Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Steven Engelhart: Every Community Needs a Beating Heart

Old Forge Hardware CompanyThere is overwhelming evidence that the most successful communities — with thriving economies, healthy schools and social and cultural institutions — are those that embrace their own history and preserve their historic buildings. Good jobs, protection of natural resources, and good leadership are perhaps even more important. Historic preservation is a critical element in the revitalization of struggling communities and it is a visible expression of a community investing in itself and improving its own quality of life.

Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH) has always been a strong advocate for the connection between historic preservation and community vitality. We work to preserve individual buildings, yes, but we also advocate for preservation because historic places can become affordable housing, attractive spaces for businesses, innovative cultural centers, new farms, restaurants and other attractions. Preservation is about finding new uses for historic structures, not just saving buildings.

Historic places create identity.

Historic places are often the “beating heart” of a community. They are the physical expression of our common heritage and many develop iconic status over time. They bring people together by “defining” a community. Think of any Adirondack town or village and you’ll quickly think of an historic building there.  The Adirondack Hotel in Long Lake; Old Forge Hardware in Old Forge; the chapel on Big Moose Lake. Jay, Keeseville, Wanakena, and Hadley have historic bridges that identify them. Newcomb’s identity is tied closely to Santanoni. Others include the Woods Inn in Inlet, Raquette Lake Supply Company, the Indian Lake Theater, or the Willard Brothers building in Northville. All of these places help define their towns.

The transformative impact of preserving and restoring specific structures in a community are well-documented in the Adirondacks. (Many AARCH Preservation Award winners are in this category.) These often vacant buildings were once highly visible residences, barns, churches or schools. Examples in the region of places that have been restored and given new and quite different lives include: Paradox House Retreat (farmhouse), Champlain Valley Senior Community (Willsboro School), Valcour Brewing Company (Old Stone Barracks) and The Revival (Wells Baptist Church).

Whallonsburg Grange HallOther iconic buildings are restored and opened to the public as community centers or museums, enhancing both the physical and cultural environments of their towns. Nearly every community in the region has places like this. Recent examples include the Whallonsburg Grange Hall in Essex, the Goodsell Museum in Old Forge, and the Strand Center Theatre in Plattsburgh. (Click here for more inspiring stories.)

Bridges, railroad stations, and industrial sites that are abandoned have a big impact on a community’s landscape. Preserving them takes creativity, hard work, and often significant investment. But like the structures themselves, the effect of preservation can be outsized. Saving the unique Bow Bridge in Hadley  preserved a rare work of civil engineering, but also preserved the historic pedestrian “link” and a destination for visitors.

“Cluster” preservation.

In some communities, clusters of historic buildings can draw together the past and present and provide the physical assets needed for revitalization. Preservation planning for groups of buildings or entire neighborhoods, even in small villages, can help bring the built environment together with a community’s cultural heritage, and establish a strong identity.

Depot Theatre in Amtrak train stationWestport on Lake Champlain was a summer resort town through the early 20th century. But the large hotels that defined it are long gone and Westport is reinventing itself as an arts destination. A walkable center full of well-preserved 19th-century architecture, its restored Main Street, the Depot Theatre in the 1876 train station, and the 1885 County Fairgrounds complex have created an attractive and historic environment for residents and visitors alike.

Warrensburg has the largest number of National Register listed historic buildings in the region with everything from water-powered mills to churches and residences. The work of the master stonemasons from there is legendary and visible in many Adirondack Great Camps. Their work is also seen around town in structures of all types that give Warrensburg its unique character and renown for this stone craftsmanship.

Downtown Saranac Lake historic districtSaranac Lake has embraced its history as a “pioneer health resort” through its restored cure cottages and the transformation of Trudeau’s 1894 Saranac Laboratory into a museum that tells this story. But preservationists like Historic Saranac Lake have gone beyond this focus and helped create and preserve historic districts throughout the town, most recently in the Helen Hill neighborhood, providing homeowners access to generous tax credits to help with the cost of renovations.

The preservation effort in Saranac Lake is also helping to drive downtown revitalization, with the multi-million-dollar restoration of the 1927 Hotel Saranac at its center. Historic buildings on main streets are ideal places for businesses, restaurants and arts groups to renovate—they are physical and visual clusters that draw communities together.

Heritage tourism and preservation.

AARCH’s ongoing work with NYSDEC and the Town of Newcomb to preserve Great Camp Santanoni is focused on saving and restoring a National Historic Landmark. But the Santanoni partners also know this unique heritage attraction is a central part of the town’s economy. About 12,000 people per year visit Santanoni, which is located in a town with fewer than 500 residents. The direct connection between preservation and the town’s future has encouraged Newcomb to invest several hundred thousand dollars in restoration and interpretation at Santanoni and at the McIntyre Furnace and McNaughton Cottage at nearby Upper Works.

