Yaddo (Artist's colony)

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Yaddo is an artists' retreat located on a 400-acre estate in Saratoga Springs, New York. Yaddo first began welcoming creative guests in 1926, but its roots extend back to the final decades of the 19th century. After the loss of their fourth child, Spencer and Katrina Trask decided to bequeath their baronial mansion and its surrounding grounds to future generations of creative men and women. Yaddo's guest list has included Newton Arvin, Milton Avery, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, John Cheever, Aaron Copland, Malcolm Cowley, Philip Guston, Patricia Highsmith, Langston Hughes, Ted Hughes, Alfred Kazin, Ulysses Kay, Jacob Lawrence, Sylvia Plath, Katherine Anne Porter, Mario Puzo, Clyfford Still, and Virgil Thomson.

The Trasks

Spencer Trask was born September 18, 1844 in Brooklyn, New York. Spencer's father, Alanson Trask, had established the family financially by selling supplies (principally shoes) to the Union army during the Civil War. In 1866, Spencer Trask graduated from Princeton University and shortly thereafter joined the Wall Street banking firm of his maternal uncle, Henry Marquand. In 1868, Spencer Trask, along with James Francis and George Stone, co-founded their own brokerage house, Trask and Stone. Two years later Spencer purchased a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1881, Spencer partnered with George Foster Peabody to establish the financial firm Spencer Trask and Company, which was headquartered in New York City and had offices in Albany, Boston, Philadelphia, Providence, and Saratoga Springs.

Spencer's principal financial investments included electrical utilities, railroads, and newspapers. He helped to finance Thomas Edison's promotion of electricity and served as vice president and later president of both the Edison Electric Company, which manufactured materials used in the construction of early lamps, and the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, which distributed electrical power. Later Spencer was an original trustee and member of the executive committee of General Electric. In 1895, Spencer Trask and Company established the Broadway Realty Company which was responsible for the construction and management of what was the tallest office building in lower Manhattan at the time. Spencer's business ventures also extended into railroads. He promoted a project to standardize the gauge of the Rio Grande Western Railway and in 1901 sold his controlling stock for $15,246,666. In the early 1890s, Spencer offered financial assistance to the New York Times and later served as president of that paper from 1897 to 1906.

In addition to his varied business enterprises, Spencer Trask was a committed philanthropist. He was a founder, and later president, of the National Arts Club, a founder of the American Teachers College, and a member of both the Municipal Art Society and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Spencer also founded the St. Christina Home in Saratoga Springs (named after Katrina Trask's mother), which provided crippled children from New York City respite during summer months. Spencer's commitment to Saratoga and strong sense of Victorian propriety is apparent in his exhaustive efforts on behalf of the Saratoga Reservation Commission, which sought to bring Saratoga's renowned springs and baths under state supervision in order to isolate the town's gambling interests and eliminate what Spencer considered to be impure business practices. To this end Spencer also established his own newspaper, the Saratoga Union, which gave public voice to Spencer's vehement condemnation of gambling.

Whereas Yaddo's founding was largely a result of Spencer's financial wisdom and generosity, the creative environment Yaddo provides is deeply rooted in Katrina Trask's artistic interests. Like Spencer, Katrina Nichols came from an established Brooklyn family. It is believed that she was born in 1852. In 1873, Katrina Nichols was introduced to both Spencer Trask and George Foster Peabody. Both Spencer and Peabody expressed their love for Katrina, and, for a short time, the two business partners were romantic rivals. Even after Spencer's marriage to Katrina in November of 1874, both remained emotionally close with Peabody (who would come to play a seminal role in Yaddo's establishment).

While Katrina indulged in the lavish lifestyle Spencer provided, inwardly she confided that she was never fully comfortable with the excess of the Trasks' wealth, and she frequently turned to personal writing to reconcile her sense of moral conflict: "Is it right for one person to own vast property whilst another has not where to lay his head?" In contrast, Spencer remained morally certain about the Trasks' financial circumstances, and despite Katrina's reservations, the Trasks thoroughly engaged the social opportunities their wealth offered. During the oppressive summer months, the Trasks often traveled to Saratoga where they circulated among racing society.

