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‘Great Camps’ book made greater

When I first moved back to the Adirondacks, my wife and I attended a three-day workshop on great camps at Sagamore Institute on Raquette Lake. We were immediately hooked on both the history and the architectural aspects. Over time, and with the help of such groups as Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), we’ve been able to visit many examples.

At the time there was no encyclopedic text on the topic. However, in 1982, Harvey Kaiser published his landmark “Great Camps of the Adirondacks.” Almost from that moment on, we’ve been on sort of a self-propelled quest to visit as many of these picturesque places as we possibly could.

Now an updated second edition of Kaiser’s book has been published by David Godine Press. It’s a handsome volume, beautifully printed on glossy paper, and includes both vintage photos and many more recent color pictures. The photography is excellent, and the illuminating text is full of interesting anecdotes. There’s even more information than in its predecessor; plus this new version includes a thoughtful introduction by Steven Engelhart, longtime executive director of AARCH.

Seldom does an author have such opportunity to see the impact of a book four decades down the line. Kaiser’s first edition helped drive a significant growth in preservation efforts for these complexes. The second edition is much more than an ordinary update. It includes camps that hadn’t previously been recognized, some that have suffered damage and been renovated, and others newly built but in the same tradition as more classic examples. There have been some failures of preservation, too, including Nehasane, Camp Cedars and the Wawbeek. Mention of these losses is instructive.

Kaiser helped define the primary characteristics now attributed to great camps: utilization of indigenous materials, construction by local builders, careful siting so as to let landscape remain the dominant feature, appealing rustic designs, and the use of multiple small buildings on a site rather than just one huge structure.

Not that the term “rustic” can be precisely defined. Kaiser looks at antecedents of what we call Adirondack style. There was from earliest examples a mix of formal architectural concept and vernacular adaptation. Influence of early lumber camps can be seen, and so can Japanese and Swiss motifs. The book will broaden rather than circumscribe whatever you thought before.

In his historical appreciation of great camps, the author includes the story of early developers, including William West Durant. For the majority of readers, the highlights will be the stories and pictures of the specific camps themselves, both old and new. Kaiser carefully describes venerable camps like Pine Knot and Sagamore, newer and more ambitious projects like Topridge, and the creations of such well-known Adirondack architects as William Distin and William Coulter. It’s pointed out how a few camp owners utilized the services of such nationally recognized architects as John Russell Pope and the firm of McKim, Mead and White. Quite aptly, the book includes a detailed discussion of Debar Lodge, a camp whose existence is currently threatened.

Not many of these places are open to the public. Santanoni and Sagamore regularly welcome visitors. To see other places (that is, if your friends don’t own any), stay alert to tours offered by such groups as Adirondack Architectural Heritage, Adirondack Experience and the occasional local historical society. Otherwise, this book may be as close as you’ll get.

I refer to the original edition regularly, both when planning or returning from trips and while researching some of my newspaper columns. There’s little doubt that I’ll do the same with this new one. Even those already owning the first edition will want to add this one to their Adirondack collection.

Harvey Kaiser unfortunately passed away before final publication of this book. Its completion not only magnifies his legacy but also assures his efforts will be appreciated longer into the future.

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