Debar Pond LodgeA similar opportunity exists with the National Register-listed Debar Pond Lodge (Town of Duane), a 1940s Great Camp designed by William Distin. It is also in the Forest Preserve and owned by New York State. For over ten years, AARCH has been trying to work with the DEC to  preserve its buildings and create a destination for visitors, so far without success. For Duane, with its small population and limited resources, the public reuse of Debar Pond Lodge is the best hope for its economic future.

Heritage tourism is based on historic preservation because visitors want to see, touch and experience history. The number of visitors to the Adirondacks and their interest in its history as well as its natural beauty are growing. Just like locals, visitors appreciate the special places that define our region and they will spend money to stay in historic lodges, eat in converted mills, bicycle past restored barns and tour Great Camps. Community revitalization in this case includes preserving, developing and marketing historic assets because they bring people to visit and stay.

Historic preservation and community revitalization are closely linked in our region just like anywhere else. Successful historic rehabilitation and reuse projects, large and small, help make communities of all sizes successful.

Throughout the Adirondacks, AARCH provides technical resources and advice to individuals, groups, businesses and local towns to help these projects move forward. Almost as important is that we encourage the creativity and imagination needed for these projects, and point to the numerous, real-life examples in our backyard where historic preservation is working and communities are thriving.

Photos from above: Old Forge Hardware Company, Old Forge; Whallonsburg Grange Hall, Essex; Depot Theatre in Amtrak train station, Westport; Downtown Saranac Lake historic district; and Debar Pond Lodge, Duane, provided.

Related Stories

Steven Engelhart is the Executive Director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), the regional historic preservation organization of the Adirondack Park. AARCH's mission is to promote better public understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the region's built environment.

Among AARCH's many activities are: sponsoring a series of tours of historic places; offering workshops; giving slide presentations; publishing a newsletter; managing Camp Santanoni, advocating on behalf of threatened historic sites; and providing technical assistance to individuals, organizations and local governments.

Steven is a native of the region and has a BA from SUNY Plattsburgh and a MS in historic preservation from the University of Vermont. He is the author of Crossing the River: Historic Bridges of the AuSable River, a small book about bridges and local history of the AuSable Valley. He resides in Wadhams and loves to hike, canoe, read, play the banjo, explore the region, and spend time with family and friends.

3 Responses

  1. Nick Rose says:

    great article
    Inlet almost lost the Woods Inn and it would have been devastating and Old Forge hardware is the must see location in the region. Without our community centers we truly have no center and the edges fall apart.. Support sustainable Adirondack communities!

  2. Bruce says:

    Great article. Old Forge Hardware and Raquette Lake Supply are a couple of our favorite stops on our annual visits. We’ve met other folks from North Carolina at Raquette Lake, both at the Supply and Raquette Lake Navigation. Not mentioned is the fact that long time family owned and run camps such as Claytons in Inlet are rapidly going by the wayside, being purchased by corporations and rebuilt in a more modern style, or replaced by upscale hotel-like edifices.

    Claytons has been around since 1926, is still in the hands of a family member who was born there, but unless a younger family member doesn’t take it over (there does exist a possibility in that direction), Clayton’s Cottages will also fall by the wayside not too far in the future..

    We’ve become personal friends of the owner, Dave Gribneau and do our best to make our annual contribution by staying there for a week or two each year. Since we found this place in 2010, there’s been no reason to look further. Dave has tried to maintain a homey, old-timey ambiance in spite of concessions to modern fire codes, insurance and safety regulations.

    Perhaps someone could look into some of these old line family camps, which unlike the great camps, cater more to ordinary folks. Surely some of them must qualify for some measure of protection.

  3. Larry Roth says:

    A good article about a vital element in building and maintaining communities. There’s a problem that it skims over though: “Heritage tourism is based on historic preservation because visitors want to see, touch and experience history.”

    Visitors may appreciate these things, but too often locals don’t. Familiarity breeds contempt as the saying goes, and what is special to outsiders seeing with fresh eyes, locals are too often blind to it. People may travel from out of state or even overseas to visit a historic locale that locals see as an eyesore, something they’d find more useful as a parking lot or big box store. They may want those visitor dollars, but they don’t care about heritage tourism if they don’t see what’s in it for them.

    There is this too. While a local economy may benefit greatly from heritage tourism, those tourists don’t get to vote. They don’t have representation in local government, they don’t pay property taxes – so while what they want and need from government is important, too often they don’t get a voice in critical decisions about that heritage, or are drowned out by local special interests. Somebody comes up with an exciting ‘new’ idea and boom: the bulldozers go to work.

    And if that idea turns out to be not all that great… well too bad. Nobody cared about that old stuff anyway, right? Hey… Where did all the visitors go? Meanwhile the kids grow up, move away because there are no jobs… and when they come back for a visit, their town is no longer there. There’s nothing to come home to.

    All credit to AARCH for the work they do, but considering the big preservation story they don’t mention here, I’d make a guess DEC has them under its thumb. So it goes.

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox