Fans of Debar Pond Lodge formulate next steps in fight to save the structure
By Tim Rowland
Built on the eve of World War II, Debar Lodge in the Town of Duane was a 20th century take on a 19th century idea. It recalled the chunky log construction of the Adirondack Great Camps, yet it foresaw the chromed-up 1950s with clean lines, metal windows and modern furnishings that would have been scarcely recognizable to William West Durant.
But it is Debar’s natural setting that is the star of the show, what Adirondack Wild managing partner Dave Gibson called a ‘fjord-like environment,” a breathtaking scene where the narrow Debar Pond is nestled in the shadow of towering Debar and Baldface mountains.
“The whole character of the area draws you right in,” Gibson said at a Wednesday webinar sponsored by Adirondack Architectural Heritage. “It’s a gorgeous sheet of water making you aware that this is a special place.”
Historic Adirondack Great Camps that you can visit.
Designed by noted Adirondack architect Bill Distin and built by Florida couple Arthur and Claire Wheeler, Debar Lodge has been in limbo since 2004. That’s when the property was turned over to the state, thus becoming part of the Forest Preserve and thus becoming illegal.
So began another chapter in an ongoing tension between nature and history that has brought spirited debate to man-made structures including dams, fire towers and Great Camps. Law dictates that all signs of human endeavor must be erased from the Forest Preserve. That has seemed draconian to those who believe some works of function and art are worthy of saving, but the law is the law, so they have engineered creative ways to preserve significant architecture by carving out special land-use designations or returning small parcels to private hands.
In 2020, fans of Debar were startled when the state abruptly unveiled plans to, according to a proposed Unit Management Plan, to “honor the history” of the site by bulldozing the historic lodge and putting in its place an intensive use day park featuring “two picnic pavilions, picnic tables, benches, grills, fireplaces, restrooms, parking area and a water access site.”
“We were all rather surprised when the state announced there were no viable solutions and said they wanted to tear it down,” said Howie Kirschenbaum, who founded the Debar Pond Institute which AARCH and others hope will replicate the success of actions to save the Sagamore and Santinoni great camps.
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AARCH executive director Erin Tobin said the state often lacks the time and money to maintain historic structures, so architecture’s defenders are often asked if they want to take responsibility themselves, “and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
The plan is to trade 400 privately owned acres on nearby Meacham Lake to the state in return for the lodge complex and six acres that it occupies. Public access to the lake and hiking trails would be preserved, while rooms at the lodge would be rented to vacationers and space for conferences and programming, Kirschenbaum said. One day a week through the summer would be set aside for public tours.
DPI has lined up donors of the land and funding for refurbishing the lodge, which Tobin said is in “remarkably good shape.”
While supporters acknowledge that some would still rather see the land returned to the wild, the land-exchange has the backing of state and local government, along with Adirondack Wild and the Adirondack Council.
But the exchange would require an amendment to the state Constitution, a process that is tedious by design. Two subsequent legislatures (separated by an election) must pass legislation to put the issue before state voters.
Legislation failed to pass both houses the first two years it was introduced, but Kirschenbaum said he hopes the third time will be the charm. If this and a future legislature pass the bill, the issue could be on the ballot in November 2025.
While there is no formal lobbying campaign, supporters are being urged to call or write their state representatives to make their feelings known.
Gibson said Adirondack Wild had originally wanted the area to be returned to nature, but as plans have evolved so has his organization’s thinking. “What’s critical is that there be a public benefit,” he said.
The additional 400 acres for the Forest Preserve, protection of Debar Pond and the cultural value of a repurposed lodge all add up to a positive venture. It is a setting, Gibson said, where the lodge, the pond and the mountains are in harmony. “The public and private interests are mutually served,” he said.