Uptown and downtown converge in Port Townsend

Historic Washington town offers plenty of events and good times

Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2005

I have often wondered how the word downtown is different from uptown. Port Townsend, Wash., provides the answer.

According to the 2004 visitor's guide, in 1889 the town leaders "persuaded the Union Pacific railroad to make Port Townsend, not Seattle, its western terminus." Mansions and commercial buildings were built. However because of the 1893 depression, the final railroad links to Port Townsend were not finished.

The brick office buildings and the Victorian homes were left intact until the 1970s when renovation and restoration began, and downtown and uptown Port Townsend became a charming tourist destination and urban refuge. In the 1880s and '90s, sailors, gamblers and prostitutes populated the port's downtown waterfront. The gentry and their Victorian mansions occupied the uptown bluff, high above downtown.

Since the 1970s, boutiques, restaurants and art galleries have occupied the downtown buildings, while uptown is the site of family homes and bed and breakfasts. Day-trippers seldom find their way to uptown "PT," as the locals refer to the town.

My husband, Don, and I discovered uptown in 1991, when we stayed at the Ann Starrett Mansion B & B. As we strolled around the uptown streets, we found Aldrich's grocery store. It looked just like the grocery stores of my childhood - wooden, creaky, oiled floors; independent wooden display cases of only three or four low shelves; and dim overhead lighting. In reality, the old store was a delicatessen and wine shop that also sold groceries.

Unfortunately in 2003, several teenagers started a fire in a dumpster next to the old wooden building, and the store burned down. All of PT mourned the lost of Aldrich's. Fortunately, the uptown and downtown folks have rallied, and the store is in the process of being rebuilt. Nevertheless, the new, "old" Aldrich's will not have quite the same ambiance of the old grocery.

Last fall, Don and I discovered the Nordland General Store on Marrowstone Island, about 11 miles southeast of PT. The Nordland store is a smaller version of Aldrich's. Hanging plants and flower boxes decorate the front porch. Inside, chairs are pulled up to the wood-burning stove where the locals can sip their espresso and mochas. Above the shelves are old advertising signs, vintage photos of the store, old toys, tools, and vintage grocery boxes and tins.

Downtown PT has great shops. We always find "must buys" at the antique mall. On our latest visit I found a coffee set and pen and ink drawings by Robert Mayokok, who was one of the featured artists at the Alaska State Museum's "Eskimo Drawings" exhibit last year. Across the street from the antique mall is a vintage car dealership and museum. I have purchased first editions from William James Bookseller, who also sells cheaper, previously read books. April Fool and Penny Too claims, "Quite Simply, The Most Wonderful Store in the World." Actually, April Fool is second to Annie Kaill's.

The visitor's guide lists 60 historic sites. Two of the sites are house museums. Although the Rothschild House is uptown, it is a simple home with the original furnishings of the Rothschild family, who lived in the house from 1868-1954. The other house museum, the Commanding Officer's Quarters (1904), is downtown at Fort Worden State Park. The brochure for the museum describes the house as "Military History in a Victorian Style." The dining room is set for a dinner party, and toys are scattered on the floor in the children's room.

PT has a full calendar of events from April through December. In 2003, we watched the Kinetic Sculpture Race that takes place on the first weekend in October. The contestants are required to build human-powered sculptures that can "race" on pavement, water and mud flats. Unlike most races, the winning sculpture is the one that is the most mediocre. The 2003 sculptures included a gigantic green frog with wheels and floats, a Viking ship with oars and wheels, and a plastic sweat lodge that had serious mobility problems.

The Wooden Boat Foundation seems to sponsor the most events that culminate in September with Wooden Boat Week. Fort Worden State Park is the site of many activities including Our Water World for grades five through six; the Rhododendron Festival's flower show and run; and the Centrum's Summer Season, which features a variety of music concerts, writer conferences, readings, lecture series and a blues and heritage festival.

PT has many fine eateries. Every time we are in town, we at eat at Sweet Laurette & Cyndee's Cafe & Pastisserie. The restaurant provides a gourmet take on the traditional American breakfast, and its pastries are to die for. The sandwiches, soups, and chicken potpie are incredibly tasty. Definitely order a bowl of café latte or a chai latte.

The Fountain Cafe is famous for warm salads, and Lonny's has been voted first place for both the gourmet and most romantic categories.

The restaurant in the Manresa Castle Hotel (built in 1892 as a mansion for the first mayor) has been the site of several significant events in our lives. We celebrated our 25th Anniversary at the Manresa.

Several years ago, Becky Greiser (Juneau-Douglas High School class of 1983) and her husband asked us to be godparents during dinner at the Manresa. After Emillia Kate's birth and the night before her christening, our goddaughter slept through dinner at the Castle. The Manresa is far more to us than an excellent place to enjoy a wonderful dinner.

Ironically, the Manresa Castle is not located in either the uptown or downtown, but on a hill above uptown and downtown. Modern Port Townsend's uptown and downtown are both "uptown" these days.

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