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Collectors Issue 2010

Dartbrook Lodge

From historical hotel to cabin court to rustic showpiece. Repurposing a roadside landmark in Keene

Photograph by Nancie Battaglia

MOST OF US, at one time or another, have adopted a quirky old building—one that we pass every day, twice a day, keeping tabs on its condition, wondering about its past, fantasizing about its possibilities. Just a coat of paint and flowers, maybe, or structural repair and a roof overhaul.

For Jay Haws, a 46-year-old designer from New York City, the spot that captured his imagination was a fading cabin court at the intersection of Routes 73 and 9N, in Keene. Back in 2004, while renovating the vacation home he and his husband, lawyer Steve Pounian, had purchased up the road, Haws drove past the old Woodruff’s Motel daily. “It was looking so forlorn,” he says of the Frontier Town–brown office ringed by white units. “I kept thinking that I could make it better.”

The unassuming Woodruff’s was constructed from the re­mains of its loftier predecessor, the Owl’s Head Hotel, which had worked that corner since 1905. The Owl’s Head—once the 19th-century Keene Center House—was a three-story, year-round resort with all the amenities wealthy guests ex­pected in a backwoods destination, including a ballroom that doubled as a roller rink.

But by the time James and Marion Woodruff took over, in 1946, visitors were looking for a different Adirondack experience: no-frills roadside cabins. The Owl’s Head was dismantled and reassembled as a horseshoe of small cottages. A gas station went up next door (later known as the Fillin’ Station Diner) and, in the ’50s, the couple added a six-room motel.

Although Woodruff’s remained a favorite low-cost option for hikers through the decades, the place was showing its age by the time Haws spotted it. The cabins’ foundations had all but disintegrated; a tree was growing through one of the chimneys; and some of the units, repurposed for storage, sported man-size holes in the floors. Still, Haws was hooked: he quit his job at an Italian design firm and, with Pounian, moved to Keene full-time to work on the property.

“I thought it would take a year,” Haws says of his dream to transform the dated motel into a lodge with timeless Great Camp appeal. The couple’s first reality check gushed from the ground a day after closing—evidence of a collapsed water main—but their enthusiasm didn’t dim.

“Any problem or issue you think is unsolvable, Jay will find a solution,” says Pounian. Soon Haws, whose construction experience was limited to designing stores for Macy’s, was replacing plumbing, digging around floor joists with a five-gallon bucket to create a crawl space and restructuring aggravating boulders into a charming rock wall. While local contractors did the bulk of the transforming, “we did all the crap work,” Haws recalls with a grin.

The Dartbrook Lodge, a collection of sev­en cabins with cozy porches, opened in 2007. It was named after the brook that trickles almost unnoticed through the property—“I like hidden features that you have to discover,” says Haws. Al­though the main office, a classic bark-and-twig affair, sits right on the main drag, individual cottages are largely hidden in back, well spaced and separated by fields of wildflowers and brambles. They range from one room to a two-bedroom/two-bath retreat, most with kitchen­ettes. The former motel unit is now Keene Center, a three-cabin complex with private entrances.

The accommodations were created using as much original material as possible from past incarnations. Roof rafters were recycled in porches; hardware was carefully saved and reused. “Instead of tearing everything down and starting with new, Jay found a way to retain the history of the place,” says Pounian. The interiors that feel like cocoons of rustic luxury are actually Frankenstein-like fusions—a mish-mash of old and new, midcentury simplicity and an earlier opulence.

Dartbrook Lodge is open year-round, though in summer rooms are booked two to three months in advance. The generally outdoorsy clientele is a mix of couples and families, and the majority are habitual visitors. Some repeat customers are drawn by the attention to detail, like locally made soap on each sink and the subtle smells of balsam and wood that linger in the rooms. But many come for the personal touches. “Guests become family,” says Haws. “You start to know them better; you know what they like; you can anticipate what they want.”

DURING CONSTRUCTION ON the compound Haws and Pounian rehabbed what once was the Wood­ruffs’ gas station and rented it to Cedar Run Bakery & Café, a breakfast and lunch destination that had outgrown its nearby location. Then, less than a year after the lodge opened, the pair began converting the “creaky, old, curvy” one-time general store next door into Dartbrook Rustic Goods, now a showcase of Adirondack style owned in partnership with furniture-maker George Jaques.

The oldest part of the building dates from the late-19th century, according to Haws. He compares the renovation to an arch­eological dig, where they uncovered a hidden chimney and old-time building materials like cedar-wood-shaving insulation. The shavings had settled so much that they blanketed on­ly the bottom half of the walls, and a support for the concealed chimney had rotted away without being replaced. Apart from damage control, though, the team tried to retain a weathered feel. Walls were kept out of plumb; time-worn timbers were left exposed. The flooring, which had to be replaced af­ter a radiator explosion left roller-coaster-like footing, was distressed with hammers.

The store is a polished interpretation of Great Camp chic. Like a woodsy Gilded Age retreat, it blends antique and new-fashioned, local and exotic, campy and sophisticated. Big-ticket items brush up against five-dollar trail signs. Handmade salves and Turkish rugs mingle with distressed cupboards and just-finished tables. Balsam pillows in funky fabrics can be purchased by the pound, weighed on a retro scale. Stuffed deer heads and moose sheds are complemented by a fire-tower floor lamp. “We don’t want to have the same things as everyone else,” says Haws. “If everyone has the same stuff it’s not fun.”

Jaques, who also furnished Dartbrook Lodge, is a third-generation craftsman from Keene. He began making rustic pieces in 1989, after retiring from the New York State Police. His work is classic Adi­rondack—birch-bark facing, root bases, antler pulls—just don’t call it twiggy. “What we make is far more substantial and lasting,” says Jaques. “You don’t have to baby it,” adds Haws. “You can really live with it.”

About half of Jaques’s projects, from small stands to enormous sideboards (which can cost a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands), are custom orders. Spe­cial requests “drive innovation,” he says. “People ask for things that we haven’t done before.” Still, traditional tables are best sellers, with reclaimed-barn-wood tops and yellow-birch-log legs. All the work is done on site, in what used to be an icehouse.

Jaques was influenced by his uncle, furniture-maker Gilbert Jaques, whose own uncle, Albert Jaques, was also a prominent craftsman from Keene Valley. But George has left his own mark on the genre. With his apprentice, Chris Cross (grandson of butternut-furniture virtuoso Raymond Cross, of Lewis), Jaques perfected a finishing technique similar to one used on 18th-century gunstocks. The process, which the pair adapted from retired forest ranger Gary Hodgson’s method, gives a very pale wood, like maple, a much deeper, reddish hue.

At 63, Jaques isn’t ready to retire, but he does have an eye on the future. Along with Cross he’s fostering 40-year-old Ted Keenan, a Keene-based carpenter. Jaques explains he wants “to do something that will keep [the craft] going, to be able to pass it on to younger people.”

As for the past, it’s most evident in the store’s open-air annex, a former 1940s cabin roughed out as an additional showroom. Because the space didn’t require insulation, aged elements re­main ex­posed along the ceiling: a collage of chipping paint, a doorjamb missing its lockset, a faded column from a long-lost entryway. “What makes Adirondack camps in­teresting is the layers,” says Haws. “You can see where renovations have taken place. You can feel the generations.”

Cabins at the Dartbrook Lodge (518-576-9080, www.dartbrooklodge.com) are available for $175–375. A newly re­modeled four-bedroom house nearby, on East Hill, rents for $3,600 a week. Dartbrook Rustic Goods (518-576-4360, www.dartbrookrustic.com), next door to the lodge, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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