American Utopias

Lecture/Slide Show

We live in a fertile time for exploration of ways in which communities can grow in harmony with aspiration, and this impulse is nourished by a deep wellspring in American culture. America has always attracted Old World iconoclasts who needed virgin territory in which to found new communities. They came to establish enclaves dedicated to social and economic justice or realizing a religious vision and many took root in American soil.

The American Utopias program covers intentional communities from the colonial era Ephrata Cloister with its Medieval German architecture through the contemporary Nyland Cohousing Community and the visionary Sirius and Faraway Ranch enclaves. I cover the Shaker community at Sabbath Day Lake in Maine, Robert Owen's New Harmony in Indiana, John Humphrey Noyes' Oneida in New York, the Arts & Crafts villages at Arden, Delaware and Byrdcliffe, New York, and the largest remaining 1970s communes at The Farm in Tennessee and Twin Oaks in Virginia. It is a fascinating range of styles of community building in harmony with aspiration.
This slide/lecture program covers 16 sites in 12 states:
Sabbath Day Lake (ME), Ephrata Cloister (PA), New Harmony (IN), Oneida (NY), Rugby (TN), Arden (DE), Byrdcliffe (NY), Celo (NC), Twin Oaks (VA), The Farm (TN), Sirius (MA), Seaside (FL), Blount Springs (AL), Gorham's Bluff (AL), Nyland (CO), Faraway Ranch (CO).

Other lecture/slide show:
A View from the Veranda: The Chautauqua Experience









A View from the Veranda: The Chautauqua Experience

lecture/slide show

The veranda is a sanctuary for rest and renewal. It offers a vantage point on a corner of creation, and a place to fall in love with the world.
The veranda was the place of social resort for the whole family in the summer months and these warm associations continue to color our feeling for this Victorian American setting.
Through his paintings, and the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing, artist and writer Robert Selkowitz unfolds his vision of the restorative and therapeutic qualities of the veranda. He follows the idealism embodied in the architecture of the veranda through the creation of the network of Chautauqua communities, enclaves of verandahed cottages built as restorative sanctuaries for the human spirit.
The Chautauqua communities provided the artist in Robert Selkowitz with motifs for his paintings, and provided the writer in him with a vision of spiritual and moral aspiration for life at its best. These communities united the arts, education, religion and recreation, providing a utopian experience to generations of Americans. In the decades after the Civil War more than 200 Chautauquas were established and Selkowitz takes us on a tour of 21 sites which are vibrantly active more than a century after their founding.
This slide lecture program includes more than 60 paintings and hundreds of photographs of Chautauqua communities including:

Chautauqua Institution (NY), 1000 Island Park (NY), Round Lake (NY), Bayview (MI), Ocean Park (ME), Ocean Grove (NJ), Mt Tabor (NJ), Monteagle (TN), Lakeside (OH), Fountain Park (IN), Boulder (CO), DeFuniak Springs (FL), Mt Gretna (PA), Mt. Tabor (NJ), South Seaville (NJ), Cape May Point (NJ), and Silver Bay (NY). Also featured is the acclaimed enclave of Seaside (FL), an instance of Chautauqua inspiring a new model in town planning.

Robert Selkowitz was a Contributing Editor of "Victorian Homes" magazine and has photographed and written articles about a number of the most significant Chautauqua sites. His interest in the veranda as a motif for his paintings began in his work set at Cape May, New Jersey and followed through into the Chautauqua enclave's settings by lake, sea and mountain. Selkowitz' paintings have been widely published and collected.


