For nearly a century the Lake Placid Club Resort complex occupied the eastern shore of Mirror Lake. It began in 1895, when Melville and Annie Dewey leased a farmhouse called Bonniblink on a five-acre parcel of land that he referred to as ‘Morningside.’ They chose this site as a place where they could establish contact with nature, find relief from their allergies, and to foster a model community that would provide for recreation and rest for professional people, specifically, educators and librarians. Dewey and his wife felt that occupations involving “brain work put people at higher risk of nervous prostration that, if not checked, would lead to fatigue and even death”
Melville Dewey was born on December 10, 1851 in Adams Center, Jefferson County, NY. At the age of 21, while attending Amherst College in Massachusetts, he invented the Dewey Decimal System. He then went on to become chief librarian at Columbia College (now University), secretary of the Regents of the University of New York State and state librarian. Dewey was also one of the founding members of the American Library Association (ALA), whose aim was “to enable librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense.” In 1884, Dewey founded the School of Library Economy, the first institution for the instruction of librarians ever organized.
A troublemaker, with troubling views
Despite these impressive credentials, Dewey consistently got into trouble. He abused his printing privileges at Columbia, often using far more supplies than law students. He would not hesitate to dock his employees half a day’s pay just for arriving five minutes late. Then, while Columbia trustees were considering his dismissal for misusing funds that were targeted for library reclassification, Dewey left for a position with Regents of the University of N.Y.S. But even there, he was aware that “mere mention of his name often made people angry.”
Dewey had a long history of “womanizing” and a reputation as a “serial hugger and kisser.” During a ten-day ALA trip to Alaska in 1905, Dewey made unwelcome advances on four prominent librarians. When they reported him to officials, the ALA ostracized him from the organization he had helped create some twenty years earlier. By this time, however, Dewey had focused much of his attention on the Lake Placid Club, which had incorporated into its charter a clause that prohibited Jews, African Americans and other minorities.
Dewey resigned from his post as State Librarian as a result of pressure from prominent Jewish dignitaries, including Saranac Lake camp owner, Louis Marshall, who played a key role in the creation of the Forest Preserve and the “Forever Wild” clause of the New York State Constitution. While this added to Dewey’s long list of character flaws and increasing number of detractors, the Club continued to flourish. What started out with a modest clubhouse with 30 members, the Lake Placid Club, by 1930, grew to encompass 10,600 acres and 370 buildings, many of which were winterized.
Making a winter sports destination
The Club was fundamentally self-sufficient. It owned and operated several farms, the Lake Placid Boys School (now Northwood School), the original Adirondack Lodge at Heart Lake (built by Henry Van Hoevenburg in 1878 and renamed “Adirondak Loj” by Dewey), the Cascade Lakes Hotel and many other properties and enterprises. It’s worth noting that in addition to his work with the Dewey Decimal System, Dewey was a passionate crusader for an improved, more efficient system of spelling. He wrote an entire book on the Dewey Decimal System in his method of simplified spelling and noted that, “Many wil be annoyd and sum wil ridicule.” At one point, Dewey shortened his name to Melvil Dui; the Melvil stuck…Dui did not.
In 1904 Dewey ordered forty pairs of Norwegian skis and kept a few Club buildings open for its first winter season, a move that both local residents and club members ridiculed. Within a few years Lake Placid was the winter sports capital of the country. Between 1918 and 1928 more world records were set in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake than in all other North American venues combined. Inspired by events at the Saranac Lake Winter Carnivals, the Lake Placid Club built up their winter sports venues, and in 1914, the first Mid-Winter Sports Festival was held in Lake Placid. In 1916, a ski-jumping tower was built on the golf course and a more permanent one was constructed at Intervale in 1921.
