Voices of Preservation: The Adirondack Architecture Guide
Wheelerville, Witherbee, Wanakena: these names don’t spring readily to mind in conversations about Adirondack architecture. Perhaps they should. Since before tourism blossomed, industry — tanneries (Wheelerville), iron mining (Witherbee), and lumbering (Wanakena)—agriculture, and commerce have shaped Adirondack communities. Yet the conversations and publications about architecture in the Adirondack Park have centered on the big camps and the Adirondack Rustic style.
I've been working in the Adirondacks for 30 years, but The Adirondack Architecture Guide is my most interesting, ambitious, intense and fun project. When I started nearly 15 years ago I intended to document and illuminate the many-threaded story of the Park’s architecture, from settlement to the present. To meaningfully represent the geographic, socioeconomic, typological, and temporal diversity of Park architecture, I realized the guide should encompass thousands of buildings and would take years to complete. I also thought I had a fair idea of what it might contain. The systematic fieldwork of driving virtually all the roads in the Park and walking all the hamlets dispatched this hubris—and it was replaced with the delight of new discoveries. Just a few of my favorite finds are the numerous and architecturally-varied cabin colonies (fast disappearing elsewhere), silent movie theaters, modest yet architecturally unique camps, Midcentury Modern gems, an unaltered circa-1900 iron bridge, a rare surviving "Arch of Understanding" from the 1967 World's Fair, more industry-related structures than I had imagined, and an elaborate rural mausoleum with an incredible backstory.
To keep it nimble as a field guide yet still comprehensive, I structured the Guide in three parts: the Southern-Central, Eastern, and Northern regions. Together they cover the entire Park and will contain more than 2,500 individual or ensemble entries. Each volume contains approximately 15 driving, walking, or boating tours, plus contextual essays—many by guest authors. These delve into topics ranging from Adirondack building materials, to children’s camps, iron mining, catalog houses, military heritage, and more.
My myriad conversations with property owners and local historians who care deeply about their architectural heritage have been especially gratifying. Encouraging preservation of that heritage by giving it wider recognition, The Adirondack Architecture Guide can also aid planning in communities not covered by any historic survey—the vast majority in the Park. All sites visited, not only those selected for the books, have been accurately mapped, photographed, and recorded with GPS coordinates and a unique I.D. in the project database.
The first tours and essays debuted in 2016 on the project website as free downloads. AdirondackArchitectureGuide.com continues to provide project updates and new content. SUNY Press published The Adirondack Architecture Guide, Southern-Central Region in 2017, publication of the Eastern Region is anticipated in 2020, and the Northern Region is in progress.
As a designer of buildings, my abiding passion throughout this endeavor has been to understand what, how, and why people built in the Adirondacks. The Guide is meant to help residents and visitors alike discover the fascinating built heritage throughout the Park, appreciate its significance, and understand it in context. I hope it leads modern-day Adirondack explorers to see architecture they don’t expect and to visit places they’ve never been.
Janet Null is an award-winning architect, President of Argus Architecture & Preservation in Troy, a Fellow of the Association for Preservation Technology International, and a founding member and former board member of Adirondack Architectural Heritage. Her preservation work spans 48 years and dozens of National Register and National Historic Landmark properties, including two projects recognized with Excellence in Preservation awards from the Preservation League. She has 30 years’ architectural and planning experience in the Adirondacks, including for the National Historic Landmark Great Camps Sagamore, Pine Knot and Santanoni.