Thank you, Mr. Gordon

Mr. Gordon in Stevenson’s Study at Baker’s. (Photo provided)

How often does it happen that a stranger comes to your house, you let him in, give him a seat, and before you say “how can I help you,” the stranger looks up at you and says, “What do you need?”

It happened at least once at the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage in Saranac Lake and that was on a sunny May day in 2003. Fortunately, the Stevenson Cottage custodian was on the premises and actually doing something useful, mowing the lawn, when not one but three strangers showed up.

To see the Cottage museum anytime between Columbus Day and July 1, it is necessary to make an appointment. These gentlemen did not have an appointment, so one was made immediately for the present.

In light of the events that were to follow, the custodian remembers to this day only the face of the stranger who sat before him waiting for an answer to his stupefying question, “What do you need?” Assuming correctly that the question was aimed at the Stevenson Society and their historic property — not himself, unfortunately — the custodian tried to think like one.

Building custodians are presumed to have knowledge of physical plant issues and it was along this line of thought that the trio’s host wandered, wondering how far he should go without a clue to the motive behind the question. The roof had just recently undergone a major overhaul topped off with so-called 30 year architectural shingles which will plainly not live up to that claim and the roof supports had been reinforced from the inside. Until 1992, half of the house was still electrified with the ancient knob and tube style and the other half with ’50s era BX. The brand-new wiring that replaced it still ended up in an old fuse box where fuses still blew a foot away from Stevenson’s desk until something fittingly new was installed in 2000. Looking down from the roof to the ground, the building was in good shape but there it stopped, literally.

When Robert Louis Stevenson was holed up at Baker’s with his family for the winter of 1887-88, he was visited at least twice by Edmund Krumbolz, a photographer. People liked to talk about Stevenson and in 1889, Krumholz was telling someone about his conversations with RLS at Baker’s. “Another time,” he said, “talking with him regarding the house as to comfort, the question of cellar was brought up, and it turned out the house he lived in (Baker’s) had no cellar …”

Because of the bare essentials way of building homes that pioneer families like the Bakers practiced, foundations were haphazard at best, otherwise nonexistent. Pioneers have to deal with the present and can’t afford to think a century or two into the future. By 2003, the lack of a foundation was the critical physical plant issue at the RLS Memorial Cottage.

Another thing any reputable historic house ought to have is a good heating system. Stevenson paid $2 a cord for firewood to keep five stoves radiating heat all winter to keep his family from freezing to death in a house of no insulation. Back in the day there were six chimneys at Baker’s, now there are three and one of them is in use, thanks to Mr. Gordon.

Mr. Albert H. Gordon it was who sat in Stevenson’s study in May 2003, asking questions like, “What do you need?”

Another question was about the painting on the wall behind the groundskeeper, who was still fumbling for an answer to the “need” question.

“Oh,” said his host, “that is called ‘Stevenson and the Muse’ by Will H. Low, an American artist who was a good friend of Stevenson’s.”

If Mr. Gordon only knew that his presence and purpose at the Stevenson Cottage that day would later be interpreted by some people with imagination to be a fulfillment of prophecy made by Will Low at the Stevenson Cottage on Aug. 26, 1928.

In 1928, Mr. Gordon was 28 years old so he was 103 when he walked into the Stevenson Cottage on his own steam and started asking his questions. Finally the groundskeeper came up with his answer to Mr. Gordon’s first question. “What we need,” he said, “is a central heating system but first we need a foundation with a cellar to put it in.”

And so it was. Almost to the day, one year later, in 2004, Martin’s Excavation, a local business, showed up at the Stevenson Cottage with many tons of equipment and went to work. They dug a ramp 10 feet down from the street to begin their mole-work from the residential end of the building. After a month of digging west they made a 90-degree turn to go south for another month under the museum. Excavation revealed what all expected but only under the little room that Stevenson had called “my study.” The log supports of its floor were exceedingly rotten and it seemed to the beholders that the spruce floor itself was staying put just from habit.

Progress had to be made in coordination with other contractors. An outfit from Keeseville poured a cement floor, masons from Chazy built foundation walls, electricians from Bloomingdale did their part, foam insulators came from Plattsburgh and the coup de grace, a modern in-floor radiant central heating system was installed by the Fobare dynasty of plumbers. Mr. Gordon paid for every last cent of it. Who was he?

One source of information about him comes from the weekend edition, May 2-3, 2009 of the Wall Street Journal, quoted here:

“Mr. Gordon was born in Boston, the son of a prosperous leather merchant who worked as a purchasing agent for the British Army during World War I. He attended Harvard for college and business school, then went to work as a bond salesman at Goldman Sachs, and Co.”

A review of his extraordinary business adventures is out of place here. What is important to know about Mr. Gordon, according to the Wall Street Journal, is that he “attributed his extraordinary longevity to ‘excessive exercise’ and was famous for walking to his home from Idlewild Airport (now JFK) after business trips. He brought similar energy to his role as a salesman … It was Mr. Gordon’s energetic salesmanship that most distinguished him, and he liked to say that the satisfactions of investment banking were not all monetary. ‘Many of them stem from the fact that an investment banker plays an important role in the great drama of American growth and development. He is a man of affairs, in affairs that count,’ he wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in 1959. A year later, in 1960, Mr. Gordon appeared on Fortune’s list of the 10 most powerful men on Wall Street … Mr. Gordon continued to run marathons into his 80s and kept going to the office until he was 105, his one concession to age being that he took Fridays off.”

Albert H. Gordon died at age 107 at his home in New York.

This is the kind of man Will H. Low had in mind on Aug. 26, 1928, at the annual meeting of the Stevenson Society at Baker’s in Saranac Lake. After announcing that J.P. Morgan had sent a check to the society for one thousand dollars to liquidate the debt to the Adirondack Bank, he went on to praise Morgan “as among our men of great wealth whose interests extend beyond the material … If there were more men of this sort whom we could interest in the Stevenson Society, its future, considering our modest needs, would be quite clear.” Such a man was Albert Gordon.


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