Byrdcliffe Historic District
The Byrdcliffe Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination documentation.  Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Byrdcliffe, founded in 1902-1903 as an arts and crafts colony with social reform overtones, originally covered about twelve hundred acres. The large parcel was intended to serve as a buffer against what was regarded as a deteriorating external environment. The Byrdcliffe Historic District comprises about one hundred and ninety acres of the original estate, which lies on the southeast slope of a spur of Overlook Mountain. The setting is of a varied topography ranging from rocky uplands, old pastures and woodlots, to good farm land at the mountain's base. Oak, white pine and hemlock are dominant in the forest which has taken over much of the mountainside since Byrdcliffe's beginning in 1902.
The Byrdcliffe Historic District boundaries are based upon the core of the original community. Wherever feasible, the existing property lines and natural features of the original holdings have been followed in an attempt to convey the feeling of the original bucolic setting. During the mid-twentieth century, much of the initial one thousand acre tract that surrounded the core community has been sold off and developed. Though the new development has generally been complementary to the architecture and setting of the art colony, it seems most appropriate that the core community be the major consideration of the Byrdcliffe Historic District. The few intrusions that are contained within the Byrdcliffe Historic District are without exception complementary to the original architecture and overall design of Byrdcliffe.
There are fifty-three buildings within the Byrdcliffe Historic District of which eleven are considered intrusions constructed since 1955. The original buildings were carefully sited and are connected by well planned and generally well maintained roads. The buildings illustrate the restrained influence of the turn of the century Western Stick style of architecture which incorporates certain Swiss decorative features which Ralph Whitehead, the colony's founder, imported from Europe. More generally speaking, the designs combine arts and crafts influences of the early twentieth century with what Ralph Whitehead thought of as a strong suggestion of Alpine chalets.
The colony known as Byrdcliffe deserves recognition as an excellent surviving example of the physical setting in which an important movement in American life flourished during the early years of the twentieth century.[†] This was the attempt to lead a return to handicrafts and to put into practice social reforms of the kind given eloquent expression in nineteenth-century England by John Ruskin and William Morris. Byrdcliffe did not follow blindly in the footsteps of Ruskin and Morris but accepted modifications suggested by American sociologists, psychologists and poets. This merger of ideas did not make Byrdcliffe a success in carrying out the ideas of its founder. Yet it was crucial in making Byrdcliffe an important force in American life. Byrdcliffe gave rise to the art colony which still endures in the valley below and to the Maverick Festivals which were prototypes of the Woodstock Festival of 1969. Woodstock became widely known for the freedom of thought and action which it offered to creative people and in this way it helped encourage the throwing off of old shackles which marked the post World War II years. Today, Byrdcliffe, with its more than forty original buildings largely intact, is undergoing a rebirth as an ambitious arts and crafts colony with aims in keeping with the present yet growing inevitably out of the ideas and achievements of the Byrdcliffe of 1902.
The founder of Byrdcliffe was Anglo-American Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead (1854-1929). Whitehead was born into a Yorkshire family active for generations as woolens manufacturers at Saddleworth on the River Tame. While still a student at Oxford's Balliol College, he came under the influence of John Ruskin. Through Ruskin he saw with dismay the pollution of the environment and the degradation of human life in England to which his own family's very profitable industrial activities had contributed. Whitehead resolved some day to convert his family's factories into non-polluting, cooperative enterprises in which happy and healthy workers might produce beautiful cloth by handicraft methods. Although this conversion was never realized, Whitehead remained determined to put his ideas into practice. He wrote essays in which he expressed his aspirations. One in which he outlined his hopes for the colony which was to become Byrdcliffe appeared in his "Grass of the Desert," London, 1892.
