SARANAC LAKE - Prescott House, at the crest of Helen Hill, is the new candidate to become a retreat and reintegration center for veterans of recent wars.
Homeward Bound Adirondacks, a local coalition dedicated to starting such a center, has been talking to owner Steve Hilbert about buying or renting the large, Colonial Revival-style building at the end of Franklin Avenue.
"We're negotiating," Hilbert said Wednesday. "We've had a lot of meetings. They have an interest in the building. Garry Trudeau, it appeared to me, was very interested. They must have been over there three hours the other day."
Homeward Bound Adirondacks is interested in buying or renting the Prescott House on Franklin Avenue in Saranac Lake, seen here Wednesday, retreat center for veterans.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Trudeau, the Doonesbury cartoonist who grew up in Saranac Lake, is one of the members of Homeward Bound's board. He talked with the Enterprise Saturday, while visiting Saranac Lake from his home in New York City.
In June, Homeward Bound had publicly expressed interest in an old Glenwood Drive house once owned by Trudeau's grandfather, Dr. Francis B. Trudeau Sr., but that would have required a rezoning that was dropped in the face of opposition by concerned neighbors. Trudeau said he was somewhat disappointed at that, "but, you know, one door closes, another opens, and hopefully we'll find even better opportunity here."
Trudeau had visited Prescott House that morning to take another look at it, and he liked what he saw.
"One thing that is very much in its favor is that it has a greater capacity than the old Trudeau house did," he said. "It'll allow us to bring in small-unit-size groups on retreat, and that's pretty important to bring in a group of demobilizing troops with their battle buddies as part of the initial re-entry process. They're the people they trust and strongly bonded with."
Prescott House's size "would be perfect for our purposes initially," Trudeau said. "We would like to expand beyond that, but that's a good place for us to build our model.
"It looks like it's been very well taken care of," he added.
The three-story building first opened in 1905 as an intake center for seriously ill tuberculosis patients, according to Historic Saranac Lake's accounts. Trudeau's great-grandfather, village founder Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, asked that it be built to handle patients too sick to go to his Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium. Known then as the Reception Hospital, it referred patients to appropriate residences. It was renamed in 1943 for Mary Prescott, a former TB patient who had personally subsidized the Reception Hospital's operations to help it care for poor patients.
It has since been run as a private dormitory for college students and as an apartment house. Hilbert now rents out 22 of its rooms like hotel rooms - he also owns the Sara-Placid Motel on Lake Flower Avenue - and rents a pair of two-bedroom apartments and an efficiency unit for longer-term tenants.
"I bought it and totally renovated everything," Hilbert said. "I put a lot of time and money in it over the last nine years. I love the building, but at my age and having been in the motel business 29 years, it's a lot of work for me, and I want to kind of scale back."
Hilbert said he was first approached by former Homeward Bound director Susan Waters, back when the organization was still known as Patriot Hills at Saranac Lake.
The project's organizers invited neighbors and village officials to a meeting at the house on Sunday. Bob Ross, president of Homeward Bound's board, said seven or eight neighbors attended, plus Hilbert and his wife Linda, and Homeward Bound board members including himself, Garry Trudeau and retired Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton.
"They described it as a preliminary meeting," Sandy Bandru, who lives next door to the property, told the Enterprise Wednesday. "They were looking into it and wanted to reach out to people in the neighborhood based on what happened at Glenwood. They just did an overview of what the project is; then there was a question-and-answer session."
Bandru said she supports the idea of the project and doing more for veterans, but she does have some concerns.
"The main concerns that arose were about security and how are the people screened to go into the project," Bandru said. "There were also traffic concerns and questions about how many people they anticipate being there. I'm right next to them. I was thinking about it as a parent and homeowner.
"They said they would get back to us, and encouraged us to form a neighborhood group, which we did. Our group is going to be meeting in the next week."
Ross said the board tried to answer some of the neighbors' questions at the meeting. Regarding traffic, he said it probably would be less than it is now, with the hotel-style rooms. Also, he said, "it wouldn't be a treatment facility ... and we explained that there would be some screening so we wouldn't be bringing in people who ought to be in a treatment facility."
Hilbert said the Prescott House wouldn't need to be rezoned for the kind of use that's proposed by Homeward Bound. He said he thought the meeting was "very positive" and noted that Homeward Bound will likely run into concerned neighbors wherever it tries to locate in the village.
"Any place they locate something in a neighborhood that's going to be what they're looking at, people want their veterans to have something like that as long as it's not in their neighborhood," he said. "What I tried to tell them is it was a hell of a lot worse when it was filled with college students. This is going to be something that's small scale. It's the ideal size to get this off the ground."
"It would repurpose the building for a healing mission," Ross said. The Helen Hill neighborhood "has a lot of mixed use. It has some apartment houses nearby; it has some families."
Ross added that Prescott House is beautiful and seems to be in good shape, and that its cure porches would be delightful for veterans and their families on retreat. An old elevator in the building hasn't worked in years, but if restored it would make the whole place handicapped accessible, which is necessary for some veterans. The elevator is an asset that's "very expensive to build but not so expensive to put back in working order."
Now Homeward Bound's challenge is to come up with the money and strike a deal with Hilbert to buy Prescott House - or, Ross said, a rent-to-own plan that would get them into the building sooner.
The town of North Elba assessed the 2.3-acre property at $420,800 last year. Hilbert recently had the building appraised, but he wouldn't reveal the amount of that appraisal. A Vietnam War veteran, he said he's "willing to let it go for less than what it is appraised at because it's for veterans."
Ross said he's glad Hilbert is flexible, but nevertheless, "There would have to be a major fundraising effort." Trudeau has offered $100,000 toward this as a local community challenge match, and Homeward Bound is also applying for grants. It filed an application with the North Country Regional Economic Development Council last week.
At this point, Ross said, Prescott House is the only site Homeward Bound is looking at.