Every Community Needs a Beating Heart
There is overwhelming evidence that the most successful communities—with thriving economies, healthy schools and social and cultural institutions—are those that embrace their own history and preserve their historic buildings. Good jobs, protection of natural resources, and good leadership are perhaps even more important. Historic preservation is a critical element in the revitalization of struggling communities and it is a visible expression of a community investing in itself and improving its own quality of life.
AARCH has always been a strong advocate for the connection between historic preservation and community vitality. We work to preserve individual buildings, yes, but we also advocate for preservation because historic places can become affordable housing, attractive spaces for businesses, innovative cultural centers, new farms, restaurants and other attractions. Preservation is about finding new uses for historic structures, not just saving buildings.
Historic places create identity
Historic places are often the “beating heart” of a community. They are the physical expression of our common heritage and many develop iconic status over time. They bring people together by “defining” a community. Think of any Adirondack town or village and you’ll quickly think of an historic building there. The Adirondack Hotel in Long Lake; Old Forge Hardware in Old Forge; the chapel on Big Moose Lake. Jay, Keeseville, Wanakena, and Hadley have historic bridges that identify them. Newcomb’s identity is tied closely to Santanoni. Others include the Woods Inn in Inlet, Raquette Lake Supply Company, the Indian Lake Theater, or the Willard Brothers building in Northville. All of these places help define their towns.
The transformative impact of preserving and restoring specific structures in a community are well-documented in the Adirondacks. (Many AARCH Preservation Award winners are in this category.) These often vacant buildings were once highly visible residences, barns, churches or schools. Examples in the region of places that have been restored and given new and quite different lives include: Paradox House Retreat (farmhouse), Champlain Valley Senior Community (Willsboro School), Valcour Brewing Company (Old Stone Barracks) and The Revival (Wells Baptist Church).
Other iconic buildings are restored and opened to the public as community centers or museums, enhancing both the physical and cultural environments of their towns. Nearly every community in the region has places like this. Recent examples include the Whallonsburg Grange Hall in Essex, the Goodsell Museum in Old Forge, and the Strand Center Theatre in Plattsburgh. (Click HERE for more inspiring stories.)
Bridges, railroad stations, and industrial sites that are abandoned have a big impact on a community’s landscape. Preserving them takes creativity, hard work, and often significant investment. But like the structures themselves, the effect of preservation can be outsized. Saving the unique Bow Bridge in Hadley preserved a rare work of civil engineering, but also preserved the historic pedestrian “link” and a destination for visitors.
In some communities, clusters of historic buildings can draw together the past and present and provide the physical assets needed for revitalization. Preservation planning for groups of buildings or entire neighborhoods, even in small villages, can help bring the built environment together with a community’s cultural heritage, and establish a strong identity.
Westport on Lake Champlain was a summer resort town through the early 20th century. But the large hotels that defined it are long gone and Westport is reinventing itself as an arts destination. A walkable center full of well-preserved 19th-century architecture, its restored Main Street, the Depot Theatre in the 1876 train station, and the 1885 County Fairgrounds complex have created an attractive and historic environment for residents and visitors alike.
Warrensburg has the largest number of National Register listed historic buildings in the region with everything from water-powered mills to churches and residences. The work of the master stonemasons from there is legendary and visible in many Adirondack Great Camps. Their work is also seen around town in structures of all types that give Warrensburg its unique character and renown for this stone craftsmanship.
Saranac Lake has embraced its history as a “pioneer health resort” through its restored cure cottages and the transformation of Trudeau’s 1894 Saranac Laboratory into a museum that tells this story. But preservationists like Historic Saranac Lake have gone beyond this focus and helped create and preserve historic districts throughout the town, most recently in the Helen Hill neighborhood, providing homeowners access to generous tax credits to help with the cost of renovations.
The preservation effort in Saranac Lake is also helping to drive downtown revitalization, with the multi-million-dollar restoration of the 1927 Hotel Saranac at its center. Historic buildings on main streets are ideal places for businesses, restaurants and arts groups to renovate—they are physical and visual clusters that draw communities together.
Heritage tourism and preservation
AARCH’s ongoing work with NYSDEC and the Town of Newcomb to preserve Great Camp Santanoni is focused on saving and restoring a National Historic Landmark. But the Santanoni partners also know this unique heritage attraction is a central part of the town’s economy. About 12,000 people per year visit Santanoni, which is located in a town with fewer than 500 residents. The direct connection between preservation and the town’s future has encouraged Newcomb to invest several hundred thousand dollars in restoration and interpretation at Santanoni and at the McIntyre Furnace and McNaughton Cottage at nearby Upper Works.
A similar opportunity exists with the National Register-listed Debar Pond Lodge (Town of Duane), a 1940s Great Camp designed by William Distin. It is also in the Forest Preserve and owned by New York State. For over ten years, AARCH has been trying to work with the DEC to preserve its buildings and create a destination for visitors, so far without success. For Duane, with its small population and limited resources, the public reuse of Debar Pond Lodge is the best hope for its economic future.
Heritage tourism is based on historic preservation because visitors want to see, touch and experience history. The number of visitors to the Adirondacks and their interest in its history as well as its natural beauty are growing. Just like locals, visitors appreciate the special places that define our region and they will spend money to stay in historic lodges, eat in converted mills, bicycle past restored barns and tour Great Camps. Community revitalization in this case includes preserving, developing and marketing historic assets because they bring people to visit and stay.
Historic preservation and community revitalization are closely linked in our region just like anywhere else. Successful historic rehabilitation and reuse projects, large and small, help make communities of all sizes successful.
Throughout the Adirondacks, AARCH provides technical resources and advice to individuals, groups, businesses and local towns to help these projects move forward. Almost as important is that we encourage the creativity and imagination needed for these projects, and point to the numerous, real-life examples in our backyard where historic preservation is working and communities are thriving.