Steve Williams: Skiing for a story at Camp Santanoni

Back in 2000, Camp Santanoni — one of the last of the Adirondack Great Camps — was in bad shape, wit

Back in 2000, Camp Santanoni — one of the last of the Adirondack Great Camps — was in bad shape, with sinking foundations, rotting and collapsing porches, leaking roofs and other major problems.

The only Great Camp in the state Forest Preserve, the property at the southern edge of the High Peaks in this Essex County town had fallen into disrepair since the state acquired the camp complex and its 12,900 acres in 1973.

But over the past dozen years — since a state plan recognizing its historic importance and allowing restoration was approved — the state, the town of Newcomb and groups such as Adirondack Architectural Heritage have worked to restore the building complex that were once the pride and joy of Albany banker Robert Pruyn and his wife, Anna.

“Santanoni is an unbelievable resource,” said state Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens.

The property is listed on the National Historic Register.

Starting this winter, the state is encouraging the public to visit more, to get a sense of the kinds of buildings the wealthy once built as seasonal and hunting camps to escape the cities.

Santanoni was open to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing visitors this past weekend. Yes, there’s enough snow there — the Newcomb area is recognized for having snow even when other areas don’t, state officials said.

Martens and other DEC personnel led a ski tour to Santanoni for about a dozen reporters on Monday. The camp is 4.8 miles from the hamlet of Newcomb, up a former carriage road through state-owned wilderness.

About $1.7 million has been spent so far on restoring Camp Santanoni, mostly at the sprawling main camp that sits on a ridge overlooking Newcomb Lake and Santanoni Peak, one of the High Peaks. There’s been two dollars from other sources for every dollar spent by the state, estimated Charles VanDrei, DEC’s historic preservation officer.

The main camp buildings have been repaired and stabilized structurally, but so far none of the interiors have been furnished to show how the wealthy lived during the Great Camp era, from about 1880 into the 1920s.

“In some ways, this [weekend open house] is symbolic. We’ve spent a dozen years dealing with the really serious structural issues,” said Steven Englehart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, a private nonprofit that advocates for historic preservation.

“This represents an effort to make the camp more open and accessible,” he said.

The group’s creation is due in part to the perceived need to maintain and restore Camp Santanoni, he said.

The camp complex was built starting in 1892 by Robert C. Pruyn, a banker from a prominent Albany family, distantly related to the Pruyns of Glens Falls who founded the Finch Pruyn & Co. paper mill.

His father had been President Lincoln’s minister to Japan, and Robert Pruyn spent two teenage years there. That influenced Pruyn: The main camp complex, viewed from the air, would look like a giant bird flying west — a Japanese Buddhist symbol, according to Englehart.

The main complex was designed by architect Robert H. Robertson, a Yale classmate of Pruyn’s who also designed early New York City skyscrapers as well as a Great Camp for wealthy William S. Webb. State officials believe it was the first Great Camp designed by a professional architect.

Among the guests the Pruyns entertained there was Theodore Roosevelt, according to a DEC history.

The camp property eventually grew to 12,900 acres, including a gate complex now situated just off Route 28N in Newcomb, and a farm complex where cows, pigs, chickens and orchard and garden crops were raised. (The main barn was destroyed by fire in 2004.)

The stock market crash of 1929 ruined the Pruyns, and Robert Pruyn died in 1934. His descendants used the camp less than he had, and sold it in 1954.

A subsequent owner put it up for sale in the early 1970s, and the then-new Adirondack chapter of The Nature Conservancy bought it, then sold it to the state the next year.

It was realized early on that the camp buildings were worth preserving, even though they were now in the state Forest Preserve, which is supposed to be “forever wild.” But it took until 1991 to get agreement from the Legislature on a special law allowing restoration of the property — and it didn’t receive a formal “historic district” designation allowing work to start until 2000.

The work done since then has largely been organized by Adirondack Architectural Heritage. Michael Frenette of Tupper Lake has been the on-site restoration contractor for several years.

Frenette said he tries to make the restoration work look authentic to the original construction, and working on the buildings has brought some unique challenges.

“The original craftsmen did a really nice job on this building, nothing sloppy,” Frenette said. “People have said they think there’s several thousand trees [in the buildings.]”

Martens said DEC is recognizing that Camp Santanoni and other remnants of the Adirondack Park’s human history are important to the 6-million-acre park.

“Personally, I’ve always been a huge proponent of the cultural resources of the park,” Martens said. “I think we should be doing everything we can to encourage people to embrace the cultural resources of the park.”

There will be more efforts to encourage people to visit Santanoni, Martens said. The complex is open year-round and staffed in the summer, and is a destination for hikers.

This past weekend’s ski-in open house drew at least 100 people per day, DEC officials said. Another ski-in open house weekend is scheduled March 17-18.

Categories: Schenectady County

Leave a Reply