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The Great Camp Experience
Part I, Santanoni

Article  by Persis Granger
Photos Courtesy Adirondack Architectural Heritage

 

 

For centuries the Adirondacks have held allure for those with time and money to travel. Even in the late 1800s and early 1900s, those from more populated areas flocked to the mountains for beautiful scenery, fresh air and outdoor recreation. Many sought out hotels and boarding houses in our Adirondack villages and towns. Others, more affluent, built their own private retreats. The grandest of these homes came to be known as the “Great Camps.” Wealthy families used to summering in “cottages” in Saratoga Springs, Newport or Mount Desert Island sought a different experience, a place where gentility bumped up against wilderness. The Adirondack region was that place, and architects carved out of the vast forest tracts magnificent vacation estates, each with multiple buildings, to be staffed with dozens of local residents, some of whom resided in the camp’s service quarters. The list of camps includes places like Pine Knot, White Pine, Top Ridge, Uncas and Sagamore. Steven Englehart, Executive Director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), estimates that as many as sixty great camps were built during this period. One of the earliest—and arguably one of the grandest of its time—was Camp Santanoni, designed for Albany banker Robert C. Pruyn and built mostly in 1892-93 on 12,500 acres in the town of Newcomb.

The dairy complex at Camp Santanoni.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pruyn’s camp featured three groups of buildings—the gatehouse complex, the dairy complex,  and finally, on the shore of Newcomb Lake, the base camp complex—about forty-five buildings in all. Designed by Robert H. Robertson, they exemplified the emerging Adirondack Rustic style, using native materials. The magnificent gateway arch, the main camp fireplace and some outbuildings were made of fieldstone.

The Smokehouse Main camp porches
 

Many of the buildings boasted hand-hewn beams, decorative log columns, ornate log grillwork and half-log accents. Peeled birch bark wall covering completed the effect. Santanoni’s design also hinted of Japanese influence that harks back to Pruyn’s time in the Orient, when he served as secretary to his father, the minister to Japan appointed by Abraham Lincoln. The expansive farm supplied vegetables, meat and dairy products to family and guests, whose number included none other than Theodore Roosevelt and James Fenimore Cooper, Jr.

Authentic restoration brings the Santanoni buildings back to life

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In 1953, Pruyns’ descendents sold Santanoni to the Melvin family, who, in the wake of a family tragedy, sold it in 1971 to The Nature Conservancy. It later became part of the State Forest Preserve. The buildings were left unattended and they deteriorated. AARCH, along with others, convinced the state to designate the remaining twenty-seven buildings and thirty-two acres as a State Historic Area, and to begin restoration of the structures.

Restoration continues. Today Santanoni is a National Historic Landmark and has been designated a Save America's Treasures site by the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. If you would like to see it, wander around the grounds or take a canoe or kayak out on the lake. Santanoni is open to the public year round. Visitors should know, though, that they must park their cars at the stone gateway, as no motor vehicles are permitted to drive the four and seven-tenths mile-long carriage road. Plan to hike, bike, ski, snowshoe, or ride a horse-drawn carriage (call Ken Helms, 518-582-4191).

Wagon ride in to Camp Santanoni
An estimated eight thousand people do every year.  About six buildings are open from late June to Labor Day, when interpreters are available. Day-long group tours may be arranged through AARCH, June through September. If you enjoy the great camp experience, you’ll want to know that this group also leads a multi-day tour that includes visits to several great camps, some of them privately-owned properties not usually accessible by the public. This year’s Rustic Study Tour is in September, and one fee covers lodging, lectures, tours, transportation from Albany Airport and meals. All group tours are arranged by calling 518-834-9328. Learn more at www.aarch.org. 

 

Persis Granger is an Adirondack history buff. She edits the John Thurman Historical Society Quarterly and also writes historical fiction set in the Adirondacks, including Adirondack Gold and A Summer of Strangers. Read more at www.PersisGranger.com. She will continue “The Great Camp Experience” in the October issue with “Part II, Sagamore.”

 

 

 



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