By Gwendolyn Craig
The 36,000-acre Whitney estate for sale in the Adirondacks will not go to the state forest preserve, owner John Hendrickson confirmed Tuesday, but it will also not be developed or sectioned off.
“It’s 100% not going to the state,” Hendrickson said.
“People don’t have to worry,” he added. “I don’t intend to sell it to somebody who will develop it.”
Hendrickson, the widower of philanthropist, thoroughbred owner and Saratoga Springs socialite Marylou Whitney, told the Wall Street Journal at the end of July he was selling the property for $180 million. That’s $5,000 an acre.
The news had environmentalists calling for the parcel, which includes 22 lakes and one of the great Adirondack camps called Deerlands, to be part of the Adirondack Park’s forest preserve.
The state lists the Long Lake property in its 2016 Open Space Conservation Plan, a document outlining potential land acquisitions. At a press conference in August, Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, called the property a “gem.”
“It’s a pretty stunning purchase price at $180 million,” Seggos added. “I’ll have to check my wallet. I think we’re early on (in discussions).”
In a phone interview with Adirondack Explorer on Tuesday, Hendrickson dismissed any possibility of future negotiations with New York.
He has already turned down six offers, he said, one at the full $180 million ask. He said he declined the offers because buyers wanted to develop the land. The property is so vast it took Hendrickson three days to show it to one prospective buyer, and they didn’t get to all the lakes.
Hendrickson has read news coverage of the Whitney estate listing, and is frustrated that some environmental groups think he’s “jockeying for a deal with the state.” A few state officials have called him about the property, Hendrickson said, but he has told them all “no.”
The state doesn’t have enough manpower, he said, to handle the parcel. Hendrickson feels that way from firsthand experience after watching an endemic species of brook trout disappear under the state’s watch.
Hendrickson also doesn’t want the property to become forest preserve because he does not want the historic buildings on site to be torn down. He is very loyal to the Town of Long Lake, and he doesn’t want to leave the Adirondacks, he added. Hendrickson plans to keep a house there.
“I just don’t need to own a country,” he joked.
Fish with cataracts
The Whitney property used to be even bigger, more than 80,000 acres. William C. Whitney, a U.S. Navy secretary under President Grover Cleveland, purchased the land in 1897.
Cornelius Vanderbilt (Sonny) Whitney would later inherit his grandfather’s property. Sonny was Marylou’s second husband. In a 1988 interview with Adirondack Life magazine, Marylou and Sonny talked about how the property had shrunk to around 50,000 acres.
Sonny spoke fondly of his “second home,” where he spent every summer since he was seven. Camp Deerlands, the main house on the property, has 17 bedrooms and sits on Little Forked Lake. There is also a 19th century trapper’s cabin.
Sonny died in 1992, and MaryLou inherited the property. Marylou married Hendrickson in 1997. Shortly after, she sold 15,000 acres of the Adirondack estate to the state for $17 million.
Mike Carr, executive director of the Adirondack Land Trust, said the land trust and the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy took part in a resource analysis on the property in 1991 before the sale. It involved evaluating the lakes, wetlands and forest on what was then 51,000 acres.
Within the scope of the 22 lakes are three riverhead waters including the Beaver, Raquette and Bog, Carr said.
“It’s just remarkable when you think about hydrologically how significant it is,” he added. “That concentration doesn’t exist on a lot of properties in the park.”
The land is also home to a number of boreal bird species including black-backed woodpeckers, spruce grouse and rusty blackbirds. It’s also a fisherman’s paradise for the very few who have had the opportunity.
“The fish are so old, some of them have cataracts,” Hendrickson said, and laughed.
But here is also where Hendrickson’s relationship with state officials wilts.
The late 1990s sale of 15,000 acres to the state included Little Tupper Lake. The lake had a species of heritage trout that were decimated by a release of bass into the water body.
“Within three years, a brook trout that was protected for 100 years, basically extinct (from that lake),” Hendrickson said. The trout survives in other ponds in the Adirondacks, Hendrickson said, but he is upset about the fate of the fish in Little Tupper. “That’s proper management? They (the state) just don’t have the resources.”
‘You own it or you don’t’
Hendrickson wasn’t sure how many people the Whitney estate employs, but its economic impact on the Town of Long Lake and Hamilton County is substantial. Some of the land is also forested and important to the timber industry.
If the land were to be converted to state forest preserve, vehicle access would cease and Hendrickson worried that all the historical buildings would be torn down. He does not think with the state Constitution’s “forever wild” clause, which prohibits vehicles on forest preserve, is the way to do it.
“Who is going to have access to it with no vehicles?” Hendrickson said. “It would only be for the super fit.”
But it does not appear the public will have access to the property anyways.
Hendrickson said there will be no easements on the property, something that the state has worked out with other private property owners so the public can recreate on otherwise non-accessible lands.
“I believe you own it or you don’t,” Hendrickson said.
Carr said he has been in touch with Hendrickson after the news of the listing broke, but the land trust is not in negotiations to purchase the property.
Eileen Larrabee, with the Open Space Institute, said the organization has not had any conversations with Hendrickson.
“We would support any outcome that protects the property’s natural resources and maintains the conservation values long practiced and espoused by the family,” Larrabee wrote in an email.
Bill Farber, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors, said when environmental groups come out with sweeping statements about conserving all of the property, “it’s the kind of thing that immediately creates a huge conflict.”
Farber, too, worried that converting all the land to wilderness would lead to a “destruction of heritage.”
“There’s a strong engagement between that property and the community intersection economically and socially,” Farber added. “That’s our heritage, here in the Adirondacks, and sometimes I think we haven’t found a good way to describe how impactful it is in a community.”
‘We got to live for the future’
Marylou died last year. She was 93. Hendrickson inherited the remaining 36,000 acres of the Adirondack estate.
“I’m living a Marylou Whitney lifestyle without Marylou, and that’s not fun. That’s not fun. I have to create my own memories now,” Hendrickson said.
A Marylou Whitney lifestyle in the Adirondacks includes 80 miles of private roads. Carr recalled traveling down one of them in a meeting with Marylou. It was mid-July in 1995, after a storm that blew down many trees in the region. Trees fell across the road to Camp Deerlands, but Carr said Marylou “insisted dinner was to be held.”
“I had in the Jeep a blue blazer and neck tie, and slacks and a chainsaw because I knew I’d have to cut my way to the Whitney headquarters. It was that kind of day,” Carr said.
But as he drove up, eight of Marylou’s staff had a front-end loader cutting the debris down the 13-mile driveway. Carr said he walked the last mile to the camp.
It’s the kind of Marylou memory that brings out a chuckle from Carr.
He and so many others have similar fond memories. It is why selling the estate is bittersweet for Hendrickson.
Walking down the streets of Saratoga Springs while on the phone, Hendrickson said he was getting ready for an appearance at the track. It has been a hard year for him, between losing his wife and the social isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“She was my world,” Hendrickson said of Marylou. “But we got to live for the future.”
Though he’s not sure if the right steward will come along, Hendrickson does not plan to pull it from the market. He has signed some non-disclosure agreements with “pretty famous people” interested in his property.
He wants to make sure the public understands he is not playing a game with the state or with the future of the property.
“The good news is, I don’t have to sell it,” Hendrickson added. “I’m being very picky about who can manage it properly, because it’s too important to fail.”
This story has been updated to clarify that Mike Carr, executive director of the Adirondack Land Trust, did not personally conduct a resource inventory on the Whitney property. It also clarifies that among the 22 lakes are three river headwaters.