The spirit wakes in the night wind – is naked.
What is it that hides in the night wind
Near by it?
Is it, once more, the mysterious beaute,
Like a woman inhibiting passion
In solace –
The multiform beauty, sinking in night wind,
Quick to be gone, yet never
She will leap back from the swift constellations,
As they enter the place of their western
from Lettres d’Un Soldat
Written at Byrdcliffe, 1915
Henry T. Ford, President of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Board of Directors, tells of a channeling he organized for the White Pines home of art colony founders Ralph and Jane Whitehead two Octobers ago, as everyone awaited the big presidential election of 2008.
The 15-room rambling Arts & Crafts home, scene for a film shoot starring Aidan Quinn, Olympia Dukakis, and Virginia Madsen this month, has been much on Ford’s, the Guild Board’s, and all Woodstock minds ever since it was decided that the place could be sold to free the arts organization from the burden of its mortgage debts, and various renovation needs.
“I had a friend from New York, Richard Schoeller, who I approached on a lark. The most remarkable thing was that he asked that we don’t tell him anything about the place beforehand,” Ford recalled this past week. “As he was coming up the driveway, crossing the small bridge below White Pines, I started to walk from the house down to meet him and he said there’s a woman here. ‘She’s a little woman here telling me this is my house and who are you,’ he said.”
Ford then related how an evening passed as that woman, Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead, directed Schoeller and those in attendance around the house she cared for, after her husband’s passing in 1929, through to her own death in 1955 at the age of 90, when the place then passed to her son Peter.
“Richard came up the stairs and we started to take him into the children’s bedroom but he said no, she wanted us to go to her bedroom instead,” Ford continued. “She thanked our board treasurer for looking after the finances for Byrdcliffe…Ralph never appeared. It was just all Jane.”
There, beside Ford and his partner, was then-Guild Executive Director Carla Smith, board treasurer Bill Kelley, and board member Susan Auchincloss, as far as Ford could remember.
By the time of the séance, as others took to calling the evening, the Guild had owned White Pines for a decade and spent nearly $1 million on its purchase, later mortgaging, and then renovating, including a new roof, signing of its pine board siding, and a key earth-moving project that kept the mountainside behind the home from sliding into its backside and taking the whole kit and kaboodle down the hill towards Upper Byrdcliffe Road.
The capital fundraising drive that had accompanied and followed the purchase of Byrdcliffe had proved difficult after several big initial grants came in from state and federal sources. The economy took a turn for the worse. The lack of a clear mission for what, exactly, the Guild wanted to do with the historic home proved a stumbling block. And as work was completed, the costs for what still needed to be done became ever more daunting.
At a September 27 meeting called to answer questions from the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild’s membership, it was announced that White Pines had become too great a burden and that the board had decided, the day before, to sell the place, as much to rid the arts organization of its $77,000 per year debt maintenance costs — a fifth or the organization’s budget — as to find it a suitable “steward” before the place became an even greater liability…and challenge to bring back to life.
At the meeting, it was asked whether there might have been some design in the fact that Peter Whitehead, who died a lifelong bachelor in 1975, had legally subdivided White Pines from the rest of the 600 some acres he willed to the Guild at that point. After all, it was noted later, the organization was still less than 40 years old at that point, owned only the old DeForest store and saloon building (where President U.S. Grant had once been rumored to have slept off a good drunk), and was basically just an exhibiting association of like-minded craftsmen.
“Every day I ask Ralph and Jane to send us more money,” Ford said at the Kleinert/James Arts Center on September 27. “Our prayers have not been answered.”
“Maybe there’s a reason,” Board Chairman Frances Halsband also commented, at that same meeting. “Peter Whitehead didn’t leave us White Pines for a reason.”
“They were talking about passing on the whole thing to us but had the lawyer change it to give the Guild the land,” Mark Wilcox, now 97 and living outside Philadelphia, said of what occurred on his cousin Peter Whitehead’s passing 25 years ago.
“We would tackle the house — and it was quite a tackle,” added Wilcox’s wife of 57 years, Jill, now 80. “After Jane died, Peter did what he could to keep things up…and we certainly did a lot of work in our time there.”
Mark Wilcox talked about his memories going up to visit his Uncle Ralph and Aunt Jennie, as both he and his wife referred to Jane, and how his family would stay in another cottage and everyone would dine at the Villetta Inn.
“We had a wonderful time. We’d go every summer and my sister and brother and Peter and Ralph Jr. would play in the theater building, and take great hikes up Overlook Mountain before the hotel burned, or over to Echo Lake,” he recalled. “Ralph and Aunt Jennie were great picnickers, in a very proper, English way. We’d have grand times, great blankets all laid out in the fields…”
Asked how things were after first Ralph Jr. was lost at sea and then, six months later, Ralph Sr. — the founder of the ambitious arts colony that failed at its original dream within two years — passed away heartbroken, Wilcox noted how a pall fell over White Pines for many years. Jane would spend time at Yggdrasil, the small cottage located near the barns where Rich Conti now lives, or at a home they kept in town. Most winters she and Peter, and later Peter alone, would return to a home the family had kept in Santa Barbara, where an earlier attempt at starting a colony, Arcady, had also failed to meet the Whitehead’s dreams.
Jane, Jill Wilcox said her husband used to tell her, had gotten angry over the years. She would also wander the old colony she had sought to play lady of the house to, sometimes barefoot or unclothed in her later years, and have to be carried, screaming, back to shelter.
“Peter had a hard time dealing with things up there,” she continued. “He was always fixing plumbing, working to keep things up. But in the time I knew him he was happy, if occasionally drunk. There would be various girlfriends flittering about, but his heart was in the right place. A man on his own can’t do quite as well, and his life was all catch up...as was Byrdcliffe and White Pines, in particular, when it came to us.”
Mark Wilcox talked about how the far view his Uncle Ralph and Aunt Jennie had prided their aesthetically-minded home, and surrounding colony, on filled in rather quickly after his uncle’s death. Jill Wilcox notes how it was all trees by the time she took to visiting every summer while Peter was alive, and then even more regularly once the house was theirs.
So why did they rid themselves of it?
First, she said, there had been some break-ins, during which various elements were stolen…a clock, some furniture, a painting or two. She and her husband had an art appraiser, Robert Edwards, spend a year in the place taking inventory and then gifts were made to Winterthur, the Smithsonian-associated museum in Delaware, and the New York Historical Society in New York. Later, there was an auction to raise funds to help with upkeep, the better to save what else was in the house — as well as the house itself.
Finally, with other properties to keep up — and all on Mark’s income as a lawyer of $40,000 a year — it became too much. They tried renting the place out for several years, but then realized the place needed more care than they could give it.
Part of the deal by which they sold the property to the Guild, Jill Wilcox said, included an option for her family to purchase back property, at some point when they could, to “build a little cabin on.” She mentioned the old gardens located to the west of White Pines, where she and her husband used to stay in Jane’s corner bedroom.
“We were refused,” she said, noting how either the town or the Guild said the promised land sale and building just couldn’t happen. “They threw us out, in actual fact. It upset my sons terribly…”
One of whom later took his life, at 41, she adds.
“There was always something a bit cold about how the town treated us,” she added. “Like we didn’t belong.”
Was the house haunted, we asked? Did she ever try a channeling, as Ford and the current Board did two years ago?
“My mother was a psychic and certainly spent quite a bit of time in White Pines,” she replied. “But she never received anything…”++
Next week, Part II…Where is Jane buried?