In 1875, Katrina gave birth to Alanson Trask, the first of the Trasks' four children. In what would become a tragically familiar experience for the new parents, in April of 1880 Alanson died suddenly at the Trasks' Brooklyn home. Believing that distance would help to alleviate Katrina's emotional loss, Spencer purchased a large estate in the already familiar surroundings of Saratoga Springs. This estate eventually became Yaddo.

During the 1880s, the Trasks transformed the mansion on the estate into a Queen Anne style residence and also reshaped the surrounding grounds. An extensive garden and dairy farm was added, and water was siphoned from surrounding lakes from which ice was cut in the winter and stored in a specially designed tower (later converted into a composers' studio).

Within Yaddo's secluded grounds the Trasks were free to express their dramatic sensibilities. They acted out a fantastical interest in the medieval and staged elaborate masques and pageants. In her privately printed volume, The Yaddo Chronicles, Katrina recalled her coronation as Queen of Yaddo in an elaborate ceremony.

Amid such elaborate pageantry and creative expression the Trasks' second child, Christina, arrived at a neologism that, according to her young imagination, provided opposition to the word shadow: Yaddo. Spencer and Katrina were convinced that Christina devised the word after hearing discussion that the Trasks' lives had been shadowed by the death of their first child. The word was quickly adopted. The shadows, however, returned.

In 1888, tragic misjudgment resulted in the deaths of the Trasks' second and third child, Christina and her younger brother Spencer Jr., when a doctor permitted both children to visit their mother who was suffering from diphtheria and believed terminal. Both children contracted the disease and died with two days of one another. Katrina recovered. One year later the Trasks final child, Katrina, died three days after birth.

In the spring of 1891, Spencer contracted a near fatal case of pneumonia. While he was lying near death in the Trasks' Brooklyn home, word was received that the mansion in Saratoga, which the Trasks had only recently finished renovating, was completely destroyed by fire. Since he was not able to visit Yaddo, Spencer had the ruins photographed. He wanted to see the damage and begin planning the rebuilding of the mansion.

The corner stone for a new mansion was laid less than four months after the fire, and the second mansion was completed in 1893. Spencer was adamant that the new mansion would provide final escape from successive tragedy. He commissioned Louis Comfort Tiffany to design a mosaic for the fireplace in the great hall depicting a phoenix rising from its ashes which bears the inscription, "Flammis Invicta Per Ignem Yaddo Resurgo Ad Pacem" (unconquered by flame Yaddo is reborn for peace). In the absence of her children, Katrina dedicated herself to creative development and Spencer made certain that the design of the new mansion took into account his wife's developing artistry, building her a tower as her workspace.

During the 1890s, the Trasks entertained, among others, James G. Blaine, Henry Van Dyke, Eastman Johnson, Lord Kelvin (who supervised the completion of the first trans-Atlantic cable), Senator Plum, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Booker T. Washington, and Victor Emmanuel of Italy.

Meanwhile, the Trasks gave consideration to how to bequeath their financial investments and their estate. Katrina in particular was adamant that Yaddo's future purpose would coordinate with the unique spirituality that she had always associated with its surrounding grounds.

In 1900, the Trasks co-authored a joint Testamentary Agreement (in box 197) that outlines their vision for Yaddo as an artistic community: "... we desire to found here a permanent home to which may come from time to time for rest and refreshment authors, painters, sculptures, musicians, and other artists both men and women few in number and chosen for creative gifts and besides and not less for the power and the [will] and the purpose to make these gifts useful to the world." In the winter of 1900, the trustees of Pine Garde -the corporation established as the legal and financial basis for Yaddo- gathered for their first meeting at Peabody's residence in New York City; the trustees included Spencer Trask, George Foster Peabody, Edward Morse Shepard, Henry van Dyke, Allena Pardee, and Katrina Trask.

However, before the Trasks' vision could be made economically and legally secure, shadows returned to Yaddo. On December 31, 1909, amid New Year's Eve celebrations at Yaddo, Spencer was called to New York on behalf of the Saratoga Reservation Commission. Near Croton, an express freight train ran through a red signal and collided with Spencer's New York bound train. Spencer's private car was crushed. Spencer was the only fatality.

