The Legacy and Luxury of Lake Life

In the mid-20th century, the Great American Middle Class took its vacation in the first two weeks of July. Not everybody, of course, but that was a popular date. The working man of the house had two weeks off, and July was right in the middle of the year. Growing up in western Massachusetts, as I did, we were three- and four-hour drives from the beaches of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Cape Cod, but lakes were often much nearer, and could be visited for even a day or two. My primary experience of perfect summer days were on a lake much closer by. Lakes were a family habit, as they remain for many Americans.

I had an aunt and uncle, my favorites, who owned what, to this little boy, was a grand cottage on a small fresh water lake near Brimfield. The cottage had a small dock which was given a fresh coat of battleship grey paint every year. You could fish or dive (or mainly jump) from it, and there were old patched-up inner tubes in which to sit and loll in the water for hours. There was a rowboat the kids were allowed to take out, and a boat with a motor for the adults to drive. To a little boy, this was even cooler than to be able to drive a car.

The drinking water came from a hand pump not far from the shoreline, and there was even an outhouse in the back of the property when there were too many guests spending the weekend. Everything was a new adventure attached specifically to being on the lake.

Meals were at a big round family table. There was a fire going in the fireplace at night when it was rainy and chilly. My aunt liked to play the piano, and sometimes people sang along. Nighttimes were very quiet, except for the sounds of nature.

Lakes are generally quiet places, or they were back in the day, except for the occasional motorboat. The atmosphere was one of silence, encouraging to the contemplative. The tension in the outside world, particularly the tension back home when all was not copasetic, was replaced with a kind of peace that this kid could—and still does—equate with the joy of jumping in the lake every morning after breakfast (you had to wait an hour first, however).

The social culture of lake society is quite different from those of the sea and the mountains. There was a time earlier in our history—from the mid-19th century up until World War II—when lakes, specifically those in the Adirondacks, were fashionable. Society went to the lakes in the Adirondacks. That was truly getting away from it all. Many properties often had hundreds of acres, even thousands of forest land. The roster might include a dozen guests or maybe more. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the summer schedule for these same families might also include Newport and sundry beach communities in the northeast corridor or along the coast of Maine.

The great interest in the Adirondacks as a vacation spot for the rich began after the Civil War when the Industrial Revolution was roaring economic progress and much new private wealth was being created. The coming of the railroads added to that interest: Whitneys, Vanderbilts, and Astors acquired huge tracts of land, many of which included lakes. William C. Whitney was one of the largest of the landholders. The remains of his acquisitions, still numbering in the thousands of acres, are still held by the fourth wife of Whitney’s grandson, Marylou Whitney Hendrickson.

In the Adirondacks, the rich lake people built properties which included guest cottages, barns, garages, stables, workshops, storage, staff quarters, as well as elaborate boathouses for their inboard motor cruisers. These residential complexes were classified as “Great Camps.”

The most famous of these great camps—to Americans, at least, and still extant—is Topridge, the retreat of Marjorie Meriwether Post Close Hutton Davies May, the Post Cereals heiress who had multiple palatial residences and an equally regal sailing yacht, Sea Cloud. Topridge was built in 1920, around the same time she acquired her second husband, E. F. Hutton. It was with Mr. Hutton that she also expanded her father’s cereal empire, acquiring several other brands and creating the General Foods Corporation.

Mrs. Post—who also built and owned Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach—loved to entertain. Her houses were filled with friends and families, and she was CEO and chief planner of her entertainment committee. Her guests went to camp at Topridge, Post-style.

Different lakes in the Adirondacks drew different crowds. There were the tycoons of the age, like Mr. Whitney, as well as the old New York society and their confrères from Boston and Philadelphia. Then there were the aristocratic banking families. Naturally, people built in areas near their friends.

From the late 1880s up through 1920s, the Great Camps of Saranac Lake set a new tone in luxury with massive hunting lodges designed by important and creative architects who were sensitive to the needs of their clients and the changing times. Camps are not mansions, although they may compete in terms of square footage. They are for “roughing it,” Society style. A lot of wood and stone and fireplaces with a lot of wood-paneled walls, floors, and furniture.

Saranac attracted a number of the Our Crowd, great Jewish families of New York. Society in those days was exclusive in terms of “excluding” usually along the lines of religion (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, with the former reigning). These men—who were mainly bankers and financiers who did serious business with their WASP counterparts and corporate executives—often socialized separately.

