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February 2011

Places in the Heart

Adirondack love affairs

While guiding Charles Dickens on an Adirondack tramp, Paul Smith revealed he “was ‘courting a gal,’ and in a strait to get married, so he resolved to build him an hotel, and settle,” recalled the writer in an edition of his 19th-century All the Year Round journal. Sure enough, during arctic January 1859 Smith cleared his Franklin County property. Gigantic timbers were felled and sliced into beams, boards sawn, shingles split, a house’s foundation laid and a road hacked from snarled forest. All the while, he “went a courting every Sunday, a trifle of thirty miles, sometimes on snow-shoes,” wrote Dickens. Remarkably, the St. Regis Lake House “was completed and furnished, and Paul was married and settled, before June.”

It was also in the Adirondacks that famed thinker Wil­liam James—big brother to Henry, godson of Ralph Waldo Emerson—built his romantic future. In autumn 1876 James had what he called a “delirious affair” with Alice Howe Gibbens at Beede’s Hotel, in Keene Valley. According to Robert D. Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, James was so tormented by his passion he left Beede’s, holed himself up at Brewster’s Hotel, in Lake Placid, and penned Gibbens a letter that said, “To state abruptly the whole matter: I am in love, und zwar [it’s true] (—forgive me—) with Yourself.”

Two years later the couple wed, then headed to their friends the Putnams’ place, in Keene Valley. After a 10-week stay James wrote his hosts, thanking them for “the privilege of passing a honeymoon in this romantic and irresponsible isolation.”

Hearthstone Point, a campground at the south end of Lake George, was where abstract ex­pressionist Mark Rothko passed the summer of 1932, swimming, walking about, painting watercolors. One evening he strummed his mandolin by the campfire, at­tracting nearby tenter Edith Sachar, who would later become his wife. Rothko biographer James E. B. Breslin writes, “Forty years and one divorce after their first meeting Edith still remembered the ‘beautiful setting’ and Rothko’s ‘classical mandolin.’ ” What happened in the Adirondacks ultimately stayed in the Adirondacks: back in their New York City basement apartment “the Lake George pastoral was over.”

Wild, even primal, things can occur when folks escape their worlds for the open, untamed one within the Blue Line. Something about fresh air, star-studded skies, peaks all over, the quiet. How many people have come here and locked eyes on a gondola or bared their souls on a summit? And who hasn’t fantasized about a backwoods cabin, a place to kick back after playing outside—hot toddies steaming, fireplace cranking? Did Lydia Martin have the same romantic notion when her betrothed, Paul Smith, proposed his plan?

I did. A half dozen Februarys ago my husband picked the Wawbeek Resort, on Upper Saranac Lake, as the setting to present me with a question and a ring. If you never made it to the Wawbeek before it was razed and re­placed by a private residence, the former Great Camp embodied all you’d expect from a woodsy Adirondack getaway: re­fresh­ingly private, no TV, just rustic enough. After cross-country skiing on the lake you could defrost before that iconic fire, then dine on fine fare in the cozy lodge. I’m not alone in my disappointment that future anniversaries can’t be celebrated there. The resort was something of a North Country Bridge of Sighs; several years back news of its de­mise prompted angry editorials and blog posts by many who had been engaged, married or had honeymooned there.

Lake Placid’s Stevens House was an­other special place that was torn down. The hotel was built in the 1880s and dominated Signal Hill, now a residential rise above the village. In its heyday there were piazzas, a golf course, often elite guests who occupied its 200 rooms. It’s where, in 1935, the hotel’s dining-room hostess Peg Reinert met her late husband, Bob, leader of the hired house band the Mi­ami­lodians (the musicians were University of Miami students).

One eve­ning 19-year-old Margaret Partridge, as Peg was then called, and her older sister Dorothy, both working for the summer away from their native Beaver River, agreed to go out with some of the guys in the band. On the drive to a bar Peg sat beside Bob in the rumble seat, from then on passing afternoons with him strol­ling around Mirror Lake, swimming in the Ausable or seeing movies at the Palace Theater. Three years later they were married in Inlet.

After the war the Reinerts returned to Placid and witnessed the Stevens House’s demolition. Today, from her home in Florida, Peg says the place was “ready to go—too old-fashioned to sustain.” By its end, guests didn’t want to share bathrooms, and hardwood hallways were buckling. Still, on visits north she and Bob made pilgrimages to the hotel’s foundation, recalling what rooms went where. The Reinerts’ romance lasted 69 years. It’s not floorboards or a particular campsite that made that happen, though their memories of places—man-made and wild—helped hold it all together.

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