The weary traveler who arrives at Saratoga Springs by train is soon rejuvenated by a serendipitous discovery. There, in the foyer of the train station, stands a baby grand piano. No research is necessary to affirm that no other train station in the world, Grand Central or otherwise, can boast such a compelling artifact. And how appropriate! Saratoga always has had that patrician touch of elegance – the graceful, the sublime. And this baby grand is emblematic of Saratoga's long association with the most emotive of the arts - music.
This association extends back to the 19th century when the Grand Union Hotel decided to garnish its main block with a spectacular opera house. The leading lights of opera of the day could be seen and heard within its precincts or while out on the curb one might catch Diamond Jim Brady squiring the stylish Lillian Russell to a matinee performance of Aida. A century later would find a young Donald McLean sitting at a downstairs booth of a small bistro, just steps off Broadway writing the lyrics and shaping the melody and chords on his guitar thereby forming one of the enduring songs of the American experience...Bye Bye Miss American Pie. And Carly Simon would look out from her seaside porch on Martha's Vineyard and compose: "You're So Vain" ("Well I hear you went up to Saratoga and your horse naturally won"). Later Carly Simon would perform more than once at the unique Saratoga Performing Arts Center. It is at this magnificent structure that this past summer featured both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Ballet Company in concert.
What other small or mid-sized town of 27,000 souls can match these musical credentials? And yet, Saratoga is accomplished in the other arts as well.
In the early part of the last century the first bath houses of Saratoga were conceived: the Washington Bath House, the Lincoln Bath House, and the Roosevelt Bath House. It is the first of these that metamorphosed into the National Museum of Dance which is located in Saratoga Spa State Park on the south side of town. The Museum, associated with the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, was founded in 1986 by Mary-Lou Whitney. The Museum contains some rare and valuable photos and documents from early Saratoga. And the inductees into the Dance Hall of Fame include a range of stars from all varieties of this art form. It also boasts several quasars such as Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Agnes DeMille, Isadora Duncan, Bill "Bo Jangles Robinson, and the uni-gloved Michael Jackson. Now, head for the lake, and just as you are about to leave Union Avenue, there on the right is the famous "Yaddo Gardens", home to a covey of talented amateur artists and budding writers.
The artistically gifted, from all callings, long have found a nurturing haven in Saratoga. Yaddo Gardens had its inception just before World War I when an early local prominent clan, the Trask family, constructed a stylish yet Romantic garden of statuary, trellises, waterfalls, and gardens all based on a remembrance of a superior garden in Tuscany, Italy. This magic gem, reminiscent of the Hippocrene, has provided refuge and inspiration for a who's who of artists of various kinds. A legacy has been left to provide visiting artists the opportunity to fulfill their potential while working in residence in a serene and fallow setting. Just as in "Field of Dreams" - it was built and they have come.
Distinguished musicians such as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland have spent time at the gardens, as have writers Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, and James Baldwin. Several Pulitzer Prize winners and no less than 61 recipients of the National Book Awards have conjured with their muses at this unique location. And novelist Patricia Highsmith was so enamored of Saratoga's Yaddo Gardens that she donated her entire three million dollar estate to its furtherance. Can it be little wonder that any person of sound judgment would linger here at the Spa? Consider one who did.
George Washington, the father of his country, travelled north through the then hamlet of Saratoga Springs about the time that George Putnam was laying the land for the town site. It is recorded that General Washington lingered long enough to remark how he "would like to return to build a summer home here". Nor was Washington the only president of the opinion that here was a "place to dwell forever". General Ulysses S Grant, immediately after serving his second term in the White House, and retiring from active life, made plans to move to Saratoga and "build a cabin there" - which he did.
Today, Grant's cabin, located just 8 miles north-west of the town center is visited by many thousands each year. Later, the construction of the Grand Union and United States hotels came, the largest and most opulent in the land at that time. And Saratoga lays claim to being the home of what is arguably the most crucial battle of the Revolutionary War.
It was here that the Americans tasted victory for the first time and thus it was here that the hinge of history turned a string of defeats to success. The battle site and the visitor's center can be seen today just a just a handful of miles east of town. Yet Saratoga today is the site of daily battles of a different sort every August. Ah yes - summer in Saratoga!
There is no doubt that the one thing that Saratoga is renowned for even before all that already has been discussed is, of course, thoroughbred racing. Saratoga is a dot on the map, but when it comes to the sport of kings, it is like a little boy at a banquet - it thinks big.
Constructed in 1864 to serve the sporting interests of the well-heeled and the glamorous queens of stage and the doyens of society, the greatest race horses in the country came here, to the Spa. They would contest such venerable graded stake races as the Hopeful, the Spinaway, and compelling top grade one stakes as the Travers and the Woodward. Man O'War raced here (and lost his only start) as well as Secretariat and last year's Horse of the Year in North America, the brilliant filly, Havre de Grace.
Saratoga Race Course is as comfortable as a pair of old slippers. The old world charm of the treed-saddling ring, the two verdant grass courses inside the outer dirt course, the iconic blue canoe in the infield lake, the sweep of the signature capped peaks of the architecture, and the thunder of the great thoroughbreds of the past rumbles in the memory. Then, consider that the crème de la crème of the riders of this continent ship; their tack here to strive for supremacy at the nation's favorite race course. NYC may have Aqueduct and Belmont but Saratoga has- well - the ghosts of greatness.
These ghosts can be conjured again just across Union Avenue at the Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. And it is a tip of the Derby to Saratoga that this is where the Jockey Club chose to enshrine its heroes and to build a bridge to the past.
Whether you walk down Broadway past an equine of paper mache or stroll past the Carousel or visit the Museum of History across Congress Park, with every step you will carry compelling memories of America's greatest little town.
It is enough to inspire you to mosey along to the train station, relax, and close your eyes. Then you can imagine some virtuoso from the Performing Arts Center playing "Camptown Races" just for you on the baby grand piano.
- Douglas Reid