Saranac had the great camps of men such as Otto Kahn and Levi P. Morton (who had been vice president of the United States), Joselph Seligman, Carl Loeb, Jules Bache, Adolph Lewisohn, Guggenheim, and Rockefeller, to name only a few. The style of their Great Camps exceeded the old-fashioned tented residences of the earlier lake visitors.

An excellent example was Adolph Lewisohn’s property, Prospect Point, which had more than 20 major structures including six lodges, two boathouses, smaller cabins, staff quarters, and support buildings. Lewisohn’s Great Camp was used once a year for a month-long stay, accompanied by a staff of 40 which included a major-domo, a barber, a caddy, a chess player, a singing teacher, and two chauffeurs.

Born into a banking family in Hamburg, Germany, in 1861, Adolph Lewisohn came to America when he was 16 to join his older brothers, who were then in the mercantile business here in New York. That same year, the teenager met one Thomas A. Edison, an enterprising inventor who was developing several inventions involving electricity, including the lightbulb. Young Lewisohn was so impressed with the technology behind these innovations that he persuaded his brothers to invest in copper mines, which they did. From that foresight the family fortune was born, not only for his brothers but for himself and many others.

Having made his fortune by the time he was in his early 40s, he decided to spend more of his time and money on other pursuits, such as philanthropy and music. (He could sing arias in several languages—which he did for his guests on the occasion of his 82nd birthday.) He promoted music for the public and built Lewisohn Stadium at City College to produce free concerts.  Much of his major philanthropy focused on helping underprivileged and orphaned children, and on prison reform.

Mr. Lewisohn died at Prospect Point at age 89 in 1938.  The New York Times ran an obituary on the first page recounting the man’s great philanthropy and his talent for enjoying life. He was proud of the fact that he worked all his life, and that he was able to share his wealth in a variety of ways that bettered the community. With that work, he had had, in his words, “a happy life.” He also had the talent for living. And the means to live it well.

Another remarkable figure of Lewisohn’s era who kept a Great Camp called Wenonah Lodge on Upper Saranac Lake was Jules S. Bache, an investment banker. Wenonah was set on hundreds of acres with substantial lakefront and seven main buildings. Bache backed Walter P. Chrysler in his auto manufacturing business and was president of Dome Mines (in which the Lewisohns also held a substantial share of stock). He also had a brokerage firm, J.S. Bache & Company, which was outranked at the time by only Merrill Lynch (then known as Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith).

Bache was a great art collector (the substantive part of which now belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art). His collection included works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian, Dürer, Velázquez, Bellini, Botticelli. His most famous painting was Goya’s “Boy with Cats”(also popularly known as the “Red Boy”).

Bache was a much flashier figure compared to many of his Adirondack neighbors. He moved easily through various social sets in New York and London, including theater people. His daughter Kathryn, always known as Kitty, married a British producer and theater owner, Gilbert Miller, famous in his time on both sides of the Atlantic. The guest lists at Wenonah, besides family members (he had two daughters), included heads of state, stars of stage and screen, and girls from the Ziegfeld Follies.

Several years ago, through serendipitous means, I happened to acquire a copy of the Bache guest book from Camp Wenonah, dating from 1897 through 1944 (the year of Jules Bache’s death). It’s a thick object, covering nearly a half century of a man’s life, and contains not only the names and addresses of the guests but many comments as well. Most interesting are the  “illustrative” comments, drawn by clever, talented friends reflecting on the experience of being a guest of Mr. Bache and his wife, Florrie, as you can see from these examples.

The allure of the lakes and the woods, besides an opportunity to “get away from it all,” was enhanced by its suggestion of a simpler life, a way of life familiar to all those generations who visited there. These were people who were born in the last half of the 19th century—into a world without cars, electricity, telephones, and speed in travel. So there was a rich nostalgia in “roughing it” because everyone, including city-dwellers, knew about that.

Life was purer, as was the water they drank and swam in. Away from all the rushing elements of city life, guests and residents had a sense of something more restful, and a physical environment that was healthier. Leisure was truly leisure. Time and distance limited the social interaction. Even today, more than a century after the area was settled by these affluent summer people, it remains essentially private, which is its own great luxury. Whereas, for example, in the Hampton communities there is the frequently intense socializing often with vast crowds, the cottage/camp life was, and still is, focused almost exclusively on the house and the family and their guests.