Katrina retreated deeper into the isolation Yaddo provided, and she found solace in her creative work and in her life-long friend George Foster Peabody. Spencer's loss, however, was exacerbated when the Trasks' financial investments depreciated the following year, jeopardizing Yaddo's future. Katrina remained committed to her vision, and in an effort to economize, she closed the mansion in 1916. (During the winter the mansion required a ton of anthracite a day to heat.) "Then I decided to leave my home! I closed our beloved Yaddo, took this little old farm-house, reconstructed it, and came here to live, that I might conserve what was left of the endowment." Katrina lived the remaining years of her life in West House (originally the caretaker's house).

In 1921, Katrina's health failed dramatically. On February 5 of that year, Peabody and Katrina were married in West House. While it is certain that Peabody and Katrina shared a genuine love, the timing of their marriage suggests the practical consideration of assuring that following her death, the Trasks' vision for Yaddo would be legally vested in Peabody. Independent of legal considerations, their union marks a compelling closure to the intense relationship shared by Katrina, Peabody, and Spencer. Katrina privately referred to her marriage with Peabody as, "the romantic culmination of a rare triangular friendship." Katrina died at Yaddo on January 7, 1922.

Yaddo

Following Katrina's death, Peabody assumed the responsibility of providing for Yaddo's legal establishment as well as the more daunting challenge of overseeing Yaddo's practical inception. While Peabody's business experience provided a basic sense of how to proceed with legal and financial arrangements, implementing the Trasks' unprecedented vision proved more difficult.

By 1923 Marjorie Peabody Waite was living at Yaddo and working as a research assistant for George Foster Peabody. Waite was 18 years old and from Minnesota. Three years later Peabody legally adopted Waite, a practice not entirely foreign to the 19th century when it was generally used to justify indiscreet relationships. Also in 1923, Marjorie's sister, Elizabeth Ames, arrived at Yaddo. While the precise circumstances of Ames' arrival remain vague, her invitation was apparently related to an appointment to catalogue the contents of the Yaddo mansion. Ames engaged Peabody in discussions of American aesthetics, and her insights convinced Peabody that she was capable of administering the Trasks' estate. In 1924, Peabody appointed Ames to the position of Executive Director.

Between 1924 and 1926 Ames was occupied exclusively with preparing the estate for the arrival of the first group of artists who would benefit from the Trasks' unique legacy. She oversaw the preparation of the mansion and grounds, which included the renovation and conversion of outlying buildings to serve as artists' studios, and developed a process by which guests were recommended and invited to Yaddo.

Under Ames administrative control, Yaddo's integration into the intellectual and creative community was intentionally furtive. In order to maintain Yaddo's tradition of isolation and detached independence, Ames adamantly opposed publicly advertising Yaddo's purpose. Instead, she devised a process by which prospective candidates were invited to apply based on a confidential recommendation from a trusted member of the creative or academic community. Lewis Mumford played an important role during Yaddo's formative years by putting Ames in contact with members of an emerging intellectual community. In April of 1928, he wrote Ames in order to recommend Newton Arvin, a young professor from Smith College. Arvin arrived at Yaddo in June and spent two months developing his biography of Walt Whitman. He brought to Ames' attention Granville Hicks, another young member of the Smith faculty. Also in 1928, Irita van Doren wrote Ames to recommend that Malcolm Cowley be considered for Yaddo. Though he would not visit until 1932, Cowley provided important recommendations including one for a young John Cheever whose letter of application included, "Other than Malcolm's word and a few published stories, I have little to recommend me." (Cheever's letter is contained in his guest file located in box 235.) Finally, in 1928, Alfred Krymborg recommended that Aaron Copland apply for residency. Copland arrived in July of 1930 and took up residence in Stone Tower (the original icehouse). Like Arvin and Cowley, Copland provided Ames with important recommendations. (Copland's correspondence with Ames is contained in his guest file in box 208.)

