"An Adirondack camp does not mean a canvas tent or a bark wigwam, but a permanent summer home where the fortunate owners assemble for several weeks each year and live in perfect comfort and even luxury, tho in the heart of the woods, with no very near neighbors, no roads and no danger of intrusion."
—William Frederick Dix, Summer Life in Luxurious Adirondack Camps, 1903
Located deep in the forest, typically at or near lakes, great camps were linked closely to the land and to American vernacular traditions of log and bark construction as well as to the architectural and aesthetic precedents mentioned earlier.
The great camps furthered an image consistent with prevailing romantic notions of wilderness in contrast to Adirondack towns and villages, where houses and hotels presented a more civilized image that conformed to the popular, contemporary architectural styles of the Queen Anne (1880-1900) with its towers and turrets, or the Second Empire's (1860-1890) mansard roofs.
The term "great camp" came into common use in the 1970s. It was originally used to describe large, multi-building, single-family estates that were mostly self-sufficient, located on a lake, and built of rustic materials with a deliberate aesthetic response to the wilderness environment.
In the 20th century, self-sufficiency was less necessary but multiple building complexes on a grand scale continued to be built. "Great Camp" has become a part of Adirondack and architectural vocabulary and is now used to describe almost any large-scale Adirondack camp, new or old.
Dr. Thomas Clark Durant (1820-1885)—physician, entrepreneur, and railroad builder—came to Raquette Lake in 1876, intent on opening up and developing the Adirondacks as a summer resort. He hoped this effort would be facilitated by his rail line, the Adirondack Railway Company. Durant, the first vice president and general manager of the Union Pacific Railroad, and the first president of Credit Mobilier of America, was considered to be the driving force behind the inception, organization, and construction of the transcontinental railroad. Following local building styles, Dr. Durant's earliest camp dwellings were log cabins constructed of bark-clad logs with wide, overhanging eaves.
It was Dr. Durant's son, William West Durant (1850-1934), who formulated the hallmarks of Adirondack rustic architecture. Well-educated and widely traveled, William Durant, while not schooled as an architect, had a passion for building. In 1876-77, he began to transform his father's camp at Raquette Lake. The result, Camp Pine Knot, reflected many architectural precedents: indigenous Adirondack log cabin and lumber camp construction; the English Picturesque and naturalistic motifs for country homes placed in wild settings; the Swiss chalet; and Japanese decorative and aesthetic elements. In form, rustic character, detail, and color, Camp Pine Knot can be said to be the progenitor of the Adirondack "great camp" and the model for Adirondack-style rustic architecture.
The buildings at Camp Uncas (built 1890) reveal a masterful use of many construction techniques—real log, log siding, bark siding over plank sheathing, and log framing. William West Durant hired young architect Grosvenor Atterbury (1869-1956) to design the camp, although Durant undoubtedly contributed heavily. Log work and native stone are used for rustic details that are less elaborate than those at Pine Knot. All the ironwork was made on site in the blacksmith's shop. The peeled and polished log built-in furniture was the most innovative rustic work at the time. Durant sold the camp to J. Pierpont Morgan in 1896.
In the early 1880s, Dr. Arpad Gerster, New York surgeon, built a small hunting camp on property owned by William West Durant seven miles from the hamlet of Raquette Lake near Lake Sumner. He named it Camp Omonson. In 1897, Durant sold the property to then Lieutenant-Governor Timothy L. Woodruff. The new owner and his wife expanded the camp, creating a lodge consisting of a series of buildings linked by a covered walkway, and renamed it "Kamp Kill Kare", and the lake, "Kora". In 1914, philanthropist Francis P. Garvan purchased Kamp Kill Kare as a retreat for his family. One year later, a fire that began in the servants' quarters consumed much of the main building.
Garvan rebuilt Kill Kare, hiring architect John Russell Pope to design new outbuildings and oversee the renovation of the main building. Charles Coverdale "C.C." Hiscoe, an interior designer who had worked with the Woodruffs, was hired to design the new interiors. Hiscoe worked closely with Garvan, creating each room as a complete environment. From the shape and size of the furniture to the color of the floors, every element of the camp's interior was to reflect the owners' interests and harmonize with the camp's forest setting. Kamp Kill Kare is the epitome of Adirondack rustic design.
Camp Topridge was a modest camp on Upper St. Regis Lake when cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post purchased it in 1920. Three years later, Post hired Benjamin A. Muncil to build a larger, architect-designed camp on the site. Muncil, though not professionally trained, looked at the plans and suggested one of his own. His rough sketch was improved upon and prepared by architect Theodore Blake. The result was one of the largest, and most opulent of Adirondack great camps.
The main lodge's deceptively modest exterior houses a great room reached by a staircase with handrails fashioned of whole saplings. The main room measures about 80 by 100 feet, with a 30-foot ceiling supported by massive timbers. During Post's ownership, the room was filled with an impressive collection of American Indian baskets (some used as lampshades), animal skins, kayaks and canoes, trophy animals and two antler chandeliers. The 68-building complex included the boathouse (a Muncil design and construction), two 2-story guesthouses, assorted family cottages, servants' quarters, a lean-to, putting green, tennis court and a Russian dacha.