The House that Harry and Elizabeth Watrous Built
Possibly with the help of Sanford White
Any architectural or historical tour of Northern Lake George would have to begin with Ruah, the Bed and Breakfast in Hague.
“There’s nothing like it; it’s stately, grand architecture. I’ve always thought it was among the most beautiful buildings in Hague, and what’s remarkable is that it’s never been changed. It remains as beautiful as ever,” said Sally Rypkema, the town historian.
Judy and Peter Foster, long-time summer residents of the lake, purchased the house in 1985 and turned it into a Bed and Breakfast twenty years ago.
“When we decided to move to the lake year-round, we had to think about what we could do, what kind of business we could run. A friend said, ‘do what you’re doing already: entertaining guests. But now, instead of just showing up, we’ll pay you.’ So that’s how we came to open a B&B,” said Judy Foster.
The house was completed in 1907 for two artists, Harry Watrous and his wife, Elizabeth Nichols Watrous, both prominent in their day.
Harry Watrous was secretary of the National Academy of Design from 1898 to 1920 and served as its president in 1933.
“Elizabeth Watrous was actually the more interesting artist, attempting a kind of early modernism,” said Richard Stout, a contemporary artist living in Hague.
She was a founder of the Pen and Brush Club, which in 1918 was deeded a summer studio and hostel in Hague by another artist, Harriet S. Phillips. Today it is a private home, situated on a hill overlooking the lake, and also of architectural and historical interest.
The Watrous house replaced a rustic building which the couple had erected on the property, one of several they built in Hague.
“Mrs. Watrous wanted something grander,” said Judy Foster. “Harry Watrous was known for his antics, so he held a wrecking party. Every guest was given a crowbar.”
Local legend has it that Sanford White, the famous architect, had something to do with the design of the house.
“That’s not outside the realm of possibility,” said Sally Rypekema. “It has elements in common with other houses attributed to White. White was a friend of the Watrouses, and he was known to sketch designs for friends without charging them or making notes for the firm’s records. On the other hand, the house lacks some of White’s signatures, such as a grand staircase. Elizabeth Watrous certainly had a hand in its design; it resembles other houses they built. She was all about wide, open porches, one of Ruah’s most prominent features.”
Somewhere underneath layers of wallpaper is a mural by Watrous, said Peter Foster.
Several paintings by Robert Melvin Decker, a Lake George friend and contemporary of Harry Watrous, which were collected by Peter Foster’s late father and which now hang on the walls of Ruah, are similar in style to Watrous’ own work.
As prominent at the time as Watrous himself, Decker has also slipped into obscurity.
According to Richard Stout, these once famous artists were, in a sense, victims of history, trapped between tradition and modernist revolution that would erupt in the United States with the Armory Show of 1913.
“They were searching for something new and fresh but did not know how to get there,” said Stout, who frequently lectures on the history of art. “They also had to make a living and the American public that bought their work dictated certain limitations on what they could do.”
If Harry Watrous no longer commands attention as an artist, he retains a certain amount of fame, at least locally, as the creator of the Hague monster.
For those who are unfamiliar with the tale of how the monster came to be, here’s a 1963 account by the Lake George Mirror’s editor at the time, Art Knight:
“The critter was born as the result of a wager between Harry W. Watrous, a former president of the Lake George Association, and Colonel Edward Mann, editor of the New York social gossip sheet, Town Topics. The bet was who would land the largest trout.
“The Colonel, it seems, contrived to produce a trout that weighed about 40 pounds, but it was made of wood which Mr. Watrous promptly suspected and detected. Turning his own wizardry to wood, Mr. Watrous fashioned a fearsome marine monstrosity from a pine log, artfully splotched with paint and sporting two bulging green eyes. Rigged to a rope, anchor and pulley system, which was manipulated from his boathouse, Mr. Watrous could make the dreadful dragon surface and submerge at will.
“One evening as Col. Mann rowed homeward along the Hague shore in the gathering dusk, up popped the serpent. There were conflicting accounts as to what happened between that fateful moment and the Colonel’s dripping arrival at his cottage door. Mr. Watrous claimed the poor fellow screamed like a banshee, knelt to pray, flung himself overboard and thrashed ashore. The colonel insisted he maintained his dignity, though momentarily startled, and stumbled into the drink because he stepped on a shadow he mistook for his dock.
“Probably the most celebrated performance of the serpent occurred when it loomed up in the fading twilight and paralyzed a pair of honeymooners in a canoe. The startled couple capsized their canoe, the gasping groom lit out for an island nearby leaving gallantry to the fish and deserting his shrieking bride to the mercy of the monster. When his bristling bride finally reached the shore she thanked the monster for showing her groom was also a monster whereupon she bustled away and got a divorce.”
According to the Fosters, Watrous manipulated the monster from a rock below Ruah.
Ruah is now for sale and the Fosters expect that it will return to its former use as a private home.
But according to Lonnie Lawrence, the Sherwood Group realtor representing the property, the house’s commercial potential shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Owning a B & B is a great way to get a piece of lake relatively inexpensively. The Fosters have not developed the portion of the property’s lakefront, which is still available for docks. It has its own private beach, which could be retained strictly for the use of the owners,” said Lawrence.
Until the house is sold, the Fosters will continue to operate Ruah as northern Lake George’s most elegant inn.