History and charm bubble up in Saratoga Springs DESTINATION: NEW YORK

July 19, 1998|By Elizabeth Gehrman | Elizabeth Gehrman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is a sophisticated little town with a multiple personality.

To history buffs, it is a key site of the American Revolution and home to some of the most elaborate Victorian architecture in the land. To those seeking a tonic for modern life, it is a resort town, famed for its healing waters. To music lovers, it is a symphony of first-rate classical, jazz, rock and folk. And to the horsey set, for six weeks every summer, it is Mecca.

How did one town, on the surface nearly indistinguishable from any other in upstate New York, come to be so many things to so many people?

It all started with H2O. The springs at Saratoga, bubbling up from a fault lying deep beneath the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, were long revered by the Iroquois for their medicinal qualities. European settlers discovered them in the late 18th century, and it wasn't long before a little community developed around them.

A steady stream of well-heeled visitors flowed in to partake of the waters, said to cure everything from indigestion to gout. The tourist trickle became a geyser in the 1860s when John Morrissey brought horse racing and high-stakes gambling to the area, ushering in Saratoga's golden age.

And what a gilding the lily got. Manhattan's moneyed elite quickly made the town their summer satellite. Extravagant mansions rose up along the avenues, each trying to outdo the rest with massive colonnades, hand-carved lintels, wraparound stone porches, balconies, gables and cupolas. The Grand Union Hotel, now demolished, covered 7 acres downtown and included an opera house, a mile-long piazza and dining for 1,000; among its regular guests were the Vanderbilts, Astors and Whitneys.

In perhaps the most telling vignette of the era, financier Diamond Jim Brady once arrived in a silver-plated railroad car along with 27 Japanese houseboys, burlesque diva Lillian Russell and her dog, who sported a collar worth $1,800.

A century later, the ghosts remain - as does at least one direct descendant of those days: "the season."

From late July until early September, all life here revolves around that exceptional creature, the thoroughbred - and around the creature that makes the thoroughbred what it is, the socialite. The town's population nearly triples, and talk is equestrian-only among the breeders, trainers, jockeys, handicappers, auctioneers, stable hands, sportswriters and race officials who turn up. The only thing that threatens to upstage the horses is the endless fashion show of spectators, whose days blend together in a blur of all-night dinner-jacket-and-ball-gown shindigs, champagne breakfasts, dressage events, world-class polo and, oh yes, the races, which culminate in the $1 million Travers Stakes in late August.

Because this crowd must be perpetually entertained - and the horses must rest occasionally - Saratoga really ponies up when it comes to diversions that don't involve four legs and a tail. Though the atmosphere remains decidedly small-town, newsstands carry a wide variety of periodicals and big-city newspapers, dining compares favorably with New York's, and night life and entertainment make more than respectable showings all year round.

The elegant Saratoga Performing Arts Center is one of the country's best known for summer festivals, featuring jazz, chamber music, the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra. It also holds summer events, which this year include performances by the B-52's, the Pretenders, Blues Traveler and Beck, as well as Riverdance and Michael Bolton.

If your tastes lean more toward the legacy of Bill Monroe, Caffe Lena, which opened in 1960, is a legend on the folk circuit: It's where Don McLean first sang "American Pie," and rumor has it Bob Dylan crashed on the couch when he was too poor to get a room.

Saratoga is also overflowing with museums and historical sites. Its National Museum of Dance is the only one of its kind in the country. The fascinating Historical Society of Saratoga Springs, located in what was once the area's premier casino, preserves a gaming room of that era, displays the artifacts of an

extraordinary local family called the Walworths and houses the Ann Grey gallery, which sponsors changing exhibits related to the town's history. There is also an interactive Children's Museum, the National Museum of Racing and the Harness Racing Hall of Fame.

Those who would rather while away the summer days in the great outdoors will find plenty of places to stroll in Saratoga, including the tree-lined streets of East Side, with their spectacular estates; Frederick Law Olmsted's Congress Park; Greenridge Cemetery; and the gardens at Yaddo, an artist's retreat. The town and its environs also offer golf, tennis, swimming, boating and horseback riding. And when Saratoga National Historical Park isn't re-enacting battles of the Revolutionary War, it offers a 10-mile self-guided driving tour and a 4.2-mile nature hike, as well as picnicking, cycling and some lovely views of the valley.

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