MADISON, WI—Summer camp is an experience like no other. Imagine taking time out to reflect, unwind, play and laugh. What if we could go back and experience it all again? At the Graduate Hotels’ Camp Wandawega Suite here, the essence of those lazy summer days is vividly on display with a refreshing throwback to a simpler time.
The idea for the suite was inspired by the popular and much-blogged-about 1920s-era Camp Wandawega, a large compound of vintage-styled log cabins with a beach and lakefront view in woodsy Elkhorn, WI. Proprietors Tereasa Surratt (an author, design doyenne and creative director at Ogilvy) and husband David Hernandez (also an Ogilvy executive) are quick to alert potential travelers they’re in for a rustic treat with their “Manifesto of Low Expectations,” which includes a whimsical warning: “That warm body sleeping next to you might be a chipmunk.”
The couple sought to tell a true, authentic story about this 90-year old campground, which also helped to inform the look and feel of the hotel suite in the city limits of Madison, WI.
“We wanted to stay true to the bones of the place and be as authentic as possible. Nothing crosses the threshold if it’s new or after the 1950s. We try to buy only period pieces. It’s run very mom-and-pop by my husband and I and we’re only open four months of the year,” said Surratt. “Having partnerships with these brands is something I love to do. They bring their creative set and we immerse them in a whole different thing.”
Ben Weprin, president of AJ Capital Partners and owner of Graduate Hotels, became enamored with the camp and encouraged Surratt to just “do her thing” to the hotel suite—and she did, with gusto. The result is an eclectic mix of vintage treasures and exclusively designed bedding, toys and decor from the Camp Wandawega for Land of Nod Collection.
“Ben’s a great creative partner and he said, ‘Do whatever you want,’” she said. “What I try to do is literally bring artifacts from Camp Wandawega and set an antique scene from the Elkhorn area. They did things they haven’t done in any of the suites, such as custom knotty pine walls and using amber shellac to get the color of the vintage raucous rooms, and they didn’t spare any expense. There was so much trust and collaboration.”
Entering the suite, you’re transported back to childhoods from various decades. Further creating a sense of place, The Parent Trap and other fun, camp-inspired movies are available for viewing in the space. Custom-made curtains are comprised of vintage barkcloth and feature a hunting scene; a hand-loomed Navajo American Indian pillow sits on a 1950s plaid chair; and nearby on the mid-century end table, are vintage binoculars set atop three books about Camp Wandawega.
Everything is carefully curated. The vignettes tell a story, and the small touches are a very important element of the overall narrative. Intriguing pieces from Land of Nod are purposely intermingled with rare, vintage elements for a playful spin on this notion of summer camp.
“You can see a collection of little things. Graduate is known for paint-by-numbers and these were sourced. We had a custom door knocker made and there’s a real Boy Scout plaque in the space. A custom-made Camp Wandawega blanket is something that can’t be found anywhere except for at camp and this suite,” she said. “We’ve also got a vintage record player, games, an old Smokey the Bear poster and an antique souvenir Wisconsin mug to create a modern space and remind you of where you are.”
Elsewhere in the suite, children’s bunk beds are “summer camp-issue” and wooden footstools hold towels or games, bringing in the aesthetics of camp and adding to the authenticity Surratt was expertly striving for. An original leather chair is among the mix of furnishings, which is not something most hotels would do, according to Surratt.
“They let me do some stuff that is one-of-a-kind,” she said. “The Scoutmaster’s desk has a 1960s yellow phone, working vintage lamp, animal hide shade and these pieces sit on top of an Adirondack-style antique desk and a 1950s Mod chair. A hat on the wall is an antique Scoutmaster’s hat and it’s the real deal.”
There are moments big and small revealed in the suite’s design, and together, it all showcases an immersive moment in time. The result is a real source of pride for Surratt.
“I was so excited and humbled to be asked to do it. I hope it is well-received. It was a real joy to be given the creative license to tell the story of camp in a modern space,” she said. “I can’t say enough about Ben’s team. They’re storytellers, too. Graduate Hotels tells the story of the locations they’re in. It makes them stand apart in hotels and chains. I think the trust they gave me to create this suite is an extension of their overall approach to design and it’s the reason for people to come back and remember a space and have a different level of experience.”