In 1907, the newly formed Village Board of Trade hired the Olmsted Brothers, of New York's Central Park fame, to draw up a plan to improve the appearance of the village, but in 1909 the village board turned it down as being too expensive. On April 10, 1910, a group of local women organized formally to bring the Olmsted Plan into reality. By October 10, 1910, ten directors signed the Certificate of Incorporation: Mary Ives Baldwin, Margaret V. N. Duryee, Alice M. Vosburgh, Lillian C. Wicker, Ida M. Minshull, Marie S. Haase, Mary Sill Palmer, Mabel M. Trowbridge, Adah J. Hallock, Rosamond P. Roberts. (Note that the incorporation was signed by 10 directors on 10/10/'10!)
The V.I.S. continues this work today, with half of the village's ten parks under its direct ownership and care and with advisory status for the rest; it is still working toward completely green river banks.
Parks in VIS ownership include:
- Beaver Park, on the Saranac River corner of Dorsey Street and LaPan Highway
- Denny Park, on the river corner of Bloomingdale Avenue and Pine Street
- Dorsey Street Park, on the Saranac River, from Dorsey Street to lower Main Street parking lot.
- Sunset Park Adirondack Arboretum, bounded by Olive Street, Sunset Road and Hope Street
- Triangle Park or Triangle Herb Garden, at the corner of Pine Street and Main Street, near the Saranac River
- Vest Pocket Park, Main Street beside the Saranac Lake Free Library
Parks deeded to the Village or publicly owned, but cared for by the VIS include:
- Baldwin Park, tennis courts and Korean Memorial on Lake Flower Avenue
- Mullen Park, corner of River Street and Lake Flower Avenue
- Prescott Park, on Lake Flower near Pontiac Bay
- Prospect Corner, a small triangular garden, at the junction of Prospect Avenue and Virginia Street
- Riverside Park, on the site of the old Riverside Inn
- Seymour Park, a small strip across from St. Bernard's convent
- Veterans' Triangle, at the intersection of Church Street and River Street
- Welcome Garden on Lake Colby Drive
- No Man's Land, between the back of the Vest Pocket Park and the parking lot on the site of the Pontiac Theatre
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, March 15, 1960
50th Anniversary of Improvement Society
The 50th Adversary of Saranac Lake's Village Improvement Society will be observed at a meeting in the Hotel Saranac on April 5th. The decision was made at the monthly meeting on March 1st, at which time tentative plans were made. Further information will be given later, at which time an invitation to the public will be issued through the Adirondack Enterprise and radio station WNBZ.
It is planned to have an address by Mr. Roger Tubby, publisher of The Enterprise, and President of the Adirondack Park Association.
The guests will be asked to sign a gift book, which will later be presented to Miss Mary Prescott, as a token of appreciation. She has been a generous contributor to every project of the Society and has been identified with the Society since is founding in 1910. Later the book will be placed in a convenient location in the Village, so that all who know Miss Prescott, or her work, may add their signatures.
In the same year a section of what is known as Prescott Park, comprising one acre, mostly swamp land was purchased; refuse from a sawmill had been used for fill. The second section of this Park was bought, eight years later. At this time the late Mrs. E. R. Baldwin was president of the Society, and Mrs. Marie Sasenthaler Haase, mother of local resident, Peter Haase, was treasurer. Several shacks were removed before the land could be filled and developed.
In 1928 Miss Prescott assumed the cost of installing a seawall of inter-locking piling and concrete. This was necessary to keep out the water, and to improve the shoreline.
The bathing beach was established by the combined efforts of the Village, the American Legion, and the Society. The village bought the land, the Legion built the bathhouse, .and the Society contri- buted the use of the Park and agreed to maintain the same.
The site of the World War I Memorial, known as the Triangle, at the intersection of River and Church streets was bought in 1912. The level of the land was raised and the plot landscaped, then the Reviewers Club planted maple trees at the point, as a Memorial to their deceased members. Mrs. Marie Sasenthaler, Mr. Haase's grandmother, contributed the bronze flagpole, and the school children contributed a Christmas tree in December of 1925. The Veteran's Memorial Honor Roll was contributed by the late Mrs. C. M. Palmer. The point of the Triangle was ceded to the Village in 1923 for widening the street.