In 1892, Whitehead's life took a decisive turn, one which set him on the road that was to lead to Byrdcliffe. In that year, he emigrated to the United States and there married Jane Byrd McCall, a member of a prosperous Philadelphia family and a sharer in Whitehead's aspirations. Soon the Whiteheads were living on a large estate in Santa Barbara, California. There Whitehead laid out and built a subtle and innovative landscape setting for his Mediterranean style house. In keeping with his dreams of a better and happier life for the human race, Whitehead named the place Arcady. For several years Whitehead busied himself with writing Ruskinian essays on economics from a Socialist point of view, on education, art appreciation and other subjects. He brought together a small orchestra to play the classical chamber music he had learned to love during his Oxford days. He introduced manual training courses into the Santa Barbara schools where his musicians also played. He visited and studied the colonies springing up in various parts of the United States in search of improvement in man's lot via handicrafts, Socialism or other means. By 1900, Whitehead had taken on two paid assistants in his drive toward creating an experimental colony of his own. Hervey White strongly appealed to Whitehead through his embodiment of the qualities which Walt Whitman had taken as typically American: a buoyant optimism, a love of humanity and an eagerness to throw off old chains in an effort to shape a better life. White was a Socialist, a novelist, a social worker at Hall House and a believer in Ruskin and the virtues of handicraft. The second assistant was Bolton Colt Brown who was head of the art department of Leland Stanford University, a disciple of Ruskin and a versatile worker in many areas of the visual arts.
By the late spring of 1902, after an extensive search in many parts of the United States, Woodstock was chosen as the site of the proposed colony. The site conformed to the conditions laid down by John Ruskin as necessary if good work and a rewarding life were to be joined, and it was accessible to urban markets for the craft products they planned to make. Construction was underway by late summer on the seven contiguous farms bought for the colony. The buildings formed an integrated community set on twelve hundred acres stretching across a steep slope of Guardian Mountain on which pastures and woodland predominated with distant views and rocky ledges, giving a picturesque charm to the landscape. Plans for the new buildings were drawn by Brown in accordance with Whitehead's instructions.
The buildings owed much to the simplified Western Stick style evolving among West Coast and Middle West architects. They owed a good deal to what Whitehead thought of as Swiss, appropriate for a mountainside. During the 1880's Whitehead had lived for several years in a castle in Styria where farmhouse design was similar to that of nearby Switzerland. The broad gables and balconies, the exposed structural timbers and the widely projecting roofs all gave the buildings at Byrdcliffe a Swiss or Styrian air. One large dwelling was given a Styrian place name, that of Cariola.
The Byrdcliffe which emerged as 1903 began had two centers about which the life of the colony might revolve. One was the cluster of upper level buildings: a spacious house for the Whiteheads, another for Brown, the studio with attached library to serve as the art school, the Villetta in which students and crafts people would board, a metal working shop, a carpenter shop, studios set on the edges of the group and the picturesque double barn on the lower level beneath the Whitehead's White Pines, with cottages for farmer and estate manager close by. Below on the Glasco Turnpike stood several farmhouses. One of these, that of former town supervisor Mark C. Risely dating from the early nineteenth century, was left largely untouched but a Risely barn was moved and attached to it. With large windows placed to afford a fine valley view and the addition of an Italianate fireplace, the barn served as a common room for the club known as the Lark's Nest. Surrounding farm buildings which were turned into studios were connected to the Nest by means of vine roofed paths.
The Lark's Nest played a key role at Byrdcliffe. There with Hervey White and his friend of Chicago days, painter Carl Eric Lindin, well-known people in the fields of social reform and craft work were invited to visit and perhaps join the Byrdcliffe experiment. Here, as in all Byrdcliffe buildings, modern plumbing was installed, for Whitehead believed that there was much value in what he called "the use of the tub." A buffer zone of farm and woodland surrounded the colony buildings. This existed, Whitehead explained, for protection against "undesirable neighbors" and land speculators and to "prevent the destruction or vulgarization of the landscape."
Early in the summer of 1903, the colony's program began in an idyllic atmosphere with hopes soaring. Classes in the art school brought students on Whitehead scholarships to study painting, crafts and design. Weaving, bookbinding, photography, the making of color prints and metal objects ranging from jewelry to cabinetmaker's hardware and andirons also got underway. The most critical of the crafts was furniture making, for on this, Whitehead's hopes for the colony's economic welfare would depend.
Some of the most promising design students of Arthur Wesley Dow of Brooklyn's Pratt Institute were invited to Byrdcliffe where they designed well-made and well-proportioned furniture "given distinction" as Whitehead phrased it, by carving in low relief or by panels painted with stylized designs based on local plants and scenery. The cabinetmaking was done by local craftsmen under Fordyce Herrick, who had been one of the "boss carpenters" when Byrdcliffe was being built. In this way Whitehead tried to give a local character to the furniture and to involve local craftsmen in its production. Some chests and tables showed the effects of Whitehead's Styrian years and both types were very much at home in Byrdcliffe interiors.
