The Elverhoj Arts and Crafts Colony began with high aspirations, as all such utopian ventures do. Established in 1912 on a hillside overlooking the Hudson River at Milton-on-Hudson, Danish-American founders Anders H. Andersen and Johannes Morton envisioned an Arts and Crafts Movement-inspired cooperative modeled on the 1902-founded Byrdcliffe Colony in Woodstock but on a greater scale. Given the same name as a well-known Danish play, in which Elverhoj (pronounced “El-ver-hoy”) translates as “hill of the fairies,” the implication was that the colony would be something magical.
But while Byrdcliffe endures to this day – albeit in a different form – Elverhoj would find only modest success and end in bankruptcy after 20 years. Its legacy would fall into obscurity, with few living today who have even heard of it.
That changes now with the recent publication of Elverhoj: The Arts and Crafts Colony at Milton-on-Hudson by William B. Rhoads and Leslie Melvin (Black Dome Press, 2022).Thoroughly researched and meticulously documented with primary source material, the book’s 218 pages and more than 160 illustrations reveal a fascinating story of local history. The authors provide not only the first comprehensive study of this little-known Hudson Valley art colony but detail the lives of the principals post-colony and take the story out into the larger world, exploring the role the women of the colony eventually played in their influence on craft as both cottage industry in the region and cure in the form of occupational therapy.
The story begins just before the turn of the 20th century, when the colony’s primary founder, Anders Andersen, arrived in the U.S. in 1894 at age 20. Heading for the Midwest, a prime destination for Scandinavian settlement at the time, he moved to Iowa and began a course of study at the Art Institute of Chicago, refining his blacksmithing skills into those of a silversmith and designer. Andersen then went on to initiate several art colonies in Wisconsin and Michigan that would serve as precursor to Elverhoj.
The search for a permanent home where the colonists could live and work together in rural harmony took years. Elverhoj was very nearly settled in a different location until Andersen found the site in Milton at the last minute, with his fellow colonists “all packed and ready to move” elsewhere. The beauty of the Hudson Valley as well as its history moved him, as did learning that landscape painter George Inness had lived and worked nearby.
While Inness was never a part of the Elverhoj colony, publicity for the group brought up the artist’s name a number of times over the years and it seems they enjoyed associating themselves with the painter. Andersen told one reporter that a structure at the colony had used material from an old barn that had been the studio of Inness, and was therefore “blest by his memory.”
Bill Rhoads, co-author of Elverhoj: The Arts and Crafts Colony at Milton-on-Hudson, says this isn’t so surprising. “Perhaps as Danish immigrants they wanted to link up to American tradition, to sort of create a certain legitimacy to occupy the same site as Inness. Danes were generally not ostracized the way southern Europeans and Jews of the period might be, but they were still considered a little foreign. So to link up with acknowledged people such as Inness was smart.”
The Elverhoj colony had one main building that had been the mid-19th century home of a Captain Sherburne Sears. It was used as a residence (probably Andersen’s) as well as guest housing, exhibition space and offices. The artists of the colony built the other structures at the site, including a studio up the hill from the Sears house and rustic shacks for colonists. Farming the land themselves was also a part of the plan.
Etcher Ralph Pearson and painters Joseph Popelka and James Scott were prominent members of the colony, as were Scott’s younger sisters, Bessie and Henrietta Scott, who specialized in tapestry weaving. The primary output of Elverhoj was jewelry and metalwork based on the forms of nature, although pieces were seldom signed by their designer, a practice that probably contributed to the reputation of the colony fading over time.
Elverhoj did have a national reputation prior to World War I, however, attracting visitors such as C.R. Ashbee, a leader in the English Arts and Crafts Movement who was apparently pleased by the colony’s view of the Hudson and the swimming it afforded but was dismissive of the colony’s quality of work. (One man’s opinion: the illustrations in the Rhoads/Melvin book show otherwise and the colony as a whole received a gold medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.)
Successive chapters in the book explore Elverhoj’s efforts to attract visitors through promoting summer art school classes at the beautiful site, and its connections with Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, a type of bond unique to an art colony. The association seems to have begun in 1916 when colonist Ralph Pearson married a Vassar grad, and in time the college’s president and some faculty became patrons. Students were colony visitors, the Scott sisters taught at the college and Elverhoj artists exhibited there.
The colony was always advertised as a year-round venture, and for some it was. According to Rhoads, however, Elverhoj was mainly a summer colony. “It was year-round in theory, but Andersen actually lived – although he didn’t publicize it – a good bit of the time in Poughkeepsie.” He adds, “Every story is complicated.”
It is, indeed. As the country became enmeshed in World War I – colonist James Scott was drafted for combat service in 1918 – and as interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement faded in the 1920s, Elverhoj’s story became more about attracting those seeking entertainment. A theater was built in 1924 and performances with Broadway connections were covered in the New York Times. The Sears house was converted into a “Moorish dining terrace” for theater-goers, but the Depression dealt the final blow to the colony despite efforts by Eleanor Roosevelt to find a New Deal program to rescue it.
In 1938 Elverhoj became home to an evangelical group headed by Father Divine, a charismatic African-American leader. The site today is privately owned and not open to the public.
Rhoads is professor emeritus of art history at SUNY New Paltz. He has written a number of books on the history of the art and architecture of the Hudson Valley, and it was while teaching a course on that subject that he was first introduced to Elverhoj by a student, Bruce Weiss, whose family purchased the site of the former colony in the ‘70s and who co-owns the property today.
Rhoads already had a strong interest in the American Arts and Crafts Movement thanks to Robert Judson Clark, a pioneering scholar of the movement. “He was an older graduate student at Princeton when I was a younger graduate student and he became friends with Sally and me.” Rhoads says he and his late wife Sally collected objects from the Arts and Crafts Movement from the late ‘60s on.
Co-author Leslie Melvin is an academic technologist at Bard College. Prior to that she earned an MA in art history and museum studies and worked in academic image libraries. Melvin joined the Elverhoj research group while on the board of the Ulster County Historical Society, and is responsible for the extensive timeline in the book and the chapter on the women of Elverhoj, an exploration so thorough it warrants an entirely separate article from this one.
In this section of the book, Melvin establishes foundational links between the American Arts and Crafts Movement and the establishment of the occupational therapy profession in the U.S., a discipline that benefitted veterans of World War I among others. “Teachers College was specifically recruiting skilled craftspeople for their occupational therapy programs and local hospitals were hiring professional occupational therapists,” Melvin notes. “I think Bessie (Scott), as a member of this Arts and Crafts Movement colony, was surely an ideal candidate as practitioner, educator and true believer in the transformative power of handiwork.”
Several talks by the authors are planned. Both will be present Sunday, October 9 at 4 p.m. at Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz. Bill Rhoads will speak on Saturday, October 15 at 1 p.m. at the Plattekill Historical Society (plattekillhistoricalsociety.org). Admission is free.
There is also an exhibition that includes work by Elverhoj artists at the Ulster County Historical Society at the Bevier House, 2682 Route 209 in Kingston. A guided tour followed by a reception will be conducted on its closing day, October 15 at 2 p.m. RSVP is requested to the museum at (845) 377-1040. Admission is $15.