A Vanderbilt House Party – The Guilded Age

This spring, the Biltmore Estate added several new characters to the house. Mannequins sporting re-created costumes of actual clothing worn at Biltmore House are scattered throughout the rooms. They set the stage for a house party circa 1905. There is also a new audio tour to accompany the costumes. Your tour begins in the breakfast room and carries you throughout a typical day as you progress through the rooms. You pass mannequins dressed for a leisurely stroll on the grounds, dressed for a swim in the indoor pool, and servants dressed for the work they performed, finally emerging in the grand banquet hall just in time for a formal dinner complete with entertainment by a rising opera star.

Costume designers scoured old photographs of the Vanderbilts and their guests in order to re-create every detail of the period attire. They even brought in an Oscar winning costume designer, John Bright who worked on Downton Abbey, to consult. I was pretty impressed with the outfits. The exhibit runs for 2 and a half months (ending May 27), which surprised me as I meandered from room to room. They clearly spent a lot of time and money making these costumes and recording the new audio. It seems a shame to take them down and hide them in a storage room somewhere after just a couple of months. Maybe they will stay longer and the end date is just for show to generate interest now. I guess we’ll see.

Going for a stroll. I loved the boot laces and the belt detail.
I noticed that Edith, in the original photograph had a corset and extremely cinched waist, while the mannequin with her dress looks much bulkier (normal) through the waist. Interesting that they chose not to cinch up the mannequin. It feels a bit less authentic this way.

Vintage Computer Festival Southeast

We are in Roswell, Georgia today (northern suburb of Atlanta) for the Vintage Computer Festival. Rob was interested in seeing some old computers and showing me his vast knowledge of now useless technology. The festival is taking place in the Computing Museum of America, which is still under construction.

When we arrived, we were slightly disappointed to see only a few booths, several of which were still just setting up, half an hour after the festival was set to open.  Rob suggested that we start in the computer museum while the rest of the vendors set up.  The museum turned out to also still be setting up.  They had a long hallway with several empty rooms along one side and a massive paper timeline on the other side.  Guests were supposed to write their favorite computing technology or hero on a sticky note and stick it on the timeline.  Rob contributed 3:  the introduction of BBSs, the introduction of Linux, and Quantum Link the precursor to AOL.

Some of the first computers we encountered had the case open so we could see the wiring inside.  These were “mini-computers but still as big as a fridge.  There were so many wires, like a bird’s nest.  Rob explained how this was where the term “bug” in the program came from.  The wires connected various pins.  If a bug or other object landed on tow or more pins it would short out the system and create a “bug” in the system.

There was a room with lots of 1960s and 70s data processors.  Some had pretty colored input keys (not a traditional keyboard like we have now).  Another room had massive supercomputers from the late 1970s, 80s and 90s, mostly Cray brand (I called them cray-cray machines).  Some of these came in cases with fun colors or had what looked like benches around the outside.  The Cray T3E supercomputer from 1995 had massive liquid cooling hoses – blue for cold water going in, red for hot water coming out.  Most of the computers didn’t yet have information plaques explaining what they did, which was a little disappointing, but I had Rob to help me along.

Back at the vendor section, most were set up.  Rob did more talking and explaining than any of the vendors did.  He is amazingly knowledgeable about this stuff.  Most of the vendors didn’t seem very chatty at all.  At one point I had to dig some water out of my bag for Rob because his throat was getting dry from telling me all about the various old machines we passed.  He played a few old games, including Lemmings on the Amiga 2000.  He managed to get me to play a little bit of Spectre on a pair of networked Macs using Apple Talk.

In the end, we spent about an hour and half there.  We think the Computing Museum of America will be pretty cool when they finally open.  We might have to come back some time to check it out.

Day 16, Montgomery

Our days at the beach have come to an end.  It’s always sad to leave the beach behind, and today was no exception.  We set out first thing in the morning, back across the roller-coaster bridge, and onto the mainland.  Our destination for the day was Montgomery, AL.

Our first stop in Montgomery was the Alabama State Capitol.  Outside the south entrance of the capitol building was a U-shaped drive lined with the state flags of all 50 states.  At the base of the flag was a flat 1ft x 1.5ft chunk of stone representing the state. It was neat to walk along and see what kind of stone represented each state.  South Dakota and Wyoming had pieces of petrified wood, which I thought was really cool! Unlike many of the capitol buildings we have been in lately, this one is no longer used for the main offices or House and Senate Chambers.  Those have been moved to newer buildings nearby. So, we had the run of the place without all the hubbub that we had in Texas just a week or so ago. State Capitols often have unique and interesting details that strike me. Alabama’s was its carpets.  There were several unique patterns in vivid colors. On the wall of the old House of Representatives chamber was a plaque commemorating the signing of the declaration for Alabama to secede from the United States.

