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 – 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.
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.
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.
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