Camp Wandawega offers storied vacations

Tereasa Surratt mixes the old with the new at this historic camp in Elkhorn, WI.

At heart, Camp Wandawega owner Tereasa Surratt is a storyteller. Whether outfitting a platform tent or choosing paint colors for a 1940s cottage at the nearly condemned summer camp that she bought with her husband, Surratt is always thinking about her audience. “Our motto, our mission, our philosophy is to create interesting, beautiful spaces that tell stories,” she says. “It’s a creative outlet and it gives you a lot of freedom from a design perspective.”

Camp Wandawega, located about an hour from Madison in Elkhorn, has a storied past, from serving as a speakeasy during Prohibition in the 1920s to a Latvian church camp in the 1970s. Surratt and her husband, David Hernandez, who attended the camp as a child, bought the property in 2003 to save it from development. Originally intending it to be a spot for gatherings for their family and friends — the couple got married there shortly after purchasing the camp — they soon decided to open it to the public. It can now be rented for everything from corporate retreats to family reunions. No matter the event, Surratt’s goal is to provide guests with a unique experience in each of the camp’s spaces.

Take, for example, Camp Wandawega’s Hickory Canvas Cabin Camping Cluster, which includes a “canvas cabin” perched atop a raised platform in the woods and available to rent on Airbnb. Instead of metal bunk beds and mosquito nets, Surratt decked it out with vintage rugs, custom-designed leather and hickory sling chairs, and a full-sized bed featuring a wooden frame from the 1800s. “David and I went to this 1880s home that was getting demolished — it hadn’t been walked into in 50 years — and we found these 8-foot-tall mahogany bedframes carved with ornate acorns,” Surratt says. “We took the pickup truck, disassembled it, brought it back and put it in the tent.” The space also features a turntable and vintage leather sofa, but guests still need to hike down a camp path to the portable toilet or communal showers (as Camp Wandawega’s website reads, “Before booking, our ‘Manifesto of Low Expectations’ is required reading.”)

Surratt’s interior design approach can be called “rough luxe,” a term that describes the juxtaposition of old and new materials. She also subscribes to the doctrine of “high/low.” An avid thrifter, Surratt loves decorating Wandawega’s spaces, including an arts and crafts cabin, a bunkhouse and the main lodge, with a mix of high-end pieces and items she finds at flea markets or while roadside picking. “The mix of high and low is a throughline because it makes things accessible,” Surratt says. “It also shows a certain degree of confidence.”

In addition to making interior decorating projects more affordable, this type of decorating style creates a sense of originality that appeals to Surratt. “When you see a home that is ‘matchy, matchy,’ that looks like it came off a showroom floor, then it’s not interesting, it’s not unique and it’s not memorable,” she says. “I feel like you get more mileage out of interior design and spaces, whether it’s a cabin, a lodge or a bedroom, if you can design something that you haven’t seen before.”

It’s these contrasts between new and old, purchased and DIY, that help the Sycamore House, a renovated 1940s cottage the couple acquired in 2021, achieve a look that feels modern yet eclectic, bright and clean yet cozy. Intended as a guest house for visiting artists, the cottage mixes pieces like a $12 Ikea shelf, an original midcentury modern terrazzo table and chairs they pulled out from a building that was getting demolished. While Surratt usually shies away from color trends — “most people go to trends first because they are easy to knock off and it feels safe” — she chose a green that is “one of the hotter colors of the season” but did so strategically. “I applied the color in places that aren’t going to be expensive to change — it’s the color of the bookshelves, the color of the bathroom,” she says. “That is the safer place to apply color.”

Surratt’s advice for people looking to design their own spaces is to think about what they find inspiring. “For me it’s usually old people that have been collecting their whole lives … they have curated their surroundings based on their life experiences, the time they went to Morocco, the time they went to the farm in Michigan,” Surratt says. “They collect these pieces, they end up in their home and that is how you end up with a really layered, rich storytelling space, and that is the filter for everything we do.”

Erica Krug is a contributing writer at Madison Magazine.

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