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History matters in downtown Saranac Lake

Application could double buildings on state, federal historic registries

This plaque on 22 Broadway in Saranac Lake commemorates the building as part of the National Register of Historic Places. A proposed expansion to the Berkeley Square Historic District giving this building that distinction would extend recognized historic significance to many other buildings in Saranac Lake’s downtown, more than doubling the number of currently recognized structures. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

SARANAC LAKE — The number of buildings in downtown Saranac Lake on the state and national historic registries is set to double with a potential historic district expansion the state recommended on Friday.

The Berkeley Square Historic District recognizes the architecture at the core of Saranac Lake, where life happened in the days of the tuberculosis treatment that shaped the town into what it is today, and where life for locals still happens today.

The application for this boundary increase and additional documentation for the Berkeley Square Historic District was sponsored by Historic Saranac Lake. HSL Executive Director Amy Catania said it also includes a time period extension to encompass all seven decades when Saranac Lake was a national hub for tuberculosis treatment.

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The Berkeley Square Historic District was created in 1988 for its commercial buildings dating from 1867 to 1932 — with 23 contributing sites and four noncontributing. Through Catania said the district has “diverse architectural styles,” the general classification for the downtown architecture here is “Late 19th and early 20th Century Revival.”

While portions of Main Street in downtown Saranac Lake are already on the National Register of Historic Places, a proposed expansion to the Berkeley Square Historic District would more than double the number of buildings on in this district. The street is seen covered in dirt Friday, like it would have been in days of yore. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

“With the passage of several decades and additional research, a broader perspective has prompted a boundary increase and additional documentation,” according to a state press release, which adds that this research “fully illustrate(s) Saranac Lake’s important role as a center for tuberculosis research and treatment.”

Catania said it wasn’t just one discovery that led to this expansion. It was a lot of long research.

“It takes a lot of time to go through the history of each building,” Catania said.

HSL contracted with Adirondack Architectural Heritage for the survey of each of the buildings in this application. Catania said AARCH wrote “a great narrative” for the history of each property and for the downtown district as a whole, which can be found at tinyurl.com/2n29rse5.

“It’s a resource now for the whole community to use,” she said, adding that there’s lots of interesting information in there.

Tuberculosis history

The proposed expansion also expands the period of historic significance to 1954. Catania said there is generally a 70-year-threshold for architecture to be labeled as “historic.” The passage of time since the initial 1988 district has allowed or more buildings to reach this classification. Also, 1954 is when the Trudeau Sanitorium closed permanently.

Catania said tuberculosis weaves in and out of the history of Saranac Lake’s downtown, and it is a uniquely large and dense commercial district for such a small town. This is because a century ago, it was a major hub for people suffering from tuberculosis to seek relief.

“We had this booming economy that brought a lot of people from all walks of life … from far away,” Catania said.

They brought with them the need for pharmacies, clothiers, specialty food shops, entertainment, houses of worship, larger government, hotels, restaurants, bars and builders.

Some of the architects of these buildings were themselves here for tuberculosis treatment, Catania said.

The district

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the state Board for Historic Preservation’s recommendations on Friday, and they will need approval from the state Historic Preservation Officer to be listed on the state Register of Historic Places. Then, they can be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places for review and approval to the National Register.

The majority of the existing district is on one continuous stretch of road on one side of Main Street and Broadway, from the Town Hall, almost to the Saranac River. It also includes buildings on all corners of the Main Street and Broadway intersection where Berkeley Square is and a couple on the opposite side of Broadway, near the river. This district left out some of the commercial side streets and buildings that have undergone restorations in the decades since.

This district expansion effort began around 10 years ago when Catania was speaking with an employee from the state Historic Preservation Office about the Helen Hill Historic District.

“We were driving around town looking at the buildings and he said, ‘Hey, why aren’t these building in?'” she said.

The expanded district would stretch across the Saranac River on both sides of Broadway, all the way down to its intersection with Bloomingdale Avenue. It would also include both sides of Woodruff Street between Broadway and Church Street, and all the buildings on Main Street from the intersection with Broadway to where the Hotel Saranac and Saranac Lake Free Library end. The expanded district would also stretch across state Route 3 to include the former Little Italy building and the village pumphouse at the dam. The new district would include the buildings and parking lot between the Adirondack Artists Guild Fine Art and ADK ArtRise.

The proposed district has 28 new contributing properties and 11 new noncontributing.

Noncontributing buildings are properties that have had historic architecture in the past but are not currently historic in appearance.

For example, the district’s namesake — Berkeley Green, where the Berkeley Hotel once stood — is not a contributing property. Because the hotel burned in 1981, it does not look like it did back then. Also the Enterprise offices are not contributing, because the facade has changed from what it was 70 years ago.

“Many buildings in the Amended Berkeley Square Historic District appear much as they did when they were originally built, while others have been modified over time to adapt to changing tastes and need,” according to the AARCH application.

Catania said the owners of buildings like the Rice Furniture building or the Post Office Pharmacy building — which were left out of the original district — have restored their building facades to get them listed this time around, calling them “success stories.”

Some other notable structures to be added to the district include the Hotel Saranac, the Masonic Temple, the Saranac Lake Free Library, the federal post office and the Broadway bridge.

Grants and tax credits

State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commissioner Pro Tempore Randy Simons said this designation “opens up (buildings’) eligibility for various public preservation programs and incentives, such as matching state grants and federal and state historic rehabilitation tax credits.”

The state has distributed $3.96 billion in historic tax credits statewide from 2018-2022 according to Hochul’s office.

Catania said the Berkeley Square District’s historic designation has helped building owners in Saranac Lake’s downtown get grants for facades and played a role in the village getting its $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative award in 2018.

Catania said the historic registry does not imply limitations on what building owners can do with their properties.

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