Saturday, May 3, 2014


The historic center of Montpellier.
Of course, the Box has not driven to France, and like the Renault in the USA, it seems to be impossible to buy a Scion xB in France. Something about the gas mileage, diesel engines, and exhaust standards. Someone online suggested buying one in England and then driving it through the chunnel.

But watching an HGTV segment today on a couple and their children seeking a house to rent in Montpellier, France, I was carried by nostalgia to my college days when I went to Montpellier in 1966-67 to spend a school year with West Chester State College's Junior Year Abroad program. We sailed from New York on the SS United States, then traveled by bus from Le Havre to Montpellier.

I guess they were happy to see us leave New York.
Whenever I see references to France on one of those "House Hunters International" shows, I sit up and take notice, and to see Montpellier is like hitting the jackpot.

It's a lovely Mediterranean city, founded around the year 1000, making it one of the few large cities in France without a Roman heritage, and one of the few in southern France without Greek influence. So, it's a relatively new town!

Montpellier is the eighth largest city in France, and the fastest growing during the past 25 years. No wonder when I returned there in 1996, I was unable to recognize anything but the unchanged and unchanging historic center. (Susanne and I went to France -- the transportation being an anniversary gift from my fabulous sister -- to visit our daughter Sarah, who was doing her Junior Year Abroad farther east, at Nice, on the famous Riviera.)

As a student, I was a resident of the Cité Universitaire du Triolet, a group of dormitory buildings and associated dining hall about a fifteen-minute walk from the Faculté des Lettres, where our classes were held. It was more like a half-hour walk into the town center. My, we did a lot of walking in that year. Sometimes we took the bus but often didn't have the fare, so tight were our budgets. Other times we would splurge and take the bus to the end of the line, out in some surrounding village, and walk back, just to enjoy the scenery and each other's company.

The dorms were set in a three-acre park. (Internet)

The rooms look much the same today. (Internet)

Here are three of the four guys in our group outside the Cité du Triolet in 1966.

I believe this was taken on a long walk or on a bus trip. Poor John. RIP.
In the center of town is the Place de la Comédie, named for the opera house built there in 1888. We had the privilege of hearing the Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia play there [video]. I also attended a performance of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" there. Much of that humor and sarcasm were lost on me.

The Place de la Comédie is surrounded by old buildings now housing stores and restaurants and the like at street level. There is a fountain with a statue of the Three Graces in the center. The Place is sometimes called Place de l'œuf (Egg) because of the ovoid shape of the plaza surrounding the statue.

Do you see the egg shape around the statue? (Click on picture to enlarge.)

The original statue was placed in 1796. Today there is a replica, with the original now safely indoors.
Up one of the narrow streets off the Place, several of us spent many hours with French students who lived in an apartment there. One of the places in the HGTV program reminded me of this apartment building, with its big doors on the street, then a courtyard, and then the entrance to the apartments. The place was rather small and not very pretty, just functional. I learned a lot of French there from the boys and girls who gathered there, much more than I would have sitting in a lecture hall hearing a professor drone on about Molière or Rimbaud.

There are many narrow streets like this in Montpellier.
Every time we took the bus downtown we passed under the 17th century Arch of Triumph, built in honor of Louis XIV on the site of one of the city's old gates.
The photo is taken from inside the Peyrou's iron gates.
Across the street is the Peyrou garden with its rows of sycamore trees, and the Palace of Justice, the courthouse, is just beyond the arch. When we visited Sarah in 1996, we drove there with her and a friend and parked in an underground garage opposite the courthouse and walked a block to a lovely little hotel called the Hôtel du Palais.

Hôtel du Palais

We had pleasant rooms and a delightful breakfast of fresh buttery croissants with jam and café au lait in the morning.

The breakfast room in the hotel was charming.

Of course, when we were students we had breakfast in the university restaurant -- hot café au lait in a bowl and last night's leftover bread. Actually, it may have been hard as a rock, but it was great for dunking! I think the cost was about 12 cents (60 centimes) at that time. You can't even park in Harrisburg for a minute for that amount.

Near the hotel is the Cathédrale St-Pierre [video], where I heard famous blind French organist Jean Langlais play. A week later he was in Harrisburg, playing at Pine Street Church. If I had known that, I would have given him some letters to family in order to save a few francs!

Cathédrale St-Pierre, built at the end of the 14th century.
The new organ is in the rear gallery.
A lot of time was also spent at a spot called Le Ranch, a bar/bistro near the university. There we spent many hours listening to the juke box, drinking a glass of Kronenbourg beer, and playing pinball, something my mother told me never to do, as it led to even greater evils.

