John Cheever’s character Neddy Merrill traversed Westchester County by swimming from one backyard pool to the next; I’ve been sitting my way across New England, one Adirondack chair at a time. And if there’s anything I’ve learned in 15 years of dogged lounging, it’s this: You can’t tell an Adirondack chair by its appearance. You really have to sit in it. Some are too big. Many are too small. And some–very few, actually–are just right.
It’s not only a matter of angle and knee height. There are the materials to consider. The modern versions available in extruded plastic and sold at big-box stores are actually not bad-looking, and they’re pretty comfortable, too, but they lack the proper rigidity. Anyway, a late-afternoon squall will send them flying across the yard like tumbleweeds. That’s more than a minor flaw. An Adirondack chair needs ballast.
There are other considerations, like color. Green is good, with forest green the very best. Fire-engine red is cheerful. White is classic, but there’s the problem of glare. Yellow, not so much. A blue chair is, for some reason, always uncomfortable.
Here’s another important thing about Adirondack chairs: Where you put them has an outsized impact on their comfort. Place matters. Inside a house? Never. It’s like a spray-on tan–there’s something unsettlingly unnatural about an Adirondack chair with a roof over it. Adirondack chairs need to be outdoors and, ideally, should be set off by themselves–at the end of a dock that extends into a large lake, or on an open, grassy rise with views of distant mountains, or simply at the far edge of a suburban lawn.
The writer Paul Auster captured what for me is the ideal chair in his 2007 novel Travels in the Scriptorium, about a man whose memory has failed and who struggles to recall his past life. At one point, the character “closes his eyes [and] he is once again in the past, sitting in a wooden chair of some kind, an Adirondack chair he believes it is called, on a lawn somewhere in the country, some remote and rustic spot he cannot identify, with green grass all around him, and bluish mountains in the distance, and the weather is warm, warm in the way summer is warm, with a cloudless sky above and the sun pouring down on his skin …” That’s my memory of every Adirondack chair I’ve ever sat in, even those on misty spring days with a chilly north wind.
When I read that the first Adirondack chairs had been invented more than a century ago in Westport, New York, I drove there to find out what I could learn. I checked in at The Inn on the Library Lawn, and asked the host, Anthony Wheeler, whether he knew of anyone to whom I should talk about Adirondack chairs. His wife walked in, and he turned to her and asked, “You know anyone who knows anything about Westport chairs?”
So the first thing I learned was: In Westport, you don’t call them Adirondack chairs. (I’d learn later that you don’t call them Adirondack chairs in Ontario, either. There, they’re called Muskoka chairs.)
Westport is a quiet village that slouches along the shores of Lake Champlain, with breathtaking views of Vermont’s Green Mountains across the way. It has an 1880s library and a 1960s post office, and great, sloping lawns everywhere. That’s pretty much how it should be. The well-tended lawn is to Adirondack chairs what the savannah is to lions: their natural habitat, where you expect to see them ranging freely.
Wheeler directed me to Bruce Ware, who’s been a real-estate agent in Westport for many years. He filled me in on the history. Ware told me that Thomas Lee had a local hunting buddy named Harry Bunnell who was having trouble making ends meet during the long winters. Lee suggested he start making and selling his chairs. Bunnell did, perhaps a bit too eagerly. In 1905 he had the chairs patented under his own name and then started a manufacturing operation. (The patent reads, in part: “The object of this invention is a chair of the bungalow type adapted for use on porches, lawns, at camps, and also adapted to be converted into an invalid’s chair. A further object of the invention is to produce a strong, durable chair adapted to withstand rough usage and exposure to the weather.”)
The Bunnell chairs are suspiciously similar to Lee’s Westport chairs, but the long, rearward-facing back legs are more narrowly set than on Lee’s chairs. Ware has a Bunnell chair in his office across the street from his house. We walked over and examined it. Ware lifted an arm of the chair, then lifted an eyebrow. “It’s got stability problems,” he said, ominously. I detected a trace of longstanding grievance between the Lee and Bunnell clans.