Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Finally, a solution for Debar Lodge

By Howard Kirschenbaum

Debar Lodge, a grand camp complex listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Franklin County, has been a dilemma for New York State since it took ownership in 1979 and possession in 2004.

Located on the shore of secluded Debar Pond in the Debar Wild Forest unit of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, the lodge and associated buildings were designed by leading Adirondack architect William Distin and represent an outstanding example of rustic log construction. 

Although Debar has great potential for public educational programs and lodging, the state has been unable or unwilling to find legal and appropriate uses for the structures.  Rather it has recently proposed to tear down the buildings and reclassify the land as an Intensive Use area for camping, boating and day use.

Fortunately, there is a better solution—one that preserves and uses the historic buildings in the public interest AND allows public recreational access to Debar Pond and the surrounding Forest Preserve.   

This can be done through an amendment to Article 14 of the state constitution, which otherwise might require buildings in the Forest Preserve to be removed and the land to become forever wild.  Such amendments, which allow exceptions to Article 14, have been used many times in the past to achieve a valuable public purpose.  

The proposed amendment for Debar Lodge is a “land exchange” amendment in which the state would convey the Debar building complex  on a few acres of land to a non-profit organization and, in return, the non-profit organization would convey to the state a much larger and equally valuable parcel of land to become part of the Adirondack Forest Preserve.  The property lines would be drawn and conditions built into the exchange that would insure that Debar Lodge be operated for public purposes and that the public would still have recreational use of Debar Pond and the surrounding Forest Preserve.

In the past, any suggestion of a land exchange amendment has been met with the legitimate question: 

“This may appear to be a feasible solution, but where is the non-profit organization with the purpose and funds to purchase the land for exchange, rehabilitate and equip the empty and deteriorated buildings, and operate a self-sufficient program there?”

Enter the Debar Pond Institute.  Motivated by the imminent threat of losing this valuable historical and architectural resource, a group of Adirondack citizens with a long and distinguished record in non-profit administration, historic preservation, public lodging and business have formed a new, New York not-for-profit educational organization to preserve Debar Lodge and operate it in the public interest.  Significantly, they have also received commitments from private sources for the funds needed to accomplish the land exchange and substantially rehabilitate and equip the Lodge for public use. The initial board of directors includes:

  • Sarah R. Bogdanovitch (Paul Smiths). Professional forester; professor, Paul Smith’s College; board member, Adirondack conservation and education organizations 
  • Pat Benton (Long Lake). Former owner of historic Hedges Resort on Blue Mountain Lake; board member, Sagamore Institute of the Adirondacks 
  • David Hislop (Essex). Director, Essex Community Heritage Organization; former president, Adirondack Architural Heritage
  • Mary Hotaling (Saranac Lake).  Founder and former Executive Director, Historic Saranac Lake 
  • Howard Kirschenbaum (Tupper Lake).  Founder, first president, Adirondack Architectural Heritage; former owner or director of Great Camps Uncas, Sagamore and White Pine
  • Edward “Ned” Lemieux (Duane).  Supervisor , Town of Duane
  • Richard Longstreth (Keene Valley).  Professor of American Studies, George Washington University; author, A Guide to Architecture in the Adirondacks 
  • Jake Silverstein (Wilmington).  Chairman, Adirondack Life Magazine

More specifically, the Institute proposes that in return for receiving the Debar complex on six acres, it will convey at least 300 acres of land to the state for the Forest Preserve.  It will agree to maintain the buildings according the Secretary of the Interior’s “Standards for the Rehabilitation of Historic Buildings”.  And, consistent with its purpose “to preserve Debar Pond Lodge for the education, enjoyment and inspiration of present and future generations,” it will operate a diverse program open to the public, including: (a) educational programs, including environmental and outdoor education, Adirondack history and historic preservation, veterans support, and/or personal growth and development, (b) public lodging and recreation, and (c) public tours.