But perhaps the biggest influence on winter sports in Lake Placid was a group of enthusiasts from the Lake Placid Club who became known as the ‘Sno Birds.’ Their “direct purpose…to create in this country a winter resort that can offer all the advantages of world-famous winter resorts such as St. Moritz, Switzerland…and Chamonix, France.” After only two years of actively promoting Lake Placid winter sports, a Swiss newspaper article referred to St. Moritz as the “Lake Placid of Europe.” As many as 80 organized ski events were hosted by the Sno Birds in a single season. Keep in mind that downhill and slalom events were still more than a quarter century in the future for Lake Placid. In the 1930’s skiing in Lake Placid meant ski-jumping and X-country skiing. (Whiteface Mountain did not become fully operational until 1958).
But it was speed-skating that really put Lake Placid on the map. The first sanctioned speedskating event was held on Mirror Lake in 1918. The success of the 1918 meet led to many other competitions in subsequent years: Diamond Trophy events, North American Championships and the National Championships, all were held on Mirror Lake. Lake Placid native, Charles Jewtraw won the 1921 North American Championship and was the first Olympian to win a Gold Medal in the first ever Winter Olympic Games in 1924. According to 1932 Olympic Gold-Medalist, Jack Shea, “The Lake Placid skating activities did as much for the Lake Placid Club as the Lake Placid Club did for the village.”
An Olympic bid
By 1927, Melvil Dewey’s son, Godfrey, was secretary of the Lake Placid Club. Because the Club had played such a major role in the Lake Placid winter sports scene, members of the International Olympic Organizing Committee (IOC) contacted him to see if Lake Placid would be interested in hosting the III Winter Olympics in 1932. However, in addition to Montreal and Oslo, there were six other American venues also under consideration: Lake Tahoe, Yosemite Valley, Denver, Duluth, Minneapolis and Bear Mountain, NY. The Olympic Committee Conference that would decide what country would host the games was slated for April 10th, 1929 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In late March,1929, as various members of American organizing committees were getting ready to sail for Europe, Dewey learned that William May Garland, who was both president of the California Olympic organizing committee and a member of the IOC, intended to vote for Yosemite as the site for the 1932 Games. Up to that point, Dewey had no intention of traveling to Switzerland to try and get the games for Lake Placid. But sensing the intense competition, he figured he had no choice if he was going to have any chance at all in winning the bid. At the last minute, Dewey pulled some strings and reserved a cabin aboard the already over-booked Ile de France and set sail for Europe.
Dewey had previously pulled some strings and got himself named manager of the American Ski Team at the 1928 Olympics at St. Moritz. He used his time there to observe how Olympics were run and visited twelve other European resorts. Dewey met with heads of sports federations, studied housing and other facilities and sold Lake Placid to everyone that would listen. During the year between the Swiss Olympics and the IOC decision in April 1929, Dewey spread his infectious enthusiasm throughout Lake Placid and obtained a commitment from New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt to fund the mandatory bobsled run.
Godfrey Dewey was not only the underdog in the Olympic bidding war, but he was all alone against an entire delegation from California. His only hope was to use the time on the long voyage to Europe to strategize. Dewey’s presentation was in the form of a legal brief with a topographical map, blueprints of the ski jump, some other documents and a New York State legislative act promising a bobsled run. Yosemite’s presentation included two slickly produced films. One film showed Yosemite National Park in all its summer glory and the other showed the site’s actual winter competition sites. Luckily, the Yosemite delegation was eager to show off the films to Dewey and he came away from the viewing with the impression that their facilities were “no match for Lake Placid.” Relieved, Dewey spent the rest of the voyage memorizing IOC rules and procedures.
Once in Lausanne, Dewey met with contacts he made during his time at the 1928 games; he met with the former president of the American Olympic Committee and J.S. Edstrom from Sweden; both indicated they would vote for Lake Placid. In the end, the IOC saw through the slick Yosemite videos and awarded the Games to Lake Placid!
Once the IOC made its decision, Dewey wasted no time and headed to Berlin to meet with one of Europe’s premier bobsled run designers. He struck a deal with Stanislaus Zentzytsky to design a run for the Lake Placid Olympics.
Dewey was welcomed back home with a ‘near-hero’s welcome.’ A May 5, 1929 New York Times headline read, “Dr. Dewey Returns – Tells of Olympics” and 250 people filled the Lake Placid Club dining room to celebrate. Another 300 waited patiently in the Agora Theater to listen to his personal report. The real work, however, lay ahead.
