By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2003
I breathed in the sweet scent of tropical air and surveyed the expanse of Madagascar spiny desert before me. A red rain frog with eyes like brown buttons and electric orange skin hovered in the bushes. The reddish-brown stems and buttercup yellow flowers of pachypodium rosulatum were scattered across a sandy patch near my feet. In the distance rose a baobab tree, identifiable by its massive gray-brown trunk.
For a precious moment I forgot that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the Browns' football stadium and the Cuyahoga River were only a few miles away. The Cleveland Botanical Garden's new glasshouse, with its re-creation of swaths of tropical Madagascar and Costa Rica, had transported me halfway across the globe.
I'd come to Cleveland to check out the cultural scene. Okay, go ahead and laugh at the thought of someone scrounging around a Midwestern rust belt enclave for cultural attractions. To those who haven't been there in a while -- or at all -- just the mention of the city's name probably brings to mind Polish sausage and Drew Carey rather than fine art.
What initially intrigued me was the $37 million expansion of the botanical garden and the opening of a new building by architect-of-the-moment Frank Gehry. Venues of that stature rarely come in a vacuum. Was there, I wondered, more to Cleveland's cultural scene?
There was. Three days of exploring left me thrilled with the offerings. I could have easily spent half a day at the botanical garden, watching regal blue butterflies flutter or wandering paths lined with aloe, kalanchoe and other flora. The Peter B. Lewis Building, Gehry's newfangled creation, was worth a trip in itself, especially for architecture fans. But there was much, much more -- from impromptu concerts in cafes to the lively Tremont District, a SoHo-like cluster of cafes and art galleries.
The better-known arts locales didn't disappoint, either. At the Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the country's finest and most accessible venues for visual arts, I saw an exhibition of Japanese photos and some poignant new acquisitions, including "Gamin," a well-known sculpture of a young African American by Harlem Renaissance master Augusta Savage. The theater scene offered so many choices I ended up seeing two shows in 12 hours: a spectacular traveling performance of "The Lion King" at the gargantuan Playhouse Square Center and a wonderful ballet of "Cinderella" at the more intimate Cleveland Play House. With tickets running half what they would have in New York and some good performances in both, I was glad to catch them here. Cleveland's world-famous orchestra was on vacation, but I was able to sneak a tour of Severance Hall, its commanding home.
With so many attractions, it's no wonder that Citysearch, a Web-based travel guide, recently ranked Cleveland among the top 10 getaways in the United States -- between Chicago and the Hamptons. And in this era of tight travel budgets, the modest cost of the city adds to its allure.
I flew from Baltimore to Cleveland for less than $100 round trip. My room at the posh InterContinental Suites was discounted from $250 to $63 a night on the Internet travel site Hotwire. And tours of the art museum and the Peter B. Lewis Building were free. My three-day getaway, including a couple of wonderful dinners, cost all of $400.
"For people from the East Coast," said Julianne Fogel, a theater promoter and longtime Cleveland resident, "the dollar goes so far here it's like going to Canada."
To be sure, Cleveland is an unlikely arts destination, especially for travelers from the more edgy East Coast. A city of almost half a million, its heyday as an industrial center has long since past. In the mid-1990s, however, city planners put the town on the hipster's map with the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the development of the Flats, an array of storefronts along the riverfront, into an inviting knot of clubs and restaurants.
It still wouldn't be everybody's idea of a holiday hot spot. Travelers looking for up-to-the-minute nightlife or the buzz of a crowd would be hard put to find either here. With the sharp bust of the steel and iron ore industries in the 1970s, many locals moved elsewhere, leaving the downtown area with an empty feel, especially at night.
"There's always something spectacular to see here," said Sam Fulwood, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the city's daily newspaper. "But sometimes you look around and wonder where all the people went."
But for me, the easy pace and lack of crowds offered a welcome respite from bigger urban areas. And I'm not alone: Between 1994 and 2001, the number of leisure visitors to Cleveland jumped from 4.4 million to 9 million, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland.
Dorothy Mitchell, whom I ran into after visiting the art museum, is a major fan. "It's a lot easier maneuvering your way around here than back home," said the Chicago retiree, who'd come for a weekend of museum-hopping and sightseeing. Fresh from the Gehry building, she was bubbling with enthusiasm. "It's spectacular," she said. "Take a tour and you'll be thinking about it for the rest of the day."
