Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony

Tour curated by: Thomas A. Guiler

The Arts and Crafts Movement came of age in America circa 1880 to 1920. Followers of this movement witnessed the destructive nature of modern industry and sought rejuvenation through handcraftsmanship. Although some of their tenets varied, practitioners believed labor could be pleasurable and sacred, communal craftsmanship and design was valuable and worthwhile, and the natural environment had great power to inspire artwork. The movement was pioneered in the mid-nineteenth century by English writers and critics like John Ruskin who treasured individuality and handcraftsmanship. For Ruskin, these ideas eventually crystallized in his Guild of St. George. William Morris took this further and added a political element, calling for the betterment of the worker, improved labor conditions, and a more democratic society. He envisioned beautiful, ideal communities where people worked and lived in peace and harmony; a vision he put forth in his novel News from Nowhere. However, these ideas did not remain in England; Ruskin and Morris’s work was shipped overseas where similarly dissatisfied Americans devoured it, added to it, and made it their own. Although for some it lost its radical political element, craftsmen such as Gustav Stickley, William Lightfoot Price, Elbert Hubbard, and Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, were enamored with it, popularized it, and spread the movement widely on American soil. In America, Arts and Crafts meant regionalism, integrity, and naturalness in materials, unique designs, and a revisioning of the Middle Ages and America’s colonial heritage in unique ways through textiles, furniture, metalwork, leather, ceramics, and architecture.

Byrdcliffe arrived on the American Arts and Crafts in 1902. Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, a wealthy Englishman who studied under John Ruskin, desired to build an Arts and Crafts utopia based on his mentor’s Guild of St. George. In the late 1870s, Whitehead began crafting his vision, which evolved into his book, Grass in the Desert. It entailed an intentional community where people could produce handcrafted goods to support the community, a school for children and adults to learn manual labor and handcraftsmanship, and a self-sufficient, community-oriented outdoor lifestyle to protest modern industrialization. Whitehead and his wife, Jane Byrd McCall, soon settled in Montecito, California, outside Santa Barbara. Here, they built a magnificent mansion, Arcady, which became a school and semi-utopian center for artists and intellectuals all over California and the nation. However, while on a trip abroad, Whitehead made the acquaintance of Hervey White, from Jane Addam’s Hull House, and later Bolton Brown, a painter from Syracuse University, and the three formed ideas for a new, more extravagant Arts and Crafts utopia.

In 1902 Whitehead, White, and Brown began looking for a location for their new venture. The search took them to Oregon, Virginia, North Carolina, and finally to New York’s Catskills region and the sleepy town of Woodstock. This site was preferred for its picturesque setting, its proximity to New York, and its Ruskinesque dimensions. After purchasing twelve hundred acres, Whitehead began building his intentional community with Brown and Whitehead supervising construction on five buildings including the Whiteheads’ residence, dormitories, and recreation facilities. Whitehead also erected barns for the farming that would take place at the colony as well as a variety of workshops and studios housing the creative aspect of the endeavor.

By 1903, the community, named Byrdcliffe, a combination of Jane and Ralph’s middle names, formally opened. Artists and intellectuals such as Hermann Dudley Murphy, Birge Harrison, John Duncan, Ellen Gates Starr, Eva Watson Schutze, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wherry soon joined and it turned into one of the foremost artistic and intellectual communities in America. Whitehead sought to sustain his venture financially with the sale of finely crafted furniture, but he miscalculated the market and the shop closed in 1905, leaving the finances to wealthy donors and the Whiteheads’ own fortune. Nevertheless, under their direction, other art forms such as painting, pottery making, metalwork, even a school developed at Byrdcliffe. Besides work, there was a vibrant social life at Byrdcliffe with many dances, parties, musical concerts, and, of course, intellectual conversation.

Tensions soon emerged at Byrdcliffe. Citing Whitehead’s dictatorial management style, many, including White and Brown, left the settlement, while others stayed only part time. By 1907 it developed into a summer camp for intellectuals; even the Whiteheads were present only some of the year. The community continued to limp along until World War I, when much of the capital for the undertaking dried up. Already dismayed by the failure of his venture, news of his son’s death at sea destroyed Ralph’s spirit and he succumbed to illness shortly after. However, Jane kept on, managing the property as an artists’ retreat until her death in 1955.

In the last few decades, Byrdcliffe has survived as a creativity colony where artists can apply for space to work in seclusion or in community with other likeminded people. Musicians and artists such as Bob Dylan, Philip Guston, Doris Lee, and Milton Avery have called this place home over the years. Today, Byrdclffe remains a retreat for artists seeking the simple life and inspiration, and has only added to the avant-garde reputation of Woodstock and remains
as a total sensory artifact of the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

Locations for Tour

In the winter of 1902-1903 Bolton Coit Brown stepped into his home, Casa Carnola, which was at that point a construction site. As he descended into the cellar Brown spied a catamount: “I saw its round head, back beyond a beam,” Brown recalled,…

According to keeper of Woodstock history, Anita Smith, if you were invited to Marie Little’s cottage and studio, dubbed The Looms, assuming she did not suddenly cancel the invitation “to savor control over another’s actions,” guests “would…

In the October 1909 issue of American Homes and Gardens Poultney Bigelow wrote, “Ralph Whitehead is a mighty farmer in addition to his other many accomplishments.” While not a “mighty farmer” Whitehead did, however, have “mighty” barns as…

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…

Although now a theater, this was the site of the Byrdcliffe Studio and Library in the early twentieth century. As the purpose of Byrdcliffe was to encourage artistry and handcraftsmanship, it was one of the first buildings erected as a workspace,…

“The community must earn its food and raiment, and to this end will want to sell part of its produce” Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead wrote in Grass of the Desert. “Consider the future of the arts when wood, and wool and brass and leather are worked…
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