In the last post we learned that William West Durant created a new style of architecture called Adirondack Great Camp in Raquette Lake NY in the 1870’s. We heard all about Great Camp Pine Knot, Durant’s first venture into this new, bold expression of rustic living. In that post. architecture was the prime focus. In this one we will search for what kind of man Durant was. Like all of us he was both saint and sinner. Here is a profile of Durant as a dashing young man.
This pose would suggest that he was quite a ladies man. Indeed he was. He was especially attracted to young ladies. He married Janet Strop, age 19, in 1884. The Strops were long time friends of the Durant family.
Now I’ll take a tangent and show you an old photo that piqued my interest. It is of guides and guideboats at the Camp Pine Knot landing.
What attracted my attention was the object floating offshore. It must be the houseboat Durant called Barque. Here is a close up of Barque pulled up on the shore at Pine Knot.
What was the purpose of Barque? In the Adirondacks starting in about mid-May and lasting well into June and perhaps beyond, a scourge of tiny insects called black flies appears. They look more like a gnat than a fly. They are relentless in their pursuit of bare human flesh. Their bite is painless but soon a welt the size of a dime rises at the bite site. This welt may last for up to a week and it itches like mad. Insect repellents have no effect on black flies.
One can escape them by getting out on the water, especially if even a slight breeze is present. Hence Barque. Durant supposedly built Barque so that ladies visiting Pine Knot in the spring and early summer would be comfortable. He may have had an ulterior motive.
Here is Durant’s cabin at Pine Knot, a modest affair.
My admiration for Durant went up when I learned he spent the winter of 1875 in a tent on the Pine Knot site. Having spent a full year in the Adirondacks I can appreciate the struggle he faced to keep warm and sane. The landscape turns white, with some splotches of dark green, and the sky is uniformly pewter. It snows every day, often just an inch or so, but it all adds up. We had seventeen feet of snow fall the year we stayed through the winter.
There was another structure on the Pine Knot grounds that had a very low profile. In fact, when the Camp was sold to Colis P. Huntington, it was not even marked on the survey of the property. This building was unusual in that every room in it had a door that opened to the outside. So visitors to Camp Kirby could come and go undetected. It was called Camp Kirby after its owner, a Mrs. Kirby. A young lady, Cornelia, spent her summers with her cousin at Camp Kirby. Cornelia was seventeen.
The docent on our tour of Camp Pine Knot said that Durant kept a bicycle handy for a quick transit to Camp Kirby. So while the ladies were safely holed up on Barque avoiding the black fly menace, Durant was braving them to make his way to other pursuits. His interest on other women apparently became widely enough known that his wife was granted a divorce in 1895.
Durant was a brilliant architect but a terrible business man. He simply could not control the cost of building his Great Camps. In order to avoid bankruptcy he would sell each of his camps as soon as they were completed. As mentioned, Camp Pine Knot was bought by Colis P. Huntington, while Camp Uncas went to J. P. Morgan and Camp Sagamore to Alfred Vanderbilt.
When Durant’s father died without a will in 1885, William was drawn to this new source of money like a moth to flame. He somehow wrested control of the estate and proceeded to cheat his sister out of her share of it. When he granted her a mere $2oo a month while buying a 190 foot ocean going yacht, sister Ella took legal action. After years of litigation she was awarded $750,000. You have probably guessed the outcome, there was no money left in the estate satisfy her judgment.
There is a brighter side of William West Durant. He built two churches on Raquette Lake. Both are still there and in fine condition. Here is St. Williams Roman Catholic Church. The other is an Episcopal Church, the Church of the Good Shepard,
Next time I’ll give my take on how Durant affected the iconic Adirondack guideboat.