Financed in part by Cleveland insurance executive Peter B. Lewis and completed last October, the $62.1 million building is home to the Weatherhead School of Management, part of Case Western Reserve University. Its modernity stands in stark contrast to the campus's ivy-covered Victorian structures: One end is draped in Gehry's trademark ribbon of stainless steel, while the other side features oversize windows.
I joined a tour led by guide Karen Wine, who pointed out the features common to Gehry's creations: the skylights and windows, which bring in shafts of natural light; the curving walls, which provide a sensation of movement; and the simple colors and textures of the walls, which are mostly white and devoid of paintings. "The feeling was that paintings on the walls would be a distraction," Wine explained. "The building itself is a work of art."
The classrooms are all different and equally spectacular. One is oval and features whiteboards around the perimeter to encourage interaction among the students and the professor.
Back outside, I circled the building, past a woman who was trying to find the right angle for a snapshot. Elsewhere, a couple was staring silently at the structure as if they could find wisdom in its steel exterior. Only when I reached Euclid Avenue, the broad, unmistakably Midwestern boulevard a few blocks away, did I remember that I was in Cleveland.
With so much concentrated in the city's University Circle area -- including the Gehry building, the botanical garden and the art museum -- it's hard to pull yourself away. But a local told me that the Tremont District, about a mile west of downtown, was a vital part of the cultural scene. After strolling through the neighborhood, it was easy to see why. Cafes, art galleries and restaurants, transformed from old storefronts, were everywhere.
With more than a dozen exhibition spaces, the district has something for everyone's taste. My first stop: Smart T'Art Gallery, a popular showcase for sculptures and paintings owned by Shirley and Jim Lavalli, who have lived in Europe, Asia and Saudi Arabia -- and now Cleveland. During my visit, the featured artist was Frank Brozman, a Clevelander who in an earlier life produced music videos for James Brown and other luminaries. His elegant stainless-steel-and-glass sculptures were world-class works, according to my novice eye, and were going for prices to match. From there I headed to the Pavanna Gallery, a new space exhibiting delightful hand-blown glass works by several nationally recognized artists.
After stops at the Kelly-Randall and Banyan Tree galleries, I dropped into the pizazzy Lola Bistro & Wine Bar. A beloved hangout among chic Clevelanders, it's known for its macaroni and rosemary goat cheese and other trendy versions of popular American dishes. I settled for a spot at the bar, a glass of merlot and an hour watching the well-dressed parade of patrons come and go.
The next day I was up early for my tour of the Eleanor Armstrong Smith Glasshouse at the botanical garden. After nearly a decade in the planning, the 18,000-square-foot conservatory opened in July. In all, more than 500 species from Madagascar and Costa Rica were added to the garden. A couple of plants, including the Madagascar baobab and the Costa Rican stranger fig tree, were too daunting to transport, so artificial replicas were created instead.
"The idea was a facility that would enhance visitors' knowledge of nature and increase their awareness of the need for conservation," explained garden director Brian Holley.
As a lover of the tropics, I'm always skeptical that urban botanical gardens will live up to their billing. This time my expectations were exceeded. Guides, circulating about, eagerly explained everything I wanted to know about the ecology of the rainforest -- and then some.
In the Costa Rica section, an olive tree towered 25 feet in one corner, while spiral ginger plants blossomed here and there and an artificial fig tree, covered with multicolored orchids, loomed in the distance. As I edged closer, I could see tiny leaf cutter ants scurrying along the edge of plants, carrying leaves three times their size.
From orange-and-black monarchs to blue morphos, butterflies glided about, more than 200 species in all. In the background I could hear an odd croak, identified by a guide as the cry of a red-eyed tree frog.
Once through the doors of Madagascar, I spotted a couple of chameleons in the brush near my feet and a radiated tortoise with a brilliant orange-and-black design on its shell. A stream burbled, ferns and vines surrounded towering palms and brightly colored birds swooped near my head. "I bet you're surprised to see all this in the middle of Cleveland," my guide said.
In fact, after three days in this Midwestern hub, I wasn't surprised at all.
Gary Lee will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.
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