Site construction, legal challenges
The first challenge was to select a location for the bobsled run. Five potential sites were named, then narrowed down to three: Wilmington Notch, Scarface Mountain and Mt. Jo near Adirondak Loj. Engineer Zentzytsky was asked to submit three separate sets of plans, even though only one would be presented to the IOC. The Notch and Scarface sites were problematic because they both required cutting trees on state land, a violation of the ‘Forever Wild’ clause of the N.Y.S. constitution.
While legal challenges played out, Zentzytsky continued designing his three sets of plans. On March 30, 1930, when the Appellate Court ruled against the two state owned sites, Dewey submitted yet another site for consideration near the South Meadows Farm, about a mile from Cascade Road. Zentzytsky considered this location as good as, if not better than, the other three sites, but it required a complete survey and another new set of plans. It also needed a name. After briefly considering ‘Roosevelt Mountain,’ Mt. Van Hoevenburg was named after one of the regions favorite historical figures. In addition to building the original ‘Adirondack Lodge,’ Henry Van Hoevenberg had a long history with the LPC. He and Melvil Dewey were two of the original Club personalities that stayed on at the Club during its first winter in 1905. Dewey also named Henry’s residence “the Vanguard” after Van Hoevenberg.
Since the Lake Placid Club owned the Hoevenberg site and Dewey was now the Club director, there was no issue acquiring the land for the bobsled run. But the Jewish anti-defamation league, B’nai B’rith, made their opposition known to the New York State legislature and tried to halt state funding for the project. Had it worked, the Jewish community would have finally won a battle against the Lake Placid Club for their years of discrimination. But Dewey seized the opportunity to turn the property over to the NYS DEC, thus eliminating any legal challenges from B’nai B’rith. It was a double win for Dewey because he was able to avoid a legal battle and maintenance costs for the complex were so high, it would likely have sent the Lake Placid Club into bankruptcy. Mt. Van Hoevenberg construction began on August 4, 1930 and the first bobsled hurtled down the 1-1/2 mile run on Christmas day (148 days after construction began!)
If you build it, they will come
Equally impressive was the construction of the new ice arena for the 1932 games. Dewey floated the idea of the Club funding the arena at a cost of $150,000. But that idea quickly faded. He then undertook a campaign to convince Lake Placid residents of the advantages of having such a structure for continued use after the Olympics. A vote was scheduled for the end of June to decide whether village residents would agree to build the arena. Time was running short and an option to purchase a downtown site was set to expire on June 1, 1931. So, the LPOC purchased land at the bottom of the hill where Grand View Hotel stood (today’s Crowne Plaza) in hopes that a vote would go their way. If it did not, the parcel was to be used as a parking lot. Dewey placed a two-page ad in the Lake Placid News just ahead of the June 30th vote which addressed every possible question concerning the project. The vote tally was 386 for the arena; 263 votes against.
Now the question was, could it be built in time for the Olympics? Construction began on August 31, 1931 and “the job was put on a 24-hour basis with men so thick they looked like ants crawling over each other.” Just two weeks before the start of the 1932 Winter Olympics the new ice arena was opened and dedicated. It took only 5 months to build!
Melvil Dewey died on December 26, 1931, a little over a month before the Games began. In the last years of his life, his son Godfrey had taken over most of his father’s responsibilities, but things were not good between the two men. In 1928, Melvil made sexual advances towards Godfrey’s wife, Marjorie, so they moved out of the complex they shared with the elder Deweys and their relationship remained forever strained. Still, he remarked that his father’s passing “deprived the Club of his (father’s) unique and forceful genius.” Once the Olympics were over, the Lake Placid Club soldiered on for another half decade, but its heyday had passed.
