Inside the Camp of Your Dreams
How a Chicago couple bought and renovated a historic summer camp in loving detail — right down to the old board games
Some dreams are set into motion at a young age and achieved with an enduring focus that’s as admirable as it is unusual. Think of the violinist who knew at age five that he was going to be sitting in the first chair of the symphony someday. Or the professional athlete who seemed to be born with a soccer ball attached to her foot. Other dreams evolve more slowly and organically. They seem to come out of nowhere, triggered by happenstance or a confluence of unlikely events. Over time they develop into something so powerful you’d think there had always been a plan. But that’s the beauty of these kinds of dreams. The fact that they exist at all is part of what makes them so special.
Such is the case with Camp Wandawega under the visionary stewardship of its current proprietors, David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt. Situated on the shores of Wandawega Lake in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, Camp Wandawega is the former summer camp that Hernandez attended as a child growing up in Chicago. Legend has it that Hernandez so loved his time there in his youth that he told the former owner if he ever thought to sell the camp, he should reach out to him first. Fast forward twenty-odd years, and that call did in fact come. Sadly, the camp was no longer the bucolic sanctuary David recalled from his youth (though, in reality, it had been a brothel and speakeasy along the way). The property had fallen into such disrepair by the early 2000s that it was barely recognizable, its buildings faded and crumbling with wild vegetation enveloping structures and pushing up through cracked concrete and asphalt.
At first, Hernandez’ and Surratt’s vision was to clean it up, bring it back to a semblance of its former glory, and hold their wedding there. It seemed ambitious, but feasible.
“We had a little bit of a mad dash,” Hernandez says, “because we bought in the very beginning of 2004 and we were getting married in August of 2004. So we were literally using duct tape and chewing gum and spit. We were buying Martha Stewart Bed in a Bag.”
What they lacked in financial resources, they made up for with creative energy and a gritty resourcefulness that not surprisingly has powered their careers to the heights of advertising and marketing. (David is the Chief Creative Officer at Allstate and Tereasa is a Senior Partner and Global Group Creative Director at Ogilvy.) The wedding went off without a hitch, but that was just the beginning for Camp Wandawega.
I must admit, in full disclosure, that I’m not a disinterested observer of Camp Wandawega. I worked alongside David and Tereasa at Ogilvy for eight years, and I was lucky enough to spend time at the camp on three different occasions. The agency had creative retreats there, complete with ax throwing and bonfires to complement bouts of creative concepting and copywriting. It was evident from the first time I walked down the dirt and gravel path through the rough-hewn wooden gate next to the vintage International Harvester wagon and motorcycle with sidecar that this was not an ordinary camp. One immediately has the sense of having traveled back in time, from the Welcome Cabin to the meticulously restored main lodge to the Tree House (yes, there’s a full cabin up in a tree) to the “canned ham” trailer sitting on the sidelines of the main field. There are rope swings and cabinets full of old oars and varnished wood water skis and wayfinding signs pointing to the chapel, tennis courts and bunkhouse. But the incredible thing is not just the gestalt, but that the camp stands up to the most intense kind of scrutiny. Every picture on the wall is purposefully hung. Every book on the shelf is placed just so. Each little provision in the cabinets is like nothing you’ve seen before. No detail is spared. The care that fuels Wandawega is abundant and overflowing.
Because of this passion and attention to detail, over the past ten years Camp Wandawega has slowly but surely turned into an internationally renowned destination offering cabin rentals, weddings and events, and a retreat for global tech companies, retailers, architecture firms and roving bands of artists. Hernandez’ and Surratt’s vision has spawned multiple product collaborations, including a line of Camp Wandawega-branded toys and bedding for Land of Nod, clothing for Gant, gift boxes for Anthropologie, Nordskov House Coffee and Ural motorcycles. And there’s much more to come — it just can’t be mentioned yet.
I wanted to better understand how they make this magic happen — and, as important, why they are compelled to make it happen. So in early December (the beginning of their annual “build season”) we met at a restaurant in Chicago for breakfast. By the time coffee had arrived, Tereasa had her laptop open and was scrolling through Keynote presentations full of floorplans, mood boards and painstaking lists of furniture pieces, artwork and colors.
