Thursday, November 5, 2020

Dexter Lake and star power in the northern Adirondacks

Last week’s Dexter Lake article covered a decade or two of turmoil near St. Regis Falls around the turn of the century. This week, we return to Dexter Lake eighty years on…

Media coverage of Orrando P. Dexter’s 1903 murder case raged on for quite some time, with national newspapers ‘feasting on the social conflict’ and local editors, worried about the negative impact on Adirondack Tourism, tried to defend the North Country and its people.  As the unsolved murder case slowly faded from the headlines, Dexter Lake once again returned to its quiet former self and all was quiet on the lake for decades. The estate underwent numerous changes in use. It had been a summer camp for boys, sportsman’s hotel, St. Lawrence University research center, and most recently a private residence.

By the time St. Lawrence University sold the property, some of the estate had become run down and in need of a face lift. Caretakers Pearl and Dave Vanderwalker had not seen much activity during their early years on Dexter Lake. While they were doing their best to maintain the lodge with limited resources, drafty windows, failing appliances and normal wear and tear had taken its toll. It appeared to the Vanderwalkers that the owners had “just lost interest.” When the property went up for sale, the real estate brochure included the disclaimer “in need of repairs,” …not a big selling point for potential buyers!  

The main house, Sunbeam Lodge, was based on the luxurious home of famous German Renaissance artist, Albrecht Dürer (see above photos for side by side comparison). Dürer lived at his Nuremburg home from 1509 till 1528 at the peak of his career and the structure is the only surviving 15th century artist’s house in Northern Europe. It is now a museum that is open to the public.   

1980s: The Cook family and renovations

When Steve Cook and his wife purchased the property in 1984 they initiated plans to remodel the lodge. Since the Vanderwalkers were living in the main house, they started by constructing a new caretaker residence for them. The Saranac Lake architectural firm Wareham-DeLair-Architects supervised the meticulous structural, mechanical, electrical, exterior and interior restoration of the Lodge and its original copper roof. Richard E. Hanpeter, AIA was project architect for the job. The original beveled glass dutch doors, massive living room fireplace, hardwood floors and just about everything else was refinished or refurbished with a loon motif throughout. In a later phase, the Syracuse firm Crawford-Sterns oversaw kitchen renovations. It was during this period that the family decided to change the estate’s name. From the time they first arrived in the Adirondacks, there was a wonderful pair of nesting loons that would have chicks reliably every season. While learning the basic loon calls, “the name gradually became obvious as their calls did, in fact, echo off nearby Cat Mountain.” “Loon Echo” was born.                                                                                                          

Unlike their time as caretakers for St. Lawrence University, Pearl and Dave Vanderwalker quickly became close personal friends with the new owners. The Vanderwalkers turned out to be the best possible choice for the job. Dave was the epitome of a true Adirondacker, which by definition, is a person that does anything and everything necessary to make a living in the Park, sometimes juggling multiple occupations.

Dave had many careers and excelled at each. He was a veteran, logger, Adirondack Guide, New York State Trooper, master mechanic, Franklin County Legislator and along with Pearl, the proprietor of Conger Mountain Inn in Santa Clara. He was an avid hunter, trapper and fisherman and his wife was no slouch, either!

In the mid 1980’s Pearl held a long-time record for catching the largest rainbow trout in the Genesee Fishing Derby. Pearl acted as Santa Clara town historian and was also Justice of the Peace. Both were fantastic cooks and were widely known for their venison and brook trout recipes and their elaborate breakfast feasts. Dave carved his employers a Yule Log every Christmas they were at Dexter Lake, taught their son how to shoot bullfrogs with a .22 rifle and then how to cook tasty frog legs. Dave also taught  how to use an auger to cut holes in the ice, where they caught more fish in the winter than in the summer. And, in the summers their children went camping together. 

The remodeling project lasted until 1986 and, once completed, the Cook family took full advantage of all the Adirondacks has to offer for nearly a decade. As their kids got older however, their activities in Houston made it difficult to justify the travel up there and back. So, they put the estate on the market and waited for a buyer.

