A Short History of Great Camp Sagamore
by Beverly Bridger, Director Emeritus, Great Camp Sagamore.
Private residence, sportsman's retreat, entertainment headquarters, vacation complex, or educational institution, people have been enjoying Sagamore and its surrounding wild lands since 1897. The growth and structural alterations that have occurred reflect the varying visions that Sagamore's successive owners have had: William West Durant's use of it as a home; Alfred Vanderbilt's expansions of infrastructure and comforts for his sporting friends; Margaret Emerson's amenities which served friends and family; Syracuse University's use for adult programs; and, the current dedication to stewardship, education and interpretation mold Sagamore.
Built by William West Durant from 1895 - 1897, Sagamore was originally designed on a smaller scale to be his own private and self-sufficient family camp. Though small, it was fully detailed by Adirondack artisans who worked with Durant to produce elaborate results. Durant's dining hall was intimate seating only a dozen people and the camp's entire lodging capacity was provided by just five bedrooms in the Main Lodge. Sagamore was intended as a year-round home for Durant and epitomized his vision of comfort, indeed, luxury, in the midst of a privately owned, unspoiled wilderness. Failing finances and a family law suit forced Durant to sell Sagamore just after its completion.
Alfred G. Vanderbilt was an accomplished sportsman. He purchased Sagamore in 1901 as a private recreational and entertainment retreat. In the Gilded Age, Adirondack camps were becoming all the rage and the newly married Vanderbilt immediately began expanding and improving the already lavish facilities to better suit his purposes. He added Wigwam, a major guest facility and men's entertainment headquarters, built a hunting camp at the end of the lake, and introduced the Playhouse and accompanying concrete tennis court thereby developing distinct social and recreation centers. He doubled Durant's original dining capacity and enlarged the kitchen and service facilities to allow for increased guest activity. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt's new wife did not share his enthusiasm for the camp's rustic character and wilderness surroundings, so between 1903 and their 1908 divorce, Sagamore saw rare and infrequent use.
Alfred Vanderbilt's second marriage in 1911 to leading society hostess and sportswoman, Margaret Emerson McKim, heralded a renewed interest in Sagamore. Their collaborations resulted in expansions which continued until his death on the Lusitania in 1915. In this phase, distinct efforts were made to improve the infrastructure of Sagamore making the guest camp ever more comfortable and luxurious. A state of the art hydroelectric complex supplied the Vanderbilts and their guests with electricity. A telephone system was installed and a huge new laundry was built. The bowling alley added a new dimension to entertainment in camp. In the worker's complex, a new building for housing the men greatly increased the service capacities of Sagamore in obvious anticipation of even greater numbers of guests.
Margaret Emerson continued to entertain at Sagamore for nearly forty years after Alfred's death. During the '20's and '30's when she was known as "the hostess of the gaming crowd," Sagamore was a flurry of activity with both family and celebrities joining in. She added Lakeside Cottage for her sons and daughter which eventually was passed on to the use of their children. For outdoor gatherings, she erected a gazebo and several open camps or leans-tos at various points around the lake. She greatly expanded the Dining Hall adding a third fireplace and spectacular bay window and then constructed full-scale cottages for her three children, George, Alfred and Gloria as they came of age. Margaret Emerson loved entertaining at Sagamore and cherished the camp as a unique woodland retreat for the fun and enjoyment of her family and many friends. These included some of the leading lights of Broadway, Hollywood and Washington, DC. Jerome Kern, Gary Cooper and General George C. Marshall were amongst the many who called Sagamore “their home in the woods.”
In 1954 after a disastrous blow-down and declining interest by her children in the property Margaret Emerson felt that it was time to move on from Sagamore. She gifted the camp to Syracuse University, which used the facility as a conference center and wilderness classroom for over 20 years. Regular conferences were hosted by Syracuse’s academic departments and the forestry school as well as hosting outside groups who saw the potential for learning in the wilderness.
In the mid-1970s after twenty years of deferred maintenance and use as a conference facility the buildings were badly in need of renovation. At that time the university decided to divest itself of Sagamore and focus its Adirondack activities on other, more up-to-date facilities. The land and buildings were initially sold to New York State which under the “forever-wild” provision of its constitution was required to demolish the buildings so that the land could revert to its primitive state. The newly formed Preservation League of New York State rallied to save the camp from destruction. They successfully lobbied the state to preserve the camp by offering them by bid to a non-profit that would preserve and use the camp in a compatible manner with its wilderness setting.
Two young preservationists, Barbara Glaser and Howard Kirschenbaum, won the bidding for Sagamore and began a forty year heritage of running educational programming on Adirondack history, culture and the environment at Sagamore. Since 1975, the organization they founded Sagamore Institute of the Adirondacks has hosted tens of thousands of visitors who have toured the grounds, stayed in camp to learn and relax or took part in a family event like a wedding or reunion. Through its educational mission, Sagamore takes a pioneering role in the use of historic buildings by inviting people to experience them as they were designed to be used. There are no velvet ropes in camp, just authentic historic spaces that guests stay in and enjoy.