Dr. Hugh Kinghorn, Part II

From the Annual Report of the Stevenson Society of America, Inc., for 1940, by President Dr. Hugh Kinghorn:

“On Aug. 26, 1939, we held our 29th Annual Open Air Meeting of the Stevenson Society of America at the Stevenson Cottage. It was a beautiful afternoon and a large number of people were present.

“During the winter two representatives of the State Government were sent to Saranac Lake with a view to having a bill introduced into the Senate so that the State could own the property. This bill was prepared by Senator Rhoda Fox Graves, who has always taken a very great interest in our Society.”

The two men sent from Albany on this mission were the “assistant director, lands and forests,” who wrote the report to a Commissioner Osborne. His signature is too scribbled to make out. His partner was Mr. A.G. Woodin of the state Architect’s Office. At the time of their inspection, the plot of land the Society owned was one and a half acres, “situated on North Main Street,” says the report, “on the wrong (?) side of the railroad tracks … it is at the end of the street–apparently at the end of North Main Street.” Apparently, that little chunk of acreage was the last vestige of the 600 acres of Lot #11 that Col. Milote Baker had bought in 1852, including Baker Mountain.

The style of the report seems to match U.S. Supreme Court decisions which are made in secret prior to a public charade of deliberations, therefore, the result is predictable: “Frankly, the whole set-up does not seem to me to be one which the State should interest itself in.” The assistant director, lands and forests scribbled his name and that was all he wrote.

Since 1980, all the physical plant shortcomings listed by the inspector have been resolved. The only issues at present are chimney repair and half a roof covered in defective shingles. They looked good in 2003, like brand new and rated for 30 years. Today they look like wax melting. The most profound improvements were the gift of Mr. Albert Gordon of New York City who paid for excavations of a cellar with a real foundation other than the ground on which the building was built, thereby removing “the threat of serious deterioration” cited in the inspection report. Mr. Gordon also threw in a brand-new central heating system. This was all completed by 2006 and explains the presence of another plaque on the wall at Baker’s, the one making clear Albert Gordon’s laudable contribution. This graduate of Harvard Business School was 103 years of age when he walked into the Stevenson Cottage in May 2003 to make the offer. When the work was completed in 2006, Mr. Gordon was still going to his skyscraper office on Wall Street three days a week just for fun.

An interesting part of the inspector’s report is about the Resident Curator: “At the present time the entire structure is occupied by a Mrs. Griffith, the first visiting nurse in the State of New York who came to Saranac Lake many years ago. She occupies the building rent free in consideration of her showing the Stevenson rooms to visitors. Mr. Griffith is not living. Mrs. Griffith is of New England birth, unusually intelligent and well up on Stevenson history. At the present time she uses the remodeled kitchen as a dining room, the Stevenson living room as her own living room, all of which are furnished with her personal furniture. In addition, she has a new kitchen and another bedroom downstairs which she uses as a store room. She herself sleeps upstairs in one of the bedrooms rented by Stevenson. Due to the fact that she has many valuable antiques, oriental rugs and a large quantity of antique brass and china, the living room and her dining room present a rather attractive appearance. I understand that she is selling these antiques from time to time as she needs money. She states she would like to remain as caretaker if the State should take it over.”

Fortunately that didn’t happen. There are perks to State stewardship that can vanish with the next economic crunch. For example, the State-owned Robert Louis Stevenson House in Monterey, California, has reduced its operating hours to one day a week because of the bureaucratic cost. The absence of all that apparatus is apparent immediately to museum visitors who usually find the intimate atmosphere refreshing. Allen Reed, a Scottish musician with a co-musician, came to see the Stevenson Cottage in the early 90s during a break in the Oktoberfest celebration at Whiteface Mountain in which they were an act. Before leaving Allen said to his companion: “Did you ever think you could see a place so interesting in the United States without commercialization?”

“For the present,” said Dr. Kinghorn, “we can expect no help from the State.” And so it was that another year went around in which Dr. Kinghorn conceived a new strategy which he shared at the annual meeting on Aug. 30, 1941: “The Stevenson shrine is a great attraction to people who are in this vicinity and who visit the Village of Saranac Lake. The cost of up-keep is not great and the Cottage is an asset to the Village. We feel, and have felt for a long time that the Village of Saranac Lake should take over the Cottage.”


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