White River Junction has long been at the center of things: This is where the Connecticut and White rivers join, and where railroad lines merged, making this small village the largest New England train center north of Boston. Five railroads and four depots were built in the mid-19th century, with as many as 50 trains passing through daily. But as the interstate highway system grew and the railroad declined, so, too, did White River. Stores closed, and buildings stayed empty. But lately, White River - one of five villages in the town of Hartford - has reinvented itself as a haven for artists. The Tip Top Media and Arts Building, a former bakery, is now filled with printmakers, painters, photographers, and sculptors. Two years ago, The Center for Cartoon Studies opened in the old Colodny Surprise Department Store. Sleek lofts have risen along the old Railroad Row. In the recently renovated Freight House, martini glasses are stacked in a window. In fact, most of the restaurants, museums, stores, and galleries getting a close-up did not exist a decade ago.
The Cooler Gallery
(Tip Top Building, 85 North Main St., Suite 250, 802-295-8008, coolergallery.biz, Tuesday-Saturday 11-6), so named because it sits around the former bakery's giant walk-in refrigerator, has a shop filled with quirky and beautiful things, including scarves, bags, and clocks. Many of the other artists in the Tip Top Building - painters, photographers, sculptors, printmakers - also have creations for sale. A few blocks away, Ken Blaisdell takes plain white lampshades and turns them into works of art. His store, Lampscapes
(77 Gates St., 802-295-8044, lampscapes.com
, Tuesday-Saturday 10-5), glows with beautifully patterned shades hanging off nearly every square inch of wall space. Revolution
(26 North Main St., 802-295-6487, revolutionvintage .com, Monday-Sunday 10-7), which sells vintage clothing and collections from local designers, was modeled after stores like Cambridge's Garment District. For shopping with an attitude, read the store's manifesto. A sample: "We invite you to the other side of the couture culture which thrives on excess to remind ourselves that humanity requires no air brush."
White River Junction was once a restaurant wasteland, but now there are new, upscale eateries as well as older, homestyle restaurants. The newest arrival is Elixir Restaurant & Lounge
(188 South Main St., 802-281-7009, elixirrestaurant.com
, small plates $5-$14), in a renovated freight house, specializing in martinis and small plates. The Tip Top Cafe
(85 North Main St., Suite 100, 802-295-3312, tiptop cafevt.com
, entrees $12.95-$14) has sandwiches and salads for lunch, and creative dinner entrees like pork and ginger meatloaf. The Bakers' Studio
(25 South Main St., 802-296-7201, sandwiches $1.80-$4.75) makes mouthwatering bagels, bread, pastries, sandwiches, and slices of pizza. And for diner-like meals, the Polka Dot Restaurant
(1 North Main St., 802-295-9722, sandwiches $3.75-$6.95, dinners $6.95-$10.95) has been serving comfort food for decades. Another old-timer, AJ's Restaurant & Lounge
(40 Bowling Lane, 802-295-3071, dinners $13.95-$22.95), caters to the steak-and-seafood crowd.
There's only one place to stay in downtown White River Junction: Hotel Coolidge
(39 South Main St., 802-295-3118, hotelcoolidge.com
, $89-$219, depending on season), which once provided shelter for silent movie star Lillian Gish and director D.W. Griffith, who had come to Vermont to film scenes for the 1920 movie "Way Down East." The hotel, which was built in 1849 as a railroad hotel, now has 30 rooms, each with private bath, and a 26-bed wing that provides hostel accommodations for $25 and up a night. Otherwise, there are a host of chain hotels farther out of town: Holiday Inn Express Hotels and Suites
(121 Ballardvale Road, 800-465-4329, ichotelsgroup.com
); Comfort Inn
(56 Ralph Lehman Drive, 802-295-3051, comfortinnwrj.com
) and Hampton Inn
(104 Ballardvale Drive, 802-296-2800, hamptoninn.com
DoThe Main Street Museum
(58 Bridge St., 802-356-2776, mainstreetmuseum.org
) experiments in the "margins of alternative curation." This means you will see things here that are not likely to show up in other museums, like dried cats and Elvis Presley's gallstones. Categories include "unidentified mammals" and "bad art." Stroll through the Tip Top Media and Arts Building
to see the new White River: Masks created by Gabriel Q (Suite 270, 802-356-3254, gabrielq.com
), who is also a performance artist; stone sculptures by Bill Nutt (Suite 190, 802-295-8929, wnuttsculptor.com
), a former engineer; and paintings by Rebecca Gottesman (Suite 233, 802-649-2558, rebeccasart.com
). For the old White River, visit the New England Transportation Institute and Museum
(100 Railroad Row, 802-291-9838, newenglandtransportationmuseum.org
) at the Amtrak station. Each September, the museum helps produce the "Glory Days of the Railroad" festival with train rides and old rail cars on display.
If you are so inspired by the artists that you feel compelled to create your own masterpiece, you can paint bisque (unfinished pottery) at Tip Top Pottery
(Tip Top Building, 85 North Main St., Suite 110, 802-280-1700, tiptoppottery.com
). Once you're done, the shop will glaze and fire the pottery, and send it to your house when it's finished a week later. In warmer weather, see White River Junction from one of the rivers that flows nearby. North Star Canoes
(58 Bridge St., 603-542-6929, kayak-canoe.com
) offers river floats on a stable, six-person rubber raft and tubing down slow-moving sections of the White River. In May and June, they also offer "quick water" kayaking on Class I and Class II rapids on the river. For a more leisurely outing, walk on trails through the Hurricane Forest Wildlife Refuge
(get a map at the Hartford Municipal Building, 171 Bridge St., 802-295-5036, hartford-vt.org
, or see uvtrails.org/trails/hurricane.pdf
) a few miles from downtown.
PartyElixir Restaurant & Lounge
(see Fuel) has live music and drinks named after local institutions - try the Freight House, with an unusual pairing of vodka and ginger. Northern Stage
), a professional theater company that just celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Briggs Opera House (50 North Main St.), is scheduled to perform Arthur Miller's "The Price," starting later this month. Revolution
(see Spend) often has nighttime events, from book signings to "cheap wine & cheese." Or go bowling: Upper Valley Lanes and Games
(94 Bowling Lane, 802-296-2442, lanesandgames.com
) offers traditional bowling, as well as a game room with skeet ball and black-light laser tag. Finally, to clear your mind, drop by the Shambhala Meditation Center of White River
(158 South Main St., 802-296-6225, whiteriver.shambhala.org
) for meditation sessions open to the public Tuesday evenings and Sunday mornings.
© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.