Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Classic Adirondack Architectural Detail

A friend e-mailed to say he had been visiting with a 94-year-old doctor who had a home in Speculator with rough-cut siding. The two had been trying to remember what those clapboards were called and brainstormed until one of them finally came up with it: “brainstorm.”

Even if you didn’t know the name, if you know the Adirondacks you know what they were talking about: those uneven-edge boards on buildings across the park, also known as wavy-edge, bark-on, pig-pen or just Adirondack siding.

The brainstorm creation myth is that the unplaned, untrimmed siding was invented in 1907 by master builder Ben Muncil when he was building White Pine Camp on Osgood Pond, in Paul Smiths. White Pine director and Adirondack historic preservation expert Howard Kirschenbaum, who co-wrote an article on the subject for Adirondack Life in 2005, offers another theory that would give the credit to architect William Massarene.

“Wavy-edge siding actually dates back several centuries in southern England, where it is called waney-edge or weatherboarding,” Kirschenbaum wrote. “Massarene took the grand tour of Europe after graduating from engineering school, extending his knowledge of architecture and, as he revealed in a later interview, gathering ideas for building projects, such as the soaring asymmetrical rooflines he designed for White Pine Camp.”

Whether Muncil or Massarene conceived the idea, Kirschenbaum says the siding was probably manufactured for the first time in North America in Paul Smiths. “Brainstorm” was a buzzword in 1907 (during the sensational murder trial of another architect, Stanford White, the suspect claimed in his defense that he’d suffered a “brainstorm”), and perhaps excited by the suddenness or force of the notion, the architect and/or builder borrowed the term.

Rustic resort developer Earl Woodward used the style widely in the southeastern Adirondacks, though he didn’t taper the boards and it’s almost always called Adirondack siding down there, Kirschenbaum’s co-author Tom Henry discovered.

To this day it’s still believed that Adirondack sawmills produce more brainstorm or Adirondack siding, tapered or flat, than anyplace else on the continent.

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Mary Thill

Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.




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