1990s: Famous buyers

While the final purchase price of the Loon Echo estate was not made public, a 1994 sales brochure had the price reduced from $4,250,000 to $3,250,000. Upon acquisition of the property, country music singer Shania Twain and her husband, producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, opted to again work with Richard Hanpeter, AIA, who at this point had his own firm, and Harris-Grant, an acoustical engineering firm from London, to design and construct their dream home and recording studio on the shores of Dexter Lake.

Twain was not yet a household name. She had only released one record by that time, her 1993 self-titled album, and it failed to chart on the U.S. pop charts, making it only to numbers 28 and 67 on the Canadian and U.S. country charts, respectively. Mutt, on the other hand was one of the most widely sought-after producers in the world. The albums he produced for artists such as AC/DC, Def Leppard, the Cars, Bryan Adams and Foreigner were among their best-selling efforts up to that point. In addition to his production talents, Lange was a prolific songwriter. He co-wrote every song on two of Def Leppard’s highest charting and best-selling albums, Hysteria and Pyromania (he produced the LPs as well). He also won a Grammy for co-writing Bryan Adam’s 1991 #1 song, Everything I Do (I Do for You). (As of 2020 he has written or co-written over 100 songs, several of them making it onto the Billboard Top Ten).

Robert John “Mutt” Lange was a wealthy man. At the time he was getting ready to purchase Dexter Lake, he owned multiple residences, including a secluded 43-acre estate in England. He was known to be reclusive, so moving to the Adirondacks made perfect sense. For Shania too, the move was an obvious one. Shania was raised in a remote area near Timmons, Ontario, Canada where she grew up chopping wood and hunting in order to help support her poverty-stricken family. In 1979 she convinced her mom to move the family into a homeless shelter in Toronto where they stayed for nearly two years. Eventually they reunited with their abusive stepfather and she began working in his reforestation business, hauling logs and walking several miles a day. So for Shania, Dexter Lake was a move back to the wilderness and for Mutt it was the reclusive paradise that he always craved.

Mutt was once asked “Why in the world would a guy like you, with all your money, want to move to a place like St. Regis Falls?” He replied, “Well, you can buy oceanfront property, you can buy lakefront property, you can buy riverfront property anywhere in the world. But where in the world can you buy a mountain, a lake, and 3,000 acres that surrounds it all!?”

Lange and Twain enlisted Murnane Building Contractors from Plattsburgh, along with several Saranac Lake electrical and HVAC sub-contracting firms, to construct their dream of a 28,000 square foot recording studio/residence. For the second time, Richard Hanpeter took on the responsibility of a Dexter Lake project, preparing architectural and engineering Construction Documents and overseeing construction. 

Big changes to the property

The first day began with a tour of the impeccably refurbished Loon Echo, during which, the project superintendent told his team of laborers, “You are going to tear this down.” Sensing their disbelief, he said, “Just close your eyes and tear it down.” It is important to note that the existing lodge simply did not meet the building program requirements and was not of a style the owners were fond of, given their preferences. But every effort was made to preserve and re-use the important architectural elements.

The crew was instructed to carefully save, label and package all of the architectural artifacts (originally shipped north from NYC) including the staircase, windows, doors, casings, jambs, hardware and the ornamental fireplace mantel and front pieces.  Further, all of these items were stored in two trailers until such time as they were re-used in their entirety in a new Craftsman Style Hanpeter designed residence in Northern Lake George. The massive living room fireplace was meticulously dismantled, with each piece numbered, wrapped and stored until being reassembled in the new building. 

The one-and-a-half year project started off with about ten or fifteen carpenters and laborers, but quickly grew to a staff of over fifty men. The estate project was fast-tracked and, in some instances, designed as it was being built. Additional architectural plans were delivered to the job site each day from Hanpeter’s firm in Saranac Lake, allowing daily construction to continue at a steady clip. Some detailing was drafted on site or faxed during the course of any given day. At one point Mutt Lange asked, “Wouldn’t it be faster if one crew worked at each end of the project and then met in the middle?” A good idea perhaps, but impractical because the massive project was still being designed as construction was taking place, so it might not have met in the middle where it was supposed to!

