Landmarks: Meeting on the bay

It’s difficult to confirm all the anecdotal history surrounding the 100-year-old Auditorium at Silve

SILVER BAY – It’s difficult to confirm all the anecdotal history surrounding the 100-year-old Auditorium at Silver Bay, but if Chip Devenger and Gale Halm agree on the story, chances are pretty good you can believe it.

“I don’t know if it’s true, but supposedly all the architectural drawings were in the building when the first one burned, so they quickly got all the workers back and had them rebuild it from memory,” said Devenger, who has spent his last 33 summers at Silver Bay.

“That sounds right,” said Halm, who fell in love with the place as a young child back in the 1940s.

Silver Bay YMCA of the Adirondacks is nestled on the western shore of Lake George a few miles above Bolton Landing and just north of Tongue Mountain. It has been attracting visitors for more than a century with its wonderful location, beautiful view, friendly staff and volunteers like Devenger and Halm, and its century-old, 1,100-seat convention center, simply called the Auditorium. The original one had been built 1906-07, but on July 1, 1908, a fire of “suspicious nature” reduced it to ruins.

Starting over

“There was a $200 reward for any information leading to an arrest offered by the town of Hague, but I never found any evidence of anyone being charged,” said Halm. “So, they put up a tent on the cement pouring, held some conferences there and then started working on the new one.”

By November of 1909, the Auditorium was ready to go, but there were a few small changes. The shingle roof was replaced by a slate one, another story was added to the tower, which juts out from a corner of the building, and a few more seats were added.

“The seating capacity is around 1,100, but it was in the minutes of a general meeting before they built the first one that the seating capacity would not be more than 1,000,” said Halm. “So they did add a few things and put a backstage part on both ends. The cost was also not to exceed $20,000. It’s not as glamorous or as complete as it might have been, but it is a beautiful building.”

Before the building was quite complete, E.M. Willis, the general secretary, noted in his minutes from a trustees meeting in 1909 that “everybody is delighted with the new auditorium, the tower, the new bell. . . and the opera chairs are most comfortable.”

There were also two smaller meeting rooms added on the western side of the building, and the 500-pound bell placed in the tower was from the Meneely Factory in Troy. The architect was Franklyn E. Edwards of White Plains, builder of Silver Bay’s historic boathouse just a few hundred yards away from the Auditorium. Made mostly of wood, the place seats about 600 people downstairs and the rest head to a balcony.

National conventions

The Auditorium and Silver Bay YMCA of the Adirondacks have been home to countless national conventions held by various religious denominations as well as the site for numerous college reunions for a century. The Boy Scouts of America also have often called the place home and will celebrate its 100th anniversary next summer at Silver Bay.

Along with the Auditorium, there are several other buildings on the Silver Bay campus, including an inn with 300 beds, a handful of dormitory-like buildings, a few small homes and even more cottages. They all provide lodging for either large organizations or smaller, more intimate groups and families.

The Silver Bay Association, which oversees Silver Bay YMCA of the Adirondacks, was created in 1904 after the YMCA had held back-to-back conferences there in 1903 and 1904. Guests originally stayed at the Silver Bay Hotel, whose owner, Silas Paine, concurred with YMCA leader Luther Wishard that the hotel should reserve its gatherings to Christian conferences. An employee of Standard Oil and a close underling to John D. Rockefeller Jr., Paine and his wife, Mary, purchased most of the property around Silver Bay in 1897. Their large home on the campus these days is one of the many dormitory-like buildings available to guests.

“It’s a very relaxing place where people can almost immediately feel at peace,” said Devenger, who lives in Sutton, Vt. “People have told me it’s a very spiritual place, and while anyone is welcome, we still do have a connection to the YMCA and the Y’s core values are very important to us.”

People seeking peace and quiet won’t be disappointed, but guests will be missing something if they don’t take advantage of what Silver Bay has to offer. Nature trails, tennis courts, a restaurant, an arts-and-crafts center and, of course, access to Lake George are just some of the options available to guests.

Pam Fisher is director of tennis at Silver Bay and one of the “new people.” She’s only been there for 20 years.

Sense of community

“This place is addicting, in the best way,” she said. “Along with the beauty of Silver Bay, I think people come back because they love the people here. It’s the camaraderie, the community.”

Robert James, who schedules hiking trips for guests, has been volunteering at Silver Bay for many years.

“We have found the summer and year-round staff to be very friendly here, and not only have we made friends with them, we’ve also made friends with people who keep on coming back for conferences,” said James, who lives in Slingerlands. “It’s a beautiful place, and the area has some wonderful history connected to it, going back to the French and Indian War.”

Much of that history, the stuff relating specifically to Silver Bay, might have been lost if not for the work of Halm and Mary Henck Sharp. With the aid of their husbands, Jules Halm and Richard Sharp, the two women put together two pictorial histories, “Silver Bay Association: 1900-1935” and “Silver Bay Association: 1936-1975.”

“There was all this stuff, everything from minutes of meetings, to photographs, to any kind of papers that were generated by the organization,” said Halm.

“We also had some artifacts, and all this stuff was just clutter scattered around filling up the office. We were worried it all might not survive, but Mary and I worked hard to put it all into book form.”

Former President Gerald Ford, then a Michigan congressman, spoke at the Auditorium in 1970 when he was the minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, and other famous men, including naturalist and Boy Scout leader Ernest Thompson Seton, 1946 Nobel Peace Prize winner John R. Mott and former New York Gov. Charles Evan Hughes, all visited the place regularly. James Naismith, the man who invented basketball at a YMCA in Springfield, Mass., was a regular instructor at Silver Bay and introduced many YMCA employees as well as visitors to the game at the Fisher Gymnasium on campus.

“Fisher Gymnasium was the first building dedicated to the game of basketball and it was built back in 1917,” said Devenger.

“That was quite a gamble. It’d be like us building something dedicated to ultimate Frisbee. You don’t really know if it’s going to catch on.”

Military returnees

Only recently, Silver Bay has begun a new program, inviting military families to spend time at the campus free. It’s an offshoot of the program that has offered free retreats to ministers and their families since 1999. Devenger is director of the program, which is housed in two of the buildings on campus, the Brookside Community House and Trinity House.

“We’ve had soldiers come back from Afghanistan and they come here and enjoy the place at our expense,” said Devenger.

“Our staff is trained to allow people to have their own space if they need it, and if they want to take advantage of all we offer, that’s great. I think that view alone helps people feel relaxed and spiritual. And our beautiful view isn’t going to change. That’s a forever-wild zone across the lake. Those mountains are always going to look like that.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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