She made history
Mary Hotaling, 80, dies after four decades of preserving Saranac Lake history
SARANAC LAKE — Historic Saranac Lake co-founder Mary Hotaling died at the age of 80 on Sept. 1. In more than four decades of preserving Saranac Lake’s history, she became part of it, too, making a big impact on the small town — archiving and displaying artifacts at the museum, preserving cure cottages and endlessly chronicling history in books and articles.
Hotaling was a co-founder and longtime director of Historic Saranac Lake, as well as a co-founder of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH). She died at home surrounded by family, including Jim, her husband of 57 years.
Hotaling was “one of the smartest people I’ve ever known,” HSL’s current Executive Director Amy Catania said, but still “really down to earth.” She was personable and loved to talk to people, always fun to be around. Catania said she had an “infectious laugh.” Her love of local history was infectious, too.
Catania met Hotaling in the early 2000s. Catania, a Spanish teacher at the time, was doing research on the Spanish-speaking tuberculosis patients in Saranac Lake. In their first interaction, Hotaling helped her with her research. Catania kept teaching but found local history was really a passion Hotaling helped foster. She came back to take the reins from Hotaling in 2009.
Originally from the Midwest, Hotaling moved to Saranac Lake in 1977 and was drawn to the story of tuberculosis and Edward Livingston Trudeau, the disease and the doctor that played large roles in forming the foundation of the Saranac Lake community. The tuberculosis industry closed in the 1950s after the discovery of new medicines.
“It was almost sort of this recent history that people knew but they hadn’t really stopped to consider,” Catania said. “Sometimes with history there can be that period of time where people don’t really realize that it’s history yet. And it can get lost.”
After years of Hotaling and fellow co-founders gathering around dinner tables in informal meetings, HSL was officially founded in 1980. She helped get more than 200 buildings in town listed in the National Trust for Historic Preservation, preserving the architectural history seen in the cure cottages and other old buildings.
Right up until she died, Hotaling was working to preserve history, listening to people’s stories and rooting around stacks of papers, photographs, newspaper clippings and artifacts.
After retiring as HSL’s director, she stayed involved. Twice a week for the past three years or so, she joined HSL archivist Chessie Monks-Kelly in the archives as a volunteer, sorting collections, identifying people in photos, labeling and scanning documents and scrapbooks. Even with the smallest story or the most banal record, Monks-Kelly said Hotaling’s face lit up.
“She was endlessly interested in hearing more,” Monks-Kelly said, and always excited about uncovering something new.
“Anything that had to do with Saranac Lake history was, to her, just inherently magical. You could see that from a mile away,” Catania said. “She just totally loved it. She could have done that for many more lifetimes.”
The people who worked with her looked up to Hotaling. She had so much expertise and knowledge in her head.
“She was a definitely a collector, whether it was of knowledge or of things,” Monks-Kelly said.
At a glance, she could ID a person in a photograph who had died before she ever knew them.
“There’s no way to download a brain, but I wanted to make sure that we were capturing as much of her expertise as we could,” Monks-Kelly said. “I’m glad I did because she and I had fun working together and got close, which was really lovely.”
She’s missing her archivist buddy a lot now.
“She was a person you were always happy to see,” Monks-Kelly said.
But Hotaling is still speaking to Monks-Kelly in a way. Every day, Monks-Kelly finds a new piece of paper with Hotaling’s handwriting on it, explaining a part of Saranac Lake’s history, and she knows she’ll be finding these papers for the rest of her time working at Historic Saranac Lake.
“In a way, I’m sort of like ‘agh’ but it’s also sort of comforting,” Monks-Kelly said.
Hotaling’s passion for history brought her back to school in 1993, earning a master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of Vermont at age 50.
She became one of those people folks could go to when they need to learn something about Saranac Lake. There are several around town, Catania said: Phil “Bunk” Griffin, Howard Riley, Bob Seidenstein, Dave Fadden. But while these others are all Saranac Lake natives, Hotaling was a transplant who made Saranac Lake’s history part of her own.
Catania points out, Saranac Lake has long been a community of people from other places. The history of tuberculosis Hotaling helped document was all about people coming here and growing the town.
There are countless ways to preserve history, and Hotaling used many of them, whether it was getting grants to save historic cure cottage architecture, helping pull together tuberculosis reunions in 1987 and 1990, or taking out an ad in the New York Times calling for people to send in their stories of curing here.
This ad got hundreds of responses, Catania said, and Hotaling read all of them. People sent her new photos and stories that hadn’t been part of the historical record yet.
The dozens of former tuberculosis patients and their families who came to these reunions caught up with old friends, reconnected with former girlfriends and boyfriends and forged new relationships, Catania said. These reunions were also important for the people who attended, providing healing and closure for the people who had hard times here.
Like the recent coronavirus pandemic, Catania said people likely wanted to forget the days of tuberculosis. Hotaling recognized that these people wouldn’t be around forever, and if they died, they’d take their memories with them. So she documented some of their stories before they left this world.
Monks-Kelly said she’s thankful to Hotaling every day because their collection is filled with artifacts that could have been thrown out or sold off in a garage sale years ago.
In 1990, Howie Kirschenbaum gathered a group of the Adirondacks’ most influential architectural preservationists to found AARCH. Hotaling, naturally, was one of the founders. There had long been discussions of creating such an organization, but it had never happened. There was an immediate need that was the catalyst in 1990 — to influence state policy to preserve Great Camp Santanoni in Newcomb. AARCH’s first project to do this was successful.
AARCH Executive Director Erin Tobin said Hotaling was the organization’s first paid staff member, a (board) secretary, program director and newsletter editor. Kirschenbaum said Hotaling ensured high-quality content in each issue. Since retiring from work there, Hotaling has been on the AARCH on board or advisory council.
Tobin said the organization recently led a tour of the Eagle Island Great Camp on Lower Saranac Lake designed by architect William Coulter, and their presentation was based heavily on her scholarship and research. Tobin said AARCH will continue drawing on Hotaling’s passion for architecture.
Kirschenbaum said Hotaling was “a pioneer” in the field who set an example for the organization years later.
Kirschenbaum recalled a meeting he and Hotaling had with the Paul Smith’s College president to talk about the future of the Trudeau Laboratory. The college owned it at the time. Hotaling had the courage and boldness to directly ask for the college to donate it to HSL as a home for its collections.
“I was really impressed by her gutsy move there,” Kirschenbaum said.
The college president must have been, too, because he agreed.
Hotaling was appointed by Gov. Mario Cuomo to the New York State Board for Historic Preservation from 1993 to 1999 and spent several decades as Harrietstown’s historian.
She published her book on Saranac Lake’s tuberculosis history, “A Rare Romance in Medicine: The Life and Legacy of Edward Livingston Trudeau” and worked on “Cure Cottages of Saranac Lake, Architecture and History of a Pioneer Health Resort” with local author Phil Gallos. She was featured in the film “This Was Heaven, Really” and appeared in several television programs about the Adirondack region, including “The Forgotten Plague: Tuberculosis in America,” part of PBS’ American Experience series.
HSL is holding a celebration of life ceremony at the museum on Saturday, Sept. 23. From 1 to 2 p.m., people will gather in the John Black Room to share stories and memories. From 2 to 2:45 p.m., a service honoring Hotaling will be held, and livestreamed at tinyurl.com/6bkjbxyj. From 2:45 to 4 p.m. there will be a reception outside under a tent.
Organizers are asking people to RSVP ahead of time to give them an idea of how many people to plan for at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article said Mary Hotaling was a secretary for Adirondack Architectural Heritage. She was a board secretary — an officer of the board, not as a paid clerical secretary.