American Vernacular: The Adirondack Chair Project Part I

My parents took me on a vacation to the Adirondacks back when I was in junior high—not sure exactly of the year but it would have been the late 1980s.  We stopped in Lake George before heading off to the high peaks region and Lake Placid.  I still remember driving through Keene Valley and making my parents stop the car along Cascade Lake so I could take pictures.  A few years later, they purchased a small condo in Lake Placid and a few years after that they built a home in Saranac Lake where they eventually retired.  In the nearly 30 years since I first drove through the high peaks region I have spent a lot of time in the Adirondacks.

There is a distinct “Adirondack Style” furniture, architecture, and decor as evidenced by the many “home and camp” stores that sell everything from antique wooden skis to birch bark lamp shades.  Much of it is meant to evoke the great camps that emerged during the Gilded Age.  The furniture tends to be rustic and is often constructed from branches or rough sawn lumber with a live edge.  Some of it I really like.  Some of it is a little too Davey Crockett-esque for me; heavy, unrefined, or just trying too hard. Nevertheless, there is one very classic and unmistakable furniture form that emerged from the region that I absolutely love for its comfort and simplicity: The Adirondack Chair.  These things are a feature of nearly every lawn, deck, and dock in the North Country. Having made some progress turning my back yard into a liveable space I decided it was time to make some furniture.  The Adirondack chair is my go to design.

Before I purchased any lumber and materials I needed a design, and researching a design lead me down the research rabbit hole until I had learned everything I could about the history of the Adirondack chair.  I’m not covering anything new here.  Several media outlets—including the New York Times—have covered the history of this ubiquitous piece of furniture.  I think it bears some further reflection though as one does not simply build an Adirondack chair (I’m pretty sure Boromir would be in complete agreement on this).

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Before getting started one must first decide what iteration of the Adirondack chair he or she wants.  So here it goes…

A Simple Place to Sit

Creations stories are often pretty suspect.  I once watched an entire documentary about the invention and evolution of the Buffalo wing; the take away is that a bunch of people all claim credit.  I grew up about 25 miles outside of Philadelphia where people can argue at length about the true origin of the hoagie and cheese steak.  A bunch of places—including the town I moved from (Philadelphia) and the town I live in now (Marblehead) claim to be the birthplace of the Navy.  So, we are right to be skeptical when someone or someplace claims to be the origin of something beloved like Italian rolls stuffed with meat or fighting forces that sail the high seas.  However, the story of the invention of the Adirondack chair appears to be relatively free of controversy, at least when it comes to identifying the man that invented it:  his name was Thomas Lee, and like me he owned a cottage and needed a place to sit.

Back in 1903 Mr. Lee was in need of some outdoor furniture for his summer cottage in Westport, NY, a small town on the shores of Lake Champlain about 40 miles south of Plattsburgh.  The story goes that he created several prototypes, each made from 11 pieces of clear (that is, knot free) lumber.  After he and his family tried all of them out he settled on a chair with a reclined stance and wide arm—what we now know as the Adirondack chair.  Here is where there may be some controversy.  Happy with his comfy chair, Mr. Lee shared his design with a local carpenter who was looking for something to keep himself busy and employed during the long winter months in the North Country; Mr. Lee told his friend Harry Bunnell he should make the chairs he designed and sell them.  Mr. Bunnell saw the wisdom in this plan and went ahead and filed a patent for the “Westport Chair” in his own name which he received in 1905—not sure how Thomas Lee took this, but it sure seems like a crap move.  I can’t find any records that indicate a dispute or lawsuit so perhaps Thomas Lee didn’t care, or perhaps he was happy to see his old hunting buddy prosper.  We may never know.  What we do know is that Harry Bunnell continued to produce the Westport Chair (mostly out of hemlock and hickory) for the next twenty years. Here is a picture of one of the original Thomas Lee style Adirondack chairs made from 11 pieces of wide lumber as well as the thieving Mr. Bunnell’s patent.

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In the years since Mr. Bunnell stole the Westport chair (what we know know as the Adirondack chair) from Mr. Lee the chair has undergone some design changes. At some point, the single piece, wide plank back gave way to multiple slats as did the seat and the chairs began to look more like the form we know today.

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It is speculated that these changes may have been in response to difficulties in obtaining wide, knot free lumber or perhaps a need or desire to use more economical cuts.  By the 1930’s, updated versions began to sport scalloped backs and contoured seats, design changes the were eventually patented by Irving Wolpin in 1938.

