hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Tours to aid artists’ retreat

Public gets rare chance to peek inside Yaddo


Contributing writer

Yaddo may be renowned as the retreat where prize-winning plays are birthed and great musical scores are composed, but it’s nearly as well known for the air of mystery that surrounds its grounds.

For the artists-in-residence who inhabit the retreat throughout the year, privacy is prized almost highly as it is at Camp David. Except for its rose gardens, Yaddo is closed to the public.

The retreat’s top priority is to ensure tranquil and undisturbed working conditions for the more than 200 artists who are invited each year to spend anywhere from two weeks to two months on the property, focusing on their creative pursuits.

But this month, for the first time in nearly a decade, Yaddo will open its doors to the general public for guided tours of the historic Yaddo Mansion and other sites on the private portion of the estate. The tours, on the weekend of Sept. 17-18, mark just the fifth time in Yaddo’s history that the general public has been allowed an up-close look at the property.

Since 1926, the mansion and most of the 400-acre Yaddo property have served as the temporary home and workspace for thousands of creative people. This fulfills the wishes of Spencer and Katrina Trask, who founded Yaddo in 1900, giving it the mission of nurturing the creative process by providing an opportunity for artists to work without interruption in a supportive environment.

Katrina Trask was a writer who knew firsthand the demands of the creative process. Spencer Trask was a financier who supported inventors, including Thomas Edison, and later became chairman of The New York Times after organizing an effort to rescue the newspaper from bankruptcy in 1896.

Today, Yaddo offers residencies to professional artists from around the world working in one or more of the following media: choreography, film, literature, musical composition, painting, performing arts, photography, printmaking, sculpture and video. Artists may apply individually or as members of collaborative teams of two or three persons. They are selected by panels of other professional artists without regard to financial means.

Roots among writers

Fees from the upcoming tours will help to support artist residencies and repairs to structures at the Yaddo Gardens.

Yaddo President Elaina Richardson said the tours are being offered partly in response to the general air of curiosity that has long surrounded the off-limits sections of the grounds. Yaddo also wants to show off recent improvements made to the property and buildings, she said.

“We’ve done a lot of work recently on our buildings and throughout our grounds, and we're proud that people will have a chance to see the improvements and some of the Trask treasures,” Richardson said.

One of the stops on the tours will be West House, which features glass works by Tiffany Studios. The two-story structure, at nearly 9,500 square feet, is the second largest residential building on the Yaddo estate. It was originally built in the 1890s as the farm superintendent’s house.

Looking to cut costs associated with living in a large house after her husband’s death in 1909, Katrina Trask moved from the Yaddo Mansion to West House in 1916, ordering extensive reconstruction and major additions. She lived there until her death in 1922. Her second husband, George Foster Peabody, who was Spencer Trask’s business partner and Yaddo’s first board chairman, continued to live in the house while overseeing the transformation of the Trask property from a private residence into a home for artists.

The tours also will include the burial ground of the Barhyte family, the original owners of the property, which once housed a farm, gristmill and tavern. Jacobus Barhyte was a Revolutionary War veteran who fought in the Battle of Saratoga.

Richardson said many well-known writers of the 1830s and 1840s dined at Barhyte’s tavern, among them Edgar Allen Poe, who is said to have written portions of “The Raven” here.

Also part of the tour is the studio complex known as Pigeon Barn, a two-story building that has two visual arts studios, a photography darkroom, and two artist living spaces.

Freedom to focus

Past residents at Yaddo have included James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, Aaron Copland, Patricia Highsmith, Langston Hughes, Julia Alvarez, Walter Mosley, Joie Lee, Sylvia Plath and Mario Puzo.

John Cheever once wrote that the “40 or so acres on which the principal buildings of Yaddo stand have seen more distinguished activity in the arts than any other piece of ground in the English-speaking community, and perhaps the world.” Collectively, artists who have worked at Yaddo have won 61 Pulitzer Prizes, 56 National Book Awards, 22 National Book Critics Circle Awards and a Nobel Prize, among other honors.

Although Yaddo residents have plenty of privacy, they are by no means isolated. For those who want outside stimulation, there’s a van on hand to transport them downtown.

The Yaddo Mansion is the primary residence in the summer months and is filled to capacity during peak season. In the winter, residents stay at West House (the “mini-mansion”) and three other smaller buildings that function as living and work spaces.

Prospective residents face stringent, prove-yourself requirements during the application process only. Once they arrive, they’re able to work at their own pace, free from the distractions of daily life.

“Some people hit the ground running and fall right into their work,” Richardson said. “Others are tired and need time to bounce back. People don’t have to finish anything while they’re here, or give a report afterward. Sometimes fruition might not happen while they’re here, but the gift of being here can stay with them, and it happens a bit later.”

Yaddo’s fabled gardens are open to the public daily until dusk, but there’s a strict no-trespassing policy for the rest of the property, out of respect, Richardson said, for the artists’ solitude.

“We’re very sensitive to the need for them to feel safe and removed from the outside world,” she said.

Four two-hour tours of the Yaddo retreat will be offered on Sunday, Sept. 18, beginning at 8:30 and 11 a.m., and 1:30 and 4 p.m. Tickets cost $40.

Yaddo also will host a “deluxe tour” from 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17. The deluxe tour is open to a maximum of 50 guests and includes a cocktail reception at the West House, the second largest residence on the Yaddo estate. Tickets cost $200.

Admission is by advance sale only. Tickets are available only online -- at www.yaddo.org – and ticket sales close at 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15. Not tickets will be sold the day of the event. All events will be held rain or shine.

Tours will involve considerable walking and several flights of stairs.

Proceeds from the tours will support Yaddo’s artist residency program and repairs to structures in the Yaddo Gardens.