Rediscovering Elverhoj: Milton’s lost Arts & Crafts colony

Postcard of the Elverhoj art colony in Milton (collection of Vivian Yess Wadlin)

The arts colonies that dotted the British and American landscapes at the turn of the 20th century could get ideologically fiery, if not downright cultic. While, to my generation, the words “Arts and Crafts” describe an underutilized tent at summer camp, in the height of the Industrial Revolution, they rang with revolutionary resonance. Inspired by the work of British philosopher John Ruskin, as well as by the great designer and poet William Morris, Arts & Crafts idealists saw the making of useful and decorative things as an act of defiance and rebellion against the industrial order, its tedium, its bland and artless output and its human degradation. It’s still a potent idea.

At the root of the industrial sickness was the specialized division of labor: each worker artificially isolated, denied the satisfaction of ownership or even understanding of the process and the thing built. Ruskin’s famous admiration of the medieval crafts guilds led his followers to champion an order in which skilled workers saw the process through from conception to completion. A child of wealth with a profound and empathic socialist imagination, William Morris & Co. desired to make beautiful things affordable to all, and succeeded in making beautiful things.

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Arts colonies were thus centered on both production and social philosophy. Typically, they burned out quickly, beset by power struggles and sunk by unsustainable economics. Two of the more renowned American colonies developed right in Woodstock: Byrdcliffe, founded by a British man of privilege, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead; and Maverick, a splinter colony founded by Whitehead’s estranged protégé, the American writer Hervey White. Both had good runs, by the standard of idealistic arts colonists, and both have surviving legacies today: a hopping barn theater and artists-in-residence program above Woodstock (Byrdcliffe) and the longest-running chamber music concert series in the US (Maverick).

And then there is Elverhoj – news to most of us, first and foremost because you can’t visit there. Modeled explicitly after Byrdcliffe and set on 30 picturesque acres on the banks of the Hudson in Milton, Elverhoj was founded by two Danish-born painters and silversmiths, Anders H. Andersen and Johannes Morton, in 1912. Andersen had been educated at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the two men had attempted to develop a community of artists and craftsmen once before, in Racine, Wisconsin. The Elverhoj property previously belonged to one Captain Sherbourne Sears, whose mansion would become Elverhoj’s main building, modified and expanded in many directions over the years. Nearby was the studio of George Inness, a significant American landscape painter.

Ralph Pearson, a talented member of the Elverhoj colony, produced this etching of the quaint, water-powered paper mill erected near Elverhoj by his friend Dard Hunter at Gomez Mill House. (Collection of Vivian Yess Wadlin)

By 1913, Elverhoj, which means “hill of the faeries” in Danish, had begun to experience some success and acknowledgment. Work done by Elverhoj artisans was exhibited with the Boston Society of Arts & Crafts at the Museum of Fine Arts. A year later, work began to sell at the Peacock Shop on Academy Street in Poughkeepsie. Elverhoj jewelry was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Soon thereafter, Elverhoj attracted the attention of Vassar College principals. President Henry Noble MacCrackan and Art professor Henry Tonks and their wives became Elverhoj patrons.

But 1915 was Elverhoj’s banner year of validation, and for several reasons. The colony was awarded a gold medal in the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Its jewelry and silverware were exhibited by the National Society of Craftsman at the National Arts Club. Perhaps even more affirming for Andersen and Morton was a site visit by C. R. Ashbee, one of the leading figures of the British Arts & Crafts movement: an artist, social thinker and novelist whose career was closely patterned after William Morris’. Ashbee appears to have been more impressed by the social order at Elverhoj than by the arts and crafts.

Showing considerable stamina for an undertaking of this nature, Elverhoj lasted as a functioning colony until the mid-1930s. A popular theater opened in the mid-’20s and produced shows for over a decade; in 1929, the main house was modified with an exotic Moorish terrace for dining, the “Riviera on the Hudson.” In 1934, however, foreclosure by Poughkeepsie banks was initiated. Anders Andersen successfully entreated Eleanor Roosevelt to join an effort to prolong the colony, but Elverhoj could not be saved.

Elverhoj, however, quickly transitioned from one curious chapter of American history to another. In 1938, the property was acquired by the African American social and religious leader Father Divine, founder of the International Peace Mission and a unique and controversial figure in American cultural life for the better part of 50 years – only ten of which were spent at Elverhoj.

SUNY-New Paltz professor emeritus William Rhoads is currently researching Elverhoj. An art and architectural historian, Professor Rhoads is an oft-cited expert on the history of the Hudson Valley.

Elverhoj was directly inspired by Whitehead and Byrdcliffe, but it’s not clear to me whether Elverhoj shared much in the ideologically Utopian rhetoric of Byrdcliffe or William Morris. Was there any sense of religious or political grounding to it? Any local controversy?

Byrdcliffe would have been one of several inspirations for this Arts and Crafts colony. C. R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft in England must have been another. Ashbee visited both Elverhoj and Byrdcliffe in 1915, by which time his own Guild had failed financially. His journal indicates he was not impressed with either Byrdcliffe or Elverhoj, but his comments do indicate that he approved of the fact that Elverhoj’s workers shared ownership. The number of these workers was small – probably less than a dozen. The whole matter of the ownership of Elverhoj over the years needs further research, but by the time of its bankruptcy in the 1930s, Anders Anderson was apparently the sole owner. Elverhoj’s publicity played down social idealism, but Anderson clearly advocated handcraftsmanship by talented artists in a beautiful rural setting, and he opposed urban industrialism. As a practical man of no great wealth (in contrast to Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead at Byrdcliffe), he also supported colony artists/craftsmen taking on students during the summer, and he encouraged the public to support the colony through art and craft purchases, as well as dining, overnight stays and theater attendance.

I wouldn’t describe Anderson and the others at Elverhoj as especially controversial or cultic. So far as I know at this stage of our research, the only controversy related to debts Anderson accumulated during the Depression.

Speaking of idealists and controversial figures, Elverhoj dovetails with the remarkable story of Father Divine and the International Peace Mission. Is there much visible evidence on-site of Father Divine’s tenure there? 

Father Divine enclosed the upper level of the Moorish Terrace for dining. There is also a low-relief sculpture on the Moorish Terrace featuring black figures, and this may have been added during Father Divine’s period. Carleton Mabee [the late historian and SUNY professor] in his book Promised Land, on Father Divine in Ulster County, indicates that Anderson continued to live on the property and was “an ‘enthusiastic adherent’ of Divine’s movement.”

Can you tell us more about the theater at Elverhoj?

The Theater, a simple wooden structure that no longer stands, had a major role at Elverhoj in its later years, when the Arts & Crafts movement and that aspect of Elverhoj were in decline. World War I is often cited as the end of the heyday of the movement in the US. The theatrical productions have not yet been researched, but they will be.

Professor Rhoads is one of a group of seven people associated with the Ulster County Historical Society who are preparing a publication on Elverhoj to accompany the Bevier House Museum’s future exhibition on the Milton arts colony. They are Suzanne Hauspurg, executive director of the Ulster County Historical Society, Leslie LeFevre-Stratton, Sanford Levy, Leslie Melvin, Ellen Stewart and Vivian Yess Wadlin. The Ulster County Historical Society’s Bevier House Museum is located at 2682 Route 209 in Stone Ridge. For more information, call (845) 338-5614 or visit ulstercountyhs.org.

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