Friday, August 7, 2015

William West Durant and his Adirondack Camps

The main lodge at Camp Pine Knot.
William West Durant was no choir boy. Despite being born into great wealth and receiving a fine education in England and Germany, he cheated his sister out of her share of the family fortune. She sued him, but by the time she won, he was so far in debt that nothing remained for her. Married to the daughter of old family friends, he philandered shamelessly until he and his wife divorced (he remarried, more happily, later on). His personal charm and family connections gained him the favor of several wealthy patrons. He relied on these men, some of whom remain household names today, to bail him out of debt many times over.

William West Durant in 1884.
And yet, Durant’s legacy as the supervisor of a new style of architecture still reverberates, at least in the north woods. His father, Dr. Thomas Durant, a key player in the Credit Mobilier scandal that deeply tainted the Grant Administration, was one of the builders of the Transcontinental Railroad. The elder Durant had purchased land in the Adirondacks to aid the construction of a rail line from Saratoga to the St. Lawrence River, but when the Panic of 1873 ruined the project’s financing, he was left with hundreds of thousands of acres. He put his son in charge of developing tourism for the area, presumably to raise the value of land so that it could be sold off. Over the next fifteen years, the younger Durant developed a rustic architecture that uniquely mediates between the city and the wilderness.

Long Lake, only a short seaplane ride from Camp Pine Knot.
In early July, I attended a week-long NEH workshop that allowed me to observe Durant’s designs close at hand, as well as consider the meaning and consequences of such architecture. We bunked at Camp Huntington, known as Camp Pine Knot until Collis Huntington, another railroad financier and a longtime Durant patron, bought the place in 1890, in part to relieve a portion of Durant’s debts. Each of the three camps that we examined – Camp Pine Knot, Camp Sagamore, and Camp Uncas – bear striking similarities, but it is possible to discern an evolution in Durant’s ideas about what constitutes a pleasant woodland retreat.

The era in which Durant built was one of rapid change, economic and social. Industrialism had created great fortunes for the Gilded Age elite, while cities grew crowded, noisy, and dirty. They were particularly objectionable in the summer; imagine the stench of horse manure rotting profusely in the streets. Moreover, attitudes about masculinity had shifted from favoring Victorian restraint to stress more aggressive character development, especially through outdoor recreation. Teddy Roosevelt’s exhortations on behalf of “the strenuous life” embody this new approach. Remarkably, concerns about deforestation, erosion, and violent flood and drought cycles, as well as a growing appreciation for the value of wilderness, convinced the New York State legislature to preserve the Adirondack region as “forever wild” in its revisions to the state constitution in 1885. Formerly inaccessible due to their rugged and remote terrain, the Adirondacks could now be reached in a day via railway, steamboat, and stagecoach from New York – and they beckoned to those with the money, drive, and leisure to reach them.

Thus Durant built in an era both dynamic and anxious, and his edifices reveal a great deal about how he and his patrons felt about these substantial societal challenges.

Sagamore Lake.
First of all, Durant intended his camps to be fun and restful refuges. Pine Knot is on Raquette Lake, a large, still lightly developed lake that must have been nearly pristine in Durant’s time. Uncas and Sagamore are built on their own ponds, entirely subsumed within the larger Durant properties. They remain the sole developments on the lakes, totally secluded. Much of the Sagamore property was subsequently given to New York State in the mid-twentieth century (after a stint of ownership by Syracuse University), but the constitution’s forever wild clause ensures that the view will remain pristine.

A bed at Camp Pine Knot.
Save for the chimneys, foundations, and various iron fittings, the structures are all made of wood, often embellished with birch bark and furniture fashioned from unmilled branches. The effect is rustic and elegant. Early on, Durant’s builders worked with whole logs, but eventually, they began to add log siding with milled lumber so that walls could be more efficiently built while retaining their rough character. Some structures, especially communal spaces for dining and entertainment, feature extensive glass windows, which had to be painstakingly carried by hand for the better part of a day from the nearest railroad depot. Foreshadowing a favorite strategy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, Durant made sleeping quarters small, encouraging people to gather in larger spaces. They also needed to go outside to reach larger dining or recreational buildings. Consequently, the camps feel more like a village than a country manor in the style of the Biltmore Estate or mansions at Newport. The overall effect is one of close contact and interaction with nature.

The original dining room at Camp Pine Knot. Note how close the lake is.
From the outside.
Durant included this breezeway at Camp Pine Knot, but he generally avoided using them because they allowed fires to spread between buildings.
In contrast to architects who designed more opulent Gilded Age resorts, Durant took great pains to nestle his buildings within the larger forest environment. Neither Pine Knot nor Uncas has unrestricted views of the water; instead, they are mostly hidden in the woods, painted in dark browns and greens to blend in (Sagamore is a different story, and I’ll get to that). Durant may have operated under a different set of ethics than his peers in New York City in this rustic setting – or maybe he wanted the understated layout to make it appear that he and his patrons eschewed ostentatious displays of wealth, much as a tech mogul today might enjoy being photographed in a t-shirt and jeans.