Byrdcliffe The Original Woodstock Art Colony
Article, Photography and Painting
by Robert Selkowitz

The Arts and Crafts Movement arose in the late nineteenth century in reaction to the dehumanizing monotony and standardization of industrial production. Taking root in England with the support of the art critic and theorist John Ruskin, and flourishing in the studios of William Morris, the movement brought the importance of the artisan's hand-craft, united with a romantic vision of nature, back into focus. It recalled the guilds of the Middle Ages and found resonance in the work of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

As an experiment in utopian living inspired by the arts and crafts movement, the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony was founded in 1902 on 1,500 acres of south-facing mountainside above Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains. Today, 29 buildings on 600 acres comprise the continuing Byrdcliffe Arts Colony, now owned by the Woodstock Guild, a non-profit arts and environmental organization with over 600 members. Byrdcliffe's founder, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, a student of John Ruskin at Oxford University, spared no expense in building and equipping Byrdcliffe as a setting for practicing the art of living through creative manual work. The arts and crafts movement stressed reform of social, environmental and economic conditions to combat the slums and degradation fostered in the industrial regions and Byrdcliffe's Woodstock site offered a pristine environment for the creation of Whitehead's utopian enclave.

Facilities included studios for painting, weaving, pottery, metalwork, woodworking; cottages with bathrooms and sleeping porches; a library, and a rambling villa for Whitehead and his family. He built White Pines as his residence with a skylit, cathedral ceilinged weaving room overlooking a picturesque view across the Woodstock Valley. Byrdcliffe's "Edwardian Redwood" architecture combined California, Swiss and Austrian Styrian styles in dark brown stained native hemlock with blue painted trim.

A Plea for Manual Work was written by Whitehead and published in 1903 to promote his vision for Byrdcliffe: "...our locality was chosen for three things: its beauty, its healthfulness, and its accessibility...[we] have arranged for a summer school of painting and decorative design...[we] are prepared to take pupils in cabinet making and woodcarving...[It] is our intention to make furniture of a simple kind which shall be good in proportion, and to which distinction may be given by the application of color and carving by artists' hands...[We] will give a welcome to any true craftsmen who are in sympathy with our ideas and who will help us to realize them."

Artists and craftspeople were attracted to Byrdcliffe and by 1905 over one hundred were in residence. Unfortunately, Whitehead ruled Byrdcliffe as an absolute monarch and alienated his closest allies, forcing them to leave the colony. Bolton Brown, a painter and teacher who found the Woodstock site in 1902, left Byrdcliffe after a year to settle in the village of Woodstock. Hervey White, a poet and author who helped Whitehead establish Byrdcliffe, left the enclave in 1904 to establish his own Maverick Colony off Maverick Road in Woodstock. In this way, Byrdcliffe helped seed Woodstock and the surrounding area as an artist's colony. While Whitehead presided like an autocratic country squire over Byrdcliffe, his vision attracted artists, writers and musicians who would create the greater Woodstock Art Colony.

Although the arts and crafts utopian experiment soon ran out of steam, the continuing magic of Byrdcliffe enthralled many notable persons including the educator John Dewey, author Thomas Mann and naturalist John Burroughs. Isadora Duncan danced at White Pines; Bob Dylan lived in a house at Byrdcliffe in the '60s and early '70s; Joanne Woodward was involved in the river Arts Repertory at the Byrdcliffe Theatre. After Whitehead's death in 1929, his widow, Jane, and son Peter struggled to keep the colony alive. After Jane's death in 1955, Peter sold much of the land to pay taxes and maintenance on the heart of the colony which he kept intact. The Whiteheads intended to preserve Byrdcliffe "for the purpose of promoting among the residents of Woodstock...the study, practice and development of skill in the fine arts and crafts, as well as a true appreciation thereof..." contd.


Byrdcliffe contd.

Upon Peter Whitehead's death in 1975, Byrdcliffe was left to the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen who have continued to maintain and administer programs at the colony. In 1979, the Byrdcliffe Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its historical and architectural significance. Byrdcliffe's cottages have been rented since 1984 only to working artists, maintaining sympathy with the founder's creative vision. These cottages bear romantic names like Angelus, Morning Star, Varenka, Serenata, Fleur de Lis, and Evening Star and nestle along winding lanes under the forest canopy. A large barn originally housed farm animals and hay during the colony's early years when self-sufficiency was a goal. Today the barn is used for concerts, plays and art shows with a pottery studio and classroom on its lower level. The Villeta Inn houses 14 artists accepted into Byrdcliffe Artist's Residency Program during the colony's summer season.

