Category Archives: United States of America

• Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville

Visit: 24th October 2016

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Following a weekend in which we had together visited two American World Heritage Sites – the Statue of Liberty in New York and Independence Hall in Philadelphia – it was Monday and Jeffrey had to return to his day job. I, on the other hand, had 4 days left in the USA, so I had arranged for myself an excursion a little further afield. From Jeff’s house in Brooklyn I travelled to New York’s domestic-only La Guardia airport to catch an American Eagle flight 300 miles southwest to the city of Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Despite being home to the CFA Institute (awarding body for the Chartered Financial Analyst designation), Charlottesville is best known as the hometown of Thomas Jefferson. A polymath, Jefferson’s three proudest achievements were drafting the American Declaration of Independence, authoring the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom, and founding the University of Virginia. We know that because he put them on his tombstone. But he achieved even more than that, having served as ambassador to France, Secretary of State, Vice President and then President of the United States. He was a key author of the US Constitution, but also a linguist, an inventor and an architect. It is chiefly for his achievements in that final role that UNESCO inscribed Monticello and the University of Virginia as a World Heritage Site in 1987.

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Like Independence Hall, Monticello is immortalised on American currency. Not the illustrious $100 bill for this site, but the humble nickel.

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Jefferson (1743-1826) was a scholar of Andrea Palladio, the 16th century Venetian architect who gave his name to the style known as Palladianism. Emphasising symmetry, it drew self-consciously on the styles of Classical Athens and Rome. Jefferson was instrumental in bringing the style to the Americas, building himself a home at Monticello to showcase the grandeur the style could bring.

Located a few miles outside of Charlottesville, Monticello – which is Italian for ‘little mountain’ – was built upon the top of a hill that Jefferson had his workers (slaves) carve the peak off to create a plateau. Looking at the house we can see the inspiration for Washington, D.C.’s whole architectural style.

I took a tour of the house, where I walked once again in the footsteps of Kenneth Clark. Here is the bed that Jefferson designed so that he could get out into either his library or his study depending on his mood. Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to try on Jefferson’s glasses as Clark did!

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There is a nearby hill that rises higher than Monticello, meaning whoever occupies it would have a great view of Jefferson’s estate. In recent years a developer announced plans to build condos there, but the trustees of Monticello – determined to prevent the surrounding area being despoiled – raised $15 million to buy the land themselves. By happy coincidence, $15 million is exactly the same amount that Jefferson as president paid Napoleon’s France in 1803 to purchase all the lands west of the Mississippi, doubling the size of his country at the stroke of a pen. And a significantly better deal per acre than the Monticello trustees received for one small hilltop.

After having settled into the completed house at Monticello and finished his time as president, Jefferson oversaw the construction of his main local legacy, the University of Virginia. As a proud southerner he was alarmed at the way northeastern universities like Harvard and Yale sucked up the brightest young minds from the southern states. He was a passionate supporter of ‘states rights’, no opponent of slavery and generally of the mindset that would lead the next generation of southerners into civil war with the north. In order to limit the the anti-southern propaganda that he believed the established universities were spreading, he thought it necessary to found a university right there in Charlottesville. As I walked around the campus in the early autumn evening it seemed like a wonderful place for students to study, and you can clearly see the similarity of style with Monticello, just up the hill a couple of miles away.

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Jefferson designed the Rotunda at the University to demonstrate the “authority of nature and power of reason”. Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome its position as a secular building at the heart of a university campus stood it in stark contrast to the universities of Europe, all with churches at their centres.

Given that this was my first time in the American South (although admittedly only just within it!) I couldn’t leave without seeking out some soul food. Fortunately there is at least one place serving such fare in Charlottesville, named Mel’s Cafe. I had fried chicken, fried potatoes and ‘slaw followed by a sweet potato pie for dessert, washed down by a styrofoam cup of iced tea. This delicious meal was had for about $12, making it the cheapest meal of the trip and good value for money. With Wheel of Fortune being shown on NBC, this felt like the first time I had set foot in ‘real America’ on this trip.

When my time in Virginia was up I boarded the flight back to New York, from which I was got a great view of Manhattan on the approach to La Guardia. Just a few nights later an aircraft carrying Vice-Presidential candidate Mike Pence skidded off the runway there.

Speaking of politics, during the final two days I spent in New York one of the places I visited was Trump Tower. This was before the election shock, and – although I had £20 on his winning at odds of 7/5 – it was looking unlikely that he would pull it off. I was amused to see ‘women for Trump’ activists demonstrating outside the entrance and surprised to see a sign saying ‘public welcome on floors 1-5’. Tempted as I was by the shirt-and-gold-tie combination, I was unable to locate the TRUMP STORE in order to purchase it.

Which brings me to the end of my three US World Heritage Site posts.

I wonder what America’s 3rd president would have made of its 45th?

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• Independence Hall

Visit: 23rd October 2016

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The day after the Statue of Liberty, Jeffrey and I got up early and caught a Megabus from New York to Philadelphia. The journey took about two hours, which I mostly passed by looking out of the window at the New Jersey scenery and then at the vast suburbs on the outskirts of Philadelphia. I was amazed at the sheer number of drive-through restaurants clustered either side of Route 30 as we passed through what might now be termed ‘Trump territory’.

