NISKAYUNA Union College dedicated a building Saturday, but the backdrop was far from the usual foundations, freshly painted plaster and gleaming glass commonly found.
This backdrop was an Adirondack-style home. There were scuffed wood floors, mounted deer heads, antlers, fish and a bear’s head, wooden snowshoes and fraying brown maps tacked to walls, a fire crackling and chandeliers with pine cone detailing.
College officials dedicated the cozy building to longtime Union College benefactors John and Helen-Jo Kelly, marking a new direction for the former home of noted conservationist Paul Schaefer. The Kelly Adirondack Center is expected to open up opportunities for Union students, research fellows and others to the vast mountains, wildlife and waterways of the Adirondack Park.
“From the highest level of technology to the most dramatic, rustic scene you could possibly see here at this very, very special place, the arc of the Kelly family’s generosity to Union College seems to cover all corners,” said Union Board of Trustees Chairman Mark Walsh.
Standing behind a podium next to the fireplace, Union officials told a crowd of trustees, senior officers, students, alumni and community leaders about the college’s long connection to the 6 million acre park.
It all began with William James Stillman, a Union alumnus, Schenectady native, artist and writer who fell in love with the Adirondacks in the 1850s and introduced other nature lovers to the scenic Upstate New York mountains.
“He joined people like Thoreau and Emerson and tried to talk to them about the new Eden that existed in this wonderful place called the Adirondacks,” said college President Stephen Ainlay.
Union’s relationship with the park continued with the help of Franklin Hough, another alumnus and forest conservationist who in the 1880s adored the Adirondacks so much that he helped draft the law that would eventually aim to preserve its forests.
“One of the great things about acquiring this place is that it has allowed Union College to rediscover its deep roots and its history and relationship to the Adirondacks,” said Ainlay. “The story, of course, continues with most of the people in this room.”
He couldn’t name them all, but he mentioned a few. There was Carl George, a Union professor emeritus who asked Ainlay to go on a 3.4-mile drive one day from the college to 897 Saint David’s Lane in Niskayuna, a 2,400-square-foot Dutch replica home with perennial gardens and a bluestone amphitheater. The property borders the Reist Sanctuary, a 111-acre preserve sometimes used by the college’s biology department as an outdoor laboratory.
The cabin-like home was built in 1934 by Schaefer, who gained a nationwide reputation for protecting the Adirondacks’ river valleys and wilderness areas. By the time Ainlay laid eyes on it, the property had a new owner. Conservation group Protect the Adirondacks ran the place as the Center for the Forest Preserve, using it as offices and to house the Adirondack Research Library.
A 3,900-square-foot addition at the center boasts the largest collection about the Adirondacks outside of the Adirondack Park, including rare books, maps, photographs, documents and the personal papers of some of the region’s foremost conservationists.
At the time Ainlay was introduced to the home, Protect the Adirondacks was struggling with financial obligations.
“George introduced me to Peter Borelli [the group’s president], and that began a remarkable conversation about this place, about its history and about the people who deeply cared about what this place is about, about Paul Schaefer and his vision for the Adirondack Park,” recalled Ainlay.
Union College purchased the complex in 2011, deciding it would preserve and expand its use as a learning center by using it as a base for more academic programming related to the Adirondacks. It also jibed with one of Ainlay’s major initiatives — taking advantage of Union College’s surroundings, including the Adirondacks, the Berkshires, the Hudson and Mohawk valleys, and the Erie Canal.
“It became time in our minds at Union College to, in some sense, stop apologizing for things in the past that had led to disappointments and to proclaim from the rooftops the strength of this area and what it has to offer,” he said. “And the Adirondack Center is a critical part of that.”
When he told trustees about his plan for the center, Kelly took him aside, whispering that he would financially support the project. The senior vice president and director of research at IBM grew up visiting his grandparents’ home on Lake George.
“Today, my wife and I have a place on Lake George, but over that 50 years or so of being on the lake I have seen the impact of the contention between ecologically preserving the park and yet recognizing that places like the Adirondacks are truly the economic engine for a huge part of the state of New York.”
The Kelly Adirondack Center will host lectures, concerts and art and photo exhibits, as well as several research fellows who plan to examine the tension between environmental protection and economic development in the Adirondacks.