Telling the Adirondack story through architecture
Just like the roots of red spruce and sugar maple trees that penetrate the mountains of the Adirondacks, human stories reside deep here. Tales of the Mohawk tribe drift through the waterways that cut through the mountains. Eccentric Adirondack Great Camps built from these woodlands boast of decades lending shelter to the rich and famous. Smooth stone buildings, barely worn with time, stand reminiscent of the industrial communities that built them. These historic sites act as markers to different Adirondack eras. They are a tangible connection to past lives. Today, the preservation of this legacy is the work of the non-profit organization Adirondack Architectural Heritage, or AARCH.
Since 1990, AARCH’s work has saved dozens of treasured buildings around the Adirondacks, ranging from farmsteads to churches and lighthouses. Out of these neglected spaces, the organization has created tourism and educational opportunities. Their office building is no exception.
The AARCH building sits in Keeseville, New York, a quaint, scenic town with a rich history. The nineteenth-century building is crafted with gray stones and red accents. The building was once home to a busy horseshoe nail manufacturer. Rusted nails, half-century-old, can be found scattered around the property. The carefully renovated building epitomizes everything AARCH stands for as the organization heads into its 30th year.
AARCH was born out of a collective effort to save a beloved landmark, Camp Santanoni, in Newcomb, New York. Until 1990, the executive director of AARCH, Steven Engelhart, and others worked on preservation projects individually or in small groups. The movement came together when someone tacked a sheet of yellow ruled paper on bulletin board reading, “Anybody interested in forming an Adirondack preservation nonprofit, meet at two o’clock.” People showed up. People ready to work. People interested in preserving the soul of Adirondack communities.
AARCH’s core lies in Keeseville, but its roots have branched out across the Adirondack Park as the organization has struggled to recover and reclaim dozens of properties. The first story begins with Camp Santanoni.
Like a Phoenix: Private Estate Reborn as Public Treasure
Camp Santanoni is one of the Adirondack Great Camps, roughly three dozen large-scale summer homes constructed by some of America’s wealthiest families. This mid-nineteenth century trend was an attempt for families like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers to escape city life and dip their toes into nature without forfeiting their lavish lifestyle.
The Adirondacks have long been a playground for the rich and famous. A wealthy Albany couple, Robert and Hannah Pruyn, bought 12,900 acres of unspoiled land (about 15 times the size of Central Park). There, they built a camp complex that, at its height, included a working farm, vegetable gardens, orchards and a year-round farm staff. The Pruyn family owned it until 1953.
Unlike the other Great Camps, Santanoni was designed with a Japanese aesthetic in mind. Robert Pruyn, in his youth, lived with his father in Japan. As a boy, he grew to love Japanese architecture. As an adult, when working on plans for the Great Camp, Pruyn wanted a peaceful sanctuary that left the surrounding nature undisturbed. The result was a collection of buildings that flowed with the natural landscape. Symbolic details were incorporated in the design, even from an aerial perspective. From above, the shape of the Main Lodge is that of a phoenix in flight, symbolizing transition. What can now be captured on striking drone footage, was once only capable of being conjured through Pruyn’s imagination.
Today, Santanoni remains sprawling and secluded, a wooded paradise. Santanoni sits on rocky, pine-covered land that juts out into the southern portion of Newcomb Lake. The spectacular Main Lodge is a geometric building constructed with massive red spruce logs wrapped by a red porch. Making up the phoenix’s body is an extensive system which consists of four sleeping cabins, a living room, a dining building and a service block all connected by a grand roof.
A cobblestone triangular archway welcomes today’s trekkers after a 5 mile hike into the property, or ski trip if visiting in winter. For those looking for a less sweaty excursion, a horse-drawn, reservable carriage ride may be preferable.
Tours are provided daily by the full-time summer staff. Three daily tours run at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. All tours start at the Main Lodge.
For overnight tourists, there are seven primitive tent sites and two lean-tos around the lake for free camping on a first-come, first-served basis. Visitors can also take a boat out on Lake Newcomb. More than fifteen miles of hiking trails also wind through the preserve, and the gently rolling paths can accommodate both experienced adventurers or more conservative amblers. Fishing, picnicking, horseback riding and biking are also offered.
