Sanatorium buyers share community priorities

The Administration (aka Dodd) Building at the former Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake is seen in September. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

Trudeau Sanatorium is arguably Saranac Lake’s most important piece of property. Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau founded it in the 1880s as the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium, a place for people suffering from tuberculosis to come and be healed. It was renamed for him after his death in 1915.

It was among the first international wave of TB curing hubs, and it was one of the most successful due to Trudeau’s excellent patient care, scientific research and fundraising. The “San,” as it was called, made Saranac Lake famous, and because of it this community grew from a tiny hamlet of farmers and loggers into a booming village, the biggest in the Adirondacks.

That growth was halted by a drug that cured TB, introduced in the 1940s. The sanatorium closed in 1954, and by the late ’60s the industry was gone.

The sanatorium’s sprawling campus, with its unique and beautiful old buildings, has been the property American Management Association since 1957, but AMA has shrunk its operations here in a big way and now only occupies one or two buildings. The others it keeps up enough to look relatively good from the outside, but some of them need a lot of work, and all of them need to be used.

Now Wayne Zukin and Sue Smith, of Philadelphia and Rainbow Lake, are in the process of buying the historic property. After a long interview with them last week, we are confident their ownership of it will be good for the community.

This couple has bought a large number of commercial and residential buildings in this village over the last five years, starting with the old Enterprise building at 77 Main St. that now houses Origin Coffee, Human Power Planet Earth bike shop and Earthshine Yoga Studio. Buying up so much property so fast would be a concern if the owners were overextending themselves, if they had unrealistic business expectations, if they were trying to flip the properties for profit at the community’s expense, or if they were collecting properties for personal rather than sound business reasons. But none of that appears to be the case here.

Zukin and Smith are long-term investors who specialize in historic buildings. They said they are business people first, but the history is the fun part for them. They restore them as much as they can, within the bounds of what makes financial sense, and then put them to use.

In light of that, their priority is to get tenants. They said they will charge rent based on what the traffic will bear, but they’d rather come down a little than hold out for a higher price.

Their priorities tie in pretty well with those of most Saranac Lakers, we believe. Local residents don’t like vacant storefronts, and neither do Zukin and Smith — they have just one in all their commercial buildings, at the former Celtic Vape and Major Plowshares building, and they say a tenant is in the works. They want to keep beautiful old buildings alive without losing what made them nice to begin with, and locals want that, too.

They were happy to talk and answer our questions, and then they asked us what we thought. They seemed reasonable, smart, nice and open.

Nevertheless, the sanatorium property is a puzzle no matter how you look at it. We know it well, and we think about its possibilities every time we walk or drive through it. It’s nice to think that the whole campus could be used for the same thing, but unless a well-funded college were to come calling, that’s probably not very realistic. It makes more sense to segment it, as Zukin and Smith plan to do. They said the three houses closer to the Park Avenue gate will probably become homes, they have a manufacturing business lined up for AMA’s former printing house on the lower part of the property, and the the Baker Memorial Chapel and Administration (Dodd) Building, at least, may become a wedding venue as well as a possibly hotel and restaurant. The Auditorium and Workshop make sense for performance and artistic space, Smith said.

That makes sense to us.

The trickiest part of the campus is the central section with the former hospital buildings. Zukin and Smith aren’t sure about that yet, and neither are we.

They said they are open to suggestions on all these plans. You can reach them through their real estate agent Brian Draper at Say Real Estate, 87 River St., 518-891-7070.

We like that this couple is offering long-term stability, historic preservation and practical uses. Instead of being visionaries, they seem to be working with locals. We like what we see and hear.