We came for the art and stayed for the . . . art.
Wife Juju asked at our downtown hotel--the Radisson on Summit Street--if she could find anywhere to shop nearby. It was late. A desk clerk, a porter and a security guard happened to be standing around and they snorted in unison."Not around here," said the security guard with a what-a-stupid-question smirk. "There's a big mall, but you'd have to drive, too far to walk."
I'm a central-city fan. I reflexively book downtown hotels with the idea I'd walk around, take things in, schmooze, hang and, yes, shop.
Downtown Toledo, hard by the banks of the Maumee River and close to Lake Erie, isn't quite there yet, but the ambitions show.
Clearly, a widespread city effort has led to the cleanup and restoration of several old buildings. We could see a whole string of them from the hotel lobby--quaint and old-fashioned, brick, vaguely Victorian, multi-colored trim. Almost every one had a "For Lease" sign where the boutiques and eateries should be.
We knew Toledo had a highly publicized Warehouse District close at hand, as well as the Toledo Mud Hens' spiffy minor league
Those called for a little exploration the next day, a Saturday. Toledo's downtown Farmers Market filled a little square next to Erie Street Market (non-essential merchandise), not far from the hotel. Farmers, gardeners and purveyors of honey, vinegar and knit goods seemed to be doing well, as dozens of customers filed past their long tables.
Massive old commercial buildings all but surround the square. Some appeared clean and ready to go--as soon as some enterprising soul signs that darn lease. Others proffered "For Sale" signs, and a few haggard structures stared out from shattered windows.
But a newly refurbished Antiques Mall would be reopening soon at the Erie Street Market, the sign said.
And next door to that, the Libbey Glass Factory Outlet filled a vast floor with a stunning assortment of plates, bowls, tumblers, vases, trays, novelties and too many household items for most non-cooks to comprehend.
Juju, as usual, spent too much time in there, but the Libbey Glass Factory Outlet did jar me into a forehead-slapping realization.
This is a city that--in modern times, at least--was built by glass. We had seen the curvilinear headquarters of Owens Corning (the glass fiber folks) from our hotel room window, a graceful part of the riverfront. And Libbey has its world headquarters here, as well, along with the bottling giant O-I, formerly Owens-Illinois.
The nearby Jeep factory shouldn't have to go too far for windshields.
So, naturally, Toledo calls itself the Glass City. Why Toledo came to be called Toledo, however, is anyone's guess. Some historians believe that early settlers looked to Toledo, Spain, for inspiration.
The expression Holy Toledo? Well, both Spanish and U.S. Toledos have a lot of churches; that's one theory. The Toledos in Oregon, Illinois and Washington will have to answer for themselves.
In 1888, Edward Drummond Libbey moved his glass manufacturing business from the Boston area into Toledo, where natural gas, sand and other raw materials were plentiful and competition scarce.
By 1901, Libbey was a leading force in the establishment of the Toledo Museum of Art, which began without a building or any art but a lot of civic spirit. Eventually the collections grew and filled a beautiful Classical Revival structure.
Part of the museum we see today opened in 1912 on land donated by Libbey's wife, Florence, further enhancing Toledo's Old West End, where the gentry built fancy Victorian houses.
Juju and I arrived about a month too early for the opening of a low-slung, glass-walled adjunct across Monroe Street from the main building.
The Glass Pavilion will house works from the museum's own extensive glass collection, including the Libbey Punch Bowl, said to be the largest piece of cut glass in the world and a highlight of Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition and World's Fair.
During our visit, we found the pavilion in the last stages of construction and most glass collections under wraps for shipping to the new home.
Still we had plenty to see. The museum owns exquisite pieces of African, Greek, Roman and Chinese art, plus an extensive Egyptian section and space for special exhibitions. One gallery displayed
photographs and will do so through Sept. 24. Another was festooned with Pop Art, a show that continues through Oct. 8.
We spent hours moving from examples of medieval religious art to jewelry collections to a full-size cloister assembled from abandoned or demolished monasteries and convents in southern France, dating from 1150 to 1400. We lingered in galleries containing works by most of the big names in art: Gauguin, Renoir, van Gogh, Vuillard, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Rodin . . .
In one gallery, three girls who looked to be around 8 scurried from one painting to another, busily writing on clipboards. "I found it! I found it!" one of them said in an excited whisper. "See, there's the fountain!"
She pointed at the elaborate "Architectural Fantasy With a Concert Party" painted by Giovanni Paolo Pannini in 1716-17, complete with, yes, a fountain.
"Are you taking some kind of art class?" Juju asked one girl.
"No, we're doing a birthday party scavenger hunt," she explained. "We get these clues, and we have to find the art."
Anyone looking for clues as to how the paintings, sculpture and other works found their way into these galleries need only read the descriptive cards beside each one. Almost everything came as a gift from, or through, foundations set up by Edward and Florence Libbey before their deaths in 1925 and 1938, respectively.
Juju and I moved on. Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Fragonard, Gainsborough, Delacroix, Turner, Courbet, Manet, Cezanne. . . . Well, suffice it to say most of the world-class talents are represented, including such American icons as
, John Singer Sargent,
Elegant furniture and elaborate gold, silver and ceramic antiquities serve as brilliant accessories throughout the building. Modern art is well represented, and abstract sculpture enhances the manicured grounds.
Juju and I spent two pleasant afternoons there and could have explored the museum much further, but this would be a short visit and we wanted to see a little more of the town.
