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A peek inside ‘the San’

A tour of Trudeau Sanatorium

Light enters the Baker Memorial Chapel through a stained-glass window. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

SARANAC LAKE — It’s a hard habit to break, but we ought to stop calling the property “AMA.” Better to go back to what people called it up until 1957 — the Trudeau Sanatorium, or “San” for short.

The American Management Association has sold the 64-acre campus and is now a tenant, occupying just one of at least two dozen buildings on the 64-acre campus. AMA will soon be one of many tenants. Adirondack Health is almost ready to move some of its offices into the neighboring building, a former hospital known as the Ethel Saltus Ludington Memorial Infirmary, and more are in the works.

The new owners are moving fast; that was made clear Monday morning on a tour of the historic buildings, inside and out.

For those who don’t know, Dr. Edward Livingston founded this as the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium for the treatment of tuberculosis in 1884 on the east slope of Mount Pisgah, a location he had come to love while hunting. That treatment center, renamed for Trudeau after he died, was the foundation upon which the village of Saranac Lake was built.

Brian Draper was the guide for me and reporter Griffin Kelly. Brian grew up in Lake Placid, is a broker for Say Real Estate in Saranac Lake and is the father of two young children — and now a co-owner of the San. He and the Philadelphia couple Wayne Zukin and Sue Smith closed on the purchase last week under the company name Cure Cottage Development.

This is what you see when you walk in the front door of the Administration Building at the former Trudeau Sanatorium. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

Draper said he’s been friends with Zukin and Smith since he sold them their house in Rainbow Lake about five years ago. Since then, the couple has bought numerous commercial and residential properties around Saranac Lake, especially downtown. They have a thing for historic buildings and seem to have spruced up every one they bought here. I don’t know about the inner workings, but from the street, at least, their properties look great and go a long way toward making Saranac Lake look good as a whole.

I live just off of lower Park Avenue, and every time my wife and I go for a walk, it’s to “AMA” and back. Since the gates were reopened (what was that, a decade ago?), I’ve gotten to know the campus’ historic buildings well and am fascinated by them. I’ve taken Historic Saranac Lake’s walking tour of the buildings (from the street only, since AMA wouldn’t allow people inside) and read all about them on HSL’s LocalWiki website, so I knew what each was used for. But as for most Saranac Lakers, the interiors were a mystery to me.

Thus, this foggy Monday morning was a revelation.

We started at the old Administration Building, built in 1896, which AMA renamed the Dodd building. It was used for much more than just administration; it also had dining halls, a big kitchen, sitting porches and many bedrooms upstairs. At more than 24,000 square feet, it’s the San’s biggest building, and it’s also the grandest. The dining rooms are enormous, and each bedroom has its own bathroom, which would have been pretty special at the time. The new owners envision it as a vintage hotel, and while renovating such a big building will obviously take some time, it seemed like it was in pretty good shape, considering its age.

Out back, over an enclosed bridge, is the Service Building, built in 1912 in a style matching the Administration Building. Originally built to house staff, Draper said the owners’ idea is to turn it into something like a hostel, simple accommodations for those who don’t want much — something perhaps the local market could use more of.

The Scholfield Memorial Workshop is seen from a cure porch of the James Memorial Staff Building, which was a residence for doctors with tuberculosis at the Trudeau Sanatorium. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

From there we went to the building that Zukin said made him want to buy this place, the Baker Memorial Chapel. The jutting-out stonework of this non-denominational church is on display for all to see, but you have to go inside to soak in the atmosphere of the 75-seat chapel, with 123-year-old woodwork lit by sun through a stained-glass window. Part of the floor caved in some time ago under the weight of the pipe organ, but the new owners are awaiting a village permit to rebuild it. Preserving this 1896 church is a top priority for them, and they hope to make it available for weddings and events by this coming spring.

By the way, the organ in the church doorway is not the one that collapsed the floor. That one is at the Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake, but its pipes are still here, lying in the back pews.

From there we visited the Sheldon and Albert Medical & Reception Pavilion, a wooden building painted peach and green, where doctors and nurses used to see patients. Going inside was a little shocking. Up to now, the buildings we had entered looked vintage, like they hadn’t been used for a while, but AMA had modernized this one big-time. Desks with cubicles, modern bathrooms and signage and wall fixtures made it look like it was only maybe 10 years old, even though it was built in 1908-09, according to HSL. Adding to the funkiness is the building’s odd angles. Hallways go every which way.

Next was the Recreation Pavilion, built in 1939, which AMA used as an auditorium for staff training. It’s basically a good-sized theater with a stage, a big rear fireplace and breakout conference rooms downstairs.

The red-brick James Memorial Staff Building, where doctors with TB lived, has always been one of my favorites. It’s not that old, built in 1929, but the double-decker, half-octagonal cure porches on each side appealed to me. Also, Walker Percy cured here as a young doctor, before he became a novelist. Inside, it’s clear that this is one of those buildings that hasn’t been touched in decades. It’s pretty well preserved and the cure porches felt flat and stable, but it would need a lot of updating, such as wiring and plumbing.

The inside of the Scholfield Memorial Workshop has been modernized and is set up for use by the property’s recent owner, the American Management Association. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

The Scholfield Memorial Workshop is a blue building where TB patients used to make crafts as occupational therapy. AMA apparently used this one recently, since the modern office furniture is still neatly arranged. Tucked away upstairs, Brian showed us a cool two-room library with leaded-glass doors over the bookshelves and sun piercing through the gloom.

We made a quick loop around where AMA still operates, but not into that building. We didn’t go in the small cure cottages, some of which Brian said are in good shape and others not so much, or the houses near the gates, which he said would likely be rented, a mix of short-term and long-term.

We also didn’t have time to get down to the old laundry building, but Brian said that may soon be occupied by Randy Cross’ local bug repellent manufacturing business. The U-shaped stables next door apparently need a lot of work, but Brian said several parties are interested in that space, although he would not name them.

My biggest takeaways of the tour were these.

First is that AMA has been a remarkably good steward of this property. While most of these buildings have fallen into disuse, with very few exceptions they have not fallen into disrepair. For instance, as Saranac Lake tourism seems to be on the upswing, here we uncover what is essentially a full-fledged vintage hotel and hostel, set on a quiet, bucolic hillside overlooking Mount Baker and the Saranac River, with trails behind it for skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and mountain biking.

Brian Draper walks down AMA Way as he gives a tour of the former Trudeau Sanatorium. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

My second takeaway is that these new owners are not messing around. Brian admitted that they’re still trying to figure out their concept for the entire campus, and they don’t know what will become of every building yet, but they are moving on securing tenants for what can be occupied and construction permits to repair the buildings that need it. That openness and drive are likely to be well received by the community.

Mount Baker is seen through the fog from AMA Way on the former Trudeau Sanatorium property in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

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