A Visitor’s Guide to Camp Santanoni

A Visitor’s Guide to Camp Santanoni By Charlotte K. Barrett Adirondack Architectural Heritage, 2013 Softcover, 48 pages, $3.95
A Visitor’s Guide to Camp Santanoni
By Charlotte K. Barrett
Adirondack Architectural Heritage, 2013
Softcover, 48 pages, $3.95

Great Guide to a Great Camp.

JUST NORTH of Newcomb sits one of the Adirondack Park’s cultural treasures: Camp Santanoni. Designed by architect Robert H. Robertson in 1892 for Albany banker Robert Pruyn, Camp Santanoni manifests all the marvelous eclecticism and attention to detail that make the Adirondack Great Camp one of our region’s chief contributions to American arts and crafts.

While the preservation and stabilization of this complex of buildings has been underway for over a decade and while it has been open to anyone willing to walk or ride a bicycle down the five-mile dirt road from Route 28N, a brief account of its history and an accessible explanation of its significance have been hard to find. This need has been admirably filled with this meticulous, well-written, and beautifully designed pamphlet from Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH). (It is odd that the name of the author, Charlotte K. Barrett, does not appear on the cover or title page but is buried, in tiny print, on the inside back cover.)

Robert Pruyn was born in Albany in 1847 to a wealthy family with roots in New York’s Dutch colonial past. He enjoyed a comfortable childhood and a solid education, with an excursion to the Far East in 1862 when his father was appointed the United States minister to Japan. By 1885, having settled on banking and finance as his profession, he was president of the National Commercial Bank (which over the decades has morphed into Key Bank). He and his wife, Anna Martha Williams, like many of the Gilded Age plutocrats with whom they socialized, wanted a country retreat, and in 1890 they bought 6,500 acres, including Newcomb Lake, that became the nucleus of an extensive Adirondack estate. Further acquisitions followed, but Newcomb Lake was the center, and it was there that they planned to build their rustic but elaborate camp.

Camp Santanoni was built with native stone and spruce. Photo by Nancie Battaglia
Camp Santanoni was built with
native stone and spruce.
Photo by Nancie Battaglia

This was an era of dramatic change in the Adirondacks. The state was moving to protect public lands from the ruthless logging and catastrophic fires that had ravaged the landscape and seemed likely to get worse if the state did not show an interest in the fate of its northern forests. State steps toward conservation included the establishment of the Forest Preserve in 1885, the creation of the Adirondack Park in 1892, and the adoption of constitutional protection for all state land within the Park—the “forever wild” clause—in 1894. At the same time, millionaires were securing their own private Adirondack preserves surrounding palatial vacation homes. The Great Camps originated around Raquette Lake, where developer and self-taught architect William West Durant began building and selling rustic yet opulent complexes built with local materials. One of the earliest and best known of the Durant Great Camps is Pine Knot, now owned by the State University College at Cortland.

At Santanoni, the Pruyns developed their main camp and a farm, along with a substantial lodge at the main gate. They and their guests spent summer days fishing, boating, and swimming and occupied their evenings with music, poetry, and games. The main camp, the architectural and social hub of the complex, was conceived by Pruyn and Robertson as a combination of Japanese elements with the rugged and impressive look of a large building constructed from local stone and massive native spruce. It has sixteen thousand square feet of roof and used 1,500 spruce trees in its walls.

The whole complex was maintained—first by the Pruyns and after 1953 by the Melvin family of Syracuse—through the early 1970s, when it became the first purchase of the recently established Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy. A well-known and tragic local story involves the disappearance of a Melvin grandchild from the camp in 1971. Despite an extensive search of the Santanoni property and the surrounding Forest Preserve, involving the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and hundreds of volunteers, no trace of him has ever been found.

When the property was transferred to the state in 1972 as an addition to the Forest Preserve, a thorny problem arose: what to do with the historically significant buildings? While this pamphlet devotes lavish, precise attention to the history of Santanoni and its many outbuildings, to the story of how they were built and used, and to a deft assessment of the aesthetic and cultural importance of the site, it glosses over any serious assessment of another crucial issue. Strictly speaking, once the Santanoni property was incorporated into the Forest Preserve and thus became subject to the forever-wild provision of the constitution, all of the buildings should have been removed or demolished.

After nearly two decades of uncertainty about the fate of these historic structures, during which time they were visibly deteriorating, AARCH was established, mostly through the energy and commitment of preservationist Howard Kirschenbaum, in 1990, with the primary goal of saving Camp Santanoni. First came a public-awareness campaign. Then it was time for consultation with DEC, the Adirondack Park Agency, and other state officials. The APA’s State Land Master Plan suggested a possible solution: the area of the main camp could be reclassified as “historic.” But this was a dodge, since the State Land Master Plan also declares that “historic” properties cannot also be in the Forest Preserve.

Many environmentalists believe that the decision by the Park Agency and DEC to slip past the forever-wild provision and save Camp Santanoni was an end-run around the constitution. Most are pleased to see this historic and architecturally significant camp preserved but are uneasy about rhetorical gymnastics that undercut the primacy of the constitution in determining the management of the Forest Preserve. I, for one, believe that a constitutional amendment would have been the proper course.

That omission aside, this pamphlet is an ideal introduction to this cultural masterpiece. It has an excellent narrative covering its history, including portraits of the major figures and a precise account of the historical context. It has easy-to-read maps and diagrams, both historic and contemporary photographs, and an account of how deteriorating buildings were stabilized and rehabilitated by skilled artisans. Anyone contemplating a trek to Camp Santanoni should carry this guide. ■