By 1933 Newton Arvin, Aaron Copland, Carl van Doren, Malcolm Cowley, Granville Hicks, Simon Moselsio, and Lewis Mumford were all closely advising Ames. The intersection of Ames' administration of Yaddo's nebulous admissions process with the developing careers of these young creative thinkers provided for much of Yaddo's early success in fostering creative development. Throughout the 1930s, Ames remained firmly at the center of life at Yaddo, liberally extending offers of admissions and prolonging guests' stays independent of any administrative control. In the words of Malcolm Cowley, for Yaddo's first 25 years, "Elizabeth Ames was Yaddo."

During the 1930s the creative environment at Yaddo was also heavily influenced by the economic uncertainties of the depression. While the opportunity for immersion in sustained quiet free of economic concerns has always been conducive to creative development, during years of extreme want, acceptance at Yaddo often meant escape from deprivation. (Ames' repeated accommodation of Cheever during the hungry days of the early 1930s proved essential to his artistic development.) Economic uncertainties also made an impression on the creative environment. While political dissent was common to academic and creative communities throughout America, Yaddo's tradition of detached isolation encouraged the expression of radical sympathies. For some guests, the political environment was inhibiting. Dinner tables frequently divided according to political conviction and debate was often intense.

Though she was hindered by economic uncertainty and struggling to maintain Yaddo's tradition of political neutrality, Ames was determined to further establish Yaddo's influence. In 1932, Ames, in close collaboration with Copland, organized the first American Festival of Contemporary Music. For an interview with a Saratoga newspaper Ames explained the purpose of the conference: "Yaddo will try not only to present what is best and representative in authentic modern music, it will also try to create a public which will understand the what and why of modern music as well as having knowledge of it in a broader sense." Six of the nineteen pieces preformed at the inaugural festival were written specifically for the event and included, George Antheil's Sonatina for Piano, Marc Blitzstein's Serenade for String Quartet, and Paul Bowles' Six Songs. The festivals would continue, though intermittently, through 1952 and would leave an indelible impression on modern American music. (Administrative records for the music festivals are contained in boxes 362-372.)

By the 1940s, interpersonal and romantic entanglements replaced the political contentions of the decade before and Yaddo assumed a decidedly southern air. Carson McCullers and Katherine Anne Porter both spent protracted periods at Yaddo, and while their residencies provided for sustained work on The Member of the Wedding and Ship of Fools the two often acted with open hostility towards one another. In 1946, a young Truman Capote arrived at Yaddo with a partially completed manuscript of Other Voices, Other Rooms and developed an intimate relationship with Newton Arvin. The relationship would become, arguably, the most influential of their adult lives.

The 1940s also witnessed Yaddo's greatest crisis. On the morning of February 26, 1949, Robert Lowell, in collusion with fellow residents, Flannery O'Connor, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Edward Maisel, presented to Yaddo's board of directors allegations that in Lowell's words involved, "the entire of the institution of Yaddo and perhaps its survival." Lowell maintained that Elizabeth Ames was involved in communist activities, and that under her administrative control Yaddo had accommodated known communist agitators. Lowell's demands were emphatic, "that Mrs. Ames ... be fired; that this action be absolute, final and prompt; that pending a decision she be immediately suspended from all administrative functions."

Lowell's accusations were the result of an FBI inquiry into activities at Yaddo. Yaddo's association with radical politics during the 1930s was well-known to the FBI: the Albany office kept files on several Yaddo guests. During the 1940s, Ames allowed Agnes Smedley, known communist sympathizer and public supporter of the Chinese communists, to remain in residence at Yaddo for almost six years. When the New York Times reported that Douglas Macarthur accused Smedley of being a communist spy, the FBI's interest in Yaddo intensified. Ames' secretary served as an informant, and agents were dispatched to Saratoga. By the time FBI agents appeared at Yaddo and questioned Hardwick and Maisel, it was clear that Ames' protracted accommodation of Smedley had extended the reach of Yaddo's association with radical politics out of the 1930s and into the cultural hysteria that precipitated McCarthyism. The results for Yaddo, and especially Ames, were almost devastating. For two weeks Yaddo's board gave nervous consideration to the implications of Lowell's charges. While Yaddo's board ultimately decided to dismiss Lowell's accusations (and to severely censure Lowell) it was understood that In the context of a culture becoming increasingly uncertain about the threat of international communism, Lowell's accusations could prove explosive. (Records regarding the "Lowell affair" are in box 385.)

