Frazzled Urbanites Live the Leisure of Long Ago in 19th-Century Vacation Towns

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 18, 2007

Many urban Americans escape in August to a different kind of urban setting: a vacation town from another era.

Such towns typically offer a slower pace of life, cool weather, clean air, recreation, scenery and the opportunity to renew summer friendships.

Time to relax, to sleep late, to read, to take long walks, even to cook -- these, too, are part of the lure. Not worrying much about your clothes, hair or makeup is an additional pleasure.

But leaving behind the hectic city for a week or two of more leisurely life can be enticing for another reason: The town itself may offer an alternative -- and appealing -- urban experience.

Many vacation towns were established in the 19th century and, thanks to preservation efforts, have retained much of their historic character.

Narrow, pedestrian-scale streets; legible street-block patterns; village greens; and town squares all impart a sense of visual coherence and identity that's generally lacking in modern American cities and suburbs.

In historically authentic settings, even unfamiliar ones, it's hard to resist nostalgia about what seems to have been a simpler time. It's so easy to romanticize the good old days before television, microwave ovens or the Internet. You feel magically transported into the past, imagining what life was like a century ago and believing that, while on vacation, you are somehow emulating that life today.

There are hundreds of such vacation towns in the United States, in the mountains or near lakes, rivers and especially the sea.

I recently spent several restful days visiting friends whose summer house is part of a picturesque vacation settlement named Thousand Island Park, N.Y. Established in 1875, the town's simple grid of streets and blocks occupies the southwestern tip of Wellesley Island in the St. Lawrence River, the border between Canada and the United States.

Thousand Island Park is made up of about 350 modest Victorian-style houses. Framed, clad and trimmed with wood, most houses -- owners call them "cottages" -- have porches and steep, peaked roofs. Many have been restored and expanded. But all construction, from fences to finials, is first reviewed and then closely watched because any visible changes must conform to stringent historic-preservation criteria.

At the center of Thousand Island Park is a beautiful village green, a spacious, rectangular lawn shaded by mature trees. Along the eastern edge sits a tiny but exquisitely maintained Greek Revival library. Across the street from the green is a large playing field.

First- and second-story porches of a three-story Victorian-era hotel overlook the green on the north. A long two-story commercial building with a small eatery and general store is near the playing field. A couple of blocks north of the green is the Tabernacle, a multi-purpose building for religious services, community meetings and nighttime movies. Along the river, south of the athletic field, is the rebuilt town dock.

You can stroll everywhere with ease and see cars driving by only occasionally, and always slowly. Apart from walking, the preferred modes of transportation are golf carts, bikes and boats. Summer regulars, both owners and renters, clearly know and socialize with one other. But severe winters keep most owners and renters away.

It didn't take long to understand why summers at Thousand Island Park seem so idyllic. The small-town urbanity is genuine; the historic ambience is enchanting; the weather is agreeable; and the broad St. Lawrence River, like a lake dotted with countless islands, provides a natural setting hard to match.

How easy it was to pretend at times that we had returned to the 19th century, that maybe we were channeling those few Americans who had the means then to build vacation homes in that region.

And how hard it was to stop pretending, leave Thousand Island Park and return to Washington. Fortunately, we took pictures to remind us that, thanks to preservation, restoration and continuing use of historic buildings and towns, we can still visit the past.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company