Most cities have a zoo, but the Toledo version is a whopper, considering the city's population is just a bit over 300,000. The rest of Lucas County takes up the slack, so the area has about 500,000 residents--most of them children, if the zoo visitors we saw are any indication.
Besides exhibiting creatures big and small, the zoo serves as an entertainment complex with theaters, a choo-choo train, theme areas and concession stands all demanding attention.
We found somewhat quieter commercial activity at The Docks, a string of restaurants in International Park. They face the businesslike Toledo skyline across the Maumee River. We sat under umbrellas for drinks one late afternoon at Cousino's Navy Bistro and went there again for brunch on our second morning in town.
The restaurants offered some nice choices: Cousino's for American, Gumbo's for Cajun and Creole, Real Seafood Co. for fish and jazz vocal stylings, Zia's for Italian, and Tango's Mexican Cantina for tortillas and dancing.
Water taxis shuttle diners from downtown, where one of the main attractions is the COSI hands-on science and industry museum. One of the others, of course, is Fifth Third Field, where the Mud Hens play ball.
After the art museum closed one afternoon, Juju and I parked a little south of The Docks restaurant row and walked to the permanently anchored S.S. Willis B. Boyer, maybe the largest decommissioned ship in the Midwest that hasn't been turned into a casino.
The lake freighter S.S. Willis B. Boyer lets visitors see just what it's like aboard a Great Lakes working ship. This one hit the water in 1911 and remained in service for 69 years. In its heyday it hauled grain and iron ore. All of the pipes, pulleys, gears, engines and wires necessary for that endeavor remain intact.
We toured the ship's innards and eventually emerged in the surprisingly posh officers' quarters, near the stainless-steel kitchen and the captain's bridge. The S.S. Boyer might be thought of as representing another sort of art--the kind required to steer tons of cargo through sometimes-tempestuous bodies of water.
In Toledo, the art of gracious downtown living has yet to take a firm hold. Downtown does have its attractions but seems to lack the thread that would pull them all together into a pedestrian-friendly whole.
On our last evening, we strolled around the Warehouse District, where merchants and a few loft dwellers are trying to develop an attractive community-within-the-community.
The old warehouses and offices have been nicely restored, but the sidewalks don't bustle much during Mud Hen off-days.
On St. Clair Street, just south of the ballpark, there's a saloon called the Durty Bird. That and the Swamp Shop at the stadium itself refer to the Mud Hens. Apparently, the Maumee River environs were mucky in the days when lots of birds flapped along the shore.
Farther along St. Clair we found Home Slice Pizza, Ahava Spa and Wellness Clinic, Cold Fusion Creamery, Downtown Latte and
Hardware, all in spiffed-up old-timey buildings.
Outside the pizzeria, we encountered collegiate-looking Beau Harvey getting set to lock the door. His place wasn't officially open, he explained. He and his partners and friends were enjoying a private party on and around their slick upstairs bar and backyard terrace.
Harvey, a lawyer, was taking the plunge with partners Brandon Cohen and Jamie Knight and the city of Toledo itself, which gave them a 10-year tax abatement on the property, a practice meant to encourage investments like theirs. Even so, Harvey said he isn't quitting his practice any time soon.
"There's just not enough people living around here yet," he noted. "But if you're an entrepreneur it's great, because a lot of people are working nearby. Still, it's hard to live here without the services you'd need."
"Like shopping and a supermarket," Juju said.
Harvey nodded agreement. He and his wife live in the suburbs, partly because they found in-town living too hard with stores and other necessities so scattered. "This is a thriving city without much vision," Harvey concluded.
Other attorneys were hanging out shingles at some of the refurbished warehouses near the pizza place, and a few restaurants and bars stood ready to take care of the home-game influxes of baseball fans.
Fresh signs announced places named Grumpy's, The Bronze Boar, Spaghetti Warehouse and Packo's at the Park--the latter a branch of the local institution Packo's on Front Street.
Juju and I had dined at the famous old Packo's, across the river and farther north. The deal there is that visiting celebrities or anyone else may autograph hotdog buns and those are mounted on the walls. Native son
, the actor, mentioned Packo's a few times when he appeared in the "M*A*S*H" TV series.
Farr's autographed hot dog bun occupies an inconspicuous niche, while more than 1,000 others line walls all over the restaurant. Each bun is in a plastic container with the autograph clearly visible. "They aren't real buns," a server confided, when we wondered how they stayed free from mold.
So the autographed buns, which felt hard as plaster when I poked at a few, were a variety of art, too, comparable in their homely way to the amber veneer covering the walls of the Catherine Palace Amber Room near St. Petersburg, Russia.
An artistic installation, you might say.
With such a strong aesthetic, the revitalization of Toledo should be happening soon.
If you go...
Toledo is a 240-mile drive from the Loop.
Buses and taxis are available, but a car is the best mode of travel.
We selected the 400-room Radisson (101 N. Summit St.; 419-241-3000; www.radisson.com; rates from $199) for its downtown location.
In a short visit, we could sample only a couple of restaurants in the area. We chose Packo's (1902 Front St.; 419-691-1153; www.tonypackos.com) for its local color and Zia's (20 Main St. at the Docks; 491-697-7138; www.ziasrestaurant.com) because we had a yen for Italian food and wanted a nighttime view of the skyline (see main story).
Residents we met also recommended Georgio's Cafe International (426 N. Superior St.; 419-242-2424; www.georgiostoledo.com) and Rockwell's (27 Broadway; 419-243-1302).