In addition to the residence/studio, there were additional projects going on. The old barn was renovated into stables and a boathouse was constructed which provided the location for piping for a required sprinkler system water source. Lange wanted many aspects of his British estate incorporated into the master plan, one of which was a series of gazebos scattered throughout the property and ornamental stone stairways as landscaping elements. These gazebos were to be connected by long winding paths. Massive amounts of stone and fill had to be brought in. Murnane estimated that over 300 tandem trucks of black dirt were used just to create landscaping forms and elements.  Along with that there were thousands of cubic yards of retaining walls built out of large stones along the roads and walkways that added a unique layer of mystique to the property.

A dream recording studio

Then there was the recording studio which required 36,000 volts of power with underground service from the main road, a distance of 2.5 miles. Miles of wiring were needed for the recording studio alone. The studio included several sound reinforced ‘bays’ that accommodated each instrument. One for the piano; one for bass; one for guitar, etc. Then in an upper level cupula the lead vocals were captured in another isolated bay. There was no air conditioning anywhere on the property except for one room: the vault where the master recording tapes were stored. The reason? Air conditioning is not good for a singer’s voice.  [Author’s note: Nor was it needed most days in the Northern Adirondacks!]

While not apparent to the naked eye, the recording studio spaces were each floating rooms, completely isolated and detached from adjacent spaces for acoustical needs. Floors sat on a layer of concrete, then a grid of rubber isolation mounts, on which sat another layer of concrete that isolated the room from any sound or vibration transmission. The walls were similarly isolated with multiple separated insulated stud walls and the windows of recording spaces consisted of two independent laminated sections set at angles to one another and separated by airspace. 

From a construction point of view, the isolation-based framing of the roof and ceiling planes was the most interesting feature. Before enclosing the space and applying soundproofing material, and finishes in and around the gothic roof trusses of douglas fir, vibration checks were performed, as this is an important element in the recording process.

You could stand inches outside the studio with the double set of doors closed and not hear a sound!

Meanwhile, in 1995, when the Dexter Lake construction project was in full swing, Twain’s second album exploded on the country music charts, catapulting her toward superstar status. Her CD, The Woman in Me, and the single “Any Man of Mine” hit number one on July 22, 1995. Touring and support for the record, and its 1997 follow-up, Come On Over, required her to be on the road almost non-stop from mid 1995 until 1998. Twain was only able to make occasional ‘pit stops’ at her home on Dexter Lake; an occasional two, or three-day layover in the Adirondacks was all her busy schedule would allow.

Twain’s rise to fame and trouble with APA

David Hart, who lived near the entrance to Loon Echo, remembered seeing no change in Shania after her rapid rise to fame. Even though she was a private person, neighbors recall her visits to the local IGA food store in St. Regis Falls, where she would take the time to stop and have a friendly chat. But much of her time at Dexter Lake was spent alone with her horses, a major passion for her. Hart also raised horses and did a lot of work for Mutt and Shania. He got to know them well and had an occasional beer with them and talked horses. Shania had her eye on one beautiful Belgian horse named Trigger that Hart had gotten as a colt. She really wanted to buy that horse, but Hart refused to sell because it was wild and unbroken. He was afraid that big and wild a horse might hurt her. 

When Twain was getting ready for concerts, she would extend invitations to her neighbors to attend private dress rehearsals. She also gave out concert passes to her show at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid. Twain and Lang were especially kind to the Vanderwalkers. They often gave Pearl and Dave gifts such as tiffany glass and what is now Charlie Vanderwalker’s prize possession, a large framed photo of Shania and her first platinum record.

