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Amy Catania helps hold onto the past

May 18, 2011
By DIANE CHASE - Special to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Historic Saranac Lake Executive Director Amy Catania isn't just about preserving Saranac Lake's past but is very much looking into the balance between present and future. Amy and HSL's various activities and events help show the importance of how a connection to history can build pride in and strengthen the community. Amy enthusiastically highlights a few of the events that her 30-year organization will offer this summer.

"We have a lot of events to look forward to," Amy said. "More than we have had before. People can check out the events page by going to and click on the events section."

In addition to such activities as a Cure Cottage Cooking Demonstration, Bartok concert and book signings, there are weekly walking tours each Tuesday from June through October.

Article Photos

Amy Catania
(Photo — Diane Chase)

"The weekly walking tours will change each week. One week it goes to the Cure Cottage Museum, a private house has been set up to look like a cure porch and the owner allows us to show it," Amy said. "We have our downtown walking tour, tour of Bartok Cabin and lastly a tour of Little Red, the first cure cottage at Trudeau and the Trudeau Statue.

"I suppose every town believes that its history is special. We certainly do here in Saranac Lake. It is sad how things get lost over time. Now, through the Internet, Historic Saranac Lake is able to share history with a wider audience."

In December 2008, Historic Saranac Lake started an online Wiki site that currently has more than 4,000 pages of Saranac Lake history contributed by volunteers. The site has grown rapidly, and receives hundreds of hits a day from people around the world.

"Everybody is interested in his or her own genealogy," Amy said. "Now with the HSL Wiki page people can go online and look up their own family information. I think that if this was the Wiki site in a bigger town it would be unmanageable but here we have dedicated volunteers that will track down or get in touch with contributors to ask questions.

"We love people to post their stories. There is a section where people can post their stories but it is separate so it doesn't get mixed in with fact. We realize the importance of the oral history but also want it to not be confused with the scholarly information. I thought there would be more skepticism about the HSL Wiki site from historical experts but we have gotten a very positive response."

The Wiki website is a helping guide to the development of a new exhibit on Saranac Lake history in 2012.

Grants from MuseumWise and the New York Endowment for the Humanities are supporting the work of two outside consultants to plan and develop the exhibits.

"Field Horne is a historian from Saratoga working with Kevan Moss, a designer and exhibit planner in Paul Smiths," Amy said. "The consultants are working with a team of 14 community members such as Caper Tissot, Mary Hotaling, Howard Riley and Joe Hackett to plan the themes of the exhibit. Saranac Lake has a huge story and there isn't much room in the John Black Room so we do need to focus on what to present."

According to Amy, HSL has been around for 30 years, but the office was in different locations than the current Church Street one. The mission started as a means to get buildings on the National and State Historic Registry, doing the Cure Cottage books and other publications, restorations projects like the Bartok Cottage, Union Depot and the Laboratory.

"After we completed the restoration project of the Saranac Laboratory, we took a look around and realized that HSL is now more than a historical society. Now we want to connect the people to this building (Dr. Trudeau's second lab)."

"Mary (Hotaling), Historic Saranac Lake's first director, is a collector so she had been collecting artifacts for quite some time, so we have quite a collection," Amy said. "We are also lucky that we are not the only game in town. The library has their wonderful research room with an excellent archive. No matter if it's a photo album or a box full of beakers, we hate to have people throw things away.

"We have a lot of stuff, and now we are working to get it inventoried and cataloged. We just got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which enabled us to have a consultant come in and do an assessment on our collection.

"We are taking steps toward becoming a museum. We have a collection that we are cataloging; we are open to the public with exhibits and are now working on our charter status with the State of New York. Right now we are an historical society and an architectural preservation organization. We have our oars in all these different ponds and feel that becoming a museum would merge all the elements."

Amy has been with Historic Saranac Lake since 2007. Before she joined, she was a Spanish teacher in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. She loved being with the kids and felt she was successful at her job but there was a part of her that felt something was missing. She had majored in Latin American studies in college. While home with her two sons Louis and James and studying for her master's to be permanently certified in New York State, Amy did a project on the Spanish-speaking tuberculosis patients that came to Saranac Lake.

"My project turned into this 100-page paper," Amy said. "I had a revelation that this didn't feel like work. I wanted to go to the library and research. I knew this is what I wanted to do. Luckily for me it was at a time when Mary was looking to step back a little bit as she had been here since the beginning."

Amy credits Hotaling and a dedicated group of board members with getting about 170 Saranac Lake buildings on the National Registry of Historic Buildings. Hotaling was with HSL for 30 years until recently retiring. Having a lot of buildings on the National Registry in the '80s helped draw attention to the historic aspect of Saranac Lake.

Now on Main Street and other parts of town, business owners have embraced that part of the heritage. Amy credits Mary with receiving grants for architectural renderings, which enabled the building owners to reference when doing building rehabilitation.

"It's neat to see how these drawings have been used," Amy said. "We have great historic pictures of Main Street and if you stand in the same spot it looks almost the same today. The Post Office Pharmacy has even been renovated to an earlier date. It looks wonderful.

"We are really busy with school groups. We have tours here in the lab. I love getting kids into the building. We have elementary, middle and high school students come here," says Amy. "Last year we had about 200 kids come through the building and this year there will be even more. Just getting kids in the building is great. I'll put the Wiki up and the kids are interested in seeing their home or pictures of Winter Carnival. We can tailor the program to fit the needs of the students. We have a lab activity where they can look at slides of TB under the microscope. We have done in-class presentations and oral history projects."

Amy outlines an exciting project with the SLHS journalism class where students were paired with elders in the community to interview them. The assignment gave students an opportunity to interview someone while saving the stories of the elders. The interviews are posted on the HSL Wiki site so the work could be shared.

"The high school industrial technology teacher Leif Sorgule is working with his students to make a cure chair," Amy said. "Leif met with past HSL board member Ed Scharmer, who knew how to make cure chairs. There were various designs of the cure chairs, which evolved as ways were discovered to make patients more comfortable. In the fall Leif has an architectural design class that is going to work on designs for the cure porch," Amy proudly states.

Amy hopes to create a model of a cure porch that will be housed on a trailer and serve as a movable exhibit of Saranac Lake's unique history. The project is modeled on a traveling porch created by a British artist last year. While in residency at Salem Art Works in Salem, N.Y., artist Bryony Graham developed a love of porches. In the U.K., porches are nonexistent. Graham became interested in how this country has changed and how we don't use our porches anymore. Amy continues explaining how Graham's interest delved into how the porch had been a public, social environment but also a private space. Graham then made a traveling porch and drove it all over inviting people onto the porch to tell their stories. It was used as a prop for a play, in parades and became a conversation about society.

Amy heard about the project and got in touch with Graham, feeling that the project was a natural tie-in to the cure porches of Saranac Lake. Graham refers to the Traveling Cure Porch as "Porch II." As with all projects this one requires funding, and HSL is seeking a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support the project.

"I think it is so important to be able to connect the children on a personal level to our history, not to just have them memorize things," Amy said. "It is more about making a personal connection with the past so they can get excited about history. We try to do that through a project that is arts orientated."

Amy hopes that HSL's own Traveling Cure Porch will enable more oral histories to be recorded. Right now she refers back to the HSL Wiki site, which currently is a place where people can document their history. She wants to encourage teachers and students to utilize the site.

Amy wants to make children aware of their history and engage in it. She stresses that by connecting to the past, children can be inspired to care about the future of their community.



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