We were dropped off right in by the Independence Hall visitor centre, but rather than head straight for the sights we walked in the direction of the city’s modern centre, stopping off for a Dunkin’ Donut on the way. One of my objectives for the day was to try a ‘Philly Cheesesteak’ – which is a sub-sandwich filled with steak and cheese (spray cheese for some, provolone for others). We found ours in what my phone’s photo app tells me is the ‘Gayborhood’ area. The cheesesteak didn’t wow me. It’s really just a sub with steak and cheese, but not a quality steak (at least not where we ate) and not a particularly exciting cheese.

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Our tour of Independence Hall was booked for 3pm, so when the time came we joined the queue for security screening (obligatory at major US sights now, unfortunately). It costs nothing to go on the tours, which are conducted by official Park Rangers from the US Parks Service. Our guide, Larry, showed us the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, as well as the former home of the US Senate and House of Representatives (they were based in Philadelphia after moving from New York but before Washington, D.C. was ready to receive them).

Independence Hall is inscribed as a World Heritage Site because of the remarkable documents that originated there. The US Constitution was agreed in the building 11 years after the Declaration of Independence. Key to events were the so-called Founding Fathers:

  • George Washington – America’s first president
  • John Adams – its second president
  • Thomas Jefferson – the third president, and the Declaration’s principal author
  • James Madison – fourth president
  • Benjamin Franklin – polymath and inventor, the oldest of the group
  • John Jay – first Chief Justice
  • Alexander Hamilton – subject of a hit Broadway musical, killed in a duel

The concepts of freedom and democracy these men espoused (though they cared less about slavery) have since spread around much of the world and changed it largely for the better. The USA was the first democracy in modern times, standing in contrast to the monarchies that would still control most of the rest of the world decades or centuries later.

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Later that week I travelled to the home of Jefferson in Virginia, which, like Independence Hall, features on US currency.

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After finishing the tour of Independence Hall, Jeffrey and I had a few hours spare to walk around the old town of Philadelphia. The lane in the picture, Elfreth’s Alley, lays claim to being America’s oldest residential street. Since Jeffrey hasn’t been back to Britain in three years, being here made him a little homesick.

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We finished up with a some craft beers in the mild evening light before boarding the Megabus back to New York. Crossing out over the Walt Whitman Bridge we departed America’s fifth largest city to head back to its first.

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• Statue of Liberty

Visit: 22nd October 2016

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Being a student again is wonderful in so many ways, but one of the best aspects is the return of frequent spells of time off. My first such period was the October half term, so I took advantage of it by booking flights to New York to stay with my old friend Jeffrey, whom I hadn’t seen in 3 years. The airline on this route was Air India, oddly enough. They have a route from Ahmedabad to Newark via London, and price the second leg very competitively. A classmate of mine was on the same flight, so I had someone to talk textbooks with as we crossed the ocean.

On arrival I rode the rather impractical airport monorail to the local railroad station and thence a shiny silver train into New York’s Penn Station. Jeffrey’s office is not far from there, so it was a short walk to meet up with him.

It was a balmy Friday evening and after exchanging initial pleasantries we headed straight for dinner at a place I’ve been to before: the famous Katz’s Deli, serving corned beef sandwiches that would feed a family of four back home.

Back we then went to Jeffrey’s house in Brooklyn, walking across the steel-girdered Williamsburg bridge. The next morning, though, the weather had changed dramatically – dropping by about 15°C and bringing rain. Unperturbed, we got up early to make our way to Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan for our pre-booked ferry to the Statue of Liberty.

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The statue was a gift from France to the United States, given in the late 19th century. It has since become the landmark that symbolises America better than any other in the global imagination. This symbolism was not, of course, coincidental. The figure, representing the Roman goddess Libertas, holds the flaming torch of freedom in one hand and a book bearing the date of the American Declaration of Independence in the other. Another detail, which is not easy to discern unless you view it from a helicopter, is the broken chain around her ankle.

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Our tickets allowed us – after two security screenings – to visit the ‘pedestal’, which is the top of the stone base – giving the view in the photo above. It is surprisingly high up, making for a decent cityscape of the skyscrapers of Manhattan (below). Construction of the pedestal was a live-wire issue in New York at the time and it repeatedly ran out of funds, leading to building being halted a number of times. After shipping over from Paris the statue itself actually sat in storage in New York for a year awaiting the completion of its base!

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There is a nice little museum inside the pedestal that chronicles the process of design and construction of the statue. Designed by the sculptor Bartholdi, its construction site in Paris drew crowds of sightseers. Gustave Eiffel – builder of the eponymous tower – was drafted in to take care of the steel framework. One of the more interesting exhibits in the museum is this collection of retaining steel brackets, every one of them custom-made to fit the contours of the statue and hold it in place. These original pieces were replaced in the 1980s when they began to show signs of fatigue.

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At 113 tonnes, the steel framework makes up the large majority of the weight of the statue, supporting 27 tonnes of 2.4mm-thick copper skin.

I’d like to have visited the crown, but it sells out months in advance. Prior to 1916 the public was actually allowed up to the small balcony that surrounds the torch itself. The original glass torch is now housed at ground level in the pedestal, having been replaced with a more weather-resistant gold-plated torch in the 1980s.

We departed Liberty Island by ferry for Manhattan, where we had the best meal of the trip at Asian fusion restaurant Momofuku in the East Village. After that we visited the Met and the Guggenheim before going out for drinks in Brooklyn and finishing up the night with cheesecake in an all-night diner – a quintessentially American experience.