The painter Carl Eric Lindin remembered the early years when "the birds sang as if the earth had just been newly created. And Byrdcliffers sang too, and danced and made love to each other, just like the birds."

Byrdcliffe remains a vibrant part of the cultural life of the Catskill region thanks to the careful stewardship of the Woodstock Guild. Architect Lester Walker, who serves as Guild board president, has drawn a design plan for the preservation of the Byrdcliffe Colony and the Guild is committed to the goal of creating a year-round Artist's Residency Program. By the time of its centenary in 2002, Byrdcliffe will be assured to its continuing impact on the cultural life of our community, through its theater, classes, and artist's residences.

Byrdcliffe is also an important regional example of the movement to create various types of utopian enclaves in America. British reformers especially saw America as a fertile and cheap land for the creation of visionary communities. The horrors of the working conditions of the industrial revolution led Robert Owen to establish his New Harmony, Indiana, community in the 1820s. Owen had a wide influence in America and a score of communities patterned on his theories were founded here including one in Haverstraw, New York, and another in Coxsackie, New York, although these were both very short lived. In the 1880s Thomas Hughes established his Rugby Colony in Tennessee, inspired by Ruskin and espousing creative manual labor. Other arts and crafts communities were also founded in America, including the Roycroft Community in East Aurora, New York, which was established in 1895 by Elbert Hubbard on the principles of the guild system and the aesthetics of William Morris. These communities echo the credo of the Victorian landscape architect and Newburgh, New York, native Andrew Jackson Downing: "Happy is he who lives this life of a cultivated mind in the country."
These various efforts to create "communities of aspiration" form a vigorous part of American culture. Here in New York State we saw successful Shaker communities in the late 18th century; the successful utopian community at Oneida which was established in 1848 near Syracuse and still exists, although not as a commune but as a residence, inn and conference center; the creation of the Chautauqua Institution near Jamestown in 1874 which today draws 300,000 annual visitors for a summer season of arts, education, recreation and religion; and the continuing existence of Chautauquan-style communities at 1000 Island Park on the St. Lawrence River, and at Round Lake near Saratoga.

In the 19th century the rise of the Hudson River School of painting drew artists to our region, and Byrdcliffe has a place in the history of artist's retreats which includes the late 19th century Pakatakan Colony near Arkville and the Cragsmoor Colony near Ellenville. Before Byrdcliffe, artists were drawn to Woodstock for stays at the Overlook Mountain House and Meads Mountain House. After Byrdcliffe's zenith the classes of the Art Students League brought many artists to Woodstock. However, it was a result of Byrdcliffe's creation that Woodstock attained its prominence as one of America's premier art colonies.

Beautiful Landscape Paintings

"The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of the whole system."
Frederick Law Olmstead, landscape architect and creator of Central Park


I am a landscape painter and I paint what I see. When I see something that strikes me as beautiful, that inspires a feeling of excitement through my eyes, that’s what I want to paint. Olmstead captures the ability of landscape to inspire both stimulation and tranquility. My paintings convey this experience of nature by embodying an emotional reality of rejuvenation.

Andrew Jackson Downing, the Victorian Era architect who lived in Newburgh, New York, described Beauty as the profound and thrilling satisfaction which we experience in contemplating the external works of God…a worship by the heart of a higher perfection manifested in material forms. The impulse to make art in this vision is a spiritual quest. For me, creating a painting is a combination of heart and mind. I have to fall in love with the Beauty of what I am seeing, and also need to see the emerging composition, the strategy for making a painting from this initial vision. Painting in landscape, setting up my easel and opening my box of pastels, drinking in the scene with my eyes and guiding my hands into the colors to bring out the elements which excite me the most in the scene around me, this fills me with life. Artist friends tell me that I live in my pastels and that they sing. For me, the alchemy of my art is the instilling of life in the work, which is felt by the viewer.
My paintings emerge out of a growing intimacy with the landscape. They are a celebration of the Catskill Mountains and Cape Breton Island through a series of illuminated personal experiences with the landscape.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the satisfaction we experience in Beauty’s presence is felt in the heart, mind and spirit.