The land for Riverside Park was purchased by the Village, when the Inn was razed, about 1925. There was an understanding that the Society would develop the park. A Mr. Kendall, member of an architectural firm in New York City, donated $1000 toward the landscaping, in memory of his wife, who had 'cured' here. He stipulated that the Park be made, and kept formal, as a place of recreation for adults; as other parks were mainly for children. Mrs. Joseph L. Nichols of Park Avenue supervised the landscaping
In June 1925 a payment was made on the Branch and Callanan property on Lake Flower Avenue, which is now Baldwin Park. This was a narrow fringe of swampland which had been used as a dump, but it was bought with the hope of improving the approach to the village.
A Mr. Porter, professor of horticulture at Cornell University made a plan for the development of the land and presented it to the Society. Mr. Porter's vision and enthusiasm acted as a spur and with the assistance of Wayne Timmerman, who was then the village manager, and help from village officials and workers, the work went forward.
Harlan Branch was a generous donor of trees and he kindly added the use of his horse, Harry, for hauling them. Thomas Norman and. Mr. J.A. Latour also donated trees. In the Spring of 1926 the park was ready for use. Recently, the village, which now owns the park, installed play equipment for small children in one section.
Other properties which came to the Society by purchase or gift are: Seymour property on River Street, and the adjoining Kerr property. The shoreline opposite the parochial school, a gift from St. Bernard's Parish; the Potter land at the foot of Mt. Pisgah, and the Jenkins land on what is now Hope Street. The last two, undeveloped lands, are still owned by the Society. All other lands described as parks, were maintained by the Society until 1949 when they were given to the village. Beautiful Denny Park on Bloomingdale Avenue is still owned by the Society and a later acquisition, the Newman property on Dorsey Street next to the George LaPan Highway bridge, was purchased last year. It has been seeded and it is hoped that it will present a pleasant appearance in the Spring.
Many times during these 50 years the people of Saranac Lake have been asked to contribute to the funds for the purchase of these lands. The response has always been generous, and with this encouragement members of the Society in the past, have ventured to assume new responsibilities. Much remains to be done and with continued cooperation, much can be accomplished.
The Village Improvement Society now has approximately 80 active members and the rolls are always open to anyone who wishes to become a member.
Lake Placid News, November 17, 1977, p. 1
Man with Designs
The man who planned New York City's Central Park also had designs on Saranac Lake.
The late Edward Clark Whiting, chief architect for Olmstead Bros. Firm in 1909 provided the guideposts that subsequent generations have followed in community development and beautification. Mr. Whiting had been responsible for the plan and design of Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn in addition to many other parks across the nation. [Not the case — Calvert Vaux and Olmsted designed Central Park. Whiting was an employee of the firm when the Saranac Lake plan was made, after F. L. Olmsted's death. — Mary Hotaling]
The highly regarded architect was brought to Saranac Lake by Walter Cluett, the shirt manufacturer who was one of the community's prime movers at the turn of the century. Mr. Cluett turned to the nationally known Olmsted Bros. concern in his desire to make Rockledge, still an area of tasteful beauty off East Pine Street a unique development.
AT MR. CLUETT'S urging, the firm's chief architect turned his talents to the community as a whole. The result of his efforts was the 1909 "Olmsted Report — a blueprint for beauty that is little known today.
The Olmsted Report was issued officially by the Saranac Lake Village Improvement Society (VIS) in 1910. It is a tribute to the VIS that the suggestions and options were followed to the letter whenever possible
Architect Whiting pointed out immediately that Saranac Lake contained areas of special geologic formation and landscape interest which were of great value He warned that "once destroyed they cannot be replaced." The community, he emphasized, had grown with extraordinary rapidity through its health-resort qualities. It had in fact, he said, "twice doubled its size in 20 years."
