I thought you’d find this article, from the August 2006 New York Times, interesting. It’s called “On Route 20, Where the Past Is Present” and talks about a road trip on US 20 in New York. Enjoy!
On Route 20, Where the Past Is Present
By TRACIE ROZHON
Published: August 11, 2006
AMID high grass, sky-blue chicory and hollyhocks the color of strawberry syrup, the old house was easy to miss, a blur of tobacco-hued walls along a once-prosperous highway in upstate New York.
Perhaps it was the house’s columns that caused me to make a U-turn, or maybe it was the strange texture that, seen at highway speed, resembled stacks and stacks of brown eggs with — wait — was that an inscription carved in the lintel above the door? Was that a “for sale” sign stuck in the lawn? Would this rare cobblestone house, so close to the road in Geneva, N.Y., be torn down for some surefire development designed to bring back the crowds?
Architectural history — and some of its mysteries — was unfolding on my road trip west along Route 20 and then 20A, its interesting southern loop, from Albany to East Aurora: from 18th-century mansions to 19th-century storefronts, from tourist cabins built in the Great Depression to drive-ins visited in doo-wop days.
When the New York State Thruway was built in the 1950’s, to the north of the old highway and roughly parallel, progress along Route 20 skidded to a halt. To historians, the road is like a highway set in aspic, with vignettes of architecture, some of which may not be around next year.
Route 20 is a visual encyclopedia of American building types, not only the many historic houses open to the public but also the beleaguered gems, like the one with the columns about four hours west of Albany — the inscription over the door read: “Thomas Barron,” and, underneath, the date 1846. (The price on the house and its 13 acres is $375,000; the real estate agent said most of its value lies in its commercial zoning.)
Then there are the farms: some well-to-do, with the sun glinting off neat metal roofs and with silos wearing paint as fresh as dew. Some are not so well off: with sagging barns and peeling paint, with faded lettering and rusty horse vans parked in overgrown front yards.
The 290-mile route is lined with antiques shops, bed-and-breakfasts and signposts to nearby gardens, caverns and spectacular waterfalls. Lakes lap the sides of the road in towns with evocative names — Geneva, Cazenovia, Skaneateles. Slowing down, I glimpsed suntanned teenagers diving from docks, grandmothers pushing strollers, and a restored mail boat taking on passengers for a tour of waterside villas and elaborate boathouses redolent of the Gilded Age.
“Route 20 developed with the automobile,” said Tania Werbizky, director of grant programs for the Preservation League of New York State. “The road represents the architecture of travel: early gas stations, tourist cabins and burger chains that pre-date McDonald’s — so much is virtually unchanged.” Not quite a year ago, 108 miles of Route 20, from Duanesburg to La Fayette, was designated a state scenic byway, an action prompted by local preservation groups. But the designation does not stop owners from tearing down their houses, nor farmers from abandoning their fields.
MILE 61: SHARON SPRINGS Before reaching this spa town, I whizzed by giant signs for Howe Caverns and the Iroquois Indian Museum, Landis Arboretum and Secret Caverns. If these don’t attract you, head for a cooling drink in Sharon Springs at the newly restored American Hotel, a rather Southern-looking white clapboard 1847 building with porches running clear across the facade on both floors.
The town’s old Main Street intersects Route 20, and it was there that I got the sense of what turned out to be a leitmotif for the trip: while a good chunk of Sharon Springs is restored, so much is not.
An irresistible cast-iron pavilion — with only the word “Magnesia” emblazoned across the top — was a mystery, sitting across the street from a hauntingly deserted grand hotel. It’s easy to drive up the cracked driveway to the old spa hotel, almost to the front door, and then stroll along the long, lazy veranda. The whole place is empty, yet there are no “No Trespassing” signs. The porch still has an old rocker on it. The name “The Adler” is painted in red on the white facade.
MILE 78: CHERRY VALLEY Take a spur of Route 20 — called the Historic Cherry Valley Turnpike — for about six miles from the main highway to see a distinctive marble Civil War monument with an eagle on top and a row of antique storefronts, including a general store with what looks like the original screen door, and a white-haired clerk who might have been in the supporting cast of “On Golden Pond.”
But Cherry Valley is not another Sturbridge Village, with its period costumes and recreated atmosphere. The town is only a few miles east of the Glimmerglass Opera and Otsego Lake; its Erin’s coffee shop is packed with weeklong locals and weekending Manhattanites.
At the northeast corner of the lake, a winding 15-minute drive west from Cherry Valley, stands Hyde Hall, a fine neo-Classical stone manor house from the early 19th century, notable for its elegant, nearly bare interiors and airy, verdant landscaping, with a very English view down the lake: a high, wide 10-mile scene framed by old trees, with few signs of civilization. “Sense and Sensibility” could have been filmed there; if you’ve grown sick of overstuffed house museums, this is the place for you.
MILE 123: BOUCKVILLE It’s a bit like Hudson, N.Y. — a Main Street of antiques shops — but without the attitude. (And, some might say, without the consistently high quality.) A destination for some, most of Bouckville’s several dozen stores are group shops, featuring an array of dealers selling stuff that seems to encompass every household object from the 1920’s through the 1960’s.
Bucking the trend, however, was the Depot, which had some Arts and Crafts-era frames and some early blue Staffordshire. There also was an 18th-century French hand-colored print, in the manner of the British caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson, that was very decorative, depicting a man selling crutches to an eager public. Encased in an early gilt frame, it was much more charming than it sounds — for $175.
