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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3 thoughts on “American Vernacular: The Adirondack Chair Project Part I

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