David Hernandez and Tereasa Surrat are not your average creative duo. Originally from Chicago, the couple who spent summers at a Latvian camp from the 60s also have a background in architectural preservation and renovation.
Little did they know that both their childhood and professional worlds would collide so nicely down the line. Having come to what is now Camp Wandawega since they were children, they were surprise to find the same camp in dilapidated conditions years later. The duo then decided to buy their childhood summer camp and restore it, turning it into Americana wonderland. Located 90 miles outside of Chicago, Camp Wandawega boasts the kind of hush hush vibe that makes you nostalgic before even getting there. With incredible attention to details and repurposed vintage objects found in the camp itself adorning every nook and cranny, the Camp became a bigger sensation than they ever expected. We sat down with David and Tereasa to find out exactly how it all began.
First off, can you tell me about how the camp came to be? What was the original idea behind it and do you feel like it has remained true to that concept?
We’re ashamed to admit that the current version of Camp Wandawega kind of happened by accident. It was my childhood church camp, and we purchased it from the Catholic Church in 2004 with no real vision other than to save it from the wrecking ball (It was pretty dilapidated). We envisioned our own private friends and family retreat, and not much more. It was a place where we could get away from our day-to-day lives and disconnect. In so doing we could reconnect with each other, with nature, and with the simple pleasures of simpler times. Camp Wandawega had always been a no-frills, back-to-basics sort of place and we wanted to keep it that way.
How did it suddenly turn into so much more than friends and family?
As the renovation progressed, and word started to get out, including traditional press and social media, strangers started to come out of the woodwork wanting to visit, rent it for get-aways, family reunions, company events, etc. At first we simply said no, as we weren’t set up as a business. But as demand increased, we decided to get the appropriate license and permit and give it a shot. So to a certain extend, we’ve taken our original vision of a back-to-basics friends-and-family retreat, and we’ve now made it available to strangers as well.
Do you have any architecture or design background? How did that affect the restoration process?
Tereasa and I have both been involved in architectural preservation and renovation of old buildings before; it’s something we’re both passionate about. I used to serve on the Board of Landmarks Illinois and I currently serve on the Board of Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. With our passion for renovation and preservation, Wandawega was an ideal property for us, as it needed lots of TLC. I never thought it would be possible for it to be recognized by The Wisconsin Register of Historic Places and The National Register of Historic Places, but now that it is, our stewardship of the historic property has taken on increased importance to us and the broader community.
There seems to be new concepts in hospitality everyday, are you particularly drawn to any?
As much as we love so many of the amazing new hotel concepts that are popping up all over the place, we find kindred spirits in the projects that preserve historic properties and still find ways to breathe new life into them, like Chicago Athletic Association on South Michigan Avenue. Similarly we’re looking forward to checking out The Pontchartrain Hotel in New Orleans.
What’s Camp Wandawega’s ethos?
Our ethos at Camp Wandawega can be summed up in the phrase “back-to-basics.” We are unapologetically no frills, and that’s a big part of the charm. It also means we’re not right for everyone and that’s just fine by us. (We tell folks if you need 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, then bring your own, or stay home.)
What has been one of the highlights of the Camp so far?
One of our favorite Camp Wandawega events was last summer’s Ural Motorcycle Retreat, when we unveiled the Ural Sportsman Camp Wandawega Edition motorcycle. It was an awesome group of attendees from all over America, with a common love for motorcycles, food, and beer. See more here.
Any upcoming plans for the camp’s future we should know about?
In its 90 year history, Camp Wandawega has always been a seasonal get-away, shuttered in the winter months. It’s our hope to make portions of the property available to winter guests starting next year. The peace and quiet of winter here is one of my favorite times of the year, and we feel obligated to start sharing it with others. There’s about 375 miles of snowmobile trails in our county, amazing ice fishing, snowshoeing, hiking, sledding, and 2 ski hills within 15 minutes or so.