From sanatorium to college to prison
A look back at the historic buildings of a property that no longer exists
By Tom French
When most people think of Camp Gabriels, they probably envision the old prison eight miles north of Saranac Lake, but the story goes much deeper into the Adirondacks past and includes rehabilitation and education in addition to incarceration. Before being a prison, it was part of Paul Smith’s College, and before that, a sanatorium linked to a Belgian-born bishop and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The hamlet of Gabriels was Paul Smith’s station on the Adirondacks and St. Lawrence (later New York Central). The Sisters of Mercy, a worldwide religious organization of Catholic women, established a tuberculosis sanatorium here in the late 1800s on land donated by Paul Smith, William Seward Webb and the state.
The bishop of the Diocese of Ogdensburg at the time, Henry Gabriels, encouraged the Sisters of Mercy to establish the facility, the second sanitarium in the Adirondacks after Trudeau’s, and the first to admit black patients.
Beginning with a small donation of $15 in 1895, Sister Mary of Perpetual Help Kiernan and her colleague, Sister McAuley, moved into an empty cabin near the tracks and recruited Isaac G. Perry to design three buildings pro bono. Raised in Keeseville, Perry is sometimes considered New York State’s first architect because he oversaw building projects at the Albany Capitol under Governor Grover Cleveland.
An inside look
Only one of the three buildings is still standing. Kieran Cottage is near the North Entrance and can be seen from Route 86. This was the first stop on a recent tour sponsored by Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH). It served as a house for the Sisters of Mercy assigned to work at the sanatorium and later as the superintendent’s house and administrative offices during the prison years.
Perry’s Rest-A-While Cottage, where the patients resided, was removed as part of the deal when Paul Smith sold the property to the state in 1980, and the original third building, an administration building, burned down in 1916.
A chapel with an octagonal nave was built in 1904. Perry is also believed to have designed it but died before completion. Used during college and prison years, it is now in poor condition, with a collapsed floor. We were allowed to peek through the door.
Expansion of the sanatorium
The sanitarium was expanded in the mid-1920s with three buildings designed by John Russell Pope – the architect of the Jefferson Memorial, the National Archives, and the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, among others.
Two of the Pope buildings housed tuberculosis patients while the third contained medical facilities such as an operating room, laboratory and x-ray equipment. Later the buildings were used for the classrooms and dormitories of nearby Paul Smith’s College. The Department of Corrections used the buildings to house prisoners.
The next phases
With the decline of tuberculosis patients after World War II due to the rise of antibiotics and vaccines, the sanitarium’s population dwindled. Paul Smith purchased the property for $150,000 in 1965 for his growing forestry program. The college constructed several additional buildings including a gymnasium which also served as a cafeteria for a time.
But in the late 1970s, declining enrollment combined with maintenance costs forced the college to move students back to the main campus, and the state purchased the property.
The first group of 25 inmates, chosen for their building skills, arrived in August 1982. As they renovated and added more space, other inmates were moved into the facility until that, at its peak, more than 325 men were housed in the minimum-security facility. labor camp.
In addition to regular work on the prison campus, inmates engaged in a number of duties throughout the north of the country, including working the trails, fighting forest fires, opening and closing state campgrounds and community service with churches, animal shelters and food pantries. They straightened headstones, helped clean up the 1998 ice storm, and are responsible for many of the familiar brown and yellow DEC signs seen throughout the park. They helped build the Saranac Lake Ice Palace for years. Inmates took classes and earned their GEDs.
Without sliding doors or fences, prison life was an honor system in many ways. Although most of the inmates respected these limits, sometimes someone ran. Our tour guide recalled an escape that made headlines. An inmate ran to Bloomingdale’s, stole a bike, rode to Plattsburgh, then hitchhiked to North Hudson before being stopped at a roadblock. Some just sneaked off to the convenience store next door for a beer.
Current state of neglect
The New York State Office of General Services (OGS) inherited the building when the prison closed in 2009. Most of the buildings are now in disrepair. Some parts are barricaded except where intruders have broken in and vandalized.
The restoration of historic buildings and the repurposing of the campus are complicated. The OGS attempted to auction the property three times, the first in 2010, but no one bid for the opening price of $950,000. Members of an Orthodox Jewish community hoping to start a summer camp successfully bid $166,000 in the fall of 2013, but the deal fell through when title insurance couldn’t be obtained because of the property located in the forest reserve.
The property has been in limbo ever since. In order to have a successful auction and closing, many parties believe that an amendment to the state constitution is necessary. The NYS Senate approved a proposed amendment in June 2021, but the assembly has yet to do so and the process, which requires two consecutive legislative sessions to pass before being put on a ballot. vote for electors, will be reset with the new 2023 legislative session unless the assembly acts.
Ideas for the property have been mooted, such as renovating the buildings into affordable housing, but it could take years before the amendment process and an electoral referendum take place.
In the meantime, only ghosts reside at Camp Gabriels. Ara Newman, one of the AARCH tour guides and former prison commissioner, claims one of his colleagues saw a clown. Legend has it that the clowns entertained the patients of the sanatorium. The prison’s health services clinic was also “known to be haunted”.
“We all have our little ghost stories.” said Ara. “I do not know why.”
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