewed appreciation for its historic structures. Grievous harm is done every day. Thank you HGTV.

    Thanks for making this case for Historic preservation. Please add that all who enjoy the sites preserved to show us our better selves should also donate. Never have preservation organizations been more in need of funds to continue their work.

  7. As odd as it may sound, I genuinely like to stroll through old cemeteries when visiting a new place. It offers an interesting historical perspective on the communities' founding families. And it is also just good old pause for reflection.

    As a counterpoint, I like to try to attend a musical event or sporting event in another city too, and I like to try out the public transportation.

    Weird? OK, maybe.

  8. I am looking forward to it! I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia right along the York River, minutes from the historic Colonial area. And in the 4 years time we called this quaint village home, I never grew tired of discovering something new!

  9. Anon 7:11: I went to Savannah many years ago and was quite taken by it; it's on my list for a return visit.

    Martha: I regret I've spent relatively little time in the prairie states, you've peaked my curiosity.

    Sister: Drayton Hall is about authentic as it gets! I long to see Saint-Gaudens' house and gardens, a goal of mine.

    Aesthete: Ah, the Farmer's Museum, a favorite of mine, too. I shall be posting a surprising connection between Darlington House and there later this summer...

    Patsy: Mystic Seaport, along with the Shelburne Museuam and Gennessee Country Village were logos that I wanted to include, but I ran out of room!

    DED: You raise an excellent point (but, of course it's you so how could it not be?). I always give above and beyond the suggested fees when visiting an historic site that is open to us lucky visitors.

    Poindexter: Not weird at all, you are singin' to the choir here! We visit cemeteries, too. Also attend church services from time to time. Riding public transport, particularly in places like San Francisco and NOLA where they have old street cars still in service, is a great pleasure, time permitting.

    Acanthus: Williamsburg is sublime on many levels, both as a museum and a colonial revival masterpiece. I am gratified they are seeking to make it appear more authentic and less like a 1930's country club planned estate development. But then, I suppose many of such developments were actually modeled after or inspired by Williamsburg. So I suspect Williamsburg is the egg and not the chicken, then?

  10. It continues to surprise me how -- when our lives and background could not be more different -- your posts resonate so in tune with me. Hope you will do more on this subject -- thank you.

  11. Hello Janel: Thank you for your comment, I appreciate it. I am a firm believer that appreciation for civility, beauty, and integrity know no boundaries of class, origin, occupation, or circumstances. It is a pleasure to have you as a fellow traveler.


Please do comment! I welcome and encourage them, and enjoy the dialogue.

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