By Tom Woodman
How does one account for the coincidence that on a relatively easy ski in good conditions, two members of our party have their boots come apart? Probably the fact that they have not used their ski equipment in some time. Their spirit is willing but the leather is weak.
What attracted these occasional skiers and a couple dozen others with a range of ability to this guided excursion to Great Camp Santanoni? The chance to combine a pleasant trip on a fine trail with an interest in the restoration of an Adirondack great camp.
And with the help of some duct tape, the expedition succeeds.
The morning weather doesn’t bode well for a ski trip as Jeannie and I begin our day in Keene. On the drive to Newcomb we pass through rain squalls and gusting wind. But as we pull into the parking area near the camp’s Gate Lodge a light, wet snow is falling and prospects are improving.
Our trip leader is Steven Engelhart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), the group that oversees conservation of the buildings on the state-owned estate.
Santanoni is the only Adirondack Great Camp the state owns, and one of only three designated historic areas within the Forest Preserve, the others being John Brown’s farm near Lake Placid, and the forts at Crown Point.
Built in the 1890s, Santanoni was the seasonal estate of Albany banker Robert Pruyn and his wife, Anna. The 12,900-acre property, which sits under the gaze of the Santanoni Range, included Moose Pond and Newcomb Lake, where the main building complex blends into the wooded shoreline. The state acquired the extensive tract in 1972 with the help of the newly formed Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
The state usually demolishes buildings that come with Forest Preserve acquisitions. Though it didn’t immediately knock down Santanoni’s buildings, it did allow them to deteriorate for 20 years as it decided what to do with them. AARCH, the town of Newcomb and others came to the defense of the camp, with its distinguished architecture and three distinct components: the Gate Lodge, a farm, and the main camp at Newcomb Lake.
Santanoni was named to the National Register of Historic Places during this effort, and eventually the state adopted a plan that allowed for rebuilding and protecting the buildings.
Our expeditionary force begins its trip with a quick briefing from Engelhart. We then set out for our first stop, the farm complex about one mile in. The trail is an old carriage road, so it’s wide and the hills are gentle, making the 10-mile round trip an ideal route for beginner skiers. The trail is smoothly packed, and the morning’s snow has been just enough to sugar-dust the woods without affecting the track. The snow tapers off as we begin, and by afternoon the sun appears.
A handsome cobblestone building that was the estate’s creamery and several wooden cottages remain of a farm that once boasted more than 20 buildings and 200 acres of cleared land, including gardens and pastures. Engelhart tells us that agriculture was Pruyn’s main interest in the seasonal home, and the farm provided vegetables, fruits, dairy and meat for the family and guests. AARCH restored a barn that stood across the carriage road, but when work was nearly complete it burned to the ground in 2004 in an apparent arson. Metal arms, protruding like tentacles from the snow, are all we can see of the former cattle stalls.
Though AARCH would like to see the barn rebuilt, officials say the state management plan didn’t anticipate such a need and they aren’t sure whether it would be allowed. Engelhart hopes that a future revision of the plan will permit reconstruction.
Continuing our gentle ascent, we come to a junction with another former carriage trail branching to the north and Moose Pond. Soon after the junction we reach a height of land and can begin to see the High Peaks through the woods to the north. An easy descent carries us to a bridge crossing an outlet where Newcomb Lake flows into Little Duck Hole and we arrive at the main camp.
Built in 1892, the complex is similar to other Adirondack Great Camps in that it is divided into separate buildings for different purposes, such as a great room, a kitchen and sleeping cabins. But Santanoni is unusual in that its six buildings are joined by extensive porches and covered by a single roof system rather than connected by individual, covered walkways.
If we could look at it from above, the building layout would form the shape of a bird in flight toward the water. But there is no perspective from which to get an overview of the camp. The architect worked the structure so subtly into the landscape that nowhere can an observer see more than a section of the complex. From the lakefront it seems to recede into the forest.
As we gather for lunch in front of the massive stone fireplace of the great room, Engelhart recounts the history of Santanoni and explains the architectural significance of the design. The shape of the main camp grows from a traditional Japanese temple design, he says.
Decades after it was built by the Pruyn family, this elegant and understated estate became the scene of a tragic mystery that may have given many people their first awareness of the Great Camp.
In 1953, a trust representing the heirs of Robert and Anna Pruyn sold Santanoni to brothers Myron and Crandall Melvin, who spent years repairing and restoring the complex. In 1971, 8-year-old Douglas Legg became lost near the camp. One of the largest searches in the Park’s history uncovered no sign of him. The highly publicized search led to new procedures for Adirondack search efforts. And the tragedy led the Melvins to quickly sell the estate.
The camp today is accessible year-round. In winter, skiers and snowshoers can cover ground easily on the carriage road and, if they have the time, explore the shore of Newcomb Lake. The road needs only a few inches of snow to be skiable, making Santanoni an ideal trip in early or late winter. Those wanting a longer trip to the main camp can add two miles each way by starting at the Visitor Interpretive Center in Newcomb. A new trail connects the VIC to the carriage road.
In summer, mountain bikes and horses are permitted on the carriage road along with hikers. And summer visitors can watch the restoration work headed by Michael Frenette of Tupper Lake and receive an introduction to the camp from AARCH’s interpretive guides.