Written by Robert Selkowitz
Photography by Alexander Casler


Written by Robert Selkowitz
Photography by Alexander Casler

Artist Frederic Edwin Church (1862-1900) lavished his skill and attention on the creation of Olana, his Hudson River villa. The culmination of his embellishment was the design and painting of fanciful stencils on exterior cornices, and interior spandrels and borders. More than 100 stencils are in the collection of the Olana Historic Site, along with 500 drawings of architectural details and stencil motifs. I had the pleasure of a leisurely tour of Olana's rooms and the opportunity of viewing the original stencils and drawings under the care of curator Karen Zukowski.
Olana is truly one of Church's masterpieces. Conceived as a great romantic landscape composition, the grounds of the estate undulate over 250 acres with the house set on the crest of a tall hill overlooking the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River near Hudson, New York. Drawn to the site as a student of Thomas Cole, the premier artist of the Hudson River School who lived just across the river, Church began to purchase land in 1860 and added the hilltop building site in 1867. Working with architects Richard Morris Hunt and Calvert Vaux, Church's conception of Olana evolved over several years into an eclectic Persian-inspired treasure house. Traveling in the Near East, he collected 15 trunks full of furnishings and artifacts. In particular he studied two books on Persian and Arab architecture: Monuments Modernes de La Perse, by Pascal Coste, and Les Artes Arabes by Jules Bourgoin.
Church executed rapid pencil sketches of stencil details and motifs, then proceeded to paint color sketches of the motifs he and his wife preferred. The stencil patterns were drawn on heavy paper; a ledger book's pages and a calendar were used for some stencils that still exist today. The designs were cut out and the same stencil was sometimes used for two or three colors. The designs ranged from simple, four-petaled flowers to ornate stars and arabesques.
The stencils were used to decorate borders around interior doors and baseboards. They also covered the spandrels in the central court hall. Borders in several rooms shared motifs with variations of details and coloration. Maltese crosses, multi-petaled flowers, and fleurs-de-lis are used repeatedly in varying forms.
Church mixed colors on his palette and made sketches and notes on pigments used for each hue. He developed a personal and subtle combination of colors which was exotic and surprising yet tasteful. In the entry hall, purple walls and a pumpkin ceiling are bordered by a dark mustard band decorated with sage green Maltese crosses with yellow and violet accents. Between the crosses in the border are flowers with red-orange petals and blue center dots on a gold background. Church united the palette of the house in the central court hall, where all colors used in the house are found in the elaborate stenciling of the spandrels. For example, the purple of the entry hall wall is used as a background color for the court hall spandrels.
The interior stencils are original and date from the early 1870s. The interior doors are stenciled in gold and aluminum on a slate blue background, but these metallics have faded and lost their luster. The exterior cornices were stenciled twice, first in 1872 with 12 stencils in bright colors, and later in 1888 with 11 stencils in darker subdued colors. The exterior cornices were repainted in the early 1900s and are now in the process of being restored using patterns from the original stencils.
While being a time consuming process, the stencils did away with the need for heavy moldings around doors and ceilings. The borders are about six inches wide and are edged with an incised bevel cut into the plaster wall. The doorways are framed with a simple 2"x2" dark wood molding. Imaginative accents were added to border motifs by using wooden buttons and brass upholstery tacks for medallion centers. Karen Zukowski said, "Now you can use jean studs and buttons from notion stores." Olana was purchased intact from Church's daughter-in-law in 1966 by the State of New York and is open to the public in spring, summer, and fall. An excellent essay by Olana site director James Anthony Ryan entitled, "Frederic Church's Olana: Architecture and Landscape as Art" covers the intricacies of Olana's construction and decoration and was published in a recent catalog Frederic Edwin Church by Franklin Kelly (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989). Ryan's essay includes reproductions of stencils and examples of working drawings and palettes used in creating Olana.
Adapted from an article in "Victorian Homes" magazine, Fall 1994