Amendments to the state constitution require a long and careful process, including passing two different sessions of the state legislature and then coming before the voters of New York State as a public referendum.  In the case of Debar Lodge, the process is worth it. This particular land exchange amendment is a win-win solution on many fronts—cultural, environmental, educational and recreational.  Specifically the land exchange:  

  • saves a magnificent work of architecture from destruction
  • uses the historic property for many forms of public education and recreation
  • enhances the Forest Preserve by approximately 300 or more acres
  • maintains public access to Debar Pond and adjacent hiking trails
  • helps disburse usage of the Forest Preserve away from the overused High Peaks region
  • provides jobs and economic benefits to the local community
  • costs the state nothing; in fact it saves the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in demolition costs and the additional costs of creating alternative uses on that site.

We are hopeful that a broad coalition of state agencies, local government, and groups interested in historic preservation, environmental conservation and economic development, will support the Debar land exchange amendment.

Howard Kirschenbaum lives in Tupper Lake and is the founder and first president of Adirondack Architectural Heritage. He also was former owner or director of Great Camps Uncas, Sagamore and White Pine.

Photo courtesy of Lorraine Duvall


Related Stories

The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com

34 Responses

  1. I was one of the enthusiastic, and ultimately successful, group of supporters for the constitutional amendment that saved the Great Camps on Raquette Lake by the vehicle that Howard proposes for the Debar property. Anyone who has supported Camp Sagamore for a program or simply a visit in the many years since that property went into not-for-profit ownership knows this can be a success. The constitutional amendment process is properly cumbersome, but with good will and support from the many reputable state and national organizations who will endorse this idea, success and the saving of the treasure that is Camp Debar can be achieved. Thanks to Howard and the other distinguished Adirondack folk who have joined to support this effort. Generations yet unborn will thank you.

  2. Chris says:

    Bravo !

  3. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    Well, that’s exciting, Howie. I hope it works. You certainly have assembled a grand group of people. Hats off to you all !

  4. Christine Denno says:

    This sounds like a good solution.

  5. DEAN D LEFEBVRE says:

    Sounds to me like it’s a win win for all involved. If presented properly to the citizens of NY State it should pass and make the proposal a reality. I might add that perhaps your group should also start by reaching out to The Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages. They represent all residents in the Adirondacks the reside within the Blue Line or Adirondack Park Boundary. Work together!

  6. Phil Terrie says:

    Not opposed, but don’t you mean Article XIV of the constitution?

  7. Robin Smith says:

    How can we help?

    While my wife and I do not live in the Adirondacks, we visit every summer and during the winter. We are huge fans of the Adirondacks and its great camps. We would love to help with preserving this camp.

  8. Ellie wall says:

    This is a great solution. Glad to see Ned lemieux included as town of Duane citizen. I am glad to help also.. I live in mountainview the next town. Eleanor wall

  9. LeRoy Hogan says:

    My wife and I are log cabin fans and I a history fanatic sooooo

  10. Terry says:

    Great job, Howard, and the group of folks who make up the Board of Directors!!
    This is the kind of progress that we need more of – not just in the Adirondacks, but across America!
    Congratulations on your efforts to date!

  11. Amy Godine says:

    Fantastic resolution, and what an impressive, can-do ground of directors. I hope this takes, and is a template for other historic preservation crises along these lines.

  12. william c hill says:

    Outstanding! I’m sure there will be unending opposition to the (and probably right here on this forum). This is a chance to make up for some of the historic losses of the past and pave the way for the future of preservation.
    Thank you DPI

  13. Jeanne says:

    This is wonderful! Thankyou for the resolution.

  14. Boreas says:

    Seems like a reasonable solution to a vexing problem. Hope it all works out!

  15. Bob Meyer says:

    Agreed ?% !

    • T. Gath says:

      Hello Bob! So are you the Bob Meyer for which I worked cruising timber for Domtar on the Republic Steel tract? Just wondering.. It put a smile on my face to think that you may be! 🙂 … and I 100% agree with this article as well.


