In the late 19th and early 20th century, life in Europe and North America was being transformed by mass production. For many that was a godsend; it made many goods and services available to low- and middle-income people for the first time. But in the eyes and hearts of many others, it stripped those household goods and decorations of their warmth and human touch and of their connection to nature.
Enter the Arts & Crafts Movement, led by a group of artists and designers whose goal was to humanize the starkness of mass production by bringing back hand-crafted furnishings, decorations, and utensils, making them available to everyone. For inspiration, many of these leaders escaped their city lives in favor of country homes blessed by beautiful, natural surroundings. The Hudson Valley certainly fulfilled that description for many, not only from big American cities like New York, but also from England and other crowded European cities.
At the September program of the Town of Lloyd Historical Preservation Society (TOLHPS) in Highland, SUNY Professor Emeritus William Rhoads told the story of one group of European artists who responded to the call of the Hudson Valley. They were led by a Danish artist, Anders Anderson, who had lived for several years in England and was influenced by the British textile designer and print maker, William Morris, one of the prime founders of the arts and crafts movement. With Anderson were another Danish artist, Johannes Morten, and a small group of other mostly Danish artists, who crossed the ocean and settled on a scenic 30-acre property with a substantial house on the Hudson River shore just across Route 9W from what is now the Ship Lantern Inn in Milton.
Dr. Rhoads described how he and his family had taken a boat ride on the Hudson and noticed that particular property, with its interesting buildings, inspiring him to research the property’s story. He learned that Anderson and Morten purchased what was then known as the Captain Sears homestead in 1913 and set about developing a community of artists, who lived in cabins on the property and worked in studios there, supporting themselves by selling art pieces they produced, largely works in silver, and jewelry, along with items such as light fixtures worked in artistic designs. From their homes and studios they could look up and down the Hudson River in front of them and the green hill behind them, enjoying and being inspired by the beauty of the nature that surrounded them. They named their colony Elverhoj (hill of elves in Danish).
Elverhoj both served as work and living space for working artists and as a school for budding artists each summer. It was the goal of the Elverhoj founders, Dr. Rhoads said, to develop their colony, basing their lives and their products on nature, using designs of flowers, leaves, and vines in much of their work. The colony was also home to a summer theater for many years. One advantage the colony had was its proximity to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. Many of the summer students were Vassar undergraduates, and the colony sold its products in a shop in Poughkeepsie.
But it was also the founders’ goal to create a bigger and better version of the Byrdcliffe Artist Colony in Woodstock, which had opened in 1902. But as the arts and craft movement diminished in size and importance after World War I, so did Elverhoj. Except for Anderson, the artists moved elsewhere, leaving the whole financial and maintenance responsibility to Anderson. By the 1930s, the burden was too much for him alone. He was forced to declare bankruptcy and the property went into foreclosure. Still the property’s story doesn’t end there. For many years it was occupied by followers of Father Divine, the African American spiritual leader. The current owner was once a student of Dr. Rhoads and invited him to visit the property, providing Rhoads with an up-close experience of viewing what the property looks like now and imagining the Elverhoj of the past. So, while the founders’ dream of creating a bigger and better version of Byrdcliffe (still in operation) didn’t quite come to pass, they did succeed in building a social unit with a lasting legacy.