In the winter of 1902, construction of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony began on Mount Guardian just outside the hamlet of Woodstock, NY. Seven farms, 1500 acres in all, were purchased for the enterprise by a wealthy Englishman named Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead. By the time it was completed in 1903, 30 buildings stood, comprising what has been referred to as a "textbook example" of a utopian Arts and Crafts Community.
The Arts and Crafts movement began in England in the last quarter of the 19th century as a reaction against rapid urbanization and industrialization. Its most passionate and well-known English spokesmen were art critic, John Ruskin and artist, William Morris. They shared a rural, utopian ideal based on a brotherhood of artistic collaboration. They believed that life would have enhanced meaning if work reflected the nobility thought to have been lost when machines eliminated the need for the skills and art of hand craftsmanship.
Ironically, it was those who benefited from the great wave of 19th century industrialization who had the means to rebel against it. Whitehead (1854-1929), the son of a wealthy mill owner from Yorkshire, England, came directly under the influence of utopian ideas when he studied with Ruskin at Oxford and later traveled with him in Europe. It is from Whitehead's enduring vision to found his own "brotherhood of artists" community that Byrdcliffe owes its existence.
Whitehead came to America and married Jane Byrd McCall in 1892. The daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family, she shared her husband's vision of an artist-craftsmen community. After faltering starts in California and Oregon, Whitehead and two acquaintances - Hervey White, a writer, and Bolton Brown, an artist and educator, crisscrossed the country searching for the perfect site. Brown found the natural beauty of the Catskills and their proximity to New York City ideal for an art school and craft workshop. Whitehead agreed, enchanted by the "painterly landscape".
Byrdcliffe, taken from the middle names of Ralph and Jane, was fully built and operating by the summer of 1903. It had a large studio for Bolton Brown's and Birge Harrison's art classes, metalworking shop, pottery studio, woodworking shop, dairy barn, guest houses, dormitory for students, library, and Whitehead's own house, White Pines. Unlike the vernacular architecture specific to the Hudson Valley, with its tidy white clapboard farmhouses, Byrdcliffe buildings resemble low rambling Swiss chalets characterized by their dark stained indigenous pine siding, gentle sloping roofs with wide overhangs, and ribbons of windows painted Byrdcliffe blue.
The years from 1903 to 1906 saw a great deal of activity, with teachers and students dedicated to their various endeavors of furniture making, pottery, weaving, photography, and painting. Social life revolved around twice weekly dances in the Studio and on the White Pines lawn. By 1907, internal strife among Whitehead, White, Brown, and many of the instructors took its toll. Whitehead's autocratic tendencies and the natural disagreements among people living in a close community contributed to the demise of the "brotherhood of artists".
Over the years, many notable visitors have been drawn to Byrdcliffe: feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gillman, New Dealer Harry Hopkins, educator John Dewey, naturalist John Burroughs, musicians Arnold Dolmetch, Leon Barzin and Bob Dylan, authors Will Durant and Thomas Mann, painters Milton and Sally Avery and George Bellows, photographer Eva Watson-Shutze, journalists Walter Weyl and Heywood Broun, poet Wallace Stevens, actress Helen Hayes, dancer Isadora Duncan, and entertainer Chevy Chase.
Thanks to the generosity of Whitehead's son, Peter, Byrdcliffe was bequeathed in 1976 to the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild. Through the WBG, Byrdcliffe continues to be home to a year round and seasonal community of artists representing all disciplines in the arts.
A number of notable Byrdcliffe items with more details can be reviewed online at the Hudson River Valley Heritage website!