  16. James Bullard says:

    I support that solution.

  17. Robert Williams says:

    Well done !!!

  18. Joe Brubach says:

    Excellent proposal! Please keep us updated on how this progresses.

  19. Paul says:

    It’s interesting this place was designed by Distin but doesn’t really appear to have that much unique character as far as a “great camp” goes. But this clearly has historic value (this group has some experts in that regard) and this sound like a more than fair swap.

    No wait for the “coming to a reasonable compromise and agreeing to swap large chunks of land for the FP for small historic things creates a terrible precedent” comments!

  20. John hardeman says:

    Finally a common sense solution for this historic lodge. Thanks to all that worked so hard to get to this arrangement and thanks in advance to the board memberso for all the hours they will put in to move forward.

  21. Gary Hartwick says:

    Very reasonable proposition. Go for it!

  22. James Service says:

    Whats the history behind it? Who owned it? Thanks.

  23. Wally says:

    Tell us how to help. Great approach!

  24. Yolanda Reuss says:

    My husband found this place by accident and brought me over to check it out. I fell in love at first sight and have returned regularly to take photos and hang out. I wanted to buy the place and open a lodge so people could enjoy it as much as I do! I checked into the place when we found it and saw it was government owned. Excited to see it rehab and would love to be involved if there’s a chance!

  25. Steven Gokey says:

    Well, excellent group of people. Let’s preserve our Historic structures, including camps in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Camps on Lake Meacham on the outer East side were torn down by mandate of the DEC. Let’s not make these same moves.

  26. Michael J. Singleton, Ed. D. says:

    Great news!

  27. Matt M. says:

    My multi-generational family owns land just a few miles away from Debar Pond. It’s been one of favorite places to go for over 30 years. We visit Debar Pond about ten times a year, in all seasons Anyone who visits and sits in the grass/snow facing the pond for just even a few minutes breathes in the stellar view and the powerful tranquility of the wilderness there. The pond, sheltered closely by its mountains, calls for all visitors to be still and reflect on the silent beauty that lives there. The abandoned old log houses scattered about add to the wonderful solitude and isolated atmosphere. My family is very concerned the State’s plans do not appreciate Debar Pond’s wilderness value and that they are moving to remove its protections when they should be conserving them. Building unnecessary fire pits, and gazebos, and picnics tables will not serve the long-term goal of environmental conservation. This is not the place to dump unused State funds. Inviting crowds of people to Debar Pond will negatively impact the natural benefits of this location, possibly severely. Please consider requesting the State stops the Intensive Day Use Area plans and realigns with its mission to conserve the environment. I believe there is still time left for public comment on their plans. Thank you.

  28. Laurie says:

    Sounds like a great plan! Please let us know if there’s anything we can do to help.

  29. Veronica Phelan-Munroe says:

    I do hope for everyone’s sake that the whole property, the log mansion and grounds can be Preserved!
    This wonderful jewel needs to be kept together and opened to all who love the outdoors and this exceptional location.

  30. john lyons says:

    As a former resident of the North Country (Malone, NY), I sincerely hope that this salvation project comes to fruition. Best of luck to all involved!!

  31. Ellie wall says:

    Has anyone heard anymore about the nys amendment to save buildings at debar. I just read an article that homeward bound adirondacks has bought a property lake Titus for retreats for veterans and I thought they were bidding for debar lodge for that purpose. I hope this doesn’t stall debar pond from being saved.

  32. Kathleen McCormick says:

    Thank heavens!!! After everyone’s hard work and so many years of letters and pleading the legislation this is a landmark breakthrough to save a magnificent building and the potential for community use is endless! Great job!

  33. Ronld Prior says:

    Great to read that citizens of the ADK have
    step in to save the Debar Lodge.
    Pat Benton has always had a great love
    ADK and is a great asset to your team.
    Regards Ron & Sandy Prior