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