Le Ranch (at least I think it's the right place). (Internet)
Some evenings we boys would walk down to the dorms where the girls lived (on a street called la Voie Domitienne) and spend time with friends in the snack bar that was in the administration building, for lack of a better term. It was here that the girls checked in and out. There were tables and chairs in the lobby. We spent a lot of time hashing over the day's experiences and swapping stories. Being gross college boys, we chortled when someone suggested we go "down to the VD" to see the girls.

I am pretty sure this is the right building on the VD. It seems so much smaller now.
It would be fun to go back to Montpellier sometime and spend a while getting to know the place again.  Maybe I could even find the old dorms after nearly 50 years!

I swear I am going to scan the hundreds of slides I took in 1966-67. When I do, I will share some with you here.

Friday, April 25, 2014


Recently I was asked to co-author an article on the Historical Marker Program of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum, for whom I worked as director of the marker program in the 1990s. The article will appear in an upcoming issue of Pennsylvania Heritage© magazine. (If you follow this link, note the photo of Pennsylvania German potter Lester Breininger on the cover to the extreme left. An interview with Lester was my first article for Heritage.)

The marker program was begun in 1914, just a year after the then Pennsylvania Historical Commission was created. Of course, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of this significant and popular program.

The first markers were big ol' bronze plaques attached -- usually -- to bigger ol' rocks and other heavy stuff. These bronze plaques attempted to mark the sites of important events in the early life of the Commonwealth.They were often found set back a bit from the road, so you had to stop to read them.

The marker shown in the photo was recently moved to a "more historically accurate" position. A newspaper reports that it was dedicated in 1924, is more than eight feet tall, and weighs a mere five tons or so.

Personally, I feel something was lost by moving this to make it "more accessible to the public." Something that has stood in place since 1924 now has a history of its own. A new marker could have been created for the "heritage center" in the photo.

As roads got better and cars faster, the bronze plaques fell out of favor, and in September 1946 the first of a new style marker was dedicated along US 22 in East Hanover Twp., near Grantville, Dauphin County, within view of the Lebanon County line. The text reads: The earliest resolves for independence in the State. Drawn June 4, 1774, by Col. Timothy Green and eight Hanover Township patriots. They committed their cause to "Heaven and our Rifles."

Take a look at an earlier photo of the marker to see if you can find the error, based on the text above. Because the error was never corrected, I suspect this is the original plate. If it was ever replaced, the text would have had to be re-set, so wouldn't it have been corrected? Nowadays the year the marker is made is included in the lower right-hand corner of the plate.

This photo was taken at the dedication of the marker. That's future governor James Duff to the left. Do you think he was the only one to show up?

This was the new "history on a stick" style, with an aluminum plate containing the text on both sides so that it could be read from either direction, mounted on a steel post. These posts have evolved over the years into aluminum posts, which is safer if a vehicle strikes it.
When speaking with my co-author Karen, the present program director, I recalled that I had not seen that first marker in place when I passed by recently. (Ask my wife what I say each time we pass it: "There's the very first historical marker of its kind ever installed." "Yes, dear.") I asked if it were down for cleaning and painting, perhaps in anticipation of our article, which will feature a photo of the dedication of this new-style marker. The answer was, "No, I thought it was standing." (So many of the more than 2,500 markers are "missing" at any one time that it's impossible to know the count. They often turn up, but sometimes they are lost forever.)

After our meeting, I determined to go out to the site of the marker, which commemorates the "Hanover Resolves," to see what was up. As I approached, I saw that the post and two-thirds of a broken frame were still standing. Upon closer inspection, I found the text plate lying on the ground. It was there long enough to just about have killed the grass beneath it.

Here's what I found upon arriving at the marker site.
Using my enormous strength, I lugged the marker over to the car, determined to save it from the first mowing of the lawn (there's an office building just beyond the marker, so you know they will hire someone with a heavy mower). 

I hoisted it into the Box, where it fit perfectly.

I returned to the marker site, a few yards away, to see if I could find the piece of the frame that had broken off. Unfortunately, I could not find it.

The marker certainly made an impression on the lawn!
The next day I reported that I was in possession of the plate and would hold on to it until a contractor came to pick it up, clean it, and paint it.

All this work made me thirsty. Can you tell where I stopped for a diet soda?

So, how do you think this marker ended up on the ground? When I last saw it, it was leaning east (see below), and I bet it was hit by a ton of snow from one of PennDOT's plows. 

This photo was taken last year.
How that problem will ever be solved I do not know. I am pretty sure PennDOT would love to take them all down and return them to the marker office in one big pile.That'd fix the problem, right?

Here's one suggestion. Hire guys like the one below, balancing the marker on his head. This "human pole" can just step aside with the marker when a snow plow approaches. What do you think?

From the Internet.

You can see how the markers are made, although ours are made by a Pennsylvania company in Erie.