An Aesthetic Built From Stories and Forgotten Ephemera
It’s tempting to view the Wandawega aesthetic as a retro time capsule. And, of course, it is largely a retro approach. The property is on the National Register of Historic Places, but interestingly the period of significance is broadly designated from 1925 to 1970. Having that kind of range allows Surratt, who takes primary ownership of the camp’s design, to have a high degree of latitude in her approach.
“It’s not a specific aesthetic,” Surratt says. “It used to be. We’ve evolved it so much and we’ve added new buildings, and different buildings have different aesthetics. There’s overlapping elements, but we’re pushing out from that.”
Hernandez builds on the explanation: “If you think about the design aesthetic now, there’s definitely a core of the DNA that is rooted in the history and came from the 1920s and this kind of vernacular architecture of the Midwest at the time and of the lakes area. Very modest. Very simple. And to this day, Tereasa embraces that as the core of the experience.”
But while the core is there, Surratt is careful to point out that they don’t give themselves unnecessary guardrails. To do so would limit the creative challenge, and it would also be limiting to those who experience Wandawega. In the words of Hernandez, it would be “boring.” The opposite of boring is what you get. It is the complexity beneath the apparent simplicity that is what makes the camp so fascinating.
Surratt continues: “[When] Wisconsin lake homes are in the same family, you’ve got multiple generations of families that are coming and bringing things from their homes. They’re bringing in these layers of decades. You end up with a space that’s not indicative of any specific window, but it tells a story of the people that were there and the things that they did. They tell it through the textiles. In every single room you walk into there will be at least a 70-year span of the history of the place.”
Surratt is creating moments that are linked across the rooms, buildings and the entire property. “It’s almost like you get transported to a moment in time and you go to another space,” says Hernandez, “and you’re transported to another moment in time, but it still somehow feels organic. It doesn’t feel like you’re going into a set. Whether it was there forever or not, you don’t know, but it feels like it could have been.”
At First They Shot From the Hip. Now They Call the Shots.
Like all great partnerships, Hernandez and Surratt complement each other. Tereasa is master of the camp’s design aesthetic, but there is much more work to be done, and that means she wears many hats. What’s in the concept decks has to make it to reality, so she is also the procurer of its myriad small- to medium-size objects. For David’s part, he is the caretaker of the camp’s history, which informs the creative vision in manifold ways. He is also the finder of its larger magical objects. And so, David will jump in the truck to collect a 1950s poker table from downstate Illinois. And Tereasa will find and acquire dozens of vintage board games that are not just fun to play, they look great stacked on top of each other. Together they manage the small crews of friends who execute on the vision captured in the slides of Keynote decks.
It’s the same spirit that has motivated them since the early days, but there has been an evolution in both the approach and the results. What used to be a sort of catch-as-catch-can from the flea market is now a markedly more sophisticated process. But they don’t forget how it started and how they got to today.
Reflecting on their humble beginnings, Tereasa recalls: “We had two nickels to rub together. We had this abandoned-for-25-years camp with roofs falling down. The last thing we had the time or money to figure out was how to furnish it or design it. Everything was thrift stores, church sales and flea markets. We had a pickup truck and that’s what we would run around and do. We were like the best customers for years, because we had like 65 rooms. We didn’t have the luxury early on of thinking about what we wanted the space to be.”
“There was an organic evolution,” says Hernandez. “Now, Tereasa is maniacally intentional about every decision. I think when we started it would have been too overwhelming to have that kind of a grand vision and apply it to every single room, all the landscape, and overall vibe. Our heads would have exploded.”
Asked if there is an official camp style guide all these years later, Surratt said it exists largely in her head. However, she notes with no small amount of pride, there is a 4GB file documenting her painstakingly detailed vision for each of the rooms they are working on just this year alone.
“Even if we’re adding a woodshed, we’re going to have a 30-page Keynote on it that goes into the history of the Pantones of the National Parks and the fonts that they would use. I will spend more way more time researching — sometimes even more than making it — to make sure that all the details are right. Sourcing the vintage leather strap that’s going to hold the antique hatchet. The Northwoods bag they used for selling the firewood.”
She pulls up another file.
“This is my Photoshop rendering of the game room,” she says. “I know what all the pieces are going to be. Here are the colors of green that will be used. This is the game table, we found it on Craig’s List. David is the best sourcer in the world.”
“Nothing is accidental,” says Hernandez, adding punctuation.
