New Life for Historic Boathouse
Houses rise and fall on Lake George; the mansions of the gilded age were replaced by motels and cottage colonies, the cottage colonies were replaced in turn by townhomes and McMansions.
If few noticed, it’s because people come to Lake George for the water and the mountains, not the architecture.
Least regarded of all are the utilitarian structures built to serve rather than embellish life on the lake: the boathouses, barns, ice houses and stables.
So when Lake George Park Commissioner Ken Parker publicly commended Lake George Kayak Company owner Ike Wolgin for preserving a 19th century boathouse on Green Island, it was with good reason. Such efforts are rare.
“By preserving the boathouse, we like to think we’re keeping the building’s tradition of launching great boats alive into another century,” said Wolgin.
The Lake George Kayak Company will use the 1,800 square foot space to sell kayaks, canoes and paddleboards, as well as boating-related gear.
The adjacent boathouse, where the Lake George Kayak Company began operating in 1997, will continue to be used for rentals, instruction and demos.
According to Wolgin, the newly restored boathouse was built in the late 1880s for John Boulton Simpson and his 80-ft steam yacht, the Fanita.
Simpson, as most people know, was the New York City businessman who, along with four other investors, purchased Green Island and built the Sagamore Hotel in 1882. They also built cottages for themselves on the island, and spent the long summers entertaining themselves and one another with regattas, cruises, balls and informal parties, among them, “the inimitable Chowder Party.”
With thirty guests aboard, the Fanita would steam down the lake “skirting the east shore in and out among the emerald gems scattered through the Narrows,” as the Lake George Mirror reported in 1891, toward an island selected for that year’s chowder party. “A landing was effected and the chowder compounded,” the Mirror reported.
The Fanita, it was said, could travel from Bolton Landing to Lake George Village in fifty minutes, making her the fastest boat of the day.
According to Wolgin, the Fanita was docked at Villa Nirvana, on the south shore of Green Island. But at the end of every season, she was hauled from the lake along a marine railway that extended into the boathouse and every spring, she was returned to the lake the same way.
F.R. Smith and Sons, the Bolton Landing marina, purchased the boathouse in the late 1920s, and for most of the decades that followed, it continued to be used to store and launch boats. In recent years, though, it had fallen into disrepair; before the Lake George Kayak Company bought it a year ago, it looked as if it would collapse of its own weight if a developer didn’t knock it down first.
Wolgin acknowledges that the building was in rough shape, but, he adds, “anything can be saved.”
To save the boathouse, Wolgin recruited Bolton builder Dave McAvinney, with whom he’s worked on several construction projects, and architect Reuben Caldwell.
Caldwell, a Bolton native who received his Masters in Architecture from Columbia University in 2011, is a partner in the Brooklyn-based firm Studio Tack, which has been retained to design an addition to the Bolton Historical Museum.
That wing, however modern in details and elements, is intended to evoke traditions of local vernacular architecture, boathouses included.
Wolgin thought Caldwell would be a good fit for this project.
“I like Reuben’s sensibility,” said Wolgin. “He understands local history and the environment and the context in which a building is situated. But he has a modernist vision. He ‘s sensitive to old buildings without having any wish to copy them.”
Caldwell helped Wolgin plan the interior space, which consists of four loft-like levels connected by an open steel staircase.
“Clearly, there’s a million ways of going about it; what we chose to go with seemed to be the most efficient use of space,” said Wolgin.
Visually, “all the materials that were used in construction, whether old or new, are exposed,” he said.
Everything that could be salvaged was salvaged, said Wolgin. The exterior siding, rather than being thrown away, was used to line the interior walls. Beams that were once used for ramps now support the uppermost level. Even the old tin roof was retained.
“We recycled, repurposed and reclaimed everything we could,” said Wolgin. “From an environmental perspective, the less you send to a landfill the better. And we sent very little.”
Throughout the building, clues to its history remain.
Hanging in the rafters, for example, are the remains of a crate, which would appear to have little aesthetic or historical value until Wolgin points out a shipping label still affixed to the wood.
Addressed to John Boulton Simpson, the box contained a bicycle sent from the city and delivered to Bolton Landing by steamboat.
Antique and vintage canoes are displayed on the level closest to the water, which serves as the showroom for new canoes, kayaks and paddleboards.
And outside, below the apex of the roof, hangs a wooden plaque with the name “Fanita,” recreated from the faint outlines of letters mounted there in the 1880s.
But the building is hardly a museum, or merely of antiquarian interest.
“We sell a diverse line of paddle craft; everything we do is boating-related; that’s the core of our business, and that’s the function this building serves,” said Wolgin.
A retail store on the water, Wolgin said, “improves the experience for our customers.”
“You can buy a boat over the internet, but it’s inefficient. It’s not practical to ship it to you, and it’s even less practical for you to ship it back if you’re disappointed. You need to be on the water and try multiple boats in order to find the one that suits you best. There’s a lot of product out there, and a specialty shop such as ours sorts through that information for you. There’s value in that,” said Wolgin.
Form following function, the boathouse is 90 feet long, built large enough to accommodate the Fanita from stem to stern. It was renovated to be a store selling new boats. But by design, the boathouse is now a year-round, flexible space. “It could be used for any number of purposes,” says Wolgin. If for any reason the boathouse ceases to be a store, it’s now a permanent addition to the lake’s building stock.
“The boat house is 130 years old; we’ve rebuilt it to last another 130 years,” said Wolgin.