In spite of Saranac Lake's climate and beauty. Mr. Whiting could see that someday the bubble would burst. The village had no sustaining industry or manufacturing properties that could preserve its life beyond the point where other equally healthful areas would become competitive and thereby reduce the population of Saranac Lake.
THIS COMPETITIVE factor made future planning imperative, since people came to Saranac Lake from all parts of the United States and left with impressions of the community
"There is a great and peculiar value in making Saranac Lake as attractive as possible in doing every thing to enhance the pleasure of living and to augment rather than impair the village's curative value for tuberculosis.
Mr. Whiting stressed that the community would need all the essentials of a model city. He strongly advised doing everything conducive to the neatness and attractiveness of the town. He said:
"If these things are desirable in an ordinary commercial town, they must be far more desirable in a village or city chiefly of dwelling a community, therefore where much time must be spent in idle contemplation of one's surroundings.
"To what extent one's surroundings, ugly or beautiful, may retard or accelerate a man's recovery I cannot say but judging from their well known effect upon the happiness and well being of a normally sensitive man, I am inclined to believe that the effect is not to be neglected as a factor in the curing of a disease like pulmonary tuberculosis.
The visions that Mr. Whiting projected are easily discernable in the contemporary planning of Saranac Lake. He immediately established parks and playgrounds as a primary priority for longer range beautification.
IT WAS MR Whiting who advocated the extension of Church Street to Bloomingdale Avenue. His first concern was for the shores of Lake Flower. He stressed that a permanent park must be planned from the Riverside Hotel to the narrows of the river at the lake's south end He said:
"All undesirable buildings will, of course, be removed and the lake shores treated as a park. The surrounding streets can be widened and treated as parkways to accommodate traffic and pleasure driving. The lake thus becomes the central feature of a beautiful park in the heart of the city.
Such development is coming to pass 67 years later. He also advised preserving intact The Pines between the railroad track and Moody Pond. He urged the control of Pisgah property and would like to have seen Pisgah kept as a public reservation.
Much importance was given to river bank planning, protection of the channel, protection from pollution, purchase of shoreline when ever possible, removal of unsightly structures along the water, and a walkway planted with trees with the entire length inside the village planned as a permanent park with playgrounds.
The plan included strong advice on tree planting along the village main streets as well as in residential areas. Mr. Whiting said in 1909:
"PERHAPS THERE is no single element which impresses one so quickly on entering a community for the first time as the absence or presence of street trees. Saranac Lake is so young and has grown so quickly that street trees are very scarce."
He advised a planting program at that time. Little planting was done — valuable street areas were usurped gradually for telephone and electrical transmission service.
The tree-planting program today is already assured. In fact, two maples were placed last summer in front of the Harrietstown Town Hall.
Mr. Whiting's guideposts to beauty mark the wav for the current efforts to revitalize the village.
From the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Saturday, May 31, 2003
Society works to uphold the Olmstead Plan
SARANAC LAKE - The National Association for Olmsted Parks is currently celebrating Olmsted Centennials with selected reprints of the landscape architect's writings and individual Olmsted Park celebrations.
Among Frederick Law Olmsted's prolific designs are Boston's Fenway Park ("Emerald Necklace"), New York's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park.
In Saranac Lake a few forward-looking businessmen recognized early the need of a plan for the rapidly sprouting community and the potential beauty of the lake and river.
They retained the Olmsted Brothers to make a study, dated 1908. Submitted to the village board in 1909, the Olmsted Plan for the Improvement of Saranac Lake was turned down as being too expensive and taking commercial property from the tax rolls.
Heartily agreeing that land is a resource and not a commodity, on April 10, 1910 a group of local women organized formally to bring the Olmsted Plan into reality. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise committed an entire issue to reprinting the Olmsted Plan, the formation of the Village Improvement Society (VIS), and a complimentary editorial comment.
