Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Derelict Modern at Camp K

Last weekend I visited Camp Karankawa, the Boy Scout Camp on Lake Corpus Christi, for the first time in 24 years. When I was in Boy Scouts, we spent a week there each summer earning merit badges, doing "KP" duty, trying to stay hydrated, and occasionally shooting 22s. Also, lots of carefully timed troop shouts to win the scout spirit award. Camp K hasn't changed much in those years at all, save the recent marvelous addition of two first-rate restroom and shower facilities that have replaced the two-seater pit toilets in each site. For the record, I will definitely take Camp K for one weekend in November in my thirties over Camp K for a week in June in any of my preteen years.

Nothing much has changed over the years at Camp K, and that led to a revelation. While walking the camp to plan a hike for the cub scouts, I came to this group of cottages that have housed the camp counselors for many years. I was struck by their modern style. More to the point, I was struck by how similar these structures were to the "Surfhouse" design that my friend and architect Mark Meyer designed in consultation with me and my wife. Kid #3 came along and that house didn't get built. But compare the camp cabins and this one elevation.

Mark and I both attended Camp K during some formative years, and while Mark has gone on to a career in architecture, I also remain a fan of architecture and in particular modern design. Was Mark channeling memories of Camp K when he designed the Surfhouse? Aside from the shed style of our house, one of its distinctive characteristics was the clerestory, very much like the screened area on the camp cabins. I decided to take some pictures to send to Mark.

The cabins only had screen doors, and as I approached to check out the interior, I caught a glimpse of a familiar form inside. There it was, a Saarinen armchair like the one sitting in my current living room. Well, a little worse for the wear of the hand-me-down life at Camp K. A woodpecker was stuck inside the cabin, and when I came in to take photos, he unfortunately started desperately flying into the screen to escape. I took a few quick shots and left to check the other cabins. To my surprise, three of the other cabins also had these Saarinen arm chairs in different upholstery. How long have these chairs been sitting out at Camp K? I never served as a camp counselor (one week a year was enough for me). But I tried to remember back to my year as a senior patrol leader. Had these chairs been in the office then? Surely Camp K didn't go straight to Knoll to outfit its counselors' cabins. No, it's pretty clear these cabins were just the end of the line for the chairs. They probably started out at the scout executives offices, then made it to the office at Camp K, then the counselors cabins, if I had to guess.

What about the design of the cabins themselves? I haven't begun to investigate. I'm just glad Camp K hasn't torn them down yet. Actually, despite their decrepit shape, someone visiting for the weekend was apparently staying in one during my visit, as I saw a scout shirt and bag inside.

Also, maybe some of us were positively inspired by these cabins without knowing it. On the other hand, how many camp counselors were turned off from modern design forever after their time at Camp K? I'd be interested to hear what sleeping in one of these during June and July was like. How effective was that screen clerestory? And what about those chairs? Trust me, they were pretty much in the "wouldn't pick up on the side of the road" shape.

How many were turned off by modern design because they lived with one of those stinky things for a summer? Still, I have to believe there's some good design samaritan out there seeing to it that these chairs haven't yet been tossed, and the cabins not yet bulldozed. I have met the camp ranger and it is not him.

Then again, I've seen that despite the new restrooms, the other structures at Camp Karankawa are pretty much as they were in 1987. Probably just a matter of time before these are gone. For now, these chairs live out their final days in unexpectedly appropriate structures.

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