Great Camps of the Adirondacks, 2nd Ed.
By Harvey H. Kaiser
Boston: David R. Godine, 2020
By Neal Burdick
Let’s say it’s the 1880s, and someone has just told you he’s heading for camp. Depending on who it is, this could mean any number of things. If it’s irascible backwoodsman Alvah Dunning, “camp” could mean a tiny bark-covered shack miles back in the West Canada Lakes country. If it’s a French Canadian lumberjack, it could mean a set of rough-hewn log buildings where he would expect to labor from before sunup until dark in 30-below-zero temperatures. But if it’s someone whose last name is, say, Vanderbilt, it’s an elaborate assemblage of elegant, aesthetically unified structures on a lake, with moose heads on the Great Hall walls and bowling alleys and squadrons of servants, all for his leisure. This is one of the iconic Adirondack “great camps,” and it’s these that Harvey Kaiser chronicles in his large-format book “Great Camps of the Adirondacks,” recently published in an enlarged and expanded second edition.
Kaiser, a Syracuse University administrator and architect, produced the first edition of the book in 1982, and it quickly became a seminal work. According to the publisher of both editions, David R. Godine, “it presented and defined, for the first time, an indigenous form of vernacular American architecture, the Adirondack Rustic Style—a unique combination of wood, stone, setting, and style.” Sad to say, Mr. Kaiser passed away just as the new edition was being completed.
The beautifully executed book tackles its subject from every angle. Chapters address the meaning of Rustic; the evolution of the camps’ designs; their builders; and, nearer the present, the waning and subsequent revival of their popularity and, finally, their preservation, restoration, and fates, which have not always been kind. It is important to note here that, while most people associate the phenomenon with the Gilded Age, the era of absurdly wealthy railroad magnates, robber barons and so on, facilities called “great camps” are still being built, and employed as enticements in real estate ads, today.
The volume is lavishly illustrated with more than 450—I’m not exaggerating—illustrations and photographs, some historical, many recent ones by Kaiser himself. We see not only the all-stars of the genre—Pine Knot, Uncas, Sagamore, Topridge, the marvelously named Kill Kare—but also designers’ sketches, blueprints, lesser-known camps, and spinoffs such as hotels that adopted the style.
In his fine and comprehensive foreword to the new edition, Steven Englehart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, explains that Kaiser’s first edition set in motion drives not only to save the great camps, but also to incorporate Rustic architecture into current construction, sometimes with dismaying results. He describes how Rustic blended human construction with the natural environment—not a new idea, it turns out—and rightly chides both the state and private owners for failing to care for the camps they acquired.
This is not light reading. I mean that literally. I put the book on my bathroom scales, and it weighed in at a solid 5 pounds. If you plan to sit in your Adirondack chair with this volume in your lap, I recommend some additional support. But the book is worth its weight in gold, an Adirondack classic that, like its subject, has undergone a renaissance.