After checking out the State Capitol building, we walked across the street to the First White House of the Confederacy.  Inside, we were greeted by a very friendly and chatty docent, who just happened to be a yankee from upstate New York. Kinda detracted from the ambiance, but what can you do.  It was a smallish house, definitely not on par with the original White House in Washington DC. Also, this house only served at the home of the Confederate President for about a year or less before the capitol was moved to Virginia.  There were quite a few artifacts preserved that were actually used by Jefferson Davis and his family. In my experience of touring old houses, that seems quite rare – usually there are only a few pieces from the original owner and most are collected from various sources from the right time period.

Our next stop was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (more commonly known as the new Lynching Memorial).  Rob and I first heard about it on NBC Nightly news. Lester Holt did a segment on it, in which he found the name of a relative who was lynched.  I felt like these lychings and the atmosphere of our society that allowed such things to happen in such numbers is a part of US history that is too often glossed over.

As expected, the memorial was a sobering site.  The enormous hanging steel blocks memorialize the 4,000 souls who were violently ended; most for the smallest infraction: yelling at white teenagers, looking the wrong way at a white woman, knocking on a white person’s door.  Looking back from where we are today, it’s hard to imagine a world in which enough people thought this kind of behavior was okay that it prevailed as the norm.

From the Memorial, we moved on to its companion museum, the Legacy Museum, which tells the story of slavery through modern day.  The focus here is on how the tradition of racial terrorism continues from organiized slavery, through Jim Crow Laws, and on to today with our the biases against people of color that continue in our current justice system.  Today, the effects of slavery followed by white society’s systemic vilification and violence against people of color continues to affect the the way both blacks and whites see each other. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.  I don’t wish to be political in this blog, but as I read the stories in the museum, I couldn’t help but see parallels with the current administration’s vilification and generalizations that all the migrants gathering at our borders are drug dealers and rapists.  That is not the case, these are people just like us, fleeing from dire situations in their homelands. And if we treat them as criminals we risk creating criminals where there were none and show that we have learned nothing from the civil rights movement.

Getting back to the lighthearted travel blog, we moved on from Alabama and into Georgia.  Tomorrow we drive the last leg of our trip home. It will be good to see our house. From the outdoor cameras, it looks like we should have tulips and redbud trees in bloom and fresh spring leaves on our trees.  Any maybe even a visit by the bears.

State Capitol carpet patterns

Day 15, Beach and Birds

Today is our last day for relaxing at the beach.  We started off the morning with another trip to the Lighthouse Bakery for pastries.  When finished, we went over to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary at the east end of the island.  We didn’t see very many birds, but we did see a bunch of turtles. They swam right up to us.  There were both Softshell Turtles (plain brown and with a funny shaped head) and Pond Turtles (more colorful).  After 30 or so minutes walking through the bird sanctuary we were finished and moved on to check out Fort Gaines at the very eastern tip of the island.  I was expecting a ruined fort with not much there, but it was still very much intact, with an entrance fee to match. We have all seen similar forts, so we opted not to pay the fee to go in, just checked out the Civil War plaques near the parking area and one cannon battery that was outside the walls.  

Back at the house, we relaxed for a bit, checking on the progress of the snowstorm currently hitting Minnesota.  For lunch, Mom, Dad, and I went out to the Islanders Restaurant. The food was so so and the atmosphere about the same.  But it was nice to have seafood so near to the sea. After lunch, Rob, Mom, and I walked about 1.5 miles down the beach. The seas are rougher today than they were yesterday, with lots of churning waves, still warm and enjoyable to walk in.  It’s also very windy. We are all a little sunburnt and wind blown. Rob and Mom did some more feeding of hamburger buns to the seagulls. And we saw a couple of larger birds, a heron and a crane (I think).

Just before dinner we watched the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, live.  It was pretty amazing.

Day 14, Relaxing at the Beach

It’s time for us to relax at the beach.  Ahhhhh.

We started the day with a short walk along the beach, picking up seashells along the way.  The water is warmer than the Atlantic on most summer days in Massachusetts (which is where the ocean beaches I’m most used to are).  Mom and I walked with our feet in the water. As we were walking back to the house, Rob joined us with a suggestion welcomed by all: a trip to the Lighthouse Bakery for cinnamon rolls and cream cheese Danishes.  

