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A visit to Toledo feels just like home

I take a one-tank trip regularly to a city near Lake Erie whose heyday was the early 1900s. A cornerstone of its cultural offerings is an art museum housed in a Classical Revival building designed by E.B. Green and a recent source of pride is its cozy, downtown ballpark, home to its popular minor league team.

Wait a minute. Does this sound familiar?

It should. Toledo, Ohio, our neighbor on the other side of Lake Erie, has many similarities to Buffalo in size, legacy and current dilemmas. That makes it an especially interesting place to check out.

The truth is I go because it's my hometown and my family still lives there. Visiting over the holidays, my mother sent us out to the Toledo Museum of Art while she cooked a fabulous meal.

This wasn't just any trip to the museum. It was our first look at the Glass Pavilion, which opened last summer and is taking the art world by storm. Named a 2007 winner of the Design Awards by Travel and Leisure magazine, the Pavilion has been hailed by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Designed by Japanese architects Seijima and Nishizawa, the Pavilion is low and full of curves. Nearly every outside wall is made of glass.

In the vestibule, you're greeted by a Waterford crystal chandelier by the ever-innovative glass artist Dale Chihuli. And that's just for starters. The Pavilion houses the museum's enormous glass collection, as well as a glassmaking studio.

Toledo's slogan was the Glass Capital of the World when I was growing up. Libbey Glass, Libbey Owens Ford, Owens Corning Fiberglass -- the glass industry was the biggest employer in town. Edward Drummond Libbey established the museum, just as another captain of industry, John J. Albright, did in Buffalo.

The glass industry left Toledo about the same time the steel industry left Western New York, but the legacy remains. It turns out the Studio Glass Movement, very important in the world of glass art, started at the museum while I was going to high school just a few miles away.

One of the principals in that movement, Dominick Labino, displays a massive piece, Vitrana, at the Pavilion. Think of a beautiful patchwork quilt. In your mind's eye, change each square to a block of blown glass, vary the squares in color, size and composition, and you'll have the concept. Marvelous.

As you travel the galleries of the Pavilion, you'll see examples of glass art from ancient times to the present. In the glassblowing studio, you can watch the masters and their students at work.

Still have some energy? Cross the street to the main museum. It looks similar to the Albright-Knox, but it's three times the size. This internationally renowned museum has 35 galleries and a collection of 30,000 works. As a kid I was fascinated by the mummies, but the wide-ranging collection is home to masterworks of painting, sculpture and jewelry from every era and corner of the globe. My beloved, an art history aficionado, was dazzled to turn a corner and see an historical treasure: the Oath of the Horatii by Jacques Louis David.

For us, that was about as much as we could do in one day.

Had we not had that wonderful home-cooked meal waiting, we might have gone down to the riverfront.
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On the waterfront1
In Toldeo, you can see the upside and the downside of waterfront development. Toledo has been developing its harbor along the Maumee River since the mid-1980s and has a lot to show off: The Seagate Convention Center, the science center COSI, and the Docks, a restaurant district where you can dine riverside. Buffalo has Thursday in the Square, Toledo has Rally by the River all summer long.

COSI is housed in the former Portside, an optimistic venture into boutique space that started in 1984, went great guns briefly, then was just too costly and had too few customers to sustain those small shops. After several unsuccessful attempts to revamp the shopping center concept, it was turned over to the interactive science museum, which has made a go of the wonderful location.

Guess what Toledo is building? A signature bridge that they call a skyway. You'll see it under construction when you drive into town. Whether you're excited about it or fed up with it depends on your stamina and patience. Construction started in 1999, has been trouble-plagued and is far from complete.

OK. We had a family meal at mom's, but you probably ate at Real Seafood or Navy Bistro -- or several other choices -- down at the riverfront.

After a rest, we were ready for day two. We headed to the zoo.

The zoo in December? Yes, and at night. A Toledo tradition is the Lights Before Christmas. More than 1 million lights turn the trees, buildings and walkways into a wonderland. Many of those lights are shaped into 200 images of the animals you'd be seeing in warmer weather. A state-of-the-art light show brings the whole place alive.

We waited in traffic for 35 minutes and then felt lucky to get a parking space. But it was worth the wait. While we ambled among the lights, we also saw the one-of-a-kind hippoquarium, which is part of the African Savanna exhibit that allows the animals to roam while you walk behind the fence.

Banners around the grounds proudly announce that Child magazine rates this one of the top 10 family-friendly zoos in America.

What else is there to do? Lots. Let's assume it's summer and you're a M*A*S*H fan who loves Klinger. Then you know where to go. Head right down to Tony Packo's -- yes, it really exists -- for a chili dog and visit the new ballpark to see the Mud Hens. Maybe they'll be playing the Bisons.

Fifth Third Field, home to the Mud Hens, will also feel familiar. It's downtown, small and fan-friendly.

If you're really a Klinger fan, go in mid-July when you can take in the Jamie Farr LPGA tournament.
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If you go1

For updated information on events and attractions, visit www.toledocvb.com or www.toledo.com.
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Directions1
Take the Thruway headed west and stay right on I-90 until you get to Toledo.

For a more scenic route, in Cleveland take the option to go onto Route 2 West. You'll travel around Sandusky, home of Cedar Point, and some lovely towns by the water. Closer to Toledo, you'll pass Crane Creek State Park.

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