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More than just Coolidge’s summer getaway

Articles and books about White Pine Camp, near Paul Smiths, frequently cite its association with Calvin Coolidge, who used it as his Summer White House in 1926. The complete story is much richer. A new book by Howard Kirschenbaum, “White Pine Camp: The Saga of an Adirondack Great Camp and Summer White House,” tells that history.

Introductory material reminds the reader how isolated this region was for many years. In addition to being remote, it added the characteristic of being inhospitable, at least to the agriculture needed for settlers to subsist. Native Americans used the region as hunting grounds. (Recent information suggests there was more settlement than previously recognized.) Early white visitors used it the same way, mainly as a place to hunt and fish for brief periods.

People like Paul Smith helped change the trajectory. He built a hotel that became a major draw to the area. Some of his patrons decided they’d like places of their own nearby. One was Archibald White, who made fortunes first in the salt business and then with gas and electric utilities before turning to banking. He built the camp as both a retreat and a place to socialize, the latter far more crucial for his wife.

Information on the estate’s architects, William Masserene and Addison Mizner, and builder Ben Muncil add context. The author discusses what makes White Pine similar in many respects to other Great Camps, and also highlights the aspects that render it unique. As at other such compounds, a multitude of buildings each fulfill different functions. There is also a service complex, complete with ice house, pump house, its own boathouse and accommodations for servants.

Notable architectural design features at White Pine include the assymetric roof lines, strategically placed clearstory windows to enhance interior lighting, and wavy-edged clapboard facing that became known as “brainstorm siding.” One notable structure is the Japanese tea house, set on a tiny island and approached via a 300-foot footbridge.

Niceties you may not have in your home or camp include a stage in the living room, a walk-in safe, wood boxes that cut through walls so you can load from the outside and have logs ready for use inside, and Murphy beds on porches that rotate out of the walls.

The chapter on Calvin Coolidge’s use of the complex as his Summer White House in 1926 is detailed and absorbing. But the history of the place doesn’t end with the president. Indeed, other personalities add significant sidebars. The German ambassador to the United States became a central character around the time of World War I. The second owners operated a Kansas City newspaper that produced a syndicated column by Teddy Roosevelt and also gave a fledgling writer named Ernest Hemingway his first job.

Additional notable occupants were Edith Rosenwald Stern and Adele Rosenwald Levy. They were the daughters of Sears President Julius Rosenwald, whose philanthropic tendencies may have outweighed his extraordinary business expertise.

For those not previously knowledgable about the Great Camps built by wealthy industrialists in the Adirondacks, this book will serve as a solid introduction. The detail on each building and its decor may overwhelm some readers, but the stories of White Pine’s owners and guests will interest almost everyone. The final section of the book might also serve as a mixed inspirational and cautionary tale on the difficulties and satisfactions of historic preservation.

I’ve had opportunity to tour White Pine on several occasions, making it easier for me to visualize much of what Kirschenbaum describes. However, he illustrates the book with a wealth of vintage photography, fascinating in its own right but also helpful in complementing the text.

The author’s depth of knowledge is not surprising. He was integral to the most recent restoration of the complex and remains involved in its management through White Pine Camp Associates (an interesting story in itself). He’s written a book that belongs on the book shelf of anyone dedicated to Adirondack history and culture, and one that should interest North Country residents and also casual visitors.