Monday, 1 November 2010

Hail, Columbus!

When pennypinching Buckeyes plunk down $95 millions to celebrate the 500th anniversary of their eponym Columbus discovering America, what they come up with had damn better be good. And is it ever! AMERIFLORA ’92 wouldn’t have interested than canny Genoan, so benignly obsessed with finding another way to the Orient’s riches since the newly regnant Moors were blocking the traditional Mideastern route. But every American will be (and many foreigners, to judge by the crowd I observed the last day in April, ten days after the official opening by President Bush).

The only nit I would pick were the outrageously long lunch lines in “The Taste of the Nations,” a gustatory United Nations under one roof. In fact, I ended up licking a superb Borden ice cream bar dipped in two piles of hot chocolate to better hold the cashew chips in lieu of lunch. That hungry quibble aside, I say the only official American celebration of the Quincentenary is a howling success.
To justify such expenditures in these fiscally austere times, the city fathers devised a strategy of using legacy buildings in 100-year-old Franklin Park, two miles from downtown Columbus on Broad Street. The 10E bus will take you there, for 50 cents if you’re a senior! So don’t get bogged down in traffic and parking problems, go mass transpo. The single most interesting legacy to my architectural eye was the updating and expansion of the 1895 Palm House and Conservatory. It is a NeoDeco lark of a building, many leveled, multi-splendored, much ado about some things floral. There was a boffo Bonsai tournament going on the day I visited.

And a super Boehm porcelain bird officially sponsored by a local firm called the Pewter Goose. And, especially, “Just Naturally Splendid,” a show-off expo of the Ohio Designer and Craft Guild. You could spend a whole day just in that grand building by the “Mad Dutchman,” chuck full of visual delights and surprises—this permanent collection of flora from every nook and cranny of God’s Green Globe being its permanent enchancement of Columbus.
The financing of the 6 month extravaganza is a shrewd triple mix of public funding, corporate selling, and expenditures for entrance and souvenirs by the visiting public. There are occasions when this flogging of landscaping services, fertilizer, and such can become visually onerous, but by and large commercial sponsors large and small are discreet and non-pushy. There are kitschy edges to many of the international souvenir shops, but what the hell: if it teaches Americans to be more global, a little bit of kitsch won’t hurt over the long haul.

I had a good schmooze at the Indian pavilion where a friendly Rao named Paul, once of Bombay but now a successful chemical engineer of twenty years residence, explained how the Asian Indian Committee of America took this project in hand, and directed the Indian League of Ohio (800 members in Columbus, 900 in Cleveland) in its volunteer construction of the India pavilion. It was like a nineteenth century communal barn-raising. Can’t get more American than that. Or more Midwest.
Incidentally, Genoa, the sister city of Columbus (the school children of that Italian city decades ago pitched in their lira to finance the huge Columbus statue in front of City Hall) has a major presence on site; and off site the University of Genoa is collaborating with OSU to field major scholarly symposia over the six month run of AMERIFLORA. It’s pretty impressive stuff. As a Midwesterner from up the Interstate in Detroit, I share the cultural inferiority complex we Middies felt when we mingle with Ivy League Easties. No more, thank you. The flowering of Columbus as an urbane city (pun intended) is miracle enough to stagger sextillion of infidels.
There is also an impressive public entertainment program. The day I visited for example, The Shanghai Rod Puppet Theatre was appearing. I had a great time, Mr. George Wang of Claremont, California interpreting, telling the troupe about my marginal success as a student of Mandarin at the Shanghai Foreign Language Institute in 1982. Wendy’s, the Columbus-based fast-foodster, has the corporate lock on that logo. Bridgestone, the Japanese tiremaker from nearby Akron, has the tram concession. And so on.
When I first visited Columbus (in 1955) for the National Association of Educational Broadcasters Convention it was Dishwater City, dull, dull, dull. We use to beer up at the (long gone) Deshler Hilton, emulating the frat boys out at OSU in our fatuities. It’s a different kitchen sink, these days. Begin with the 40,000 circulation “Columbus Alive!,” an alternative paper that touts Columbus’s new cultural features whilst keeping its leaders more or less honest with hard-hitting political analysis. Begin your stay at Ameriflora ’92 by scanning its skeds—it appears, free, every Thursday.
And Columbus Culture (Goodbye, Philip Roth!) is easy to get to. Start out by taking the 10W bus back down Broad Street until you hit the Columbus Museum of Art. Right now it’s showing the Impressionist and Modernist Collections of a local couple—“She’s a Lazarus,” the elegant colored gentleman at the front desk explained. The department store fortune has always been deployed with Jewish mitzvah generosity. “And he’s a surgeon from Cleveland,” the same informant advised—hinting that such was a defeat. (As a Ph.D. in American Culture from Cleveland’s Western Reserve (1957) I considered that teasing sneer a bit mean spirited.)
Wherever their fortunes are coming from, that collecting couple, the Siraks, have perfect eyes. I have never seen, anywhere, anytime, as cogent a gloss on the twin trends of impressionism and modernism. And the treat of their careful culling was complemented with a ravishing swatch of new additions to the Photography Collection. Holy Toledo, I thought to myself, as I contentedly walked down Broad to my next destination: COSI (pronounced Co-sigh), the science and industry museum which was gussied up as a Beaux Arts Veterans Memorial.

They were just closing a marvelous traveling show on Antarctica—in a modernoid tent designed by a Hungarian architect (there’s a video explaining its success at hanging in there despite its odd shapes). But its Scoop de Jour is an Ameriflora special on Science in Sport.
A spunky young Buckeye bright OSU classics / teacher ed major (1986) named Katherine Margard kindly met my USAir flight from Philadelphia at Port Columbus. When I got over the kick of hearing her enthusiasm for Latin and public education, I asked her why she was Ameriflorating instead of teaching Latin. Well, it seems she was a honcho in the Prez’s Office at OSU, so she became five years ago a key player in the advance team of 300 or so who nurtured Ameriflora from a seedling.

I said I wanted a hotel which was either convenient to the airport or funky and interesting. She touted the Great Southern Hotel, a recently rehabbed relic of the 1890’s. I thought the title suggested a railroad collection, but the kindly man who runs the basement store is something of an amateur local historian. His free pamphlets explained that Ralph Lazarus was worried that the folks on the North End of Columbus were stealing a march on his South End by building a fancy new hotel.

He got a group together to do the North one better: they threw in an opera house for visitors kicks! It’s a groovy place to stay, with an art show featuring promising young Columbus artists, a James Thurber memorabilia room, a grand lobby, a comfortable bar. Heh, hang out there if you can afford it. It’s a five minute walk up High Street to Broad where you can board the 10E bus for Ameriflora. Ameriflora flies. Salute it by your presence. You’ve got until Discovery Day, October 12.

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