“This is from this morning,” Surratt says, opening another file. “The inspiration was The Royal Tenenbaums. Do you know there is a Monopoly house hanging from a light pull string?”
If the devil is in the details, Surratt and Hernandez have been wrestling with demons for decades. It’s fascinating how it comes together. It’s a process not entirely unlike preparing for a big advertising pitch. Surratt is up at 3:30 in the morning every day, researching, sketching and building out decks filled with mood boards, floor plans, schematics, complete inventory lists and stories.
“Every room that we do, I’ll write a narrative for it. ‘You hang a right at the bar there’s a little backroom where people would find and lose their fortunes.’” These stories invoke the past, but also foretell the feelings each room will create in the future.
Building The Dream
Interestingly, Surratt says there is not really a big “go-to” team that stands at the ready. Instead, they rely on a lot of their own elbow grease and the help of a few good friends, handymen and even a 75-year-old Chicago sign painter who’s put his mark on beautiful wooden cabinetry and on-building signage.
“There are people working during the week, and we try to go up every weekend,” says Hernandez, speaking of a recent bathroom project. Tereasa will be using masking tape to show exactly where she wants the furring strips between the wood panels. Little things like that, that most people wouldn’t think about, it’s going to drive her nuts if the spacing [is wrong].”
Surratt continues: “If you think of Craftsman-style houses, Chicago bungalows, it was all oak [trim]. Even if it was a fireplace, the placement and the symmetry of every piece was thoughtful and designed. So even with a bathroom if you don’t align the wood strips and the verticals it throws the whole room balance off. It’s not arbitrary. If you go to an inch-and-a-half smaller, then it looks like a trailer park.”
“Sometimes we embrace trailer park, too,” David is quick to point out. Indeed, it’s these surprising twists and turns that shift the camp from deeply interesting to the truly sublime.
“There is a maniacal degree of background research,” says David. That research involves things like finding an old Monopoly piece or a 1970s label maker with the right avocado-colored labels or even components for old window coverings.
“There is a place called Zwick [in Chicago], and they still make pulls for blinds that were made when Wandawega was built. It’s not a special order, it’s what they do.”
As if to emphasize this point, Surratt shares yet another deck. It’s a gorgeous and towering wooden cabinet for the Welcome Cabin that’s stocked with all the things a hotel guest might need. Soap. Toothpaste. Bandages. Except, nothing in the case is something a hotel guest has likely ever seen. And that’s the point.
“It’s got to be something you can’t find at a Walgreens or Target,” Surratt says. “The package design has to tell a story. You have to go to bodegas or to Devon to find them. Or if you go to Grainger or Uline you’ll find deadstock style in first aid kits. You’re not going to find this anywhere.”
“It’s funny, though. When someone walks into the space, it should feel effortless,” says Hernandez.
It Matters Because It Helps People Reconnect
There are plenty of landmark inns and properties across the country. But Wandawega seems to inspire a passion that is tangible and different. The camp’s been featured in nearly 150 publications, from the Wall Street Journal to the Today show to Architectural Digest. You don’t get that level of coverage just by being good, or by hiring a great publicist. I can attest that it’s something you feel when you are there. There is something different.
“There are a lot of historic hotels,” says Hernandez. “Usually it’s just a facade that’s historic and the bedroom is all brand new down to the mini-fridge. This is like a living museum that people can hang out in for days at a time.”
And what is it about going back in time that can inspire such a deep level of passion in guests? According to Hernandez, it’s a couple of reasons.
“There are a lot of people who want to go back to their childhood,” he says. “It’s cheesy to say, but people want to disconnect to reconnect. To put down the screens and remote controls and reconnect to each other and to nature. We can create this environment where it makes it easier to happen. Some people are trying to recapture their childhood and some are trying to capture a childhood they never had. People never got to go to camp. They went to Howard Johnsons or water parks. So this is a way to experience history in a more tangible way.”
“We want every place to be a place people can explore and see something they haven’t seen before,” says Surratt. It’s about having unique experiences, surprising people, and re-framing how they see the world in ways big and small.
As for what drives Tereasa, the engine behind Wandawega’s beautiful design vision, it’s always been about following a passion. And from that, she says, good things come.
“The key is to make the things you want to make,” she says. “They always say, dress for the job you want. It’s like: make the things you want to make, and you’ll have more opportunities to make them. It’s a virtuous cycle.”
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