NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
For whom do we make things, and what do they represent? This is the question posed by More Stately Mansions, an art exhibition currently running at Kitchen Table Gallery. My contribution to the exhibition, Window of Enlightenment, explores the contradictory relationship between the Gilded Age elite and the American wilderness. Camp Santanoni, a sprawling estate built in 1892 by an Albany banker, serves as a lens through which we examine wealthy industrialists’ excursions into the woods and their underlying motivations. Five miles down a dirt road outside an isolated village, Camp Santanoni epitomizes the rustic style of Adirondack Great Camps. Its story and ethos are uniquely manifest in its design, representing the conflict of American expansionism and an emerging public interest in experiencing and preserving the wilderness.
As cities boomed at the turn of the twentieth century, the wealthy sought respite from urban living. The New York elite invested in family camps upstate—private destinations to be enjoyed by their owners and invited guests. In contrast to the grand homes of big cities, the Great Camp was designed to blend into its setting, and employed local materials and craftsmen in its construction, featuring rough hewn logs and granite fieldstone chimneys. Though designed with rustic ideals in mind, Great Camps, like any country homes, were still an expression of status and privilege.
Camp Santanoni is distinctive from other Great Camps in its design. Considered “more understated” than similar camps, Camp Santanoni embraces a Japanese aesthetic, specifically the concept of shibui, meaning “tasteful in a rustic manner.” Robert Pruyn, Santanoni’s original patron, valued Japanese tradition as an alternative to the “fragmentation of modern life” reflected in urban American architecture. Evidently, the year he spent living in a repurposed Buddhist temple in the suburbs of Edo (now Tokyo) would significantly inform his vision for an ideal wilderness retreat.
Interior walls were paneled with tatami mats, and guests were called to meals by the strike of an antique temple gong. But the components reminiscent of Japanese temples at Camp Santanoni reflected more than just aesthetic preference. Robert Pruyn and his wife Anna sought a communion with nature intrinsic to eastern architecture. In Pruyn’s own words, “It takes time to make a comfortable place to live in this great wilderness. You cannot merely buy land and build a house. A patient contest with nature is necessary.”
Pruyn commissioned renowned architect Robert H. Robertson to design his Camp. Intentionally integrating indoor and outdoor spaces, Robertson prioritized enjoyment of the landscape. The Japanese-inspired arrangement of spaces comprised backswept wings of freestanding structures linked by a promenade. Robertson designed a walkway in eight segments, punctuated by scenic outlooks offering panoramic vistas. One critical text described a traverse of the verandas as constantly shifting compositions: “slivers of lake appear and disappear through a colonnade of trees, the forest dappled with sunlight.”
At his Camp, Pruyn’s “patient contest with nature” manifested as ordered control over the land. An ambitious farming operation sustained his guests, who enjoyed ample luxury despite their remote location. 35 bedrooms spread across four complexes housed the staff, which included butler, chef, chauffeur, and Mrs. Pruyn’s personal maid, who traveled with the family from Albany. According to Charlotte K. Barrett’s A Visitor’s Guide to Camp Santanoni, “staff was expected to create an illusion of rusticity that allowed the Pruyns and their guests to adventure in the wilderness but return to the formal rituals of upper class life.”
Enthusiasm for the great outdoors reflected a burgeoning, distinctly American perspective on The Wilderness and how one might best experience it. Pruyn’s guests expressed profound connection with nature, which they experienced in the comfort of the extravagant Camp. Huybertie Pruyn Hamlin, cousin of Robert and frequent guest, wrote:
It would be hard to express all I feel about those Santanoni parties . . . They were a very bright spot in our lives, not only giving greatest pleasure but also showing us another kind of life—that to me at least was absolutely new.
In the early 1890s, as Pruyn developed his estate, a newfound movement for wilderness conservation spurred national debate. Large tracts purchased by private individuals, including the Santanoni Preserve, strategically shielded lands from excessive logging. Camp Santanoni was built seven years after the establishment of the Forest Preserve, and the same year as the creation of the Adirondack Park.
By the mid-twentieth century, public perception of wilderness, and the question of how and by whom it should be experienced, had shifted. A 1935 article celebrated the opening of a highway nearby Whiteface Mountain as a progressive step towards inclusion. The highway, the article appeals, symbolized a transformation: once the “spiritual possession” of an exclusive elite, the outdoors should serve as recreation grounds for all citizens.
The Pruyns owned Santanoni preserve until 1953, when it was purchased by the Melvin family of Syracuse. Camp Santanoni evolved into a more casual experience, as the new owners and their guests sought a different sort of encounter with nature. In 1972, the Santanoni Preserve title passed to the Nature Conservancy and then to the State of New York. The Pruyns’ Adirondack home is now maintained by the Adirondack Architectural Heritage. Many of the buildings are in disrepair or no longer standing; those that remain have been restored for public access. Visitors can lunch on the broad porches and take boats out on the lake.
“Adirondack,” from the Mohawk word meaning “bark eater,” recalls a primitive wilderness experience, when natives ate buds, roots, and bark to survive harsh winters. In the Main Hall at Camp Santanoni, bark becomes a decorative motif. In my work, Window of Enlightenment, the viewer looks through a birch bark paneled “window” at a party of Camp Santanoni guests wandering down a road on the preserve. Images and surfaces are made with naturally and locally sourced materials—charcoal, iron oxide, and natural inks. Not shown are the workers who made this casual stroll in the wilderness possible.
More Stately Mansions inquires: for whom do we make things, and what do they represent? What are the power structures necessary to build these objects and spaces? In my work, Window of Enlightenment, I investigate these questions by contrasting the grand private estate with the publicly accessible trail, lean-to, or campsite.
While the estate represents an extension of the individual’s social stature, the campsite and trail serve as vehicles for public experience and appreciation of nature. At the forefront of Window of Enlightenment is the tension between these two modes by which we strive to experience the American wilderness.
Windows are literally framing devices, revealing scenery to be contemplated. An ancient Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Genko-an, features one circular and one square window. The circular window expresses harmony and enlightenment while the square symbolizes the suffering of human life. The bark-paneled architectural form of Window of Enlightenment is a square, with the image revealed through a circular opening. The woman, seen walking with two companions, is young Huybertie Pruyn, enthusiastic naturalist and privileged intruder. Whatever our contemporary interactions with the American wilderness, our experience is mediated by the structures, usually designed and built by others, which allow us access but are frequently marred by transgressions not perceived, and shaped by values we no longer share, or even have the ability to understand fully.