Stieglitz and Vanderbilt: A Tale of Two Alfreds in the Adirondacks
By Olivia Armandroff, WPAMC Class of 2020
While he had grown up in a luxuriously appointed New York mansion and spent time in his family’s polished Newport home, the famed Breakers, Alfred Glynn Vanderbilt elected to make his first major real estate investment in 1901 in the more simply outfitted Great Camp Sagamore, a destination on Winterthur’s Northern Trip (Fig. 1). One of William West Durant’s Great Camps, the Sagamore was characteristic of the Adirondack style, which intermingled the aesthetics of Swiss chalets with the local tradition of rustic, log-cabin architecture. Most striking during our visit was the craftsmen’s care in celebrating the unique qualities of their primary material: wood. Elegantly finished wall panels and massive round beams lend a warm, honeyed tenor to interior spaces, while exterior facades are richly patterned with modeled bark which was applied as siding over standard framed buildings. Expertly cited windows in the dining hall allow diners to hover over the crystalline lake itself. With sitting rooms outfitted with built in banquettes and Mission Style furniture, and porches lined with minimalistic Adirondack chairs, in many ways these camps anticipated a modern, clean-lined aesthetic, contrasting with contemporaneous, crowded Victorian interiors (Fig. 2 and 3). The overall effect was the intermingling of indoors and out, manmade and not, leading to the feeling of total immersion into nature.
At the end of the century, the architectural frenzy that resulted in the construction of the Great Camps coincided with the development of another nearby Adirondack destination: Lake George. But the Adirondack style did not spread to Lake George. Instead, along Millionaire’s Row, the wealthy built mansions referred to as “cottages,” as in the Newport, Rhode Island tradition. While they employed wood and rocks in the architecture, the natural references were more subdued than the all-out timber frames of the Great Camps. Alfred Stieglitz may have inherited his connection to Millionaire’s Row, but he embraced the legacy and spent a great deal of time at Lake George. His father acquired the property in the 1880s and his home Oaklawn is the subject of one of Stieglitz’s photographs in 1912/13 (Fig. 4). Thick gold frames, marble sculptures, patterned rugs, plush chairs, and heavy drapes typify the Victorian interior. Another photograph of Agnes Stieglitz on the porch in 1893 shows how the house was also outfitted with elaborately woven wicker deck furniture.
Although a man of modern art, Stieglitz appears not to have disassociated himself with his parents’ decorative tastes, or even seen their interiors as anti-modern. Hunter Drohojowska-Philp describes Georgia O’Keeffe’s horror at seeing the crowded interiors of Oaklawn; they were akin to the décor of Stieglitz’s New York apartment, the styling of which O’Keeffe had initially assumed reflected the hand of his first wife, Emmeline Obermayer. Along with the replica of the Venus de Milo that appears in the photograph of Oaklawn’s parlor, a bust of Judith was photographed being transported during a move from Oaklawn to the smaller farmhouse of The Hill on the property in 1920 (Fig. 5 and 6). Plaster copies of Judith had been commissioned by the elder Stieglitz for all his children from Moses Ezekiel, an American-born Jewish sculptor who lived for most of his life in Rome. At the Hill, Stieglitz arranged Judith in a corner which he referred to as modern, capturing it in a 1922 photograph which he sent to Herbert Seligmann: “I’ve photographed a very amusing interior—a corner—Judith (the marble heroine with busts to bust)—she on top of the iron safe—she draped with a branch of apples & shrivelling [sic] leaves—glimpse of a white door—golf sticks—a Walkowitz—[on] odd wall paper—a red plush chair—on it a large medicine ball—flanking the marble (real marble—Carrara) a bottle of Mirror Candy—& a bottle of 3 in 1. So there you are for Modernity—& a style!—The photograph is not Art—just good fun—a corner as I found it—In Nature—! —” (Fig. 7). Stieglitz’s fondness for Judith was not shared by O’Keeffe who buried her outside where she remained lost until rediscovered by future proprietors of the farmhouse.
Despite their radically different decoration schemes, Great Camp Sagamore and the Stieglitz home at Lake George served as sites for shockingly similar ways of life. At both, hospitality was key. Vanderbilt’s widow Margaret became a skilled hostess, devising programs of entertainment that included use of the Great Camp Sagamore bowling alley and martini-mixing competitions, and setting politicians such as Madame Chiang Kai-shek and George Marshall in conversation with celebrities from Gary Cooper to Hoagy Carmichael. Similarly, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe hosted innumerable New York luminaries, as Stieglitz’s portraits of them at the lake attest, including Jean Toomer, Waldo Frank, Paul Rosenfeld, the Strands, and more. The Adirondacks offered an escape from daily norms of urban life, permitting the Vanderbilts, Stieglitzes, and their guests to “go wild” in the wilderness. Alfred added “The Wigwam” to Durant’s initial plan for Great Camp Sagamore, creating a space that would function according to the boy’s club traditions he had learned as a student at Yale where he was a member of Skull and Bones. Similarly, it is hard not to interpret Stieglitz’s photographs of nude female subjects on the lake as a masculine assertion of power in a rural and remote environ. But both sites also had powerful women at their helm; Margaret would continue to develop Great Camp Sagamore after Alfred’s death, managing the property for thirty-nine years. A sportswoman who engaged with nature, she was free from gendered social constraints when at her rural home. At Lake George, O’Keeffe was similarly unencumbered, as her incredibly productive output of over two-hundred works attests.
Perhaps because of his embrace of traditional interior aesthetics, much of Stieglitz’s photography at Lake George was done out of doors. Although some images show the lake itself, his favorite subject was the patterning of Lake George’s skies with clouds in his Songs of the Sky and Equivalents series. When photographing his visitors and O’Keeffe, he framed them in the doorways, windows, and posts of more rustic outbuildings on the property, or focused his lens so closely on isolated parts of their bodies, their surroundings fell beyond the edges of the print (Fig. 8). O’Keeffe’s hands, and her tensed neck muscles, become studies of geometries. These photographs are like his images of dying trees done with the same, characteristically radical cropping techniques which reveal the linear beauty of the silhouetted branches (Fig. 9).
Given Stieglitz’s interest in pattern, form, and geometry in nature, it is in many ways a shame he was not surrounded by Adirondack-style architecture at Lake George. Like Stieglitz, designers working in the Adirondack style celebrated the linearity of trees as they repurposed their wood into architecture and furniture. This is especially evident in twig work. The sides of Sunset Cottage, built for Camp Cedar and now at the Adirondack Experience, are mosaiced with split spruce limbs which form sunbursts, triangular frames, and concentric rectangles (Fig. 10). Twig work took on a larger scale at Camp Tropridge, where full length trees support the gabled rooves of the boathouse (Fig. 11). And furniture makers such as Seth Pierce worked with twigs on a finer scale, as when he used twigs to outline flower baskets and quilt motifs on a corner cupboard for Camp Cedars (Fig. 12). We can only imagine what O’Keeffe’s intertwined fingers would have looked like set atop a twig work tabletop.