Sunday, April 6, 2014


Can you stand one more entry catering to my like for houses? If you can't, click up in the right hand corner of your screen. If you can, then read on. I promise you I will move on to other topics.

Together, dear reader, we visited Harrisburg's Bellevue Park late last month. You will recall it was one of the first planned communities in central Pennsylvania, laid out in the teens and 20s by the famous printer, horticulturist, and civic beautification leader J. Horace McFarland.

I've decided finally to read a biography of McFarland, "A Thorn for Beauty" by Ernest Morrison. It was published in 1995 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

I see from a bookmark that I have read the first fifty pages, but I can't recall a thing, so I will start over.

Here's a plan of the development circa 1910. The information in the lower right corner states, "Black smoke, billboards, public stables, public garages, [and] the sale of intoxicants are prohibited." Wait, no intoxicants? In that case, I wouldn't want to live there, anyway!

One house in my earlier entry on Bellevue Park was this one --

-- which had been trimmed back to this.

It is soon to be for sale when renovations are complete.

Well, I called Tom (this sign told me to) to see what it was all about. He was very nice and answered all my questions. He said he or his wife would show the house any time. In describing the house, he said there were four bedrooms! I asked how that was possible, as the house appears to be so small.

He told me that the lower level of the house is hidden from the street. It is there that you will find the kitchen and living areas. The upper floor, at street level, is the bedroom area. When you walk in the front door, which you see in the photo, you are on the second floor. An attractive banister enclosed a stairwell to the lower level.

Tom invited me to walk around and peek in the windows, so I did just that. The slope is pretty steep so I hung onto the railing and descended to the heart of the house. There is no yard to speak of, just a hill covered with growth. There is nothing to mow but the little flat lawn out front.

The lot slopes down to the road and a man-made pond beyond.

You can see that there is more house here than first meets the eye.
This small but attractive flagstone patio would make a dandy screened-in porch.

The French doors enter into the living area. I like the double screen doors. In a new house, this would most likely be a sliding glass door with a sliding screen.

 I looked like one of the coneheads when I peeked into the new kitchen.

I suppose your guests would have to park out front and walk down to the living level. I appreciated the no-step blacktop path beside the steps.

So there's the mystery of the Upside Down House. Give Tom a call if you want buy it!

Before we leave Bellevue Park, let's see a few other houses.

This 1940s ranch house is quite appealing. For sale.

I like the Dutch Colonial roof line. Think "Amityville Horror."
This typical 40s suburban home is for sale.

Another attractive stone and frame Cape Cod.

A grand house on an imposing site.
A small house with tile roof.

Well, there you have it. Enough houses to hold you until I see the next one that I just have to have!

Saturday, April 5, 2014


The first Saturday in April we drove to a small town in Berks County called Robesonia. You've read other posts about our trips there to the famous Porch Sale of legendary Pennsylvania German redware potter and collector Lester Breininger. After Lester's death in December 2011, three of his former employees, Curt Pearson and his brother Thilo Schmitz, and their father Scott Madeira started Robesonia Redware, pretty much around the corner from the old Breininger Mansion, and that was were we went for an event featuring their annual crop of Easter bunnies, eggs, and the like, and the first anniversary of their permanent home, a storefront on the main street of Robesonia.

We began by cruising eastward on U.S. 22, past what was once a favorite restaurant, now a pile of rubble following a disastrous fire; past the first Pennsylvania state historical marker ever placed, way back in 1946, the year I was born (for the Hanover Resolves -- look it up!); Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County; then into Berks County until the road ended and we were forced on to I78 toward Allentown and New York City.

Our exit was the second one we came to, at Bethel, a little crossroads town with a promising new antiques store on the square. We want to get back there sometime and see what old junque they have that we don't need. Turning right there, we were now on Pa. 501 south, passing some through some beautiful farm country and small towns, finally hitting a traffic light at U.S. 422 at Myerstown.

There stood a sight for sore eyes -- the Kumm Esse ("Come eat") Diner, scene of memories of Porch Sales past. We always stopped there for breakfast after the sale. Many times we had friends or relatives with us and enjoyed the tales told around the table about "the plate that got away," or who traded what pieces on the lawn, or who was kind enough to snatch up a piece for which another had been searching.

The Sienna pulled up right to the door of the Kum Esse.

Susanne ordered a liverwurst sandwich. Don't say it! I already know. What kind of person orders a liverwurst sandwich? Even worse, it was accompanied by a cucumber and onion concoction in a white creamy dressing.

Being more sensible, and even though it was about 2:45 p.m., long after breakfast time, I ordered a cheese omelet and home fries. What a smart selection, if I do say so myself. The omelet was fine (maybe one more egg would have made it better) but the home fries were the best I have ever had. They were sliced very thin and browned thoroughly. And nice and hot. I'd go in and order them for a snack if I lived closer.


