Adirondack Great Camps of the Gilded Age

Early 19th century architects created function from form, taking design cues from nature to establish one of the most recognizable architectural styles of the era – Adirondack Rustic. Expansive lodging compounds, referred to as Great Camps, were designed to blend into their natural surroundings, offering rustic yet luxurious retreats for the Gilded Age elite.

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A Glittering Adirondack Era
Adirondack Great Camps were as synonymous with the Gilded Age as the names Vanderbilt and Rockefeller. Designed to blend into their natural surroundings, these sprawling compounds spanned the most coveted shorelines of the Adirondacks – as well as some of the most remote. From Raquette Lake to Upper Saranac Lake – Camps could take weeks to get to; and so the glittering elite of the early 19th century made the trek in early summer for a season of relaxation amid towering fir trees and sparkling, endless lakes.

Great Camp Sagamore and William West Durant
William West Durant is, in many ways, the father of the Adirondack Great Camp. The son of a railroad baron with an eye toward expanding his prospects into the Adirondacks, Durant's father tasked him with designing a retreat for entertaining wealthy investors and property developers. Around the same time, W.H.H. Murray's "Adventures in the Wilderness" was published, inspiring renewed interest in the natural world. Murray's tales spurred tourism to the Adirondacks – creating a perfect storm of conditions for Durant to pursue his burgeoning new architectural style.

Durant seized the opportunity and began to design Great Camps on Raquette Lake in the heart of the Adirondack Park. Camp Pine Knot was followed by Camp Uncas and then by Durant's opus, Great Camp Sagamore, all three of which are now National Historic Landmarks.

Adirondack Great Camp Tours
Today, many Adirondack Great Camps remain in the hands of private individuals, though the exclusivity surrounding most has vanished with the golden sheen of those pre-Depression years. There are a few exceptions to that rule, however! Many Great Camps offer professional or self-guided tours of the properties throughout the year.

Camp Santanoni, CJW_NY
Camp Santanoni, CJW_NY

The sprawling compound and National Historic Landmark known as Camp Santanoni is must-see attraction for the adventurous traveler. Once one of the most sophisticated and treasured Great Camps of its era, this secluded complex provides a 9.5 mile wilderness mountain biking or hiking experience will lead you to one of the great treasures of the Adirondack Region. Open seasonally, Santanoni offers guided tours, residential programs, workshops, programs and lectures throughout the summer.

White Pine Camp in Paul Smiths
White Pine Camp in Paul Smiths

In Paul Smiths, White Pine Camp boasts its own storied elegance and historical importance as the one-time summer White House of President Calvin Coolidge. Built at the turn of the 20th century, White Pine Camp features the classic Great Camp style of multiple buildings that form the compound. Open year-round for overnight guests, White Pine boasts an indoor tennis court, bowling alley and two boat houses, as well as the iconic Japanese Tea House extending into Osgood Pond on its own peninsula.

Great Camp Sagamore, Tom Dwyer
Great Camp Sagamore, Tom Dwyer

Once the summer retreat of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and his wife Margaret, Great Camp Sagamore is open Memorial Day through Labor Day, and guests can enjoy the camp's many treasures, including an indoor bowling alley, paddling and fishing on pristine Sagamore Lake, artisan workshops and special weekend events.

Help Protect Adirondack History
Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH) oversees the preservation of many Great Camps and other rustic buildings throughout the Adirondack Park. As a non-profit, AARCH acts as a steward for the region's architectural treasures, leading group tours and hosting exhibits and workshops to further understanding and conservation of the region's unique history. 

Photos of Great Camp Sagamore courtesy of Tom Dwyer, www.TomDwyerPhoto.com. Tom hosts a series of Sagamore Photo Retreats at the camp to help students develop their skills as photographers.

Photos of Camp Santanoni courtesy of CJW_NY, Flickr.com. 

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