"Coming to Saranac Lake last summer (1907)," wrote James Clark Whiting, the Olmsted architect assigned to the village, "I was struck almost immediately with the potential value of Lake Flower and its immediate surroundings as public property … there is no one step … that will be of greater permanent benefit to the village as a whole than the acquisition of complete control over this lake and its shores... all the undesirable buildings will be removed and the lake shores treated as a park.
"I realize fully the great cost of taking these lake shores and that many people will be opposed to spending public funds in that way. But I do not know of a case where parks or parkways have been built … that abutting property has not increased in values…"
The Village Improvement Society was up and running, distributing copies of the Olmsted Plan and exhorting village leaders to: support it.
1912 - VIS purchased a triangle of land at the junction of Church and River streets and created what is now, with a considerable amount shaved off by street widening, the Veterans' Triangle. This is currently owned by the village which shares maintenance with VIS.
1925 - The mortgage finally paid off, VIS acquired the Callanan property on Lake Flower to develop Baldwin Park, (tennis courts and Korean Memorial) and bought a small strip across from St. Bernard's convent to create Seymour Park.
1927 - The Mullen property, corner of River Street and Lake Flower Avenue (Mullen Park).
1936 – Riverside Park, purchased by the village after the Riverside Inn had been torn down. VIS assumed responsibility, retained Philip G. Wolff, then a Cornell landscape student, to design and supervise building the park in 1937-38.
The Saranac Riverbank
"I do most strongly recommend that both shores of the river from Lake Flower to the railroad bridge be taken and permanently controlled by the town primarily as a safeguard against undue encroachments into the river channel of buildings, refuse, dumps, etc..." the Olmsted Plan advises.
1949 - Having exhausted, at least temporarily, Lake Flower parksite potential, VIS turned to the Saranac river, purchasing the Denny property, at the corner of Bloomingdale Avenue and Pine Street, (Denny Park).
When the village developed the lower Main Street parking lot, VIS agitated for and received permission to turn the river bank into a modest grassy parkland area. William Scopes donated six maple trees of which three still stand on the new River Walk.
By the late 1950s upkeep on the Prescott Park swimming beach and other Lake Flower parks were beyond VIS income and the Society turned over its Lake Flower parks to the village "to remain parks in perpetuity." VIS remains in an advisory capacity.
1970 - Moving with the times, VIS opened its membership to men.
1976 - VIS created the Church Street Extension Parklette on a small riverside strip of village property beside the new parking lot. The village reclaimed the Parklette in 2002 for the River Walk.
With the possibility of lakefront buildings being demolished to widen River Street into a four-lane highway then-VIS president Gertrude Woodruff campaigned persistently to secure Lake Flower properties for continuous parkland. Surmounting opposition, VIS prevailed. On Nov. 27, 1977, the VIS president stood proudly with state officials on the podium as the new Riverside Park sweep was dedicated. VIS had at last realized one vital facet of the Olmsted Plan.
Small open spaces
"Small open spaces, scattered about a village … furnish the opportunity for people to rest outdoors ... such small bits of park are very real and important elements in making for civic beauty and the joy of living…" the Olmsted Plan notes.
1972 - VIS purchased for taxes the 96-98 Main Street lot, now Vest Pocket Park and possibly VIS' most heavily enjoyed public park.
How does VIS accomplish this? VIS has always worked on spare budget. Each of its parks and civic projects has an individual volunteer chairman responsible for overall maintenance, plantings and budget. Members plant, weed, pick up litter and oversee their parks. Perennials are donated from members' gardens.
VIS' 2003 budget is $6,500 to cover insurance, a groundsman, purchase of annuals and two middle school environmental camperships. VIS also receives generous in-kind support without which it could not accomplish its goals. VIS welcomes new memberships and always seeks new parks.
