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May 28, 2017

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Restored New York camp brings Gilded Age glory back to life

NEWCOMB, New York--Camp Santanoni will never again be a private refuge for the mega-rich to enjoy the Adirondacks in rustic opulence, but after two decades of slow, steady restoration work on the log buildings, visitors can get a sense of roughing it, Gilded Age-style.

Santanoni was one of the earliest great camps built by wealthy families with names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt beginning in the late 19th century. Managed by state environmental officials, it is the only remaining great camp that is publicly owned. But the once-imperiled camp remains a work in progress. Summer visitors who hike or bike the nearly 8-kilometer road to the lakeside camp are likely to hear hammering.

"When I first went there, the first week I almost left. It was so daunting," said master carpenter Michael Frenette, who has done most of the work at Santanoni since 1998. At first he performed triage, but now almost all the buildings are stabilized.

"Two or three years ago, I remember just walking up on the porch and it being like a lightning bolt striking me: 'Wow, it's back! It's a camp again."'

The great camps were camps only in the loosest sense. Santanoni's owners, Albany banker Robert Pruyn and his wife, Anna, had roughly 50 buildings constructed, including a gatehouse, barns and a creamery. The roof of the main lodge sweeps over five more buildings, creating a suite of cabins sharing a long porch overlooking Newcomb Lake.

"Some of the early visitors just got off the wagon and ran around the porches and opened the doors and just marveled there was running hot and cold water and that there was a piano in the living room," said Steven Engelhart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, which is helping preserve Santanoni.

The piano and other furnishings are long gone, but summer visitors can poke through the buildings. Several thousand come each year, including winter visitors on cross-country skis. The idea is to maintain the camp so that it appears as though the Pruyns could show up anytime, said Charles Vandrei, historic preservation officer for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"Everyone likes to go through all the rooms trying to imagine what it was like 100 or 150 years ago," said Matt Carter of Kinderhook, who biked in recently with his preschool-age daughter, Abby.

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