Glamping like a Vanderbilt: a walk around Sagamore Great Camp
Less than a week after leaving Shelburne Farms, the country estate of Lila Vanderbilt Webb, Brendan and I had a different, but no less interesting Vanderbilt experience invited by our Friends Gary and Jeff to attend the annual gala benefit weekend at Sagamore Great Camp.
Sagamore was originally built between 1895-1897 by William Durant. Forced to sell it in 1901 due to financial difficulties. It was purchased by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt.
It was under his, and afterwards through his widow Margaret Emerson’s ownership (Alfred perished on the Lusitania in 1915), that the camp became a legendary wilderness retreat for the Vanderbilts, their family and friends.
Today it is run as a nonprofit retreat and conference center, open to anyone for tours and overnight stays.
The heavy front doors of the main lodge are painted a brilliant red, faintly reminiscent of Elizabeth Arden salon. Although one definitely leaves Sagamore transformed for the better, any similarity ends there however!
The interiors are a study in rustic elegance, and are deceptively simple looking. Mr. Durant had the fireplace of the Main Lodge's living space seen here torn down and rebuilt three times, to get the rocks seemingly randomly-laid appearance "just so". The beams overhead glow in the soft light of the chandelier, which was constructed in the blacksmith's shop on-site. Although the large table and built in benches along the walls are all that's left of the original furnishings from the Vanderbilt's day - they did not cram sagamore with tons of furniture. the main difference between what we observe today and their tenure, is that the shelves running along the walls over the doors and windows as well as the mantel would be populated by taxidermy specimens, while underfoot, the floors would have been covered with skins and furs!
Standing on the porch of the lodge, one can view the lake, swimming area and boathouse beyond to the right.
While to the left, lay a group of buildings essential to a stay at Sagamore, including the Dining Hall and Kitchen, a guest cottage, the old laundry building and the larger "New" Laundry building, seen to the right.
The large size of the laundry building is an important aspect to understanding how the wealthy lived at these Great Camps. While they did enjoy hunting and rustic pursuits, in a relaxed atmosphere even in this sylvan setting, multiple changes of clothes were required, including formal attire for dinner. In addition, the huge amount of table and bed linens used by the family and up to thirty or so guests at any given time kept the laundry operations constantly busy when the Vanderbilts were here.
Although formal dinners at great camps have "Gone With the Wind" as it where, being there for a gala weekend gave us a hint of what they might have been like, with a festive dinner set up on the tennis courts.
Above the tennis courts lies the playhouse, a structure that once housed a billiard table, table tennis, and roulette wheel amongst other games , to offer guests after-dinner activities.
Behind the playhouse is the recenly restored open-air bowling alley - a reminder of the days when bowling was a sport embraced by the upper classes!
Going back to the lakeside of the camp complex, one can see two smaller cabins near the water's edge built for Margaret's children, Alfred Vanderbilt and Gloria Baker, to use when they came of age .
Up in the woods beyond the cottages sits a lean-to, one of several that once dotted the property. This particular one happened to be favorite of Mrs. Emerson's. who held court here under her long tenure as chatelaine of Sagamore.
The lean-to is still used for evening campfires. What is not used any longer is the butler's call button located on the side of the structure. To get a drink oneself would have been unthinkable in the Gilded Age, even in the wilderness!
Nestled over the creek behind the lean-to sits "The wigwam", built as a gentlemen's retreat for Alfred Vanderbilt and his friends.
It is said once, when a reporter asked the well-travelled Mr. Vanderbilt to name his favorite place in the world, he replied sitting on the porch of the wigwam overlooking the creek below- being here, it is not hard to understand why.
The expression "It Takes a Village", could be easily applied to maintaining the lifestyle of a super-wealthy Gilded Age family. Nowhere is this more evident than at Sagamore, when visiting the workers compound, the complex of buildings hidden from the rest of the camp by a screen of trees.
The surviving buildings include a schoolhouse, blacksmiths shop, hen house, ice house, root cellar, barn, and an enormous woodshed. In addition these there were once more, used by the seventy or so employees needed to run the camp adequately for the Vanderbilts who used it five or six weeks a year. Facing the road is the chalet, which served as mens dormitory. The reason it was built in a higher style than the other structures in the workers village probably has something to do with the road passing it was used by the JP Morgan family when traveling to their nearby great camp. Appearances had to be kept up. No one wanted the neighbors being able to see the inner workings of the "backstairs" areas of one's home, even in a compound in the woods!
One thing that both the Vanderbilts and today's visitors could definitely agree on, is that being able relax in an Adirondack Chair gazing over the view of the lake is priceless. In addition to its many other attributes, that alone makes the trip to Sagamore worth it!