As the summer season of 1904 neared its end, Byrdcliffe people felt their original euphoria fading. The furniture making project was not showing the expected profit. The largely handicraft methods used in its production ran costs too high to meet the vigorous competition that was developing as the arts and crafts movement stimulated the marketing of similar, if cruder, furniture from mechanized factories. No one could deny the excellence of the Byrdcliffe sideboards, chests of drawers, chairs and tables, yet Whitehead was unable to market them at a profit. The Byrdcliffe students and crafts people tended to blame Whitehead for the colony's problems. They said that he crushed individuality by ruling his colony in the manner of the kind of dictator whom Ruskin had regarded as essential to his St. Georges Guild of the 1870's.
As the season of 1905 began, Byrdcliffe adjusted to its reduced expectations. Hervey White, Bolton Brown and Birge Harrison, who had run the art school, were all gone and so too were many of the original students and crafts people. But new people arrived and took up a variety of crafts which required less capital than furniture making. Now pottery making was emphasized and a leading American potter, Charles Volkmar, was brought to Byrdcliffe to set up a kiln and supervise its first firing. Soon the Byrdcliffe pottery was earning respect at ceramic exhibitions throughout the country. Frame making flourished while the print making effort died. Metal working under Edward Thatcher and others did well and a variety of other crafts kept Byrdcliffe alive as a crafts center, although not on an aggressive level.
Ralph Whitehead divided his lands into two parts, the East and the West Ridings. He planned to sell land in the East Riding to crafts people, artists, musicians, writers and other creative people who could pass his rigid inspection and seemed in sympathy with Byrdcliffe's ideals. The first such sale was made in 1904, and after that others were made, although not always to creative people. Some of the East Riding people were rich enough to build elaborate summer houses and to give Byrdcliffe something of the character of a summer resort for prosperous art conscious people.
From time to time efforts in new directions appeared at Byrdcliffe. In 1907, Whitehead revived an old dream of his and planned a year round school for children, emphasizing the arts and placing a lessened emphasis on books; here he was following the path of his friend John Dewey. In 1924, he leased the studio to the Phoenix Players, whose Ben Webster converted the place into a theater with the Villetta next door housing the players. The theater was one of the visible results of the Little Theater movement then rising to a crest in the United States. After two seasons of presenting excellent plays in polished performances it closed, but from that time to the present, the studio has been used for a great variety of theatrical ventures.
In 1929 Ralph Whitehead died, perhaps overwhelmed by the death in a marine disaster of his oldest son, Ralph, Jr. After that Jane Whitehead, with the help of her surviving son, Peter, managed Byrdcliffe. Crafts, painting, writing and acting continued to be parts of Byrdcliffe life under Jane Whitehead's direction and in 1938, a series of intellectual conferences known as Byrdcliffe Afternoons began at the suggestion of two Byrdcliffe associate university professors, Martin Schultz of Chicago and James Shotwell of Columbia.
With the coming of the Second World War Byrdcliffe, although still supplying a favorable environment for creative people, fell more and more into the condition of a sleeping castle set in its surrounding park. Yet Jane Whitehead, although becoming more and more eccentric, clung to the hopes that had inspired her and her husband in 1902. In her will of 1949 she provided that should her son Peter not survive her, the Byrdcliffe estate should become a foundation "for the purpose of promoting among the residents of Woodstock...the study, practice and development of skill in the fine arts and crafts, as well as a true appreciation thereof an objective in which my late husband...was keenly interested...and for the promotion of which he established and developed the Byrdcliffe Community...." Jane Whitehead's son did survive her and upon her death, he helped give Byrdcliffe a new direction when he leased the old studio to the Turnau Opera group founded by Joseph Turnau, once of the Vienna State Opera. For several years the Turnau people made Byrdcliffe their headquarters and gave superb performances of classic and modern opera on a scale suited to their theater.
