Imagine a little log cabin in the woods, and chances are the Adirondack architectural style will be what comes to mind. Born of the wealthy elite’s longing for nature, it’s an approach that blends luxury with rustic simplicity into a style anyone who loves the wilderness can appreciate.
Rediscovering the Wilderness
Until the late 1800s, northeast New York’s Adirondack Mountains were seen as little more than a treacherous wilderness only the brave ventured into. That changed with the 1869 publication of W.H.H. Murray’s book Adventures in the Wilderness, which inspired numerous city-dwellers to strike out for their own Adirondack adventures.
As railroad routes gradually expanded into the area, New York’s prosperous industrialists discovered the Adirondack’s clean air, dense fir forests, and sparkling lakes could provide a much-needed summertime escape from the crowded, polluted cities. Hotels sprang up to accommodate them, but those who longed for a closer connection to nature set up their own primitive tent camps. These camps soon developed into groups of simple cabins, and the Adirondack architectural style was born.
William West Durant is often thought of as the father of the style, although much of his work developed on architectural elements already popular in the area. Durant was asked by his father, railroad baron Thomas Durant, to design a retreat for hosting wealthy investors on the family’s tract of Adirondack land. In 1877, he started construction on a camp on Long Point in Raquette Lake, New York, now known as Great Camp Pine Knot or Huntington Memorial Camp. It was to be the first of many.
By 1880, regular trains packed with visitors prompted other developers to build accommodations and more camps appeared, resulting in sites that have been known since 1916 as Great Camps. These small campuses are centered around a primary grand lodge that’s surrounded by multiple outbuildings such as guest and servants cabins, boat houses, and entertainment venues.
The Adirondack architecture style reflected both the taste for luxury and the interest in nature held by the camp owners, as well as the realities of building in the wilderness. Wealthy guests wanted comfort and elegance, but the remoteness of the Adirondacks limited builders to the use of local materials and craftspeople.
Timber and stone were easily available. European-style log construction was gaining popularity, thanks in large part to Andrew J. Downing’s 1850 book The Architecture of Country Houses. Both these points factored heavily into the Adirondack style’s development. Following the lead of Durant and other early investors, other architects designed camps based heavily on the Swiss chalet style, but with an intentionally rustic flair. The middle class soon took interest and began building their own similar camps.
From the 1880s until well into the 1920s, construction flourished and the Adirondack Great Camps became a symbol of status and opulence, and the place to be in summer. Development died down after 1950, but many Great Camps are still in service today. Some, including Durant’s Great Camps Pine Knot, Uncas, and Sagamore, have achieved National Historic Landmark status.
The style of the original camps caught on around the country, with adaptations found in many National Park lodges such as Glacier Park Lodge in Montana and Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. Countless vacation homeowners have also fallen in love with the Adirondack architectural style, so much so that it’s become a ubiquitous look for American log cabins.
In Harmony with Nature by Design and Necessity
Adirondack architecture draws from Swiss chalets, the local pioneer-influenced Shingle style, and the individualistic Arts and Crafts movement. Typically built from logs or roughly finished wood, most are one- to three-story structures under moderately peaked gabled roofs with wide, overhanging eaves. Jerkinhead (clipped) gables are particularly popular. Spacious balconies and large, square pane windows are also common elements. All these are features Adirondack buildings share with traditional Swiss and German Alpine cabins.
The style’s most identifiable aspect, however, is the rustic elegance it displays thanks to creative use of minimally processed local building materials in traditional styles. The buildings were originally designed to merge with the landscape in a way that prioritized a connection to nature and a simpler, more relaxed way of life without depriving affluent vacationers of their luxuries.
While partly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, the desire for harmony with the natural world was as much a matter of practicality as it was idealism. The early Great Camps were built without the benefit of excavators and backhoes, so buildings were often irregularly shaped to fit into uneven, heavily forested terrain.
Because bringing in exotic building material was all but impossible, builders relied on local material, particularly stone and wood. Local granite made effective damp-resistant foundations and worked well for the massive chimneys, built high for fire protection, that added to the buildings’ primitive character. The grand stone fireplace and chimney are one of the signature features of the Adirondack style.
Granite, fieldstone, and quartzite were used in columns, facades, and paving. Stone was built up around the ground floor to protect it from the area’s heavy snowfalls and driving rain. Balsam fir was serviceable for walls, and the large timbers used to support roofs under heavy snow, while light yet strong red spruce made excellent roof boards. For flooring, doors, and other details, yellow birch and red maple were often preferred.
Without sawmills nearby to process the logs, builders settled for whole or half logs in manageable sizes, but working with these took skill. Few metal fasteners were available, so construction depended on local builders’ expertise in traditional joinery using corner notching techniques. Flawless joinery was essential for weatherproofing. While it might look primitive, an Adirondack-style building should still demonstrate serious attention to craftsmanship.
Beyond this, you’ll notice many conspicuously rustic features, such as unpeeled cedar logs, intricate twig work decorating railings and gables, and gable trim that ranges from simple to elaborate. Following the Arts and Crafts philosophy, the Adirondack style rejects the mass produced in favor of elements with an individual craftsman’s touch, so handcrafted details are prevalent. Because the exterior is meant to blend in, the colors of these buildings come from the natural earth tones of the materials used.
Examples of the Adirondack architectural style abound in forested areas around the country. These lodges and cabins offer a rich source of inspiration if you’re planning your own Adirondack-style project, but the very nature of the style leaves it open for interpretation. Incorporating a few classic elements and following the guiding principle of harmonizing the rustic with the luxurious can give you the quintessential Adirondack look.