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Art and history just down the Erie Canal

SYRACUSE -- Noted architect I.M. Pei tucked away the entrances to Syracuse's Everson Museum of Art "so people would have to walk around the building," says Sarah Masset, the museum's public relations director.

There is no doubt Pei's modernistic design stands out from the norm. Progressive Architecture magazine declared the building -- the first museum conceived by Pei -- "a work of art, for works of art."

Pei's Everson opened in 1968, and it was there on Oct. 9, 1971 -- John Lennon's 31st birthday -- that John and Yoko Ono embarked upon a new chapter as art collaborators, in an exhibit entitled "This Is Not Here." To celebrate the opening and birthday, the two flew a large party of mainly musician friends from New York to attend.

Today the Everson's permanent works, aside from its ceramics collection, are dedicated to American artists. The Arts and Crafts Movement, including works by Elbert Hubbard's Roycrofters, is featured in the Members Counsel Gallery. Among the better known works in the collection are Gilbert Stuart's "Portrait of George Washington," Edward Hick's "The Peaceable Kingdom" and Eastman Johnson's "Corn Husking."

There is also a children's gallery with a hands-on Art Zone clay station for kids to make sculptures and put them on display.

In the Beadel Gallery are ceramics donated by Syracuse China. The museum holds one of the largest collections of American ceramics in the nation. In 1916, it purchased a small group of porcelains by Adelaide Alsop Robineau, an art potter from Syracuse. The museum now owns more than 100 of her pieces, including the Scarab Vase, which Art & Antiques Magazine called "the most important piece of American ceramics in the past century."

The Everson continues to draw crowds with big-name exhibitions like last year's "Turner to Cezanne," which presented paintings by Monet, Renior, Whistler and Van Gogh, and could not keep 60,000-plus visitors from finding those doors Pei ventured to hide away.

Currently on view is a show of large sculptures by Tim Scott, "The Sixties: When Colour Was Sculpture." An exhibit of prints and lithographs by Maxfield Parrish called "Fantasies and Fairy-Tales" runs April 29 to July 11.

Across from the Everson is the Oncenter Complex, combining the Nicholas J. Pirro Convention Center, War Memorial Arena and the John H. Mulroy Civic Center Theaters. Distinguishing it from other structures bearing the "war memorial" moniker, the arena contains an actual memorial inside. American flags cordon off a large area where veteran-related press conferences are held. The walls are decorated with large murals by military artist Nancy E. Rhodes. Along a corridor, uniformed manikins show those who served: There's a Civil War sailor, soldiers from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and a World War I nurse.

The Cross-Hinds Concert Theater is home to the Syracuse Symphony and Opera, and also hosts touring Broadway shows like "Wicked," while the Carrier Theater's stage is the setting for drama.

"We sell tickets to theaters, not movies," using language that seemed more fit for a stage than an office, proclaimed Marcus Loew, creator of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, in outlining his movie palace philosophy. With architect partner Thomas White Lamb, they built almost 100 theaters, including Loew's State, now Syracuse's Landmark Theatre. Opening in 1928, the movie house by Lamb abandoned his previous baroque designs, and instead opted for an Indo-Persian Byzantine style, resulting in what is frequently called, "the last word in theatrical ornateness."

"Lamb wanted to take you out of your world, and bring you into the palace world," says veteran Landmark volunteer Jay Stone, a retired theatrical performer who recalls seeing Mary Martin perform as Peter Pan on the Landmark stage.

Today the Landmark continues bringing people into the "palace world." Dominating the main entrance lobby is a huge mural showing an Indian princess arriving for her wedding on an elephant. Above is a musicians' gallery, where you can see an original Loew's state projector, and usher's uniforms from the days when those, too, were ornate. Tiffany glass and chandeliers are common here, supplemented with chandeliers and furniture from the Cornelius Vanderbilt estate. Four dragons are above the main entrance, with ladies in waiting to the side, presumably attendants to the mural's princess.

Actor Gregory Peck called the theater his favorite, and while the Landmark stage goes dark for reconstruction in May, its lobby will remain open for special events and tours. To make arrangements call (315) 475-7980.

For those who revel in a different experience, perhaps honoring the labor of man, Syracuse is home to the Erie Canal Museum. The canal is considered an engineering marvel by many and its museum welcomes visitors walking down Erie Boulevard about three blocks from Syracuse's city hall. A mural called "Double Enders" by artist Corky Goss adorns the museum's adjacent collections building.

The Greek Revival museum, the lone survivor of seven original weighlock buildings, features an 11-minute film on canal history and construction.

Among the photos and murals is a line company barn wall, complete with original graffiti (the barns were resting stations for teams working on company boats). Exhibits include a bank office, the weighmaster's room, one on stonecutting and the worker's wardrobe room, plus a tavern, courtesy of Bartolotta's in Auburn.

Syracuse boomed with the canal, and the demand for entertainment grew proportionately, with entertainers plying both their trade and canal waters. The city became a natural stop for the period's troupes. And in tribute (to them) a theatrical stage is recreated representing their cultural contribution to the era's premier engineering feat.

Perhaps the most startling discovery in Syracuse is Armory Square, a bona fide urban success story. Armory Square is a vibrant array of bars, clubs and restaurants, where menus range from casual, what one local called traditional "pub food," to take out, to fine dining. That there are several of each variety is what surprises.

You will also find in the square a stable, circa 1850, now converted into Eureka Crafts shop. Nearby is David's Studio of Photography, Specs Fashionable Eyewear, a salon, a jeweler, and fine lingerie at Isadora. Armory's elegant Jefferson Clinton Hotel is nearby to provide rest for the weary.

Not to be overlooked is MOST, (the) Milton J. Rubenstein Museum Of Science & Technology, converted from the original Jefferson Street Armory. Here the watchword is "MOST has even more."

It certainly has toothpicks. Toothpick engineer Stan Munro uses more than 4 million toothpicks and countless tubes of glue to erect Toothpick City II on-site. And while MOST is mostly for kids, offering interactive displays explaining "How Most People Breathe," "What People Should Eat," an amateur radio station, a motion simulator, a Morse Code and telegraphy exhibit and multiple mini-railroads, it also has Rothschild's Apothecary, where, for demonstration only, the staff makes medicine similar to the way it was done in 1900.

Also here is the Bristol Imax Omnitheater, where kids of all ages watch films exploring the wonders of nature, and the genius of man.

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If you go:

The Everson Museum of Art, 401 Harrison St. (315-474-6064; www.everson.org) is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. (Saturdays at 10 a.m.). Admission is free.

Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science & Technology, 500 S. Franklin St. (315-425-9068; www.most.org) is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is $6; $5 for children and seniors.

Oncenter Complex, 800 S. State St. (315-435-8000, www.oncenter.org).

Erie Canal Museum, 318 Erie Boulevard East (315-471-0593, www.eriecanalmuseum.org). Admission is free, but donations are welcome.

Landmark Theatre, 362 S. Salina St. (315-475-7980, www.landmarktheatre.org).