In the decades following the Civil War, particularly during the Gilded Age, the Adirondacks were a fashionable retreat for members of high society. During the mid-nineteenth Century, Saratoga was one of the most socially desirable retreats for the wealthy until the 1870’s, when it became “vulgar.” This shift towards vulgarity was due to the exploitation of the “curative” spring water, which was the main attraction, mixed with the addition of the nouveau riche, or new money rich, who indulged in gambling (Kaiser pg. 55). Thus, old money families retreated to the isolated hotels of the Northern Lakes, such as Lake George, Saranac Lake, and Blue Mountain Lake. By the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, the development of “suitable” inns, abundance of fish and game, and the scenic landscape made the Adirondacks once again a fashionable place for high society to spend their summers.
For many vacationers, the social atmosphere and activities of the luxury hotels were the main attraction, while others sought out solitude in the wilderness (Kaiser pg. 57). While luxury hotels were the mainstay of the wealthy, in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, as the Adirondacks became increasingly fashionable, the Robber Barons began to purchase their own estates. These wealthy industrialists would charter private rail cars from New York City to take their families, servants, baggage, and other essentials to their camps (Kaiser pg. 58-59). Around this time, many private log cabins and tents were constructed around hotels, but the extravagant Adirondack Great Camps were built in isolation surrounded by hundreds or thousands of acres of private forest.
Adirondack Great Camps were the product of “unspoiled” nature, a desire for privacy, the availability of materials, and an ample supply of wealth (Kaiser, pg. 63). One of the distinguishing features of first and second-generation great camps was that they weren’t centralized and had separate buildings for utilities that were connected to the main building via covered walkways (Kaiser pg. 65). Their compound construction allowed for easy expansion and caused them to grow to the size of small villages. Camp development didn’t extend to the shores of the Central Adirondack lakes until the last two decades of the Nineteenth Century. Lake Placid was one of the first areas in the Adirondacks to undergo camp development. Camps at Lake Placid were built at a higher density and tended to be smaller, more conventional summer homes centralized in one two-story building (Kaiser pg. 68). Third and fourth generation great camps abandoned the compound plan in favor of larger centralized lodges that were like the summer homes around Lake Placid (Kaiser pg. 68-69).
In the 1890’s, William West Durant was tasked with building a rustic estate for his family’s use and to serve as a model home for wealthy tourists (Merritt, pg. 46). Durant built three Adirondack Great Camps—Pine Knot, Uncas, and Sagamore—and despite these camps being built for his family’s use, money constraints forced Durant to sell them to other prominent businessmen such as JP. Morgan and Vanderbilt (Merritt, pg. 46).