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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Of Treasure Maps and Buried Treasure

Renovation at Huntington Lodge leads to a hidden treasure
9/8/2009

If you spend much time at Huntington Wildlife Forest, sooner or later you'll hear someone joke that somewhere around here, Archer Huntington might have hidden a few of his millions. Truth is stranger than fiction: While not a strong box filled with gold, we have uncovered a treasure. And ironically, while it belonged to Archer and Anna Huntington, it was the college that buried it.

When ESF architect Gary Peden began helping with the renovation of Huntington Lodge, he asked for any drawings we had of the building, both historical and current. We shared what little we had: one layout drawing of the original lodge and three of a set of eight blueprints from the college's 1941 remodeling. Gary suggested there might be another fireplace associated with the Trophy Room fireplace structure.

It seemed far-fetched. But once I got the floor plan out, sure enough there was a third gap in the drawn block of the chimney structure, clearly indicating another fireplace. If the drawing was correct, the fireplace would be behind the front hall closet.

An exploratory opening in the rear of the closet wall proved that not only was Gary correct, but that elements of the fireplace still existed. We opened it up along a section of the front arch. The first question was what we would find when the wall came down, followed by what would they have done to seal it, and whether it could be reclaimed. There was a chance we would open the wall and find a nightmare, but we decided to go for it.

What we found was both exhilarating and demoralizing. The fireplace, a fully finished second face of the structure, was still there, but in order to create the closet and the stairway wall the solid granite mantel and most of the right side had been, well, Smashed. Capital "S" Smashed. And the rubble, with fresh cement, had been used to fill in the fireplace and reshape some support.

Now we needed to find out what was behind the rough jumble of stone and cement filler. Could it be cleaned out? Could it be repaired? Could it ever be used again? The answer to these questions turned out also to be buried, in a way, in Newcomb.

Blair Gregson was born in Schroon Lake but moved to Newcomb many years ago. He's been a stone mason most of his life, and his work is stunning. I knew none of this when I called him to come look at our wrecked fireplace, just that one day at the bank I had been making small talk about stones and geology (a love of mine) and teller Ellie Norton had mentioned her father built fireplaces. I still had his number and gave him a call.

Spending time with Blair looking at stonework is like being with a docent in an art museum: He brings to life the personality of the mason as viewed through his work. We compared the fireplaces in Huntington and Arbutus Lodges, and he highlighted the individuality of the mason who built the great stone fireplace (and its newly discovered sibling): the lines, the approach to placement, the shape of stone selected, the size and depth of the joints. He was confident the fireplace could be salvaged.

Over the winter and early spring, Blair and two-person crew chiseled out the rubble, fabricated and installed a new damper, rebuilt the smoke shelf, rebuilt the right side of the fireplace, installed a new hearth and most exciting of all, chiseled out and replaced the savaged mantel, including its two bracing stones.

No treasure hunter could ask for more: from crusted coin on the ocean floor to sparkling gold doubloon. Visitors to the renovated Huntington Lodge will now be greeted not by the brilliant gold of coins, but by the warming gold of a welcoming fire. A treasure indeed.

For more on Blair and his work see "The Blair Wall Project", Adirondack Life, annual At Home in the Adirondacks issue, 2000.

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SUNY-ESF
State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry
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