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Wolpin’s design  is more or less where we find ourselves today.  Most of the models I see for sale have some contour to the back, seat, or both.  There are a wide range of manufacturers and materials from pine to recycled plastic in a myriad of colors.  Prices range from $75 for a cheap, pine, Home Depot special to hundreds of dollars or more for high quality woods or recycled materials.  The chairs appear to be as popular as ever. One can’t help but wonder what Thomas Lee of Westport, NY would think of the evolution and popularity of his creation some 115 years after he first tried to figure out a method for making simple, comfortable chairs for his family.

For my own project, I have opted to follow an updated pattern based on the Wolpin design from the late 1930s.  More to follow in the next post, but I can tell you it starts at one of my happy places: the lumber shed at Gilbert & Cole in Marblehead.  The racks on the very end are where they store the clear red cedar…

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Old Irises and Old Neighbors

When we first move in we had a neighbor named Patrick Walker with whom I hit it off immediately.  Pat was a WWII veteran who served in the U.S. Navy which, according to him, largely involved getting drunk in foreign ports (the war was winding down by the time he enlisted).  Pat was very friendly and whenever he saw me working in the yard he would come out to chat about anything and everything including our favorite pipe tobaccos, the Red Sox, and either Civil War or WWI history.  Pat was also an inveterate collector of antiques (vintage board games, safety razors, Civil War memorabilia, furniture) as was his wife Bonnie who had died some 15 years before I met him.  I once told him we got along because he liked old things like I did, to which he replied “well, I am an old thing.”  Pat had been a hydrologist with the USGS for many years and was also pleased that a civil engineer (that would be my wife Hilary) moved in next door.  He was in his late 80s when I met him and decided the time had come to move to Maryland to be close to his children.  I was very sorry to see him leave and I miss our conversations.

Pat and his wife had also been gardeners though he claimed his wife Bonnie did most of the planting.  By the time we moved in Pat really wasn’t active in the garden anymore.  Nevertheless, plants are persistent and his back yard was filled with Iris blooms in the Spring from plants that Pat and Bonnie had planted perhaps decades before.  After Pat moved away and my new neighbors moved in they were doing work in the back yard and asked if I’d like to dig up any plants and save them so they were not destroyed.  I took several Iris rhizomes and planted them in my own garden.

These are a bearded Iris.  I am by no means an authority on irises but my best guess is that this is  Iris variegata X Iris sambucina ‘Neglecta.’  It has light purple—almost white—standards, yellow beard, and blue to violet variagted falls. This variety was first hybridized by Jens Wilken Hornemann in 1813.

Pat died in September of 2015 shortly after moving to Maryland.  Whenever I look at the blooms though I think about him. I like that plants can be reminders.

 

Spring Planting

With the major hardscape construction out of the way we started returning plants to our back yard habitat.

As I have mentioned previously, the poor, rocky soil presents some challenges and therefore careful plant selection is key–it may take a while before we discover what is working and what is not.  Some areas of the back yard have better conditions than others, and we have added a lot of compost.

The Delphinium x Belladonna ‘Cliveden Beauty’ on the right is new this year. The picture on left is not a new plant, but rather a volunteer colony of the incredibly resilient Dennstaedtia punctilbula (Hay Scented Fern)

 

I really like native plants, and that will probably be predominately what we decide to plant.  That said, I have no opposition to non-native plants as long as they are noninvasive.  This article does a good job of articulating the difference: https://www.conservationgateway.org/News/Pages/knowing-and-sharing-diffe.aspx

One of the challenges in gardening among the igneous outcropping behind our home is the many shallow divots in the rock (created by the northward strike of the rock) that hold soil but not enough depth to support many landscaping plants due to poor moisture retention. Fortunately these areas are happily colonized by Sempervivum tectorum (hens and chicks) which is not native to New England. Just behind (in deeper, amended soil) is Cornus sericea ‘Baleyi,’ a native red twig dogwood.

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Friends of ours gave Elsie a copy of the book “Miss Rumphius.”  ever since then we have been planting Lupine.   This is Lupinus polyphyllus ‘Gallery Pink’ planted in a shallow crevice along with Iberis sempervirens ‘Whiteout’ (Evergreen Candytuft).

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And who doesn’t love lavender?  Unfortunately i don’t know what cultivar this one is.

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And this Clematis ‘H.F. Young’

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We have been a bit preoccupied with the back yard this spring but have not totally ignored the front yard.  We added some Tiarella cordifolia ‘Spring Symphony’ (Foam Flower), a favorite native pant along with the native Podophyllum peltatum (Mayapple) and a non-native spotted dead-nettle Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy.’