Byrdcliffe had begun as an enclave set in the town of Woodstock relating to the town as an employer of local labor, but in few other ways. By 1905, however, as Byrdcliffe receded from its original high hopes, the town of Woodstock came to become the scene of a renewal of those hopes but on a scale and in a way far better suited to the temper of the United States. Birge Harrison left the Byrdcliffe school to bring the Summer Landscape School of the Art Students League of New York to Woodstock; Hervey White founded the Maverick Colony where simple life and freedom from old rigidities prevailed among the Colony's musicians, painters and crafts people. His annual Maverick Festivals became explosions of artistic and tradition shattering energy which drew thousands of participants from the art and intellectual centers of the country. The Maverick Concerts, which continue to this day, grew directly out of the musical influences White had felt at Byrdcliffe. In many other ways interests and objectives once part of Byrdcliffe life were transformed and adapted to changing conditions and given secure footing in the valley below Whitehead's colony. There they still thrive and exert their influence on many phases of American life.
In 1976 Peter Whitehead died. Until late in life he had shown little interest in promoting the arts and crafts, but by 1970 he showed signs of sharing in the desire to see Byrdcliffe continue into the future as his mother had hoped as a center for the arts and crafts. He willed most of the estate to the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen. Today, Byrdcliffe is on the threshold of a far more vigorous and an even more significant program of craft activities and teaching. The old buildings and traditions of the colony are becoming sources of strength which can help carry Byrdcliffe on into the future after almost three quarters of a century of existence.
In summation, Byrdcliffe represents a unique example of an intact, surviving arts and crafts colony of the early twentieth century. The picturesque and environmentally fitting utilization of the Western Stick style of architecture and the magnificent overall setting have given and continues to give notable American artists, writers, painters, crafts people and musicians a degree of inspiration found nowhere else in this part of the country. Aside from its unique and largely intact architectural character, Byrdcliffe gains additional significance from its rich social history. The colony is representative of a profound sociological movement which found wide acceptance in this country around the turn of the twentieth century. The arts and crafts movement was, to a large extent, a reaction against the degraded quality of human life which came as a result of the intense industrialization of the mid to late nineteenth century. Byrdcliffe attempted to stimulate a return to the simpler more humanistic life-style present in America prior to industrialization. Though the arts and crafts movement and consequently Byrdcliffe's contribution, was not totally effective in the larger sense, Byrdcliffe had an immense impact on its surrounding community. The artists' community that exists today in Woodstock most likely would never have come into existence without the initial impetus generated by the Byrdcliffe colony.
The Byrdcliffe of 1902 made a significant statement about aesthetic and cultural values at the turn of the twentieth century. The Byrdcliffe of today and its offspring, Woodstock, continues to provide that most basic of all creative ingredients: a climate suitable for freedom of thought and expression.
[†]This significance statement is taken in part from a draft prepared by Mr. Alf Evers of Woodstock, N.Y. The original is on file with the New York State Division for Historic Preservation, Historic Preservation Field Services Bureau, Albany, New York.
Bigelow, Poultney. "The Byrdcliffe Colony of Arts and Crafts." American Homes and Gardens, Vol. VI, October, 1909.
Bolton C. "Early Days at Woodstock." Publications of the Woodstock Historical Society, No. 11, 1930.
Brown, Lucy. "The First Summer in Byrdcliffe." Publications of the Woodstock Historical Society, No. 11, 1930.
Anon. Byrdcliffe Summer Art School. (Prospectus). Privately published, 1903.
Anon. Byrdcliffe, 1907. (Promotional booklet). Privately published, 1907.
Evers, Alf. The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972.
Staley, Allen. "Byrdcliffe and the Maverick." M.A. Thesis, Yale School of Art, New Haven, Conn., 1960.
Thompson, Bertha. "The Craftsmen of Byrdcliffe." Proceedings of the Woodstock Historical Society, No. 10, July, 1933.
White, Hervey. "Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead." Publications of the Woodstock Historical Society, No. 10, July, 1933.
Whitehead, Ralph R. "A Plea for Manual Work." Handicraft, Vol. 11, June, 1903.
Byrdcliffe Research File. New York State Division for Historic Preservation, Historic Preservation Field Services Bureau, Albany, New York. File prepared by Mr. Alf Evers of Woodstock, New York.
Interview with Mr. Alf Evers of Woodstock, New York, Dec. 06, 1978.