AARCH tours focus on the people who made life possible: the people who worked at the farm, those who guided hunting excursions and others who cared for the buildings and boats. It is not always about the people that built the historic places, but the people who made it a home.
Freedom Seeker Turned Free Stone Mason
Grand buildings like Santanoni help define quintessential Adirondack architecture. However, many Adirondack buildings were crafted by members of underrepresented groups that have made the North Country their home. Issac Johnson’s story tells another important part of the Adirondack past. Johnson, an escaped slave, was a stonemason who lived and worked in the Saint Lawrence River Valley during the late nineteenth century.
Born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky in 1844, Johnson grew up enslaved on a tobacco farm. He lost his wife and children when they were sold to other farm owners. When the Civil War swept through Kentucky, Johnson escaped to the North and joined Union Forces in 1863.
After sustaining three gunshot wounds and losing a finger, he made his way to safety in Ontario. However, he married a woman from Saint Lawrence country, and he would soon move back to New York to be with her. Living along the New York-Canada border, Johnson started work as a stonecutter.
The North Country still bears his mark. Just east of Ogdensburg lies a little town called Waddington. Here, Johnson’s craftsmanship is showcased in a stone building that was used as a town hall. Large rectangular towers ground the front of the building and a staircase sits between them. A delicate white porch is held between the two towering stone structures.
AARCH dug into Johnson’s story and crafted a 2019 tour in honor of Black History Month. The tour traced Johnson’s path through the North Country. Guests toured the building while listening to AARCH’s staff member and scholar Cornel, “Corky,” Reinhart.
“It’s a window to all of his history and his story and understanding the history of slavery,” explains Program Director of AARCH, Nolan Cool. “Architecture can embody those stories in a way that you just wouldn’t have if the building wasn’t there.”
On his journey to freedom, Johnson was rebuilding his life, building masterpieces.
Preserving Indiginous Landscapes
AARCH saves buildings, but some buildings that are no longer standing can tell stories, too. Before the better known Euro-American buildings came to dominate the Adirondacks, Abenaki and Mohawk architecture dotted the valleys. In 2019, AARCH assembled a tour through the “Indian Carry” called “Indigenous Landscapes of the North Country.”
The “Indian Carry,” part of a portage trail that was frequented by these tribes, runs between Upper Saranac Lake down to the Stoney Creek Ponds. This land is believed to have been a permanent Abenaki settlement. Sadly, the Abenaki buildings have been lost and evidence of what they looked like is only found through careful archaeological research. While the buildings are gone, the survival of a native presence still exists. Cool speaks on this.
“It just goes to show that the layers of history that are embedded in these places, while it’s great if they’re tangible and we can see them and touch them, there’s still a lot of history in the Adirondacks that’s embedded in the soil, in the land itself.”
To help piece together the story, the tour stopped at the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota. The museum’s design reflects that of a traditional Iroquois bark house. The dark brown, wooden structure stretches across the land with red trim and a shiny, silver roof. There, museum workers preserve more than 3,000 artifacts that help tell the stories of the Iroquois Confederacy. Some of the artifacts showcased include canoes, beadwork, native clothing, and native tools. The small building is packed with items lovingly placed. The museum stands as an example of Native American survival in the area.
The items in their museum tell a story of a failed attempt at erasing the past. The world of history, that architecture embeds itself in, extends past tangible buildings. The stories will continue to be told and survive.
Creating a Culture of Caring
The official mission of AARCH is to “further greater public appreciation, understanding and stewardship of the built environment in the Adirondacks through education, technical assistance, advocacy and partnerships”.
But, as Englehart puts it, “the bigger picture in our work is changing and creating a historic preservation ethic in the region. It’s not just winning one battle…It’s changing hearts and minds in a bigger way.” AARCH wants everyone in the community to cherish, preserve and continue to use the places that give meaning to the communities of the North Country.
AARCH is continually devising new tours as the group unearths forgotten stories buried in the rich Adirondack earth. Educational opportunities and daytime excursions are plentiful for tourists and residents. These three stories are just the beginning. There are a myriad more to discover. Just follow the roots.
Story and photos by Clarice Knelly