New York Tribune, August 30, 1914
Saranac Lake. N. Y., Aug. 20. The annual flower show of the Village Improvement Society was held here on Thursday and brought out hundreds of visitors to view the exhibits, which were larger and more varied than ever before. There were forty-one major prizes of practically $5 each and forty minor prizes offered by the society. The new feature introduced was the flapjack dinner served under the trees on the lawn by guides, who prepared the cakes over a large open fire. The miniature sportsmen's show events were especially pleasing and the society hopes to expand this part of the show to become eventually a regulation Adirondack sportsmen's show.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, August 22, 1974
VIS will soon own the Vest Pocket Park
SARANAC LAKE - Mrs. Warriner Woodruff, president of the Village Improvement Society (VIS), has announced that Vest Pocket Park, adjacent to the library, will soon be owned by the VIS. Payment of taxes in the amount of $3,000 has been approved and the deed to the land will be transferred to the Society by the former owners, Milo Moody and Phillip Hyde.
Acquisition of the property has been a VIS objective ever since the wooden structure on its site, built by Walter Sagendorf, was destroyed by fire in 1968. For several years, the abandoned ruin was an eyesore on Main Street, until the VIS and library trustees obtained permission to raze the foundation and grade the land. Since then, under the supervision of Mrs. John Bourke, the plot has been seeded and planted with a colorful border of petunias cultivated by Earl Colby and Serafin Vasquez.
Now that ownership of Vest Pocket Park has been assured, further landscaping became the first project on the VIS Spring agenda. Mrs. Woodruff hopes that the current campaign to raise $4,000 will help to defray the costs of acquisition, additional plantings, a litter basket, and benches to enhance the area and add to the convenience and relaxation of townspeople as well as visitors shopping along Main Street. Donations may be mailed to Mrs. Florence Houghton, 144 Park Avenue.
Mrs. Woodruff believes that the work of the VIS is as essential to the upgrading of the community as the civic activities of paving roads, collecting litter, and keeping streets clean. Abandoned buildings and neglected lands in midtown, she said, are blights that call for removal and redemption. When private enterprise has not assumed these obligations, the VIS has been enabled to accomplish them through contributions to its annual fund drives.
Other VIS projects under consideration for the coming year are the landscaping of the river bank abutting the proposed parking area for shoppers at Church Street extension, and development of the park areas along Lake Flower which the VIS bought and then deeded to the Village under the provision that they be kept as parks open to the community and its guests. Other properties which the VIS has bought and deeded to the Village are Baldwin Park and Seymour Park.
Purchases which have been landscaped and are still maintained by the VIS are Denny Park; Sunset Park, an arboretum on Olive Street; and three other separate parcels yielding oases of greenery in the downtown section and surrounding areas.
From "Saranac Memories" a memoir by Henry Ives Baldwin
Ladies Survey the Dump
"Tales of the horrors of the dump area, fortified by the way we smelled on our return from hunting expeditions there, gradually were reported in dainty terms in the sewing circles and ladies' societies. One of the popular groups at the times was the Village Improvement Society, of which my mother was president, and which was actively supported by all the ladies in Highland Park, doctors' wives and such crusaders as Miss Mary R. Prescott. Reports by small boys of conditions at the dump were believed to be grossly exaggerated , but the Society nevertheless believed the dump might be a health hazard, and was certainly a source of flies. . . . The ladies determined to make a pilgrimage to see with their own eyes just how bad conditions were. I was thrilled to be asked to guide them. [Description of truly disgusting conditions.] Into this depressing scene the ladies arrived. . . . The leader of the column was recognized as the William M. Palmers' mammoth Franklin seven passenger touring car. It, like all the cars, was chauffeur driven, with top down. . . . The ladies all wore linen dusters and broad-brimmed hats tied on with veils, just like the pictures. There was Mrs. Palmer, Mrs. Duryee, Miss Prescott, my mother, and a score of others. . . . They had seen and smelled enough in short order, and beat a hasty retreat to their cars, holding up their long skirts with one hand, and their noses with the other. To me the tour had been a complete success, and many were the guffaws we exchanged , when I related the event to my fellows. Soon after, however, the ladies forced the village to build an incinerator on the site, although one of the village fathers protested that he didn't see the value of 'this here insinuator,' which he considered a useless luxury."