Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Playhouses: Overlooked Adirondack Architecture

Pell playhouse at the Pavilion near Fort TiconderogaFor children traveling to the Adirondacks in the 19th century, it was not enough to have unregulated access to the woods and waters, much of which could be explored in their own, custom built boats.

They were built their own playhouses as well. According to Steven Engelhart, the executive director of Adirondack Architectural History, several great camps featured playhouses and childrens’ cabins, some in the rustic style, others suited to more eclectic tastes.

It’s not clear how many survive, but we know of at least two in the Lake George region.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Fort Ticonderoga founders Stephen and Sarah Pell built a 1,230 square foot, two-story playhouse in the rustic style for their two sons on the shores of Lake Champlain, near the family’s summer home, the Pavilion.  According to Beth Hill, Fort Ticonderoga’s president, the playhouse has been hidden for years behind dense vegetation and off-limits to visitors.

Fort Ticonderoga, however, was recently awarded a $3,000 grant from the Preservation League of New York State that will help make the restoration of the playhouse possible.  “The grant will fund a structures report, which will inform the restoration and future reuse of the building,” said Hill.

John G. Waite Associates, the architectural firm that conducted a similar study of the Pavilion itself, have been retained to conduct the survey, she said.  “The grant enables Fort Ticonderoga to make a vital first step in the restoration and interpretation of this unique structure. The playhouse will surely become a favorite place to visit for our more than 70,000 guests annually,” said Hill.

It is easy to imagine the Pells’ sons re-enacting frontier history at the playhouse, which was named “YD, or Yes Do!”  It’s quite possible that it provided the inspiration for John Pell’s definitive biography of Ethan Allen.  Perhaps it was the place where the brothers first dreamed up fanciful projects with their cousin Claiborne Pell, the future Senator, such as monopolizing the helicopter industry, buying a Caribbean island or drilling for oil in Dutchess County.

Helen Simpson playhouseBy the time the Pells were occupying their playhouse on Lake Champlain, Helen Simpson had outgrown hers on Lake George. Born in 1891, she was the daughter of John Boulton Simpson, a Sagamore hotel owner who built his own house on Green Island not long afterward. Simpson’s family founded the first pawn brokerage firm in New York in the 19th century. But however profitable, it was a profession that his wife, Frances Shilton, found distasteful.

“Her husband’s father helped him buy the American agency of the Estey Piano Company. To Frances, this was a much more dignified and socially acceptable business, but the rest of the family was scornful and promptly nicknamed Simpson ‘Piano Johnny,” his granddaughter wrote in a memoir published in 1973.

The Simpsons’ playhouse, which also featured rustic elements, including unpeeled bark siding, was erected west of the main house on the south shore of Green Island. When Karl Abbott, the Sagamore’s general manager, purchased the house in the 1930s, he sold a portion of his property to his neighbor, Peter Kiernan, and with that lot came the playhouse.

According to Kiernan’s daughter, Jane Gabriels, the playhouse was converted to a cottage for her brother James. It has since been rebuilt as a year-round residence which is occupied today by Mrs. Gabriels.

Until her death in 1973, Helen Simpson lived in her family’s other Bolton Landing home, serving on the school board and chairing the Lake George Club’s tennis committee, among other good works.  When the house was sold not long ago, furniture from the playhouse was purchased by the father of another little girl, for her Bolton playhouse.

Photos: Above, the Pell’s playhouse at the Pavilion, Fort Ticonderoga; and below, Helen Simpson’s playhouse (photo courtesy of Jane Gabriels).

A version of this story was first published in the Lake George Mirror.

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Anthony F. Hall is the editor and publisher of the Lake George Mirror.

Anthony grew up in Warrensburg and after an education that included studying with beat poet Gregory Corso on an island in the Aegean, crewing a schooner in Hawaii, traveling through Greece and Turkey studying Byzantine art and archeology, and a stint at Lehman Brothers, he returned to the Adirondacks and took a job with legendary state senator Ron Stafford.

In 1998, Anthony and his wife Lisa acquired the Lake George Mirror, once part of a chain of weekly newspapers owned by his father Rob Hall.

Established in the 1880s, the Mirror is America’s oldest resort newspaper.

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