Remembering Byrdcliffe

PrintPrintEmailEmail

There was a rambling barn, home to the caretaker’s dog, whom I liked to pretend was mine and who one summer produced eight enchanting puppies. Another structure, built in 1903 as a boardinghouse for art students, held the French Camp, named for the owner’s country of origin. Day campers, of whom I was one, were supposed to pick up a smattering of the language. That didn’t happen, but I did learn to ride a bike there, and last summer I identified a little dip in the road in front of the camp that had been my practice run.

Peter Whitehead’s 15-room home, built in 1903 by his parents and called White Pines, was furnished in the Arts and Crafts style, some of it by William Morris himself. Here Whitehead ebulliently entertained tenants as well as celebrated guests, such as John Dewey, Thomas Mann, and the painter Milton Avery. His cocktail parties would flow out onto a grassy terrace in front of the house that in his father’s day revealed magnificent vistas of the craggy Catskills and, in the distance, the gleaming Hudson. Today this view is blocked by trees—probably permanently, since restoring it would be far too costly.

Despite nature’s incursions and the sale of some of the land, Byrdcliffe’s fabric is remarkably intact. A few of the cottages are now in private hands, but the Woodstock Guild rents out others to artists at relatively modest fees, just as the Whiteheads did. The barn where I once climbed to the loft and tumbled in the sweet-smelling hay is now used for performances, as is the Byrdcliffe Playhouse, the one-time School of Art. The former French Camp houses artists-in-residence. The Whitehead family home, sturdy but run-down, is a museum in the making; a current preservation effort will allow it to be open to the public once a week.

With its tiled fireplaces, grand dining room, and warren of servants’ quarters, White Pines whispers of its illustrious past. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the long, spacious studio connected to the main house by a covered passage. It’s called the Loom Room, for the time it was occupied by weavers. Whitehead himself wove silk scarves there. He and his wife were also accomplished potters, and shelves in an anteroom hold samples of tiles glazed by the Whiteheads.

Byrdcliffe welcomes visitors with a walking-tour pamphlet that explains the original and present uses of the buildings and maps a variety of rustic hiking paths. From time to time there are public events, including a summer-long outdoor sculpture show. Carla Smith, who allowed me a nostalgic visit to the generally off-bounds White Pines, said, “Only recently did anyone realize what we had here. I’d heard about Byrdcliffe but not until I saw it did I understand it.”

I wish I’d understood it better during those childhood summers. It saddens me to think of the funny or scurrilous stories my parents, now both dead, could have told. What I do recall is their sometimes raucous, always hard-drinking social circle. I hadn’t thought about any of my parents’ Woodstock friends in half a century, but as I began the trip, their names drifted into my mind.

“Don’t miss the Artist’s Cemetery,” Carla Smith had said. “It’s a bit hidden, across from the town cemetery.” The sloping expanse is bordered by trees, and in this summer of drought the grass was scrubby. Formations of tiny insects kept circling my head, calling to mind Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” Only two monuments rose above the ground; the other stones were set flat into the earth. An engraving on a monolith guarding the entrance reads, “En circled by the everlasting hills they rest here who added to the beauty of the world by art, creative thought, and by life itself.” The surprising sight of a glass-encased Delia Robbia sculpture almost hidden in a grove at the bottom of the hill signals Ralph Whitehead’s resting place.

Feeling a bit like Emily, the one in Our Town who wanders among the dead, I began to spot the graves of all the old friends whose names I had summoned up in the previous few days: Patricia and Charles Boswell, Marion Greenwood, Robert Pick, Odette and Manuel Komroff (his stone was engraved, “There is within man a temporal and profound hope”). There were other names I recognized, artists like Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Philip Guston and Howard Koch, who wrote the screenplay for Casablanca .

For my parents Woodstock had been mostly a cheap summer escape from the city, enlivened by good company. They rarely talked about it later. But to the people who lie beneath these stones, it was clearly much more. Perhaps, as a friend suggested, they just wanted to keep the party going.

To Plan a Trip