Despite the combined effects of the economic depression, global war, internal crisis, the dawn of the nuclear age and the cold war, as the world changed from decidedly modern to post-modern, Yaddo, for all intents and purposes, continued to foster creative development according to the principles the Trasks had intended. While Arvin, Cowley, Hicks, and Kazin continued to influence the guest list, though less emphatically than during Yaddo's first 25 years, it was Ames who seemingly undaunted remained thoroughly entrenched as the center of life at Yaddo until her retirement in 1968.

Prominent guests in the 1950s and 1960s included Newton Arvin, Milton Avery, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Leonard Bernstein, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Hortense Calisher, Malcolm Cowley, Babette Deutsch, Josephine Herbst, Granville Hicks, Ted Hughes, Philip Guston, Ulysses Kay, Jacob Lawrence, Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Mario Puzo, Theodore Roethke, Philip Roth, David Del Tredici, and William Carlos Williams.

After Ames' retirement, Newman E. Waite served as President of Corporation of Yaddo from 1969 until 1977, when Curtis Harnack assumed his position. However, despite administrative changes, life at Yaddo has remained, in its essence, unchanged. The Yaddo Cheever visited in the late 1970s remained familiar and recalled, in its most important respects, the Yaddo Cheever first visited in 1933. Despite the passing of more than one hundred years since Spencer and Katrina penned their collaborative agreement, Yaddo remains deeply rooted in the sensibilities of its founders. According to the Trasks' interest in fostering a broad range of creative development Yaddo guests list represents emerging artistic interests. During recent years, filmmakers and performance artists have begun to mingle with writers and composers amid Yaddo's secluded grounds.

Yaddo's dramatic origins also continue to shape its creative environment. Portraits of Spencer and Katrina, as well as their children, greet guests on the first floor of the mansion. Editions of works completed in whole or in part at Yaddo make up a sizable library which guests borrow from during their visits. Despite the passage of time, the Trasks' combined interests in community, quietism, and seclusion continue to provide the basis for Yaddo's creative culture

From the guide to the Yaddo records, 1870-1980, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Papers, 1920-1995. Houghton Library, , Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn T. C. Wilson Papers, (1928-1947) Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn Nell Blaine diaries and correspondence, ca. 1947-2002. Houghton Library, , Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn Katherine Anne Porter papers, 1842-1980, 1932-1975 Literature and Rare Books
referencedIn Eugenie Gershoy papers, 1914-1983 Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
referencedIn The Nation, records, 1879-1974 (inclusive), 1920-1955 (bulk). Houghton Library, , Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn Lore Segal papers, 1897-2009, 1939-1990 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn Richard McCann papers, 1920sā€“2008, 1978ā€“2005 University of Delaware Library - Special Collections
referencedIn Leo Lerman Papers, 1893-2012, [Bulk Dates: 1937-1994] Columbia University. Rare Book and Manuscript Library,
referencedIn Furman (Laura) Papers AR 2001-086, 2001-235, 2002-117, 2002-173., 1961-2001 Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin .
referencedIn Charles Allan Madison Papers, 1918-1935 Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives
creatorOf Yaddo records, 1870-1980 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn New Directions Publishing Corp. records, ca. 1933-1997. Houghton Library, , Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn Grace Hartigan Papers, 1942-2006 Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries
referencedIn Doris Grumbach papers, 1938-2002 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn Fromm Music Foundation scores and recordings, 1943-2011. Houghton Library, , Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn Philip Reisman Papers, 1932-1993 Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries
referencedIn Cowley, Malcolm, 1898-1989. Malcolm Cowley papers, 1911-1990. Newberry Library
referencedIn Gore Vidal papers, 1875-2004 (inclusive), 1936-2000 (bulk). Houghton Library, , Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn John Cheever journals, ca. 1934-1982. Houghton Library, , Harvard College Library, Harvard University
Role Title Holding Repository
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