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DEC Commissioner Joe Martens (L) and Adirondack Architectural Heritage director Steven Engelhart at Santanoni Great Camp (Photo:  Willem Monster)
DEC Commissioner Joe Martens (L) and Adirondack Architectural Heritage director Steven Engelhart at Santanoni Great Camp (Photo: Willem Monster)

In Adirondacks, Santanoni great camp saved from ruin

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This winter, one of the best places in the North Country to ski has been the trail to Santanoni Great Camp in the Essex County town of Newcomb.

In part, that's because the old road to the camp has enough snow to make skiing possible.

But the restored buildings of Santanoni also offer one of the most fascinating glimpses of the Adirondacks as they existed during the gilded age, when the North Country was a retreat for the rich and powerful.

This week, Brian Mann joined a ski tour of the great camp, organized by the coalition that has spent more than a decade stabilizing and restoring the historic site.

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Santanoni's architecture is among the most significant in the Adirondacks. Santanoni Gatelodge. Photo: mwanner, Wikipedia Commons

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Mid-morning, people crowd into the old stone and timber gatehouse at Santanoni.  A fire is crackling in the fireplace.  Joe Martens, who heads New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, looks eager to get out on the trail.

"So you’re in for a treat to see the buildings today.  When the state acquired the land in 1972, it basically neglected it.  It would have fallen into ruin by now, very easily, if it hadn't been for partners like Adirondack Architectural Heritage, the town of Newcomb, College of Environmntal Science and Forestry.  Everyone has played a role here to bring this back," martens said.

Santanoni was build in the 1890s by the Pruyn family – prominent Albany bankers who bought more than 12,000 acres of wilderness on the southern flank of the High Peaks. 

The structures sit nearly five miles back in the woods.  On this morning, the sky is hazy blue.  It feels like spring as we set off on our skis.  The tour today is made up of history buffs, journalists, state officials, tourists. 

One of the big stories here – the thing people keep talking about – is how this all came together, how Santanoni was saved.  It began in the 1970s, when the Adirondack Nature Conservancy bought the parcel and handed it over to the people of New York. 

"This was the first transaction of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy back in the early 70s.  They bought this from the family and offered it to the state of New York.  It was a gift," says the group's director Mike Carr.

Over the years since, the great camp has turned into a popular ski destination.  The winding road is gorgeous, easy terrain.  We glide through stands of maple, birch – the winter sun carving sharp shadows on the snow.

Soon we come to the sweeping structure of linked log cabins and graceful wide porches that make up the great camp itself.  Steven Engelhart, head of Adirondack Architectural heritage is in the main dining hall, giving a tour.

"Here you can see some of the kinds of features that you see in other rustic camps in the region, the birch bark wall coverings, the half-log decorate work, and beamed ceilings," he says.

Santanoni came very close to vanishing for good and some of the most important structures – including a historic barn – have been lost.  But Engelhart says more than $1.6 million have been spent stabilizing and protecting the structures that remain.

"Except for one buillding, every single building has a new roof.  Everything single building, the outside has been largely conserved.  Most of the broken windows have been fixed.  So things are tight, structurally sound, and water isn't getting in.  So that's a pretty big achievement."

Santanoni isn’t a typical rich man’s hunting lodge.  The man who commissioned the building, Robert Pruyn, spent part of his childhood in Japan in the 1800s.  Santanoni is modeled after traditional Japanese designs, its lay-out shaped like a bird in flight facing the western horizon. 

DEC commissioner Joe Martens says preserving this place is a major victory for the Park.

"To see it refurbished, largely restored, is I guess what we were all hoping for," he says.  "It wasn't easy.  There was a lot of opposition to doing any restoration work.  The plan was [originally] for the state to just watch these structures collapse."

There is tension in the Park between the fate of these human structures, with their historic and cultural meaning, and the values of wilderness.

Steven Engelhart with Adirondack Architectural Heritage, says work crews restoring this camp and guides who offer tours in the summer and winter have worked hard to bridge those two things, the human and the wild.

"I think one of the things that we've shown over the last twelve years is how well this place really fits into its forest preserve setting," he says.

"We have work to do here, but we also want people's experience here to be quiet and peaceful, so people can enjoy it the way they have for more than a century."

The partners who’ve helped save protect Santanoni hope now to reintroduce the great camp to the public through events like this winter ski tour.  One more Santanoni Winter Weekend is scheduled for mid-March.

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