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History Happened Here

Remembering Byrdcliffe

May 2024
6min read

An artists’ colony in Woodstock, New York, celebrates its hundredth year

After an absence of decades I rode into Woodstock, New York, on one of last July’s hottest days and during the town’s self-proclaimed Summer of the Guitar. Taking up the new civic-sponsored tradition of street art that had brought fiberglass cows to Chicago and, less appropriately, to New York City, the famous village in the Catskills had adopted the idea and reconfigured it. The guitar, after all, “is the true iconic image of Woodstock’s musical heritage,” explained the Chamber of Commerce president. In homage to the town’s artistic past and present, each of the 10 guitars placed around Woodstock was handcrafted in a variety of materials. No fiberglass here.

On the tiny town green a few people in tie-dye and headbands beat bongo drums while others, dressed entirely in black in a season that seemed to be leading to war, stood in a silent vigil for peace. It was back to the sixties in a flash, with easy reference to the legendary music festival that had happened 65 miles away in a town called Bethel. But long before that 1969 event, and long before Bob Dylan took up residence, there was another Woodstock. It shaped all that came after, and its “true iconic image” might well have been the palette, or the typewriter.

Once upon a time Woodstock was just a pretty, sleepy village surrounded by mountains, farmland, and some blue-stone quarries and tanneries; its rivers brought its products to Kingston, 12 miles away, to float down the Hudson to New York City. Overall, it was a salubrious region that attracted summer visitors and with them some ambitious but short-lived mountaintop resorts.

The counterculture Woodstock that achieved its lasting reputation during the summer of 1969 was actually con ceived in 1902 and born the following year. That was when Ralph Whitehead, the British-born son of a Yorkshire mill owner who was once called “the wealthiest commoner in England,” decided to build a Utopian community on the edge of town. He bought 1,500 acres on Overlook Mountain, following the dictates of John Ruskin, who believed, writes Alf Evers, the town historian, “that elevations in the temperate zones of above 1,500 feet provided too harsh an environment and that lower elevations were too enervating.” In a pamphlet, Whitehead expressed hope that his fledgling community would “combine with a simple country life many and varied forms of manual and intellectual activity.” He named it Byrdcliffe, combining part of his middle name, Radcliffe, with Byrd, the maiden name of his wife, Jane.

A century later and down to 300 acres, Byrdcliffe still stands, its pleasantly ramshackle cottages and workshops offering temporary quarters to musicians, artists, and writers. It is the only surviving community of its kind in the country, says Carla Smith, director of the Woodstock Guild, the nonprofit group that now owns and runs the place.

Starting in the early 1950s, I spent several summers at Byrdcliffe. As a child I was impressed more by its mustiness, its encroaching vegetation, and its rickety underpinnings (one night my bed collapsed under me) than by its historical importance. Now I find myself wondering about the furnishings my parents found shabby and mildly depressing. Had any of them been crafted in the workshops that were crucial to Ralph Whitehead’s plan to make the place self-sufficient? He attempted to sell some of the chairs, tables, and chests through New York shops but saw little success, and the project ended in 1905.

Today a Byrdcliffe linen press is on view in the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing, other furniture belongs to the Winterthur Museum, and at a Christie’s auction last June an oak chest of drawers fetched an astonishing $273,500. Many such treasures will be brought together starting in June, when the Woodstock Guild, in collaboration with Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, opens an exhibit in several spots around town to mark Byrdcliffe’s hundredth year. Covering the period between 1903 and 1929—the era of Ralph Whitehead—the show will go on to Cornell, Winterthur, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the New-York Historical Society.

By the time my parents and I summered in Woodstock, Ralph Whitehead was long dead. That was lucky for us because over many years he had made it very clear, and in writing, that people like us, “Hebrews,” would not share in the “welcome to any true craftsman” he had promised in a 1903 pamphlet. In the Woodstock of the 1950s, that was part of the past, and Ralph’s son Peter presided over his flock of creative folk as a most genial lord of the manor.

Both my parents were writers, and for a very small sum (I recall its being about $300) they spent several years, from May into October, in a variety of Byrdcliffe dwellings. There was Chanticleer, formerly a chicken coop; the Forge, originally a workshop, with its forge and bellows still in the living room; and Morning Star, where, I remember hearing, Sinclair Lewis had once stayed.

Byrdcliffe’s houses and crafts studios were built of pine in a simple style that blended chalet with shack. They had porches and eaves and were relentlessly dark brown, allowing them to blend into the surrounding woods. The one note of color, known as Byrdcliffe blue, appeared on the window frames, as dictated by Ralph Whitehead. Long faded, it is now visible only to the expert’s eye.

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.

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