While Lange obtained a building permit from the town of Waverly, he did not secure the necessary Adirondack Park Agency permits. The Dexter Lake property was classified by the APA as “Resource Management” by the Adirondack Park Land Use Development Plan Map and was subject to strict regulations regarding residential development. In the fall of 1995, shortly after the project was completed, an anonymous tip was received that new construction had taken place and after a lengthy investigation, the APA determined that Lange was in violation of several land use guidelines.

A septic system was placed adjacent to a wetland setback and other wetlands were filled in; some construction was completed without a permit and the construction was found to be in violation of the Park’s forty-foot building height restriction. However, the building itself did not exceed 40’ in height from its finished backfill line but was deemed to exceed 40’ in height from the original grade prior to construction.  After months of legal wrangling, the APA released a 30-page state decision.

On November 16, 1998, Twain and Lange agreed to settle the case, paid $45,000 in fines and agreed to environmental benefit projects. It was the largest penalty imposed by the Adirondack Park Agency up to that date. Twain and Lange paid their fines, restored wetlands, and began procedures to obtain an ‘after the fact’ permit for the studio complex, but by the end of the year they announced plans to leave the area and put their Dexter Lake property up for sale.

Some locals were strongly incensed by the loss of ‘star power’ in their community and many blamed the APA. But others see it differently. Long-time Dexter Lake caretaker, Billy Godreau, insisted that both the APA and Mutt Lange ‘jumped the gun.’ Lange should have known about the APA guidelines and taken the time to file for permits. He did apply for, and received, the $25 building permit from the town of Waverly, but there are conflicting reports about whether Lange was aware of the APA guidelines. According to Godreau, “If they had both shown a little patience, they could have worked it out.” Additionally, Town Supervisor, Michael Bailey insisted, “The APA has good people. I work with them all the time. You gotta have rules; otherwise the Park will fall apart.”

In his years as county legislator, Dave Vanderwalker had worked with, and became close personal friends with State Senator Ron Stafford from Plattsburgh. Stafford had a well-known reputation in the North Country as someone who offered his constituents help in times of need. So Vanderwalker reached out to him to see if he could convince the APA to offer leniency in Lange’s case, especially since Lange and Twain had been so generous in dealing with local schools, government and the people of St. Regis Falls. Stafford tried, but failed.

Shania and Mutt had made several contributions to the St. Regis School District, including a new sound system. They strongly supported the youth commission, and during the ice storm of 1998, a “very generous donation” was made to the St. Regis Fire Department. They also provided work for fifteen full time employees on Dexter Lake. But after announcing that they would leave the Adirondacks only one full time employee remained on as caretaker for the estate.

While it was the opinion of many that their conflict with the APA was the reason the couple decided to leave the Adirondacks, Shania told a much different story in a 1998 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. It was the privacy thing. “Look,” she said, “I live in the most remote area you could possibly live in, and yet everyone knows everything about me. I come into town wearing a hat and sunglasses, and I’m still recognized. It must be my mouth or something. Anyway, you just want to be one of everybody else. Especially me. I know I’ll get more privacy over there (Switzerland); it’ll be nice to be able to get on a plane and get off and then be in a completely different world.” The frantic world of celebrity had caught up with her. Since Mutt never gave interviews one cannot be sure, but given his reputation for shunning the spotlight, he likely held the same view.       

The property: Then and now

Furthermore, Shania claimed that she and Mutt never intended to remain permanently in the Adirondacks. For them the Adirondacks was a convenient, temporary “base camp” for writing, recording, and solitude, but not a permanent home. After they moved to Switzerland their house on Dexter Lake remained empty for almost a decade. Then it was sold for about one-half of their $9 million asking price. Buffalo Sabres owner, Terry Pegula and his wife Kim, bought the property as one of their “getaway destinations.” Pegula turned, once again, to Richard Hanpeter to repurpose the lodge. The recording studio is long-gone and renovation of the property included a complete restyling of the dwellings in the ‘classic tradition of the Adirondacks.’ All of the fixtures removed from the building have been donated to the St. Regis Falls Town Campground.

