Development plan stirs passion, memories in Adirondacks 'We can't survive up here on tourists,' one resident says


LONG LAKE, N.Y. - The water in Little Tupper Lake is clear as gin, the spot isolated except for pairs of loons. It is the largest lake owned by a single person in all of New York. And it is for sale.

Long Lake Hotel owner Art Young recalls fishing Little Tupper in the early 1980s, catching several 20- and 22-inch brook trout prized as a rare, genetically undiluted strain.

"It's so pure and beautiful back in there, it's amazing," said Young, pouring draft beer for patrons at his bar. "But 'forever wild's' a crock. We can't survive up here on tourists two months in the summer. We need year-round development and snowmobilers during the winter, or we're dead."

Young's sentiment is echoed by many throughout the Adirondacks, particularly those who expect to gain if socialite Marylou Whitney is permitted to develop her family's 2,300-acre Little Tupper Lake - along with a sprinkling of seven wilderness ponds and 15,000 acres of pristine mountainous land, roughly the size of Manhattan.

$60 million project

Whitney and her fiance, John Hendrickson, have proposed a $60 million project, calling for construction of a luxury hotel and 40 great camps (26 of them fronting Little Tupper Lake). Lots would average 300 acres and sell for $1.5 million apiece.

"They'll be the most exclusive in the Northeast - the most beautiful camps in the Northeast," Hendrickson said in January when he announced the project.

Since then, Hendrickson has boasted that he has fielded inquiries from dozens of prospective buyers, including celebrities declined to name. (He and Whitney declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Hendrickson has been talking plenty with the Adirondack Park Agency, which has zoning authority on the development project. The town of Long Lake - covering 448 square miles, including Little Tupper Lake, Raquette Lake and numerous lakes and ponds amid tens of thousands of rugged acres, 42 percent of which is owned by the state and 10 percent by the Whitneys - does not have any zoning regulations.

Hendrickson touts a potential revival of the turn-of-the-century opulent great camps. In his 1990s vision, those luxurious outposts would be home to Hollywood stars instead of industrialists, to wealthy people more likely to be known by their company affiliations than an old-money blueblood surname.

Home to celebrities

Already, the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park is home to a handful of celebrities and some of the super-rich, who seem to be discovering the mountains quietly, and on their own, and who guard their privacy.

Country singer superstar Shania Twain has a recording studio and mansion-in-the-making within a 3,000-acre compound near Saint Regis Falls. Brooke Shields has a camp on Chazy Lake, near Dannemora, which is best known as home of a maximum-security state prison. The late Kate Smith was a regular visitor to Lake Placid for many summers.

A century ago, the Adirondacks attracted the leading industrialists of the age. The Rockefellers, Whitneys, Durants, Vanderbilts, Morgans, Posts and DuPonts came with the goal of re-creating their extravagant Fifth Avenue and Central Park lifestyles deep in the Adirondack wilderness.They built estates in the Adirondack architectural style: rustic mansions with gabled roofs, broad porches, rough-hewn beams and massive fieldstone fireplaces complemented by lavish boathouses, extravagant guest cabins and caretaker cottages.

The industrialists were celebrities of their day and traveled with entourages by private luxury rail car, often arriving in black tie to great camps fully staffed with servants and chefs. They dined on succulent oysters and thick steaks washed down by the finest French champagne, at camps they christened Uncas, Sagamore, Kill Kare, Pine Knot, Topridge, Wonundra and Deerlands.

"The Adirondack Park has been a playground for the rich and famous for over a century, but that's missing the point," said John Sheehan, the Adirondack Council spokesman. The 18,000-member group is trying to persuade the state to buy the land and preserve it as wilderness.

"We're convinced Long Lake would be better off in the long run economically by keeping it forever wild," Sheehan said.

The thought of turning sleepy Long Lake into a Malibu of the North has some salivating.

"You bring 40 multimillionaires into town and it can't have anything but a positive impact," said Bob Gibson, a town employee and director of parks and recreation for Long Lake. "We've got a few celebrities now and we don't make a big fuss over them. It's not like they've changed the character of Long Lake."

Descendants of the DuPont family still have a property on Long Lake, and the Whitneys are town residents, retaining a faded version of the cachet of the Gilded Age industrialists.

But few believe a gaggle of nouveau riche would resurrect that era of unbridled wealth characterized by William C. Whitney, who purchased Little Tupper Lake and a wilderness tract for a family retreat he dubbed Whitney Park. He had built his fortune on oil, tobacco and New York City streetcars. The land eventually passed to Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and then to his widow, Marylou Whitney.

There's no mistaking the steady stream of wealthy people landing in sleek private and corporate jets at Adirondack Regional Airport in Saranac Lake.

Many are headed to The Point, the ritzy camp formerly owned by the Rockefellers on Upper Saranac Lake that has been transformed into an award-winning resort. Accommodations cost as much as $1,300 a night, and guests have included Bill Gates and Madonna.

"We're not looking to turn back the hands of time here," said Neil Seymour, executive director of the Franklin County tourism department. "We're not actively soliciting celebrities and millionaires. What we have is a uniquely beautiful natural area with mountains, lakes and wilderness in abundance. That's getting harder and harder to find in this country or anywhere else."