After our pastries, we settled in to relaxing.  After lunch, Mom and I did a bit of shopping. There aren’t many shops on Dauphin Island, we spent only 1 hour, and that included driving time from our end of the island to the “town”.  We did each buy a little trinket from a local artist whose art is all abstract animals that can be found here on the Island.

Later in the day, Rob decided to feed some old bread rolls to the seagulls, right from our deck.  As expected, we suddenly had about 20 seagulls hanging around. They lingered for about 20 min after Rob stopped feeding them, perching on deck posts and squawking their loud squawks.  We took another walk on the beach outside our house, then after dinner drove to the west end of the island, where the houses stop, and walked along the beach some more, just as the sun was setting.

Day 13, Driving and more Driving

Sunrise at Kemah

We began our morning with a beautiful sunrise over Galveston Bay.  I even managed to get some good pictures of it. Once everyone was up, we hit the road as early as we could to try to avoid Houston traffic.  Today was our longest travel day, spending about 10 hours on the road (including charging time). We traveled in 4 different states, starting in TX, then on through LA, and MS, ending up in AL.  We are spending 3 nights in a beach house right on the water in Dauphin Island, Alabama.

Along the way, we mostly just drove.  We saw some rice fields out the windows of the car, lots of trees, and lots of water.  Louisiana had so much water. At one point, we spent about 5 miles driving on bridges elevated above swampy bayou.  We also crossed several rivers on huge bridges high enough for ships to pass under. Most of them were so tall that it felt like we were on a roller coaster climbing up and up and up.  It was a tiny bit scary.

During our charging stop in Baton Rouge, we tasted some classic Louisiana fare at Acme Oyster House.  We each had a Po-Boy sandwich. They were okay. But, we all thought our sides were much better. Mom had seafood gumbo.  I had hush puppies, and Dad had the most amazing sweet potato fries.

We also stopped in Mississippi in the town that Mom spent some time helping with the Hurricane Katrina cleanup back in 2006: Waveland, MS.  We stopped at the city’s public beach, which clearly had nice, new facilities, set up on stilts. All the houses in the area were up on stilts.  A few of the lots were still empty. It was good to see that people were learning from the storm and seemed to be better prepared for the next one.

We arrived at our beach house in Dauphin Island just as the sun was setting.  It was a pretty sunset. And our beach house is pretty amazing. Mom and I stood outside after full dark and listened to the waves crashing out front and watching the stars above.  There are lots of oil rigs (we counted 13) off shore out front. Some are not that far away.

Day 12, One Small Step

Our reason for staying at Kemah was to visit the Houston Space Center, which is only 15 minutes away.  We were pleasantly surprised to find electric vehicle parking with charging at the Space Center. Yessir happily sucked in some juice while we were inside.  We arrived, along with lots of other people, right at 10:00am when it opened. Our first destination was the Tram Tour that took us onto the grounds of the Johnson Space Center next door.  Our first stop was Mission Control. We were able to go into a viewing area above one of the old mission control rooms. They currently use this room for training purposes. Since there was a space walk currently going on, the video from the space walk was playing on most of the screens.  We watched as the astronaut fumbled around trying to put a tool back into a bin that wouldn’t close. The bin kept opening and the tool kept floating back out.

After viewing Mission Control, we got to walk through a gallery above the Crew Training Facility.  Here they have mock-ups of various parts of the space station. Crew can use them to train for various situations they might encounter when on the space station.  At one end, a group was working on a humanoid robot. Our final stop on the Tram Tour was Rocket Park. Outside were 2 rockets, I don’t remember what kind. Inside the massive shed was one of the last surviving Saturn V rockets.  We could walk all the way around it and pose for pictures near its massiveness. It really was a huge machine! Amazing that they sent all that up into space and each one was single use only.

After the Tram Tour we had a little lunch in the food court inside the Houston Space Center. There was lots more to see inside the center.  Rob was especially interested in the old computing equipment that NASA used to use. Mom enjoyed checking out the different types of space suits used throughout the years.  We were all fascinated by the story of the astronaut who almost drowned on a spacewalk in 2013.

For dinner, Mom, Dad, and I ate at the Flying Dutchman on the Kemah Boardwalk.  The food was so, so. The entertainment was a pair of brawling cats. We sat outside along the boardwalk and a pair of cats came over shortly after we sat down; an all black cat with bright yellow eyes and a brown stripy cat that sort of looked like Jon.  The brown one turned out to be a meany! Several times he attacked the black cat, grabbing him by the back of the neck and wrestling him to the ground. They would howl at each other and tussle about for a bit, then separate and lie down peacefully, each watching the other.  Surprisingly, the restaurant staff didn’t do anything to shoo the cats away.