 [A final note from the author: On a 1984 bicycle trip through the Adirondacks I got to spend an evening at Sunbeam Lodge, while my Aunt Pearl and Uncle Dave were caretakers there. Also, in 2012, while doing research for an early version of this article, I was able to spend an afternoon with Pearl at her home in Santa Clara reminiscing about my childhood memories playing hide-and-seek with the Vanderwalker kids at the Conger Mountain Inn. Even though my mom, Madora Peacock, and Aunt Pearl were 5 years apart in age, in appearance they could have been twins. It gave me great comfort to spend time with her because I felt my mom, who had passed decades before, lived on through her. Pearl had nothing but good things to say about Shania, Mutt and Steve Cook. And my conversation with Mr. Cook showed that he had the same high regard for both Pearl and Dave. He told me that the last time he spoke with Pearl was during the 2015 manhunt for Dannemora escapees, Richard Matt and David Sweat. He had called her to check on her safety, but she assured him that all the “excitement” was taking place well to the east of her Santa Clara home. She also told him that she knew the accomplice that helped the two men escape, which Mr. Cook found quite interesting.] 

This article is dedicated to Aunt Pearl and Uncle Dave.

Photo credits from top:

  • Durer House/Sunbeam Lodge Durer image from Wikipedia // 1890 Sunbeam from Pearl Vanderwalker collection
  • Pearl and Dave Vanderwalker Photo provided by David Vanderwalker Jr.
  • 1994 Sales Brochure courtesy of Historic Saranac Lake Wiki
  • Loon Echo Twain Years Photo used by permission from Merrill Thomas Real Estate, Lake Placid (Nick Politi)
  • Control Room at Loon Echo. Photo provided by Murnane Building Contractors
  • Charlie Vanderwalker poses with his Shania memento. Photo provided by Charlie Vanderwalker
  • Shania Twain photo from Wikipedia


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Gary Peacock grew up just north of the Blue Line in Chateaugay, NY where he became an avid camper, hiker and biker at a very young age. After he closed his Record Store in Plattsburgh, he took several long - distance bicycle trips in France and the Adirondacks before attending college at Plattsburgh, where he earned a degree in Adirondack History. This article is part of a series of papers he wrote while earning his degree.

10 Responses

  1. Barbara Bailey chow says:

    My grandfather was a caretaker at dexter lake for many dad lived there when he was in high school.
    Wilbur Bailey was my grandfather. We have a picture of him being a chauffeur to pick up people going to when st. Bernards school from New York City brought the kids for the summer. They lived in a cottage when there.
    I remember fishing there with my grandfather when the Thompsons owned it

  2. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    Great post. Thank you, Gary.

  3. Linda Kloczkowski says:

    Thanks for the second part of your article. Found it to be interesting as well as the first but not as fascinating. I love hearing about Adirondack history.

  4. Ben Kline says:

    Terry Pegula purchased the property 7 years before becoming the owner of the Buffalo Sabres.

  5. Mark says:

    Well written and well researched. Great article!

  6. Sally Farrell says:

    So glad you did this follow up-very informative!

  7. Lewis A. Sala says:

    Great work revealing so much detail. Thank you for your research.

  8. lynn potter says:

    This is an awesome article. My late mother in law’s parents were caretakers to the lake in the 1910-to the mid 20’s and she told me many stories about the lake including the one that her father actually found Dexter himself shot in his buggy with his dying horse on the ground in front of him. According to Pearl, the bullet went through Dexter and into the horse.

  9. Jan Washburn says:

    Great article Gary. We attended Shania’s Lake Placid concert and were given front row seats since we had children with us and she wanted kids up front. I wondered what happened to her property. Sad that recording studio was taken out.

  10. John Cooper says:

    We had the pleasure of staying in the lodge for 3 to 4 months in the summer/fall of 1970. It was such a memorable time. The lodge was still basically original. Even the radio in the main fireplace room was from the mid 1930’s. There was a boathouse as well as a caretaker house and ‘barn’. The lake had Loons that sang. I think of it often.

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