Airport officials say more routine visitors are wealthy business people and CEOs, such as Craig E. Weatherup, president of Pepsi-Cola North America, who travels by corporate jet to Saranac Lake, then takes a short drive to his Adirondack retreat.

Actor-director Tim Robbins and his partner, actress Susan Sarandon, were reportedly spotted near Plattsburgh - where Robbins attended the State University College at Plattsburgh - perhaps shopping for a property. Of course, Robbins might have been scouting for a movie location, as dozens of film companies have done in recent years.

This jet-set celebrity buzz is drowning out what Andy Rooney once loved about his family's long-held Lake George camp.

"I can't stand seeing what's taking place on Lake George, and I almost dread going there," said Rooney, the "60 Minutes" commentator, author and syndicated newspaper columnist, who also has a home in Rensselaerville in southern Albany County.

A brief history

Rooney offered a brief history of the decline of the Adirondacks' Gilded Age. He said vast turn-of-the-century estates fell on hard times among successive generations of once-wealthy families. Those grand mansions and properties were chopped up into motels, subdivided and allowed to deteriorate.

"It's my experience that it's usually the local people who tend to ruin a good place," Rooney said. "There's something to be said for the rich. They appreciate the beauty of a place as outsiders and they have the money to take care of a property. My preference would be to keep the Whitney property forever wild. But my second choice would be to sell it to wealthy people who could afford to maintain it."

Most area residents interviewed enthusiastically backed the Whitney proposal. However, Jim Howard, a Long Lake pilot and maker of rustic furniture who sold Whitney a $3,500 rustic china hutch for her Camp Deerlands, had mixed feelings. His mind raced at the thought of selling 40 more hutches to millionaires just down the road at all those Little Tupper Lake Great Camps. But Howard also couldn't shake the serene vision he sees flying over the lake of loons and an untrammeled landscape little touched by humans.

"There's nothing else like Little Tupper, and I'd hate to see it become another Lake Tahoe," said Howard, who turned to making rustic furniture to tide him over the lean winter months. "We sure could use some help with our economy up here. People are struggling. The Whitney development would mean jobs, which we need badly."

Unemployment among the 920 year-round residents rises to 20 percent or more in winter. Long Lake Supervisor Christine Snide said the Whitney development would mean short-term construction jobs and permanent positions for caretakers and housekeepers. It would also boost the town's value from the current $41.2 million valuation.

She lamented the loss of the large lakeside resorts of the 1930s and 1940s, Sagamore and Stone Gate, which had catered primarily to New York City residents.

'Quality carriage trade'

"Most importantly, it would bring back that quality carriage trade we've lost in Long Lake," Snide said.

A recent example of brash development in the Adirondacks was the case of Roger Jakubowski, the self-described hot dog king of Atlantic City, N.J., who bought Camp Topridge in 1985 for $911,000.

Considered one of the grandest of the Adirondack Great Camps, it was the summer home of the late Marjorie Merriweather Post, the General Foods heiress, and included a lavish rustic mansion, guest cabins, a boathouse and 52 buildings on 207 acres on Upper St. Regis Lake in Franklin County.

"I want to own all 6 million acres [of Adirondack Park]," Jakubowski said at the time. His media splash included a segment on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" and earned him a spot alongside Whitney among the socialite's retinue in Saratoga. He snapped up several Adirondack ventures, including a radio station, a ski center and a spring water bottling company.

By 1992, Jakubowski's plan had cooled. Foreclosure proceedings had begun on Camp Topridge. He filed for bankruptcy protection on the other ventures and became the stuff of Adirondack legend, rarely surfacing publicly in the Adirondacks in the last several years.

Seymour, the Franklin County tourism official, said he spoke to Jakubowski briefly last summer in Lake Placid and he indicated he was mostly divested of his Adirondack holdings, including Camp Topridge, and was living in Canada.

The future of the Whitney's development plan is in limbo. The Adirondack Park Agency, the zoning authority that must approve the development plan, has deemed the application incomplete.

"It's the largest subdivision that has come before us, and interest is very keen," said Bill Curran, APA's director of regulatory programs. He said it could take a year for the agency to decide on the application.

Gov. George Pataki has started negotiations with the Whitney family on acquiring the Little Tupper Lake property in what would be the state's largest addition to the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park in four decades. "It would be a magnificent addition and commitment to the future," Pataki has said.

Novel's themes

Meanwhile, author Murray Heller, for 23 years a resident of Saranac Lake, has retreated to Woodstock and is writing a novel based on the issues stirred up by the Whitney Park development proposal.

"The danger to the Adirondacks at the end of the 19th century came from industries trying to rip from the land whatever it could, be it timber or minerals, as quickly as possible," said Heller, a former teacher at the Center for Adirondack Studies at North Country Community College.

"At the turn of the century and early part of the 20th century, the pressure was wealthy industrialists who wanted to domesticate the woods and play at being outdoorsmen with other wealthy guys, all led by hired guides."

Nearly 100 years later, Heller sees a similar cycle. "The exact themes are being played out today over the Whitney proposal. dTC The only difference is that we're approaching the end of the 20th century and there is less and less pristine and untouched acreage to buy in the world," he said.

"These celebrities have the money to jet anywhere in the world to find it. "It's still available in the Adirondacks."

, and to claim a piece of the world that hasn't been turned into downtown L.A. is very attractive to them at any price."

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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