Two books published this year have significantly expanded our understanding of Adirondack architecture. People familiar with the Adirondacks know that twig furniture and palatial robber baron wilderness compounds are the exception, not the rule, for the Adirondack built environment. Unfortunately, until this year there have been no real resources that document the diversity of what really exists along the roadsides and in the settlements of the region. Now, at last, two truly amazing new books have arrived to fill the void. Both books belong in the bookcase of anyone who wants to know more about the Adirondacks.
Destined to become the reference book most often used to jog the memory is A Guide to Architecture in the Adirondacks by Prof. Richard Longstreth ($34.95, 427 pages). Published by Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH) and produced by Adirondack Life this book covers the most significant buildings and structures throughout the region. Longstreth is a well-known architectural historian who teaches at George Washington University. He has deep first hand knowledge of the subject having been an inquiring seasonal resident of the Adirondacks since 1978.
The Longstreth book divides the Park into twelve geographical regions. The individual entries were selected based generally on the criteria used for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. He excluded places that cannot be seen from a public road or are not otherwise publicly accessible. He also excluded structures that have been altered in ways that detract from their historical significance. Places that are associated with an important individual, organization or event were excluded unless the property also has physical features that are of interest. The result is a fascinating mixture of sites that captures the unique architectural texture of each locale.
The book begins with an excellent historical introduction that links distinctive Adirondack architecture to its function. His discussions of early wilderness industries and the rise of outdoor recreation give the reader one of the best short reviews of the development of the Adirondack region. Special attention is given to the role of fire towers and the Adirondack Northway.
Each of the twelve geographical sections begins with a short discussion on when and why the area developed. Each section includes a general locator map. Every individual entry gives the address and date constructed. A brief description of the significance of every property includes the name of the builder or architect, if known. Almost all entries include a clear black and white photograph taken by the author himself. The book concludes with a section on the architects, builders and designers whose works are featured. It has a carefully selected bibliography and a good index.
The Adirondack Architecture Guide – Southern-Central Region by Janet A. Null ($29.95, 360 pages) takes a different approach. Styling itself as a “field guide” this book is organized as seven driving tours encompassing the huge region within the Blue Line south of the high peaks, west of the Northway, north of the Mohawk valley and east of the Black River. There are seven more detailed community tours for Warrensburg, Chestertown, Long Lake, Old Forge, Big Moose, Raquette Lake and Northville. The page edges include color-coded thumb tabs for quick finding.
The selection criteria used by Null is much broader than that used by Longstreth. Ms. Null makes an effort to find examples of all the most representative structures of the region while remaining reasonably selective. All entries are publicly accessible and still standing. This volume includes over 700 individual entries, almost all accompanied by a color photograph by the author. Every entry includes the address, GPS coordinates and date of construction as well as the architect or builder, if known.
Null begins with 50 pages of introductory essays, some by guest contributors, which discuss some of the key factors that influenced residential, commercial and recreational building in the Adirondacks. These essays and the book as a whole are enhanced by a good number of helpful original maps and charts.
Ms. Null is a practicing architect and it shows in her detailed descriptions of each property. Her descriptions of residential properties include an interesting focus on catalog homes. The book concludes with brief bios of resident and non-resident architects and designers as well as a very good illustrated glossary of architectural styles found throughout the region. Unfortunately, the volume contains no index. My only complaint is the binding allowed some pages to fall out after only occasional use. Hopefully the publisher will correct that flaw in future printings.
The volume is published by SUNY Press with the assistance of Sagamore Institute. There is a good companion website that includes some downloadable content. Two future volumes are planned: one for the northern region and another for east of the Northway. When complete this set will be a truly remarkable accomplishment.
After spending time touring the Old Forge area looking for the properties listed I can confidently recommend both books. Null’s book with 45 entries for Old Forge alone sent me to many interesting buildings I would not otherwise even know existed. Longstreth’s book with only 14 entries for Old Forge still manages to include one location skipped by Null while providing a rich history of the town.
I’m glad to have both books. I plan to carry Null’s book in the car on every trip to the Central Adirondacks. I will keep Longstreth’s book on my Adirondack bookcase and consult it when I want to better understand the built environment of any place within the Blue Line. Take my advice. Buy them both.