Ghosts of Byrdcliffe: Part II

Where is Jane buried?

by Paul Smart
November 04, 2010 01:37 PM | 1 1 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Ralph Whitehead
(click here for Part I)

Part II


Wandering through the upstairs rooms of White Pines on tip toes as “The Art of Love” shoots downstairs, there’s a sense of ghostliness to the maze of rooms. Bath fixtures in the 15-room rambling Arts & Crafts mansion that was the home of Byrdcliffe colony founders Ralph and Jane Whitehead and is now owned by the Byrdcliffe Guild, are original to the turn of the last century; much of the furniture that’s left is built in. The light filters in through drooping window glass with an other-worldly effect. Dust rises. Everywhere are piles of paintings, stacks of shoes, unfinished pottery — some of it from the film being shot about the sole descendants of an ancient line of goddess worshippers who uncover magical powers in their home, but much of it the Whitehead’s.

It’s a beautiful mess, capturing the oddity of an in-between age where Victorians thought themselves on the brink of something new, but soon to pass via World Wars and a whole host of incoming building materials involving plastics, steel and other shiny substances.

Ralph Whitehead’s stated ideals come quickly to mind: to “encourage any craft that embodies beauty,” placement in “a varied and paintable landscape,” north light, abundant floor areas for artistic uses, wall space for exhibition, “big fireplaces for cheer,” and wide, southern-facing porches “for idling.”

“Of all the arts, the art of life is the greatest,” Whitehead, the founder of the Byrdcliffe Colony wrote. He worried that artists often lived less than they should, putting too much into their art.

His colony co-founders, Bolton Brown and Hervey White, later called their man with deep pockets a dilettante, a hedonist. Much was made at how those gathered in for the art school that had been planned, most on scholarships, had been forced to Morris Dance before Jane each afternoon at 4 p.m., who would watch from her balconies wearing haunting pre-Raphaelite robes.

“The young artists had come with great hopes of work and promotion, they had been dallied with, made toys of for rich people, had played instead of working all summer and now were being dismissed for a new crop that would be enjoyed the following season,” White noted after Byrdcliffe’s first season.

He termed the style of the art colony, “benevolent despotism.”

Jane Whitehead and Ralph had their own studios built in 1905, after that initial heyday. As they worked to learn weaving and pottery — many of their attempts still visible around the house, and in those same studios — the rest of the colony was rented out. The Villetta Inn became a summer resort. Ties were made to the great parks on Greene County’s mountaintop, with Onteora’s Candace Wheeler involved in Byrdcliffe’s weaving programs for a spell.

The artists who came to town went to such offshoots as White’s Maverick Colony, or the long-peripatetic but popular Arts Students League.

“I am deliberately jeopardizing my friendship with them in the higher hope of doing something for the encouragement of real living art in my country,” Saugerties-based gadfly Poultney Bigelow wrote in a Better Homes and Gardens piece photographed by Jessie Tarbox Beales in 1909. “Would not Onteora jump with joy were it subject to a Ralph Whitehead. And as for Twilight Park and others of that neighborhood in the upper Catskills, they would gladly repudiate republicanism if they could claim for a monarch so munificent a one as Rajah Ralph.”

And although he added that “no problems are being solved at Byrdcliffe,” Bigelow concluded that, “The planting of an artist colony in the middle of a region without intellectual resources is bound, sooner or later, to have a pronounced effect on the people without it. It is certain to come…”

And the artists did keep coming, to Woodstock and the entire region around the town, once drawn by the Whiteheads. The cultural climate of the area became part of its brand. And White Pines did keep taking in guests for High Tea and cocktails, later, when Peter became its host. For everyone from philosophers and émigrés to townsfolk with grand ideas on how to get the massive campus up and running.

Eventually, the part of the original colony known as the East Riding, where the private homes of Webster and Camelot Roads, and the eastern approach along Upper Byrdcliffe Road now sit surrounded by forest, split off from the West Riding, where the colony revived, in fits and starts, up to its current summer existence, with growing support for its ever-better artists from national foundations.

Henry T. Ford, the current Guild president, spoke last week about how good it had been to see White Pines so filled with activity of late. At the same time that he talked about how Jane Whitehead would have approved of so much activity in the home he still feels she haunts, in some way, he scoffed at the idea of her having become some haunting Miss Haversham-like presence, and talked about all both Peter Whitehead and the Wilcoxes had done to keep the great manor house, as it was and seemed to still be, alive.

He said he had only one nagging question, though.

“No one knows where Jane is buried,” he said. “Peter and Ralph are in the Artist’s Cemetery but Jane…Where is Jane buried?”





“The board examined the possible sale of White Pines. Though not part of the original gift from Peter Whitehead, the property was purchased with the hope that it could be renovated and function as a house museum and home for the Alf Evers collection of books and papers,” Halsband wrote in a POV piece from the Guild’s Board of Directors published in a recent edition of this paper. “We have spent (and borrowed) close to half a million dollars stabilizing the exterior. Restoring the interior and installing modern mechanical systems would cost in excess of $1,000,000. Operating as a house museum would bring us minimal income. Artists housing seems a poor utilization of this grand 8,000 square foot building. With no viable or economically feasible alternative for the use of the house, the board questioned whether we are the appropriate stewards of this property. Is it possible to find a sympathetic buyer who will restore the house to private or public use?  With regret, we agreed that we must search for an owner who will be a proper steward of this property.”

Separately, Halsband said last week that no contacts regarding the property had yet been made with local realtors. Before that happened, the board would work to mortgage another property within its holdings, the 1920s-built Serenata, once one loan from the Catskill Watershed Corporation was paid off so a better rate could be received. There was also a matter of a formal board meeting coming up on November 21.

A look at other artists colonies over the years show them being built from estates, where the main mansions often became the main dormitory space until better quarters got built — or that space burned. Consider Yaddo and McDowell, Ossabaw and Millay, and even Penlands and Taos and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (which, for purposes of disclosure, my father set up and ran in its present format).

Byrdcliffe, and White Pines, seems to have always had a more difficult history. Its original dream, and inauguration with mountainside water systems and roads precluding the building of over 30 structures, a dairy farm, an entire city-like campus in a hill, was different from the other entities of the time, usually rich person’s homes opened to artists, or factory-like set-ups. And yet the 19th century sense of wealthy benevolence upon which it was based was out of date as soon as it started, with first Jane being blamed for being out of touch with what the artists and craftspeople in residence needed, and then Ralph getting painted as both a “despot” and a foolish dilettante.

The greatest ghostly structures, however, have long been those mansions on hills, those great castles of dreams, where our greatest ideals have been briefly born into reality only to die away for a variety of reasons. Then stayed to haunt our banal realities, the constant flow of plumbing and tax problems, scheduling and communication difficulties that dog all our day-to-day lives.

“Though Peter Whitehead sold much of Byrdcliffe he maintained its heart as an arts-and-crafts center. He encouraged theater and dancing groups to use the theater, and artists, musicians and writers to occupy the cottages,” wrote historian Alf Evers, whose papers are how owned by the Guild, and were set for preservation in White Pines before the latest decisions came to pass. “From the terrace in front of White Pines, on which his mother had watched as students in the Byrdcliffe School of Art performed Morris dances, Peter could see the valley of the Sawkill thickening with houses built for industrial employees, And more uneasily, he was aware that another ‘element,’ as it was called, was building up strength in Woodstock.”

A nice summing up…even though Evers’ evocation of the “hippies” evoked in his 1987 Woodstock: History of An American Town would eventually become wealthier and much more business-oriented than he could have imagined. And even though, as Mark Wilcox, Peter Whitehead’s 97 year old cousin living outside Philadelphia with his wife, Jill, pointed out this week, the view Peter supposedly looked out on had already filled in by the 1920s. And the sense of aspiration, fondness, and even hauntings White Pines was always destined to engender had never really taken hold.


“We got to feeling it was all beyond us, just as the offer of the entire colony was. We’re old now. We’ve shot our bolt,” Jill Wilcox said after noting how she was called with the news about the impending sale of their family’s old home, and saddened, soon after a decision was announced late last month. “If I won the lottery I’d do everything I could to help out with it all. But we’re out of the driver’s seat now.”

In the background, Mark Wilcox mentioned something and his wife said he wanted to say how his Aunt Jennie — Jane Whitehead — had tried to convince her husband to abandon their dream, and sell both Byrdcliffe and White Pines, just after the First World War. And again, when it was just she and Peter after Ralph’s passing, during the Depression years.

There were no takers.

I think back to Stevens’ lines, written while visiting his wife during her season at The Villetta during the years in which he was getting his real-life career as an insurance executive underway. Word is that something haunted him as he walked back from a visit to the Whiteheads one autumn evening, the moon peaking n over the mountainside fields just beginning to turn fallow for good.

I call back the Wilcoxes with one last question. Did they know where Jane was buried, by any chance?

“Aunt Jennie,” Jill shouts to her nearly-deaf husband. “Where was Aunt Jennie buried,” she asked.

It turns out she wasn’t, really. Cremated, it turns out, with the urn kept for a long while down in the Artists Cemetery next to her husband and son’s. And then brought back up to the house she loved so much by her nephew, where Mark thought it should still be found somewhere near the eastern wall of White Pine’s Loom Room. In an urn.

“But even that memory’s from long ago,” the last real heir to what was once a family business, and now lives on as Woodstock’s greatest haunting, says in the background.


The moon is the mother of pathos and pity.


When, at the wearier end of November,

Her old light moves along the branches,

Feebly, slowly, depending upon them…

When over the houses, a golden illusion

Brings back an earlier season of quiet

And quieting dreams in the sleepers in darkness –


The moon is the mother of pathos and pity.

Wallace Stevens, from Lettres d’Un Soldat

Written at Byrdcliffe, 1915 ++

Paul Smart

(editor’s note: Part I is posted here for Part I)

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Ellen S
November 05, 2010
Wow Paul, great article - I was totally immersed in the imagery. I hope someone rich and empathic reads this and rescues the property.

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