In 1909 Poultney Bigelow, reporting for American Homes and Gardens, described Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead’s Byrdcliffe as “frankly a benevolent despotism. Whitehead is the absolute monarch, and no one is tolerated who is not in sympathy with his rule. No idlers or mere pleasure-seekers are allowed to encumber these classic shades. Work in the broad field of art is the basis of Byrdcliffe success. Friends of the colony, properly introduced strangers are made welcome and are given good quarters and food at reasonable rates in the club house [Studio and Villetta] at the center of his Medician arcadia; but if they do not prove to be of the right stuff they can not hang long upon the skirts of this sylvan goddess…The Byrdcliffe despot is the most gentle and admirable tyrant, for under him the colony knows no deficits, is never assessed!”
If Byrdcliffe was a feudal kingdom then its castle was White Pines. One of the most striking examples of Arts and Crafts architecture, Whitehead named his home for its association with his native England and the ubiquitous trees of the Catskills. Designed by Bolton Brown and Whitehead and built by local craftspeople with help from Ralph himself, Whitehead positioned his Chalet-style home so that it would blend into the surroundings and arise organically for panoramic views of the river valley below. The interior rooms were beautiful with hardwood floors, wainscoting, and burlap wall coverings to make a rustic, yet striking setting for the family and their servants. The home also featured fireplaces adorned with tiles from Jane Whitehead’s cousin and prominent Arts and Crafts tile maker, Henry Chapman Mercer, and his Moravian Tile Works.
Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead was born in Saddleworth, Yorkshire, England in 1854 the heir to the lucrative Royal George Textile Mills. Ralph enjoyed a privileged upbringing and did not want for anything. His parents hoped their son would enter government and enjoy the life of an aristocrat; however, Ralph had other ideas. In 1873, he entered Oxford’s Balliol College and fell under the direction of Arts and Crafts guru and philosopher John Ruskin who imbued Whitehead with ideas of handcraftsmanship, community, worker dignity, disdain for machine technology, and an interest in art and culture of the Middle Ages. These ideas opened Ralph’s eyes to the deplorable conditions of modern factory production, especially those in his family’s mill and he set out to remedy the harsh realities of the industrial revolution. In his book Grass of the Desert and article in Handicraft, “A Plea for Manual Work,” he laid out plans for a community where workers could be treated with dignity, labor together in a beautiful environment, and were cared for by a benevolent leader.
After founding his utopia, White Pines became a hub of activity for those who did not mind the Whiteheads’ company. This included musical concerts and meals around the Whitehead table. Here, guests could admire Whitehead’s collection of Byrdcliffe furniture, enjoy a meal, and listen to Whitehead pontificate on various subjects, often to the confusion of those assembled.
Whitehead thought he was doing his duty as a moneyed aristocrat to bring an artistic way of life to those of a like mind. Many were appreciative of his largesse; according to Annie Thompson, Whitehead “was the center and inspiration of much that went on, or made most of it possible.” Indeed, Bertha Thompson notes, “Mr. Whitehead’s generosity knew no bounds.” She also notes, “We students of 1904 knew Mr. Whitehead’s kindness and thoughtfulness, his generosity, and his desire to share all he had to help us realize what we wanted to do. He enjoyed young people, and made possible many of our good times.” However, Thompson notes that not all were grateful and mistook Whitehead’s benevolence as oppression. As journalist Alvan Sanborn notes in Good Housekeeping, some “hesitate to give hostages to fortune to the extent of actually transferring their lares and penates to houses which can never be theirs, and whence they can be summarily ejected if the lord of the manor, finding them uncongenial, decides that their room is better than their company.” This often created a tense, and ironically inhospitable atmosphere. Hervey White resented being treated as a subject of Whitehead’s whims and fancies: “Each member like myself had his grievance, and the turmoil underneath the general gaiety was as intense as that in my own heart. The trouble was…that the young artists…had been dallied with, made toys of for rich people, had played instead of working all summer and now were being dismissed for a new crop that would be engaged the following season for the same price, their board and expenses.”