This weekend marks my eighth anniversary of living—and sketching—in Washington. I’ve covered a lot of ground in that time, but I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of all I want to see, do, and draw here. All I can do is roll up my sleeves, put that pen in my hand, and keep filling pages.
We have a tradition of spending the Fourth with some friends who live down the street from us. We bring the old-fashioned hand-crank ice cream crock and the croquet set—they fire up the grill.
The best part, though, is watching the fireworks over the bay.
To everybody reading in the United States, have a happy and safe Fourth of July!
Revisiting Ladd’s Addition last week reminded me of another favorite neighborhood of mine. Well, not so much a neighborhood as two perfect blocks: Minneapolis’s Milwaukee Avenue.
Today Milwaukee Avenue is a two-block stretch of pedestrian-only street: originally named 22 1/2 Street, to the unwitting eye it just looks like an alley between 22nd and 23rd. It opens onto the busy Franklin Avenue to the north, but the entrance there is overgrown with shrubbery, so it’s easy to overlook and pass right by. In fact, like Salmon Beach in my own town, I’ve met locals who have lived in the Twin Cities for years and never knew it was there.
If you do know where to look, or you happen to stumble upon one of the entrances, finding Milwaukee Avenue is like stepping into a tiny, different world. To me, it always felt like walking onto the set of an old movie like To Kill a Mockingbird. (I always half expected to meet Boo Radley sitting on a porch somewhere.) And if the street has that movie-set feeling of being slightly artificial, well, that’s because it is.
Milwaukee Avenue started as a row of low-income immigrant housing in the 1880s. Like Ladd’s Addition, it was a planned neighborhood, but to keep them affordable the houses were nearly identical and constructed inexpensively (but well) with brick veneer over timber frames.
The neighborhood started falling into disrepair in the Great Depression, and by the late 1950s the houses were in shambles. Most had no indoor plumbing, and had been modified with ho-made repairs to the point that they bore almost no resemblance to what you see in the sketches above. In 1970 the City of Minneapolis made plans to demolish the whole enclave, but when the residents got wind of it, they took action on their own. In secret they applied to the National Register of Historic Places, and were approved as an historic district in 1974—suddenly the City couldn’t touch them.
Not every house survived the restoration (nine were so far gone they had to be razed), but the ones that did were outfitted with proper plumbing, new foundations and a host of repairs. The one-way street was turned into a tree-lined pedestrian mall. And best of all, the beautiful, original lathework porches, gone from pretty much every structure by then, were replicated and put back in place. So what you see now is a strange and lovely hybrid between historic relic and reimagined replica.
So if you ever find yourself in the Twin Cities, take a stroll down Milwaukee Avenue and transport yourself to a small, private universe. Just be warned that when you step back out onto Franklin Avenue, and the modern world assaults your senses once more, you’ll find yourself looking back over your shoulder with longing.
June is the month of roses in the Pacific Northwest, and there’s no better place to see roses than the City of Roses. And there’s no better rose garden in the City of Roses than the diamond gardens in Ladd’s Addition. So in honor of my favorite Portland neighborhood, here are two midsummer sketches, done exactly three years apart.
Ladd’s Addition was the first planned residential development in the state of Oregon. Conceived in 1891 and mostly built between 1905 and 1930, the area is now a national historic district. In deliberate contravention of the city grid, the neighborhood is laid out in an “X” pattern with a circle park and rotary in the center. Where each diagonal street intersects one other at points north, south, east and west of the circle, there’s a small diamond-shaped garden that’s home to one of Portland’s many rose test gardens. And along every tree-lined and tree-named (though some have been rechristened in modern times; the map above shows their original names) street are many dozens of historic homes—many of which are unique or unusual examples of Craftsman-, Tudor- and Mission-style architecture.
Every part of this neighborhood is appealing to me—I’m a sucker for a good map, a Craftsman house and a pale peach rose. Put them all together, with a shady spot for me to sit and sketch, and I’m instantly in heaven.
I was up and working in the studio well before the sun this morning, since I have a big deadline looming—so today doesn’t much resemble the day I did this sketch at my friends’ beach bungalow. But I tell you what, right now there’s nothing I’d like better than to put on some PJs, put my feet up, and just gaze out to sea.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in my sketchbooks of more exotic places, but walking around my own neighborhood reminds me that there’s plenty to see and sketch, right here at home.
Today it seems only fitting to hop from one French city to another. Other than the obvious connotation of the French Quarter, the multi-colored houses also made New Orleans remind me of Montreal. The thing that set NOLA apart, though, was all that stunning wrought iron.
Since they call it the French Quarter, it’s easy to forget that New Orleans is just as influenced by Spain—that Creole culture is just as Spanish as it is French. The city’s wrought-iron balconies brought the lesson home for me. As I rounded every corner, all I could see were houses draped in lacy Spanish mantillas.
Sketching the striped tulip fields last week reminded me of one of my other favorite colorful places: the Plateau neighborhood of Montreal. The rows of colorful balconies and porches might not be quite as vivid as the rainbow houses of San Francisco… but any city that breaks up endless blocks of brick with pops of bright color is going to get an A+ in my book.
Now this is a house in its own little world. This tidy little cottage was part of a pair of villages located at the northernmost tip of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia—which for all intents and purposes made it almost the last little house on the whole continent.
Somehow, though, it didn’t feel lonely. It felt like a refuge—especially considering how many hours of driving it took me to get there that day. You have no idea how badly I wanted to just knock on the door and come in out of the salt air.
A lot of people are going to be up early today to participate in holiday craziness—but for me, this time of year has a completely different incentive to be out before the sun. Because if you live in the South Sound area and you’re very, very lucky, you might catch that rare phenomenon where the sun rises behind Mt. Rainier and casts a massive shadow on the clouds above.
The moment doesn’t last long—about the same amount of seconds as alpenglow does. And the conditions have to be absolutely perfect for it to happen: clear enough for the mountain and sun to be visible (which almost never happens in winter), but with just enough mid-level cloud cover to give the shadow a reflecting surface. And you can only see it from certain areas where the sunrise is perfectly aligned behind the mountain (like the solstice sunrises with which places like Stonehenge and Mission San Juan Bautista are intentionally aligned). All of this makes it so uncommon that we’re lucky if conditions are right once a year.
In my six-plus years here, I’ve only seen it in person twice—and on Monday, I was finally lying in wait with my sketchbook. It felt like winning the lottery.