Halls of history
SARANAC LAKE — As Historic Saranac Lake Executive Director Amy Catania wound her way through the halls of Edward Livingston Trudeau’s 128-year old home on Thursday, she showed off the historic architecture of the house, discussed the way that history has been covered up over the years and detailed HSL’s plans to restore that legacy.
The size of the house on the corner of Church and Main streets is hard to take in from the outside. With all of its additional wings, countless doorways and long hallways, it is labyrinthine inside.
“It just goes and goes,” Catania said.
Large rooms have been divvied up over the years into patient rooms.
“I used to come in and actually get turned around,” Catania admits. “It was really embarrassing when I’d give a tour.”
HSL bought the building in 2019, right before the coronavirus pandemic. This put an immediate stall on the plans as a “log jam” of busy architects, designers and contractors have been full up on work.
“It’s been a surprisingly slow process,” Catania said.
But the extra time has allowed them to raise more money — $3.7 million so far. Catania said this is a combination of private donations, tax credits and grant funding — $1.5 million from the state, including $325,000 from Saranac Lake’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative.
Because it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, the house is eligible for tax credits. But because HSL doesn’t need these credits — it doesn’t pay taxes because it’s a non-profit — it sells them to investors, getting cash instead.
Catania was surprised at how successful the campaign was.
“I didn’t know that we’d need to raise so much money,” she said. “Our original budget was just ridiculously low.”
Catania said the project’s estimated cost has risen, too, as material prices have risen in the past two years. The total estimated cost was set at $5.2 million for purchase of the building, construction and set-up of exhibits. Catania said they’re crossing their fingers that what they raise will be enough.
She said the project budget seems high for a house restoration, but there’s serious historic restoration going on in every room.
This old house
Nearly every room in the house has been altered at some point over the last century — rooms have been modernized for medical practice, and the red, wooden clapboard siding has been replaced by faded, blue vinyl siding.
“The building has become somewhat of an eyesore,” Catania said.
It is in disrepair, and she wants to give it some care, to return it to what it once was.
The house isn’t just a vessel for the museum’s exhibits. It is an artifact itself, and Catania can’t wait to show off its unique wallpapers, doorbells, windows and cure porches.
“There are these beautiful features of the building that are just waiting to be uncovered,” Catania said.
What used to be Trudeau’s dining room is now slathered all in mauve paint, cupboards and drywall.
“This is just like, atrocious,” Catania said, turning on the sterile, humming florescent lights.
The house has been stitched together, covered up, replaced and expanded in a Frankenstein’s monster fashion.
Architectural preservation and restoration is a top priority for HSL, Catania said. It was initially set up as an architectural preservation group.
She wants to take an eyesore and turn it into a space of cultural value.
She said it is a community space where everyone owns a piece of it, and where she hopes Saranac Lakers can find a shared sense of place.
Trudeau’s initial home, built on the site in the 1880s, burned down when a heater in his home laboratory caught the whole house on fire.
He built this home and the nextdoor laboratory — where the HSL museum is now — in 1894. It was a “grand home,” Catania said.
“Not ostentatious, but definitely a prominent building in town,” she said.
Town residents started coming to his front door, looking for Trudeau to cure their tuberculosis, mend broken bones, maybe even bringing in their pets for care, Catania said.
“He was the first doctor in town asking for medical care,” she said.
Some would barter with him for his medical expertise.
Eventually, Trudeau built a wing on the home around the turn of century as a place for his medical offices, so people wouldn’t be knocking on his front door.
The building remained a place for medical offices until HSL bought it in 2019 — first for Trudeau’s son Francis, his grandson Frank, and then for the Federman family of doctors.
A doorbell on the Main Street-facing side of the house still has a nameplate for Francis’ wife — Helen Garretson.
Catania said people are going to be “shocked” by the final product.
Right now, flotsam fills the floors of rooms where eventually HSL plans to show off relics, educate visitors and give tours telling how Trudeau’s work changed Saranac Lake and the world of medicine forever.
There are things in storage at the lab that Catania wants to show the public. She said the house is climate controlled and will be a better storage place for artifacts, too.
Guests will be able to go upstairs and stand on the cure porch Trudeau would sleep outside on at all times of the year. He suffered with tuberculosis himself, his whole time in Saranac Lake. There will be a handicap lift for people to get to the second floor.
As for the basement, “People will not want to go into the basement,” Catania said.
Catania said there will be a dedicated research room with newspaper clippings, books and photographs to pore over, complementing the expansive research collection at the Saranac Lake Free Library across Main Street.
There will also be a film room showing a short movie Catania said HSL is currently producing.
Catania hopes the work can go out to bid in the spring. It will still be a little while until work can start, though. She wants to give “before” tours this summer, to show people what the home looks like now.
This would not be the first time there’s been a museum in the house. Catania said HSL recently found photos in the Saranac Lake Free Library’s collection showing a museum space in the second floor dedicated to Trudeau after he died in 1915.