Years of decline for the Club
In the time between the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the 1932 Olympics, Lake Placid seemed to be protected from the severe depression that was sweeping the rest of the world. The massive construction projects and preparation for the Games kept most people working. That all began to change when the Games were over. By October of 1932 the Lake Placid Club had lost more than 180 members. Despite the addition of a downhill ski area at Mt. Whitney in 1938, over half of the vast Club properties were sold off over the next few decades. Most of the farms were sold by 1950, which meant that the Club was no longer self-sufficient. In 1958 the Adirondak Loj and 700 acres of Club property near Heart Lake were sold to the Adirondack Mountain Club. Then, in the 1960’s, holdings in the village of Lake Placid and land near Cobble Hill were sold off as well.
During World War II, many of the male workers went off to war and the Club itself was closed to the public for 14 months when the U.S. Army used the facility for rest and rehabilitation for returning soldiers. In 1952, the Lake Placid Club applied for, and obtained its first liquor license and began booking more conventions. Club revenues shot up quickly as a result. According to Dewey, there were 31,000 convention guest nights in 1947; by 1955 that figure had risen to 431,000. But during the early days of the Civil Rights movement, a growing criticism of the Club’s policies toward Blacks and Jews caused some conventions to start backing out. Jews were allowed at conventions but were not welcome as Club members. Lawsuits against the Club garnered attention from the national media as the state Commission Against Discrimination began investigations in 1955. Even though the Court upheld the Club’s right to discriminate in 1957 and B’nai B’rith withdrew their complaint in 1959, the damage had been done. Conventions at the Lake Placid Club declined just as fast as they had risen in the early 50’s. The New York Conference of Mayors cancelled their convention 1958. The American Alumni Association, New York Savings Bank and the New York State Library Association all cancelled as well.
As membership continued to drop, the Lake Placid Club opened its doors to everyone in 1976. But that move left Club members with no special privileges at all. As the 1980 Winter Games approached, a $1 million lease agreement between the LPC and the Olympic Organizing Committee gave them one more life-line. The Club housed, entertained and fed IOC delegates and VIPs for the duration of the 1980 Games. “I think it went off beautifully as far as the Club was concerned,” said Howard Riley, special assistant to the Olympic president. “The IOC loved it. The people loved it. It looked good…That was their last hurrah. As soon as the Games were over, that was when the hammer dropped.” On March 30th, 1980 the Lake Placid Club closed its doors.
The 1980s through today
Several attempts to acquire the Lake Placid Club came and went. Messanutten Village, Inc., owned by John R. Swaim took over the property, but Key Bank foreclosed on the property in 1983 and both Swaim and the Lake Placid Club filed for bankruptcy soon after. Swaim eventually went to prison for fraud and served time at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. In 1989, Gleneagles Corporation began negotiations for a luxury hotel on the former Lake Placid Club property that would have employed up to 500 people but backed out and ended up taking their project to Manchester, Vermont, where they created the Equinox Resort. Then, between 1991 and 1995 a series of fires were set to several Club buildings. The only charges filed were against two young men that set one of the earliest fires. All of the other arsons remain unsolved.
In 1996 the Club property was sold to the Lussi family, owners of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The Lake Placid Club Golf Courses and Golf House are still active and they provide one of the most spectacular vistas in the Adirondacks. The destination for sports enthusiasts that began at the turn of the century (the one before this one) is bigger and better than ever. Adirondak Loj, Northwood School, Mt. Van Hoevenberg, Olympic Museum…the list goes on and on. And all of it can be traced back to ‘Morningside,’ ‘Bonniblink,’ and others on the shores of Mirror Lake, Lake Placid, New York.
Author’s note: I was fortunate to have worked at the Lake Placid Club on two separate occasions. Between my junior and senior year in high school, I was a greenskeeper on the Lower 18 at LPC. Then in 1971, I returned for a second season, this time living in the staff dormitory on Mirror Lake Drive (where Hampton Inn & Suites are located now.) I also consider myself lucky to have been a wedding DJ at the Lake Placid Club golf house a few dozen times over the past several decades, including one show in the main ballroom of the Lake Placid Club before it was torn down. Ah, sweet memories!
Photos from the Mary MacKenzie Historic Slide Collection. Used by permission of Lake Placid Public Library”