New AARCH director shares approach, plans for 30-year organization
By Tim Rowland
The forest has a way of massaging sharp edges and overgrowing divisions, a circumstance that has Erin Tobin optimistic about communities within the Adirondack Park and their role in making the 6 million acre experiment a better place to be.
“I feel like there’s a lot more that connects us than divides us,” Tobin said. “Now, in the Adirondacks, is such an incredibly exciting time.”
Tobin was selected last summer as the new director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), a 30-year-old organization born of the effort to save Great Camp Santanoni in Newcomb. Tobin will fill the position of Steven Engelhart, who is retiring from the post that he held for 27 years.
Tobin has spent 20 years in the preservation profession, most recently as vice president for policy and preservation at the Preservation League of New York State, and has worked in the major historical hotspots of the Northeast, including New York, Philadelphia and Boston. An avid skier and hiker, the park was a natural attraction, both in its beauty and in its communities.
Tobin said she wants to maintain the course of action established by Engelhart, of historic preservation by consensus rather than conflict.
The strategy has worked well, dating to AARCH’s foundation, when Santanoni — built in the early 1890s and considered to be among the greatest of the Adirondack Great Camps — was in danger of decaying into the forest after the lands were incorporated into the Forest Preserve.
Santanoni was preserved as an historical site, thus avoiding the mandate that the forest be scrubbed of any work of man.
Tobin said it remains a testament not just to preservation of the old, but reflections of new and changing times. “Santanoni was built for the elite, but it is now open and accessible to the public,” she said. “Everyone should be able to sit on the porch of Santanoni and listen to the call of the loon.”
AARCH projects such as Santanoni and the preservation of Adirondack fire towers can unite groups with differing agendas.
Even where preservation interests do not prevail, Tobin said it’s important for historical partisans to support the outcomes and use them to advantage. After a lengthy debate, a historic railroad between Lake Placid has been pulled up in the name of recreation.
“Now it’s going to be a trail — OK, that was the outcome,” Tobin said. “Now how do we make it successful and make sure it contributes to Tupper Lake.”
If the Adirondack Rail Trail attracts a large number of people, as it’s expected to do, more travelers will learn about the communities’ histories, their people and their stories than would have been possible before.
While the mountains, woods and ponds have been the Adirondacks’ calling card, Tobin said she has seen added interest of late in the communities and people who live in those communities, and their importance to the park itself.
Where people would speed through small hamlets, a sense of history and place can get people to stop, get out of their cars and have a look around — and maybe even spend a few bucks. “Historic preservation is economic development,” Tobin said.
And economic development, in turn, keeps communities viable, and their stories remembered. “Having a sense of place is important, and we won’t be successful without those places and without bringing more life into those communities,” she said.
Every hamlet, every community, has a story to tell — some still have significant visual evidence, while others, such as the attempted Black agrarian outpost known as Timbuctoo have largely vaporized from the landscape, leaving only tantalizing tidbits and clues to its existence dwindling in the cultural record.
Focusing “on people whose stories might otherwise not be told,” adds layers of interest to the region, and leads people to engage with the communities, seeing them in a new light, Tobin said.
And engagement is the ultimate sign of respect, an acknowledgement of people today and their connections to the past. “I believe in finding and underscoring our common interests,” she said. “There is a lot of unity that’s created by history in so many ways.”