Bowling alley exterior.
The lanes.
One of the smaller fireplaces at Sagamore.
It goes without saying that these camps could not have operated without a small army of servants – at least three times as numerous as the people they served. Since the camps were so remote, they essentially functioned as self-sufficient farms, with vegetable gardens, dairy animals, forges, and carpentry shops on site, and they required year-round caretakers, in addition to the seasonal staff. Durant carefully placed the living quarters for servants away from the main buildings, an easy distance by foot but far enough to delineate social boundaries and ensure privacy. Interestingly, the drive to both Sagamore and Uncas goes right past all these auxiliary structures – a convenient arrangement for getting horses into their stables, to be sure, but also a surefire way to highlight the size of the domestic infrastructure, as well. Thus the layout and architecture of the later camps mixes restraint with reminders of affluence, signaling refined taste and education within a larger context of wealth.

Servants' quarters at Camp Sagamore.
Sagamore, by far the grandest of the three camps, also includes a sort of recreation hall and a bowling alley, as well as a private retreat for male guests nestled on the edge of the woods. These features were added by Alfred Vanderbilt after he bought the camp from Durant in 1901 (JP Morgan purchased Uncas in 1896, as well. Durant simply could not help overspending wildly on his projects). Like many of Durant's original touches, they seem to have been designed with an eye toward male bonding and entertainment. At Camp Pine Knot, where Durant lived for several years, he gave his wife a houseboat via which she and her friends could escape the bugs. Apparently he took advantage of her absence by cycling off to visit his mistress at an adjoining property.

The chalet at Camp Pine Knot.
Another of Sagamore’s most notable features is its Swiss-inspired main lodge, designed to resemble a chalet. In fact, Durant and his architectural collaborators – the exact process by which Durant translated his general ideas about landscape and building design into reality is obscure – had already experimented with a much smaller version at Camp Pine Knot. After constructing Camp Uncas, which is relatively stylistically understated, Durant returned to the Swiss theme on a much larger scale. We were only able to tour the lodge’s main room, notable for its fireplace and tree-trunk ceiling beams. Outside, bright red paint applied as trim to the window frames contrasts strikingly with the dark brown of the wooden siding. The overall effect is impressive; the camp is the grandest of Durant’s designs and lacks the more modest, richly sylvan character that distinguishes Pink Knot and Uncas. It looks and feels more like a hotel than a camp for a rich family.

The main lodge at Sagamore. 
Sleeping cottages adjacent to the main lodge.
Many of my colleagues on the workshop were impressed by the illusion of wilderness that Durant created. At both Uncas and Sagamore, Durant even included lean-tos where people could go to snooze or enjoy a campfire (amusingly, they look exactly like the gritty specimens one sees at steady intervals along the Appalachian Trail). My own feeling is that Durant, Vanderbilt, and their buddies were well-aware of the artifice, and while they liked the proximity to the outdoors, they were fully conscious that they also appreciated luxury. It’s nice to enjoy fresh trout and the smell of pine needles without having to dig a hole to take a crap or actually cook the fish yourself. Whatever Teddy Roosevelt might have thought, for them, the intermediacy of the experience was exactly the point.

A lean-to at Camp Uncas, evidently still in use.
During our visits to these sites, and especially as we got underway on our analytical group projects, it was interesting for my program colleagues and me to negotiate our unease with the class and gender implications of the origins of these camps (as well as the Adirondack State Park itself, its founding deeply resented by locals and a continuing source of regional conflict) with our very real enjoyment of Camp Huntington. For our group, at least, Durant’s design worked as intended – we mingled in common spaces, wandered the woods and paddled the waters, and left in an excellent frame of mind. We enjoyed our hot showers and internet service, clean drinking water, and regular meals, even using Chinese-made, globally-sourced iPads to produce videos for our group presentations at the end of the week. The artifice of wilderness endures. In other words, even for a group of people who outspokenly profess to be progressive and highly invested in societal equality, it is hard to resist having it both ways, at least for a week. Ironically, two of these camps (Durant was involved in building several others that we did not visit) now serve educational and non-profit uses. I have not yet made up my mind if this twist, along with the general spread of tourism to the ‘Dacks, represents the democratization of the wilderness experience or fealty on the part of the middle class to lifestyles copied from the elite. Probably it is something of both.

The main lodge at Camp Uncas - yours for $2.95 million.

1 comment:

Sheila Myers said...

It was great to read your post. I'm an alum of SUNY Cortland and am working on a trilogy about the Durant family. The mystery mistress of the woods will be revealed by book three. I've been chronicling my research journey here: