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History hanging in the balance ...

A look at the Wawbeek’s past

May 3, 2008
By NATHAN BROWN, Enterprise Staff Writer
WAWBEEK — The Wawbeek name has been associated with luxury tourism on Upper Saranac Lake for more than 100 years, and several buildings have borne the name during that time.

The Algonquin Indians called Upper Saranac Lake “the lake of the silver sky,” and the word Wawbeek comes from the Ojibwa word for “rock.”

“It is so called because of the fact that on the property is located the biggest rock in this area, which was a famous place for the Indians who assembled here for various reasons,” wrote Alfred Lee Donaldson in “A History of the Adirondacks.”

The specifc site of the Wawbeek Resort was originally known as Sweeney’s Carry. In 1878, both Captain James Pierce of Bloomingdale and lumber king Colonel Christopher F. Norton of Plattsburgh claimed the land. Norton ended the dispute in his favor by hiring Oliver Tromblee and the guide Oatman C. Coville to settle the land.

Both Tromblee and Coville liked the place, and stayed there. Coville bought 40 acres from Norton and built a half-way house there that he ran with his wife. The place was popular with summer visitors during its 13 years of operation. In 1891, former Saranac Inn owner T. Edmund Krumholz and R.F. Smith of Saranac Lake bought out the Covilles and built the first Wawbeek Hotel.

“The Wawbeek was considered one of the finest hotels in the mountains at that time,” Donaldson wrote. “It was an impressive building with turrets and a surrounding porch, with outlying cottages, a large boat house, and even a small school house. It became a post office station and mail was delivered around the lake by boat.”

The hotel was serviced by a daily stagecoach to Tupper Lake and a steamboat to Saranac Inn.

The buildings we call the Wawbeek today were designed by William L. Coulter in 1899. Originally from Connecticut, Coulter first came to Saranac Lake in 1896 to cure from tuberculosis and decided to stay. He was a pioneer of the rustic Adirondack style, and he is most famous for the many great camps he designed for wealthy vacationers. One of the camps he designed, for New York City businessman Moritz Walter, was right next to the Hotel Wawbeek. There are 20 buildings on the property today, four of which were designed by Coulter and made up the original great camp: the Mountain House, the dining room building, the carriage house and the gazebo. Mysteriously enough, the Walters camp is one of the few of Coulter’s projects of which there are no surviving photos from the period.

The Wawbeek was popular for a while, but it could not consistently turn a profit due to “short seasons and uncertain patronage,” Donaldson wrote. The growing trend toward private camps, the move to shorter hotel stays and the spread of the automobile hurt all the great hotels and inns of the Adirondacks, according to the book “Resort Hotels of the Adirondacks,” by Bryant Franklin Tolles. It changed hands several times, and in 1914, it was sold to A.J. Ginsberg of Tupper Lake, owner of the Ginsberg department stores. Ginsberg sold all the building’s lumber and furnishings, leaving only a few cottages on the site.

The Wawbeek Club was then built in 1921, after Ginsberg sold the land to lumberman Ferris Meigs from Bronxville in Westchester County. The new hotel was much smaller than the old one. The place changed hands several times after that.

“Another of the owner-managers was Raymond Charest whose tenure was 1947-1952,” wrote Warren F. Longacker in “A History of Sekon and its Surroundings.” “Harry Purchase, the head of Paul Smith’s hotel management department, then bought it and operated it for 13 years, 1952-1965. He sold it to Mrs. Van Voorhis who resided during alternating seasons at ‘Bircholm’ on Deer Island.”

According to Mary Hotaling, director of Historic Saranac Lake, Van Voorhis divided the property in the late 1970s, deeding the property north of the old Sweeney Carry to St. Lawrence University.

According to Norm and Nancy Howard, who owned the Wawbeek from 1994 until they sold it to its current owners in 2007, the Van Voorhis family purchased the nearby Camp Debaun Boys’ Camp, formerly the Walter Great Camp property, in September 1968 and added it to the hotel complex. Jacob Resneck wrote in the Enterprise in April 2007 that “the two main buildings at the present-day Wawbeek, the restaurant and Mountain House, were originally part of a great camp built by the Walter family in 1907.”

Henry Gaisman, chairman of the board of Gillette Razor Company, bought the Walter property in 1937. He donated it, along with the nearby Bull Camp, to the Mount Sinai hospital in New York City. The hospital sold the property to Mr. and Mrs. Howard Edwards in Long Island in 1956, and they ran it as a boys’ camp until its purchase by the Van Voorhis family.

The Walter property took the Wawbeek name in 1980, after a fire burned the original Wawbeek Hotel to the ground on March 1, only a few days after a Sports Illustrated crew covering the Winter Olympics checked out. This shut down the restaurant and hotel that had been operating there for decades. Shortly afterward, Van Voorhis sold the property to a developer from Florida named Mantis, who planned to build condominiums on the property. He never did this, but he did sell off several lots along the shoreline. Mantis also tried to reopen the restaurant, but Hotaling said he had problems with “staffing and expenses” and was “forced to abandon the property.”

Norman and Nancy Howard bought the Wawbeek in 1994, renovated it and reopened the lodge and restaurant. It quickly became popular as one of the few restaurants offering higher-end dining near Tupper Lake. It was important economically, too: the restaurant served 12,000 diners in 2006, and injected more than $1 million into the local economy, according to Resneck’s April 2007 article. Fifty nine people worked there in 2007.

The Howards sold the property to its current owners, Diane and Dick Sittig of California, last year. The Sittigs closed the restaurant and lodge, and the Wawbeek became a private residence again for the first time in more than a generation. In February, they announced plans to tear down the 100-year-old Coulter buildings and build a new private camp on the property. This led to opposition from Adirondack Architectural Heritage, Historic Saranac Lake and other historic preservation organizations, and a couple of weeks later, the Sittigs said they would offer the buildings free of charge to any person or group who will remove them from their current site by May 20.

Many people and groups, including the Tupper Lake Heritage Museum, the Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce, Howard, Hotaling and Tupper Lake Youth Recreation Director Mike Fritts, have been working on plans to move the restaurant building, at least, to a site in Tupper Lake. But it has been estimated that this will cost $126,000, and neither the town nor the village has offered to help pay. It is still possible that the Sittigs will extend the deadline, but if someone doesn’t come up with a lot of money soon, the building could be lost.

Contact Nathan Brown at 891-2600 ext. 26 or

Article Photos

People have paid a lot of money to wake up to this view.
(Enterprise file photo)



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