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Historic laboratory is now open as museum

August 29, 2009
By NATHAN BROWN, Enterprise Staff Writer

The white, glazed walls were designed to be easy to clean. Vents headed upward, directing the tuberculosis bacillus and the chemicals used in experiments out of the building. Today, the same walls are lined with cabinets full of relics of Saranac Lake's tuberculosis era, historic timelines and photographs of the scientists at work and the cabinets full of beakers, burners and other experimental equipment that used to be there.

The former Saranac Laboratory on Church Street, now the Saranac Laboratory Museum, is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, with a guided tour at 11 a.m. The suggested donation is $5, and there are two exhibits - "125 Years of Science in Saranac Lake" upstairs and "The Great War: World War I in Saranac Lake" on the lower level.

"125 Years of Science" opened on July 18 and is planned as a permanent exhibit, said Amy Catania who recently became executive director. The exhibit will evolve, however - she said there are plans to build replicas of the original cabinets. Work has already been done to restore the windows to how they looked back when the building was used for tuberculosis research, she said.

Article Photos

The microscope that Dr. Edward Baldwin used to diagnose his own tuberculosis in 1892. There are many relics of the tuberculosis era on display from the original laboratory or items that were found in Saranac Lake.
(Enterprise photo — Nathan Brown)

"We'll be adding to it, but we don't intend to change it too soon," Catania said.

Many of the items on display are from the original laboratory or were found in Saranac Lake, Catania said, including a microscope that Dr. Edward Baldwin, who ran the Trudeau Sanitorium after founder Edward L. Trudeau died, used to diagnose his own tuberculosis in 1892.

Catania said there are also plans to involve local school children, and set up microscopes and other equipment so they can perform basic experiments in the laboratory that Trudeau founded in 1894, after a fire destroyed the laboratory he had in his home.

Fact Box

If you go:

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, or by appointment, through Oct. 10

WHERE: 89 Church St., Saranac Lake

How MUCH: $5 suggested donation

Guided tours at 11 a.m.

"We're going to coordinate with the schools this year, make sure the teachers know they can bring the kids," Catania said.

Catania said there are plans for an oral history project in which 11th-graders will be paired up with older people in town.

Trudeau, who was born in New York City to a family of physicians, came to Paul Smiths in 1873 after catching tuberculosis from his brother. He recovered, returned home, relapsed and returned here, founding the Adirondack Cottage Sanitorium, on the property where American Management Association is now located, in the 1880s. It was renamed the Trudeau Sanitorium after his death.

The Saranac Laboratory closed in 1964, with experiments transferred to the new Trudeau Institute on Algonquin Avenue. The building was donated to Paul Smith's College in 1966, and was used as a classroom and dormitory until 1987. It was donated to Historic Saranac Lake in 1998. Before that, Historic Saranac Lake was headquartered in the North Elba Town House, where the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce is now located.

The exhibits there now are the first in that building. Historic Saranac Lake also put together the historic exhibits at the Union Depot; the group was involved in its restoration in partnership with the village and managed that property until several years ago.


Evolution of Historic Saranac Lake

Historic Saranac Lake was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1980, and its history began a couple years before that, said longtime executive director Mary Hotaling, with a group of people meeting to discuss the village's downtown revitalization efforts.

"It seemed to us that the downtown already had a theme," said Hotaling who is now the group's architectural historian. "It didn't need something to be imposed upon it."

Hotaling said they wanted to make sure the downtown's unique architecture, which was built when the town was very prosperous because people came here to cure from tuberculosis, was preserved.

"TB was swept under the rug after the sanitoria in the area closed," Hotaling said. "The community sort of tried to reinvent itself as a recreational community, and forget about the TB history. It seemed to us it was a valuable history, and very honorable for all the care it gave to people."

Hotaling said the group began to identify historic buildings in town. Many of them hadn't been maintained over the years, as the economy got worse and the owners couldn't afford repairs. The group worked to add buildings to the National Register of Historic Places, and sought tax credits for buildings on the Register.

Historic Saranac Lake also maintains the Bartok cabin on Riverside Drive, where Hungarian composer Bela Bartok spent the summer of 1945, the last of his life. When the property came to the group's attention more than a decade ago, Hotaling said it was rotting, damaged from a fire and there was a hole in the roof.

"We thought it was too important to be allowed to be torn down," Hotaling said. "It was under a demolition order from the building inspector."

Historic Saranac Lake pays for the cabin's upkeep by holding concerts every summer, and they have also received donations from Bartok's son, Peter Bartok.


World War I exhibit

The downstairs room is named the John Black Room, after a World War I soldier who came to Saranac Lake with tuberculosis after the war and died here.

"The Great War: World War I in Saranac Lake," about the impact of the war on the little city, opened in May. The walls are lined with artifacts of the war brought in by local people - soldiers' uniforms, gas masks, letters and postcards from local soldiers. Kitty Peightal donated her father's uniform, and Pvt. Ralph Coleman's medals and cards he sent to his mother are also there.

"If it is God's will that I am killed, please send this photo to the above address," one of the cards reads.

There are photographs of high school graduating classes from the era. The majority of the boys ended up serving, and many of their names are on the World War I memorial at the intersection of Church and River streets. There is also a section about opposition to the war, and about Louis Marshall, a founder of the Knollwood Club who attended the Paris Peace Conference and worked to add minority rights clauses to the new states of Eastern Europe.

World War I also ties in to Saranac Lake's tuberculosis history. Tuberculosis was the number one cause of disability discharges during the war, and many veterans came to Saranac Lake after the war to cure. Black was one of them. The oldest of four children, his mother came here and lived with him until his death five years later.

"She became very connected to the town," Catania said.

The John Black Room was built in 1928. The offices above it were added in 1934. Both were built with money donated by Black's family.

Catania said Black's nephew, now 85, visited the room recently.

"He was very happy to see we had resurrected the room," Catania said. "Things were all closed down (before); he couldn't find the portrait of his uncle. He seemed to think things had been forgotten."

Catania said the World War I exhibit is not intended to be permanent and a new exhibit will probably be put downstairs within the year.


Contact Nathan Brown at (518) 891-2600 ext. 26 or


(Editor's note: This article was first published in the Aug. 15 print edition of the Enterprise.)



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