Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Coming home to play

“Oh, how cute!”

That was our first impression on seeing the little piano in Linda Kaiser’s basement in Syracuse.

Then we tried to carry it up a flight of stairs.

Linda had called Great Camp Sagamore’s executive director, Emily Martz, to donate the piano that she and her husband Harvey bought at an auction on Sagamore’s Main Lodge lawn in October 1975.

The piano has only 61 keys – the standard is 88. Margaret Emerson probably bought it for her children to play at Sagamore. Her grandson, Alfred Vanderbilt III, remembers playing a piano with “a strange number of keys” when he would visit camp as a young child.

Linda’s generosity reminds us of the extraordinary confluence of institutions, individuals, and events that surrounded that fall weekend in 1975.

Sagamore’s future was imperiled just weeks before the auction. Competing interests were making deals and jostling with compromises that would ultimately save the camp.

Margaret Emerson donated Sagamore to Syracuse University in January 1954. In 1975, in the midst of a terrible economy, the university was looking to divest. S.U. and the Department of Environmental Conservation had arranged that the State would buy the 1,526-acre property. The land would become part of the NYS Forest Preserve, “forever wild” and open for all to enjoy.

But once the State acquired Sagamore for the Forest Preserve, the buildings would become legally “nonconforming.” The routine solution was called “winter burning.”

To prevent that fate, a deal was struck just prior to the October auction. The 7-acre peninsula surrounding the Main Camp lawn had been separated from the State’s purchase and sold instead to the National Humanistic Education Center, a non-profit group that provided conferences and retreats to professional educators.

The Education Center would relocate to Sagamore from its campus in the High Peaks, and would soon change its name to the Sagamore Institute of the Adirondacks. The newly formed Preservation League of NYS would provide counsel and oversight regarding the historic buildings, an arrangement that continues to this day.

The term “Great Camp” had not yet been coined. In 1975 these structures were more commonly called “white elephants” – magnificent, historically significant, yet completely untenable. The American historic preservation movement was just getting underway, inspired by the approaching Bicentennial, and the camps were starting to find advocates.

Most observers could easily imagine admiring a sunset from the Main Lodge porch while their elegant guests gathered for dinner. But very few could imagine the work and cost of maintaining such a large complex of bark-clad buildings on a remote Adirondack lakeside.

At the time of the auction, the National Humanistic Education Center’s mission did not involve interpreting Sagamore as an historic site, but Barbara Glaser and Howard Kirschenbaum, the Center’s leaders, would soon begin to create that reality.

On that October weekend, Barbara and Howie raised their auction paddles as often as they could to retain the most essential historic furnishings for what had just become their organization’s new home. The fireplace hardware and log beds that Sagamore uses today not only originate from the Durant and early Vanderbilt years, but were actually manufactured by workers at the camp.

In addition to buying a lovely vintage piano for his family, Harvey Kaiser was becoming inspired by the beauty and significance of these endangered camps. Dr. Kaiser was an architecture professor at S.U. and would soon become vice president in charge of university facilities. In 1982, Kaiser published Great Camps of the Adirondacks, a book that helped place Adirondack design into the national pantheon. Dr. Kaiser died last year, just as his revised edition of Great Camps was being published.

What about the piano?

It still plays! The iron harp is embossed “Curtis Bros./New York”. (Also “Upright Grand Guaranteed for 10 Years” so, unfortunately, the century-old warranty is shot.) The case is stenciled “Jacob Doll,” a competing high-end piano manufacturer in New York. We’re trying to confirm if the two companies teamed up to make hybrid instruments. It seems to be the most plausible explanation.

The piano is the second large piece of furniture that was purchased at the auction and recently donated back to Sagamore. The first was an elaborate tiger oak roll top desk donated last fall by J.T. and Virginia Hall of Cazenovia. So Sagamore is on a roll!

Linda Kaiser, a gifted harpist and pianist, spoke of the joy the piano gave her family for 45 years. She is proud of seeing it return to Great Camp Sagamore. Due in part to her late husband’s work, nobody calls the camps “white elephants” anymore.

Now they are called “America’s treasures.” Now they are called great.

Photos: Linda Kaiser, bidding a musical farewell to the 61-key piano that she purchased at the Sagamore auction in 1975 and donated back to Great Camp Sagamore this fall.

October 1975 auction at Sagamore. Photo by Craig Gilborn. From Durant: The Fortunes and Woodland Camps of a Family in the Adirondacks, Craig Gilborn author.

Ca. 1920, 61-key, upright grand piano, back home to Sagamore and waiting for the 2021 season to start.

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Robert Engel is historian at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake.

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