Introduction – First Draft – “Rabbitwild”

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First Draft: Introduction to “Rabbitwild – a Shelter in the Wilderness”

by William S. Wicks

In 1896, “Rabbitwild – A Shelter in the Wilderness” was written by William S. Wicks for my Grandmother when she was just 12 years old. My father gave me the book rather offhandedly when my childhood home was being prepared for sale. Years later I realized that “Rabbitwild” was something special and rare. I’ve imagined my Great Grandfather burning the midnight oil as he penned the drawings and wrote this story.  A father and his two boys venture into the wilderness where they design and build a cottage over summer break,  leaving the sounds, smell and grit of the city behind them. Was “Rabbitwild” real? It was never discussed, we were all very busy, you see, and the book was hidden or lost on an old dusty book shelf.

More than a story-teller, Wicks was a gifted architect, visionary, writer and naturalist. Among the few professionally trained early American Architects, Wicks attended Cornell University,  studied in London and Paris and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a Degree in Architecture.  In 1880, Wicks and E.B. Green became partners forming the Green & Wicks Architectural firm in Buffalo where they successfully collaborated for over 30 years. G&W commissions included the Albright-Knox Museum, Pan Am Expo Buildings, Delaware Park Casino, Recreational Buildings and Bridges, New York State Fairground buildings, Chautauqua Post Office and Philosophy Hall, hundreds of noteworthy private homes and estates and many more timeless architectural examples, too numerous to list.

In our “too busy” mantra of life, we accept that there is no time to dream of, imagine or investigate the stories behind our existence. This is an unthinkable prospect when everything we are comes from someone, somewhere, somehow. Before you know it, our time is up and answers to our questions are a part of the mystery when there is no one left to ask.

But we can still read. With no distraction of television, computers and social media, time keepers recorded everyday life. Astute visionaries who lived in the moment and documented life, in writing, on paper. How lucky we are to have the ability to see through their eyes, hear and listen to their words.  There is no better way to understand the vision and philosophy of Wicks than through his own assessment vicariously through Mr. Langdon found on the pages of this book:

“… It may be truthfully said that Mr. Robert Langdon is an architect with a national reputation. If he is without genius, he possesses talent of a very high order. He has not only planned beautiful residences in his native city, his services have been in demand in other cities. Some of the most charming villas on the Hudson were builded after his plans. What distinguishes his work from the more popular style of architecture, is simplicity and adaptability ….

elegant or beautiful, the home should be homelike and inviting; a joyous, happy place, reflecting the family’s cultivation and tempered taste …”

An original member of a group of preservationists, he campaigned to save the Adirondack forests when the Adirondack Park Association was quietly formed in New York City with the purchase of 100,000 pristine forested acres.  Later the Adirondack League Club was formed where Wicks became a Charter Member for over 30 years. The Club was composed of 500, 5 acre plots at $1200 each. Wicks designed the impressive Adirondack League Club Mountain Lodge as well as dozens of additional camp and cottage commissions within the Club.

mountain lodge 1894

Mountain Lodge – New Club House on Moose Lake – Green & Wicks Architects – Buffalo, New York

This is where “Rabbitwild” was conceived and lived (a short life). But “Rabbitwild”, the cottage was  real, after all. I discovered this when an unknown cousin, Elizabeth Hopkins Wittemen, Granddaughter of Grace, Ruth’s sister,  found me. Elizabeth had photographs of “Rabbitwild” but didn’t know anything about the cottage, the story of Wicks or our family history. I am thrilled to have found Elizabeth and most thankful for the lost photographs, and evidence that “Rabbitwild” in fact, existed.

 rabbitwild 2

Photograph Courtesy of Elizabeth Hopkins Witteman

I think about the harsh, rugged elegance and raw  beauty of the mountains and my instinct to go there. My mother Kitty didn’t care for it, we didn’t make the trek to “camp” every summer week-end as was common among the families in my neighborhood. We were very busy, we had very busy lives, you see.

In the 60’s, when I thought I was old enough, I hitch hiked to that wild wondrous place with my girlfriend Nancy where we camped out in sleeping bags in the abandoned remnants of camps near Inlet on 4th Lake or Old Forge. With black as ink skies pinpointed by brilliant points of  light we star gazed with no light pollution to alter the experience, started a damp sad camp fire, got soaking wet every time and predictably stung and bruised by black flies or deer flies. In the grey dusk of morning,  cold and wet, mechanically we found our way to the rustic local laundry to dry everything we carried in our back packs. One day my brother Cricket saw us and I was grounded for life, sequestered in my room where my mother gave me the leather bound book “Pilgrims Progress” to read, so very New England of her.

In the 70’s, I took my daughter Sunshine to the Adirondacks –  we climbed just about every mountain, and took in breathless, never ending vistas and old Indian trails from the Fire Watch Towers on top of the mountains.  I didn’t realize my heritage was right there – under my feet and above my head. My family was very busy you see, we didn’t have time to meditate in the mountains.

Just down the way, in the exclusive enclave of the Adirondack League Club, my Grandmother, in a previous life had I believe, a charmed life. A modern, educated and engaging woman, Ruth lived a life of understated privilege with divine times among friends and family in  her very own cozy retreat “Rabbitwild”, situated upon the pristine shore of Honnedaga Lake (aka Moose Lake), a tennis match and tea on the agenda for any given summers day.

