Spencer and Katrina Trask completed the present mansion in 1893 after their first mansion, a remodeled Queen Anne style house, burned in 1891. The family was in New York City at the time of the fire. Close friend and Spencer’s business partner George Peabody Foster broke the news to Katrina. Spencer was gravely ill with pneumonia, but Foster and Katrina decided to tell him about the fire. Spencer sent a photographer to Yaddo to document the ruins to assist the Trasks in planning a new mansion. Spencer and Katrina worked closely with architect William Halsey Wood to design the new Yaddo mansion. Wood specialized in designing large houses and ecclesiastical buildings. Yaddo was the largest mansion he designed. The design process was protracted because the Trasks frequently changed their specifications.
The Trask’s designs for Yaddo were inspired by the fourteenth-century medieval manor Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, England. Architecturally, the Yaddo mansion reflects elements of styles like Tudor Revival and Richardsonian Romanesque that were popular among American elites during the late-nineteenth century. The half-timbered walls, rows of leaded casement windows, and projecting window bays are features commonly found on Tudor Revival mansions. Yaddo’s heavy rusticated stone walls, towers, and round-headed arched openings--which are more clearly visible on the back and sides of the house--were common features of mansions designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. Other elements, like the ornate metalwork, are features more common of Renaissance Revival architecture. The prevalence of Tudor Revival features on the house’s primary facade and the more widespread use of Richardsonian Romanesque details on the other sides suggest that the Trasks pushed Wood to design in a style he was not as comfortable working in. The Richardsonian Romanesque features on the less prominent sides of the house indicate that the Trasks were more flexible in their designs.
There are tensions between Yaddo’s architecture and its use as an art colony. American Gilded Age elites, like Spencer Trask, made their multimillion dollar fortunes through the explosion of unchecked capitalism during the nineteenth century. The mansions they constructed helped solidify their newfound social status as expressions of their wealth and taste. Gilded Age elites were also anxious about their status, especially as they exploited the labor of millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe flocking to the United States, as well as African Americans migrating to industrial cities from the rural south. Elites turned to British-inspired architectural styles like the Tudor Revival and Queen Anne Revival as assertions of the superiority of the white Anglo Saxon race and culture. At the same time, patrons of the arts like the Trasks sought to protect high art from popular culture and market demands through the creation of salons for leading artists and luminaries. At places like Yaddo, elites hoped to foster a high culture that would civilize and uplift the masses. This mission--and the architecture and material culture supporting it--directly contrast the works and lives of the artists and writers who were later admitted during the twentieth century. Many of these individuals produced popular works and came from racially and ethnically diverse, working-class backgrounds.