In 1907, with the village of Saranac Lake still on the ascent as the premier cure center in North America, a few local businessmen had the foresight to commission a study from the renowned Olmsted Brothers to guide the future development of the village in a way that would enhance and improve the quality of life for its residents.
Recognizing that the village could not depend indefinitely on its exclusivity as a center for curing, the study focused on development that would make the village an attractive place not only to visit but to stay. The recommendations of this report included a focus on sustaining the viability of the village by making the most of its unique natural beauty in both public and private spaces and providing easy public access to parks and recreational activities to improve the health of the community.
The recommendations of the Olmsted Plan for the Improvement of Saranac Lake were rejected by the village board in 1909 as too expensive, but in 1910 a group of forward-thinking women came together to form the Village Improvement Society, its goal being to bring the plan to fruition. The accomplishments of this group have been remarkable, as evidenced in the many small parks throughout the village, but their greatest contribution can be seen on the shores of Lake Flower.
The author of the Olmsted Plan, Edward Clark Whiting, wrote, "Coming to Saranac Lake for the first time last summer, I was struck almost immediately with the potential value of Lake Flower and its immediate surroundings as public property. ... I am convinced that there is no one step in the civic department of Saranac Lake that will be of greater permanent benefit to the village on the whole than the acquisition of complete control over this lake and it's shores ... as far south as the neck where the two shores come close together." The VIS, no doubt, agreed, and the beautiful waterfront park we enjoy today we owe to them.
The VIS was described in a 1995 Adirondack Daily Enterprise article as "from its inception in 1910 ... poor in pocket but wealthy in community goodwill," yet between 1918 and 1925, the VIS purchased Seymour, Prescott, Mullen and Baldwin parks, all with frontage on Lake Flower. In 1937, the VIS was able to convince the village to raze the deteriorating Riverside Inn with the help of WPA funds and create Riverside Park. Finally, the 1976 plan to widen River Street into four lanes involved the purchase and demolition of the remaining properties on the shoreline, establishing the continuous shoreline as we see it now.
Lake Flower is the gem of the village of Saranac Lake, and the Riverside Park system is its crown. The homes across the water suggest a peaceful, prosperous and content community, the views of Baker and McKenzie mountains, the wildness we shelter from and thrill in. The green space gets us all outdoors to recreate, socialize and partake of the community.
But today, the village faces both a threat to the spirit of the Olmstead Plan and a unique opportunity to take the vision a step further still.
Heading out of the village, turning the bend as you pass Brandy Brook and the terminus of the Riverside Park system, there sit three quaint waterfront motels, nostalgic reminders of the Adirondacks in their tourism heyday. Their useful life coming to an end and their owners apparently ready to move on to a new stage in their own, the properties are now under contract for sale, pending the approval of a four-story hotel, 60 feet in height and 400 feet in length, sandwiched between Lake Flower Avenue and the south shore of Pontiac Bay. A single, looming edifice parallel to the lakefront will supplant the three single-story hotels perpendicular to the lake, which now have views between them and mature trees to soften their presentation to the lake.
In the Olmsted Plan, Whiting felt it particularly important that no buildings be permitted to encroach upon the park side of the street, "for there is no scenery quite so restful and refreshing as still water surrounded ... by tree clad shores and grassy banks." The magnificent view that introduces you to the village of Saranac Lake as you come around the corner at Brandy Brook from Lake Placid is a tribute to a century of volunteerism and determination. The potential sale of the Lake Flower Inn, Lakeside Motel and Adirondack Motel present the village with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to extend the vision it has so successfully pursued.
If we can afford to award $2 million in taxpayer money to subsidize an enterprise to meet the needs of those outside our community, perhaps we should reconsider and find a way to use those funds to purchase the three properties, destined to demolition, and extend our parkway further, enhancing still more the quality of life for those who make their homes here and the attractiveness of our community to those who might.
A lakeside hotel, claustrophobic as it looms over the road, blocking a beautiful view across Pontiac Bay, is the wrong choice for the village of Saranac Lake. Building a destination hotel, its jobs low paying and seasonal, its success subject to a fickle economy and the whims of a changing climate, is a short-sighted and tenuous way to build and sustain the economy of our village.
To preserve and enhance the livability of the village of Saranac Lake as a stable and desirable place to reside and recreate is to invite growth of a healthier nature.
Beauty for beauty's sake is a hard sell in a struggling community. But beauty as an investment? Pay attention next time you come 'round that corner. Ask yourself why you live here. Then ask someone new why they chose to come. It's beautiful here. That's why. Let's make it even nicer.
Steven Sonnenberg lives in Saranac Lake.