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Lots more has been planted.  Will update as things come into bloom.

Back Yard Habitat Restoration

When we bought our house here in Marblehead three years ago it was literally the only house in the town that we could afford—it was also aesthetically unique and we loved it at first sight.

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The woman from whom we purchased the house was a flipper, and as such there were things left undone, incomplete, and in some cases half-assed.  This also made the house affordable for us, and thankfully I have enough knowledge of carpentry, plumbing, masonry and the like that I have yet to have to hire a contractor as we slowly get the house to where we really want it.  It has been without a doubt a labor of love.  Along the way, my daughter Elsie has picked up some good skills that will make her self-reliant when eventually she purchases her own home.

One of the major undertaking over the past three years was the landscaping of the “back yard” with the goal of certifying it as a backyard habitat (Elsie’s idea).  I put “back yard” in quotes because the small bit of land behind our house is not really a yard per se; it is an exposed outcropping of the Salem gabbro-diorite formation that underlies much of the North Shore..   This is what gabbro-diorite looks like (with a lovely syenite dike). (Photo from https://hiveminer.com/User/straif)

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By Marblehead standards, our home is pretty young having been build in 1938.  By contrast, the Abrose Gale house down in Old Town was built in 1663, while the town itself was founded in 1629.  The rock formation it all sits on is over 300 million years old (a bit of geological background  https://mrdata.usgs.gov/geology/state/fips-unit.php?code=f25009).  The outcropping rises about 25 feet starting 5 feet or so from the back door.  Therefore, a major part of the backyard habitat restoration was making the area accessible and plantable.  this meant building steps and retaining walls. Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos of what the “back yard” looked like when we first bought the house.  Here is one that may give you some idea of what was going on:

 

 

The slope from the lower retaining walls up to the top was really just a jumble of rocks that with several yards of wood chips dumped on top.  The seller had added a few plants here and there.  The area is pretty steep and was not terrible accessible.

Step 1: Building steps to the top of the hill

In the middle of the slope was a “V” shaped cut in the rock that contained a alrge tree stump–it seemed like a natural spot to build steps.  I removed the stump and  excavated down to gabbro-diorite ledge, drilled some holes with a rotary hammer and drove in (along with some anchoring epoxy) 1/2″ rebar to tie the steps to the rock.  I then framed the steps in 6×6 PT lumber laced the interior with more ½” rebar.  The concrete had to be carried back behind the house and up the slope in 80 pound bags—all told it came to about 3 tons of concrete.  This project lasted two summers (delayed in no small part by surgery I had to repair a torn labrum in my right shoulder).  Once the final bit of concrete was poured a few retaining walls were built and/or repaired.  My wife Hilary and daughter Elsie got in on the act collecting rocks and mixing mortar.  Now it looks like this:

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We are now ready to add plants back.  We are also launching a program to get the invasive plants under control (mostly multiflora rose, common periwinkle (Vinca minor) and Norway maples) and also remove several tree stumps that continuously send out suckers.  This is an ongoing process that I will discuss later.  There are still some Norway maples to come out which I will get to as I purchase native trees to replace them. The periwinkle is going to be a major chore.  Part of certifying our habitat is controlling plant species that crowd out native species–it will no doubt be a multi year process.

Elsie and Hilary have both been driving forces in the effort.  Hilary and I met back in the early 2000s while working together at the Delaware Center for Horticulture—I was the community garden manager while Hilary was an AmeriCorps volunteer with the education program.  We are both plant people.  Elsie is a lover of all things wild, winged, furry, or feathered.  She has been the one insisting that we make our yard a habitat to attract lots of wildlife and that it also serve as a refuge for pollinators.  Anything I use (like fertilizer) has to be safe “in case a bee or a butterfly drinks it.”  Elsie is the one who routinely surveys the property to makes sure we have everything in place that wildlife need: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young.  She is the one who went through the National Wildlife Foundation checklist to make sure we met the standards for certification.  So in addition to plants that provide seed, nectar (and that stabilize some of the steeper slopes) we have added feeders, bird baths, and nesting boxes.  Because of the shallow soils (that also are thin on organic material) we tend towards native plants that are drought tolerant: butterfly bush, cone flowers, sedum, monarda, Lupine, black eyed susan, daisys, and ornamental grasses.  For winter interest (and erosion control) we have massed together red and yellow twig dogwoods. More to follow as we make our way through our first serious planting year.IMG_1307