It was only a few more miles east to Robesonia on U.S. 422. We passed markers for Charming Forge, Charles A. Schulze, and the Tulpehocken E&R Church. On our right at Womelsdorf was the homestead of Conrad Weiser, famous interpreter and peacekeeper between the colonists and Native Americans in the 18th century. Then came the sign welcoming us to Robesonia.

We entered the store with trepidation, fearing the wave of nostalgia that was certain to overcome us; the sensory overload of gleaming glaze on colorful pottery; and the price tags!

This piece -- staring us in the face as we entered -- is enormous, maybe 24 inches across. The clay weighed 25 pounds before it went into the kiln. The decoration is a combination of sgraffito and slip painting, using traditional motifs of birds and flowers, prominent among them the tulip. I was in love.

Most of the pieces are in the traditional Pennsylvania German style. Some are actual replications of early pieces. A few are more modern and a little jarring to the eye -- our eyes, that is. Remember, we are trying to break out of the "early American" mold, but its grip is strong.

This one closely resembles the original 18th century piece.
We had just seen this pattern in an old piece in an antiques store.
I have a Breininger piece similar to this, a gift from my daughter.
My collection of redware looks much like this.
Potters Curt and Thilo posed for this - against their better judgment.
(They are modest about their talent and thus the spotlight.)

  A View of Robesonia Redware store from John Robinson on Vimeo.

After a few turns around the room and some pictures taken, we ventured into the "back room," where four other craftspeople had set up show. Susanne was thrilled to see a display of hooked rugs, the kind that you hang on the wall or lay on a table. Small. But beautiful. Susanne has recently taken up this craft and has hooked two pieces so far. She is always happy to see another crafter with whom she may commune. She and Janice Sonnen had a lively chat. Janice also makes "penny" rugs from felt, something made by women in the second half of the 19th century to pretty up their surroundings -- "chust for nice" as I have read elsewhere.

Hooked rugs galore!
Susanne loves Janice's work.
A fine example of the penny rug.
Meanwhile, I looked at the tin from Handwerk Tin (they had a little stylized Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz") and ironwork from Furnace Creek Forge. Next, a collection of small houses from 1860 Wood Company. (You know how I am about houses and about things in miniature.) The houses are made by Terry Boyer, and his wife Judy makes lovely pictures from pressed flowers.

A log house and stone cottage.
A thatched-roof New England house.

A stone barn with wooden hay loft.
Judy Boyer works on a pressed flower project.
Terry and Judy were among the artists that I had selected in 2001 to represent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on the White House Christmas Tree, at the invitation of Mrs. Bush. The request for four ornaments representing historic buildings came through the Governor's Office and, happily, was assigned to me as Press Secretary for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Interestingly, the Bush Center (presidential library) just a few years ago re-created the 2001 tree in Dallas at Christmas time.

Being a frequent visitor to craft shows, I knew a number of artists who could make what the White House wanted. I sent out email invitations (Judy told me she has kept every email they received -- the first one just days before September 11.) The White House required that the ornaments not exceed a certain size or weight and later that they be sent directly to a facility where all White House mail was being examined in light of the terrorist attacks.

At that time, it was not certain if the artists would be invited to the White House, as planned, to view their creations on the trees and, of course, to meet the President and Mrs. Bush. The White House was closed to visitors and might not be open in time for Christmas. So, I arranged -- as sort of a consolation prize -- for the four artists to meet at the Pennsylvania Governors' Residence in Harrisburg and present their creations to First Lady Kathy Schweiker.

There the artists were offered coffee and tea in the Erie Room and a chance to present their ornaments and speak with the First Lady.

( r.) Mrs. Schweiker, PHMC Executive Director Brent Glass, moi, and one of the artists.

After the event, I took the ornaments to the Commission mail room to be wrapped, insulated, and coddled as UPS delivered them into the hands of a Republican administration. You can see photos of the tree with at least one item from Pennsylvania -- a model of President James Buchanan's home in Lancaster.

While the White House was not open to the public by December, the artists were able to enjoy their reward, an evening at the White House. Unfortunately, the poor schlub who made all this happen in Pennsylvania was not invited, even though the next year he tried to wangle an invitation directly from the White House chief floral designer. Perhaps they had checked my voter registration card.

I did this search for craftspeople for several years until the White House moved away from this sort of decoration, and I count it as among my happier duties as press secretary. (Incidentally, one year Lester Breininger made a gold finch out of clay when the theme was birds. He thought long and hard before deciding whether to participate, because he was vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq.)

Well, I digressed mucho, didn't I?

Returning to the main sales area of the store, we finalized our purchases of eggs and bunnies, paid the damages, and hopped (get it?) back into the car. The trip home was uneventful but pleasant, basking in the memory of all that redware in one place and only forty-three miles away.