MILE 139: CAZENOVIA Who could resist the name? Route 20 is Main Street here, a shopper’s kaleidoscope of antiques shops and clothing boutiques. No one knows why the fanciest house in town was named Lorenzo, but some speculate that it may have been because the original owner was a fan of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
The house, from 1807, is a finely proportioned three-story ocher-painted mansion — and the outbuildings shout to be copied in your own backyard — but the curators have chosen to rip out much of the old carpets and wallpaper and replace some with replicas in jarring colors.
A few miles to the north is Chittenango Falls, and a state park that charges $6 per carload (though it’s free if you go late enough in the day). What’s different about this particular falls is how close you can get: very, very close. Watch out!
MILE 166: SKANEATELES Of all the towns along Route 20, Skaneateles has the most visible of lakefronts from the main road, and because of it one of the most romantic Main Streets. Cazenovia and Skaneateles probably vie for the most beautiful downtown on Route 20 — both are not to be missed — but where else but in Skaneateles can one see teak-and-mahogany boats boarding passengers across a glowing green park?
The one-hour excursion on the Judge Ben Wiles featured commentary by the skipper: a deeply tanned and T-shirted middle-aged woman who knew all about L. C. Smith, the typewriter tycoon from Syracuse (Smith-Corona), who had a villa across the lake, as well as more modern, self-made palazzo-builders like Robert J. Congel, the founder of Pyramid Management Group, the mall developers, who built waterfront houses for himself and for members of his family.
His was more contemporary-looking, but one of his children had chosen a shingle-style Stanford White-ish confection that looked like it had been built yesterday — and probably had been. The shingles were still blond, not yet gray.
MILE 173: AUBURN Remember the name William H. Seward from your seventh-grade history class? If so, you may remember Seward’s Folly, which refers to his influential role as secretary of state in the purchase of Alaska in 1867. The city of Auburn has many things to recommend it, but consider three. First, visit the Seward house, a big yellow Federal house of brick, built in 1816 by Seward’s father-in-law, Judge Elijah Miller. It has the books — mostly law books and compilations of magazines — that Seward perused when he lived there, off and on for 50 years.
Then stop by the Willard Memorial Chapel, furnished from the floor to the stenciled, beamed ceilings — and of course, to the stained-glass windows — by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Next is Fort Hill Cemetery. Partly because of the raking late afternoon light, the graveyard where Harriet Tubman (the great abolitionist and a protégée of Seward’s) is buried was a fantasy of aged marble and granite. The best monument of all is a tall (at least 30 feet high) obelisk of crisply cut stone with only this one tantalizing — and still unanswered — question finely chiseled into marble: “Who is there to mourn for Logan?”
MILE 193: GENEVA The town was a surprise. Take a quick trip to the Hobart and William Smith Colleges campus, which overlooks Seneca Lake, and while you’re in the neighborhood see some of the most beautiful houses west of Nantucket, long and low and stuccoed, with new striped canvas awnings, near statuesque mid-19th-century row houses painted pistachio green and little-girl pink. Absolutely everything is crisp and clean. The whole place looks scrubbed.
MILE 290: EAST AURORA When Elbert Hubbard settled in this village on Route 20A in 1894 — after selling his share of the profitable Larkin Soap Company of Buffalo — he and his first wife, Bertha, and their children built a house on a side street and, after a trip to England when he saw William Morris and his Kelmscott Press, Hubbard set up his own small print shop. A furniture concern, a metalworking shop and the Roycroft Inn followed
Hubbard and his second wife, Alice (he fathered a child with her years before he divorced his first wife), died when the Lusitania was sunk in 1915, and his son took over the inn. The Depression hit, the business faltered and one after another owner went bankrupt until the mid-1990’s, when the inn was saved from the wrecking ball. It is now run by a nonprofit corporation, with 22 suites and rooms, some displaying the aphorisms that made Hubbard a sage in his day.
Most seem a bit sappy now, like embroidered mottoes on scented pillows in cheap catalogs: “The love we give away is the only love we keep,” Hubbard said, and “We work to become, not to acquire.”
But there is one that seems apt for this trip along a faded, but utterly fascinating, road replete with architectural history.
If victory is, as Hubbard wrote, a matter of staying power, then Route 20 is a real winner.
EAST to west, start in Albany. From the west, Buffalo Niagara International Airport is half an hour’s drive south to East Aurora, N.Y.
In Cazenovia, Lorenzo State Historic Site, at 17 Rippleton Road, is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday from May 1 through the last Sunday in October. Admission: $5 (315-655-3200; www.lorenzony.org).
A vintage excursion boat, the Judge Ben Wiles, anchors within sight of the highway in Skaneateles and offers a guided one-hour tour of lakeside villas for $10 (800-545-4318). Across the street is the sprawling Sherwood Inn, 26 West Genesee Street, whose rooms are reasonable at around $170 a night (315-685-3405; www.thesherwoodinn.com).
The Seward House, at 33 South Street in Auburn, has expanded a good bit since William H. Seward’s father-in-law invited him to live there in 1824. Current hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $6 (315-252-1283; www.sewardhouse.org).
At the Roycroft Inn, 40 South Grove Street, East Aurora, rooms start at about $90. (716-652-5552; www.roycroftinn.com).
The US Route 20 Blog homepage can be found here.