Three years after the cabin was completed, it was advertised for sale in the publication “Recreation” of  July 1900 which read: “For Sale, at 3/4 of cost, Cottage, 5 acres of land share in the Adirondack League Club, Honnedaga Lake. Cottage, built in 1897, contains 5 bedrooms, sitting-room, dining room, kitchen, tinned store-room and pantry. Brook at side gives unfailing supply of cold water. W.S. Wicks 110 Franklin Street, Buffalo, N.Y.”

After only 3 years Wicks it seems was desperate to sell Rabbitwild. At some point Rabbitwild was lost to fire.

Wicks died at home in Rubble Manor in 1919.  His obituary listed his accomplishments and reads in part: …”Mr. Wicks enjoyed out-of-door life, and had a wide variety of interests. He was at one time the amateur golf champion of Buffalo, always an enthusiastic fisherman and hunter, and a lover of the woods. Recently he had found much enjoyment in his farms and scientific propagation of brook trout, which he raised on his preserve in the foot hills of the Adirondacks…Among his fellow architects and business acquaintances he was held in great esteem, and his record of high professional integrity and achievement is one that will long endure to the credit to his profession.”

A Unitarian, his brother-in- law Howard Brown was a Harvard Divinity Minister at Kings Chapel in Boston who traveled with Wicks during  his Adirondack adventures. I do not know if he attended or held service for Wicks at the Barneveld Unitarian Church, but I like to think he did.  In 1962, I attended my Grandmother Guy’s service in this church and remember her casket so strange to me, covered in white roses.  In the late 60’s,  in a pink and white wool tattersol suit I listened to Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring” in hommage to the meaning of Spring at Easter time when the Rev.Timothy Behrendt was Resident Pastor. He made quite a stir in this old Barneveld town when he rode his bike completely bare naked through the village, a true and pure naturalist!  Tim held my mother Kitty’s service in this church in 2002, and that just seemed right.

My daughter Jasmine was just 12 years old then and not know this place, her roots or anything about the Adirondack Mountains. We returned to Blue Mountain for one more climb.  We were not that busy, you see and thanks to a band of preservationists in 1890, the mountains were exactly the same.

100 years after Wicks died, isn’t it is a pretty idea to think that his integrity and achievement endures? That the dust that he, and we are made of lives in words, buildings and new people to take our place? Star dust, the stuff we are made of  fleeting and eternal. We don’t have time to rush through our stories in a state of inconsequential busyness. In the Adirondacks, time stands still, we are not that busy, after all.

This is the story of Rabbitwild.

little ruth 2

 Remembering Wicks – William and Ruth

“Rabbitwild – A Shelter in the Wilderness” is a mystery, “how-to” manual, vision, art form, story for a little girl and a dream fulfilled. William S. Wicks wrote another book: “Log Cabins – How to Build and Furnish Them” which is still on the market today.

(All rights reserved, duplication of content is forbidden without consent of author, owner.)

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3 responses »

  1. Another great story about William S. Wicks! So often, he is forgotten in the pantheon of that first generation of American University trained architects only because the name Green preceded his name in attribution  virtually all of his designs. I know that he had a policy of attribution to the firm rather to himself, and stated his unselfish reason for this habit.  

    Yet those who have studied the men, Green and Wicks, their commissions and the complimentary roles that the two played in building what became the largest architectural firm in North America, recognize Wicks as the more organic of the two in terms of execution and orientation.  His refinement in sensibility did not detract from the quality of his designs and engineering. Most notably, he shared with Green a great sense of how to site structures, both within the property boundary and it’s environs. While Green seemed to have a more classical and modernized neoclassical outlook, Wicks had the sensibility usually attributed to the landscape architect. 

    Another signature of Wicks design is in the area of HVAC. His structures were pre-Carrier, so airflow, strategic shadings and siting were all used along with building materials and techniques and natural features such as trees and undulations of the land were all considered design to create the best interior environmental effect: cooIlness in summer, warmth in winter. I have lived in two Wicks designed homes, a lake house and a city house, and can personally attest to his success in this area. 

    Referring to the Lake House, another Wicks genius has been exposed over time. After100 years of extraordinary lake gales, the house stands, out on a point, retaining substantially all the orginal materials, with all doors and windows still operating smoothly. It was built to last. Today, guests still marvel at the beauty and comfort of this ‘cottage.’ 

    Keep going on your site, it’s a great contribution to the history of architecture and in particular a good and important celebration of his life and works

    Kevin

    Sent from my Samsung Galaxy Tab®4

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  2. Hi Kevin, your knowledge, insight and first hand experience is quite incredible. I would like to know more about how you have come across the story of Wicks. Through observation and research I surmised that the dynamic and design between Wicks & Green was exactly as you have described. Spot on. My brother lives in a Wicks designed family property in Barneveld, New York which I have always loved. The book “Rabbitwild” although in story format addresses all of the elements you have so eloquently described. The book includes blue print drawings, renderings, materials list, site plan and furniture to reproduce “Rabbitwild”, right down to the number and cost of nails. I would love to learn about the Wicks designed homes you have lived in someday. I am thrilled to learn what you have shared with me. Thank you!

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