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Land of Arto: Plans under way for theme-park property in Upper Jay

November 18, 2010
ERIC VOORHIS, News Staff Writer
UPPER JAY — Although in ruins, a kid-sized, fairy-tale castle still stands at the foot of Ebenezer Mountain in Upper Jay, where the Ausable River washed out theme-park innovator Arto Monaco’s treasured Land of Makebelieve for the final time in 1979.

The future of the castle is still uncertain, according to Anne Mackinnon, president of the Arto Monaco Historical Society (AMHS), but she and other members of the non-profit organization are working on a plan to restore and revitalize the forgotten property and the legacy of a great Adirondack artist.

“The idea is to do something with the site that memorializes Arto that’s also a benefit to the town,” Mackinnon said. “Something that does justice to Arto’s artistic and imaginative legacy.”

On Thursday, Nov. 4 a public visioning workshop was held at the AuSable Forks community center to gather ideas for the property’s future.

“Our mandate on this project is to make sure the plans reflect the spirit Arto would have wanted,” said Lisa Nagle of Elan Planning and Design, who led the meeting. “The purpose tonight is to get the bottom of that spirit. ... We want to hear your memories, your stories and your thoughts on what the site should eventually be.”

Elan Planning and Design was hired to draw up initial plans for the site after AMHS received grant funding from New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) — a state agency dedicated to “preserving and expanding rich and diverse cultural resources of New York.”

The Land of Makebelieve (one word, not two) opened in 1954 and was a popular tourist attraction until 1979 when it was forced to close after repeated flooding of the Ausable River damaged the property beyond repair.

“Uncle Arto would be out there building everything by hand after the damage,” said Monaco’s niece and long-time assistant Lynda Denton, who attended the meeting along with a dozen other community members. “Eventually it was just too much to do every year.”

The historical society formed in 2004, the year after Monaco’s death, with the mission to preserve his legacy. In 2008, they bought six acres of the Land of Makebelieve property, which has been maintained by groups of volunteers since.

“We’ve probably had six different work parties clear the site and make it easier to maintain,” Mackinnon said. “We did some work to stabilize the castle, took down some pieces and actually did a study of its structural integrity.”

Work on the castle eventually stopped, however.

“We didn’t want to keep sinking money into it until we had a definite plan,” Mackinnon said.

Which is where the Saratoga-based planning, design and landscape architecture firm comes in.

Formulating a plan

At the beginning of the public meeting Nagle flipped through a series of now-and-then photos of the park to “get everyone in the mood.” Images of the castle in its heyday — windows slightly askew and painted in pastel colors — were followed by the castle now, slumped and fading.

Steven Engelhart, director of the Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH) and also a board member of the AMHS said his original interest in the Land of Makebelieve was as a historic preservationist.

“I always admired Arto’s ability to build this incredible place out of relatively simple building materials — a pretty amazing achievement architecturally,” he said. “But as I got to know Anne and some of the other board members, I started to think more broadly about the site and Arto’s impact on the region.”

Aside from saving the castle — “which is really the centerpiece of the park creation” — Engelhart said he would like to see a few different things happen with the property.

“It would be wonderful to create a public place where people, children especially, could come and visit and use it as an open space, a place to be outdoors,” he said. “It would also be great to have interpretive signage to tell the story of Arto Monaco and the Land of Makebelieve. A big part of this is remembering him and appreciating his work.”

Plans for the property are only in the preliminary stages. According to Nagle and Jere Tatich, who specializes in landscape architecture, Elan Planning and Design will hold another public meeting within 90 days to display site plans and get feedback.

“This is really just the beginning,” Mackinnon said. “It’s going to take several years to make the plan and raise the money.”

If a park were developed, there was talk of the Town of Jay taking over the property, but Supervisor Randy Douglas was a little apprehensive.

“Of course, the town is in whole support of the overall plans of having a remembrance of Arto,” he said. “We’ve worked closely with the historical society and will continue to do so.”

The town’s concern, however, is a lack of resources: “As it is, we don’t have the manpower to take care of the parks we have,” Douglas said. “But it’s too soon to draw conclusions without a final plan. Our thinking is to let them finalize everything and then we’ll find out what exactly what they would need.”

Douglas said the town has a great working relationship with the historical society and will continue to do so.

“We want to be a part of the process. And we want to attend all of the meetings,” he said. “Really, I want to help in anyway I can.”

According to Denton, who lives adjacent to the Land of Makebelieve property, flooding will continue to be a problem in the area, effecting any plans for major restoration.

“Which is why we need to make it simple,” she said. “Plain and simple.”

Remembering the Land of Makebelieve

During the meeting Denton described walking through the gates of the small theme park tucked amid the the small hamlet of Upper Jay as a child. She recalled the crushed, red-stone walkways in stark contrast to the vibrant grass and the deep blue ponds in the center of the grounds.

“It was like a whole different world in there,” she said.

The original park was split up into different features — the castle, a riverboat, a train, several fairy-tale houses, a gift shop, a stagecoach and an old western town known as Cactus Flats — with “surprises around every corner,” according to Engelhart, who grew up in Plattsburgh and visited the park often in his youth.

“As children, we just knew that somebody had understood us and had built something to our scale,” he said. “(The park) was built in such a way that we were in a wild west town, and then right in the other direction we were looking at an incredible castle with Peter the Pumpkin Eater.”

According to Mackinnon, most members of AMHS have close ties to the theme-park. A close family friend of the Monacos and Upper Jay native, she spent a lot of time at Land of Makebelieve as a child.

“My parents were very good friends of Arto and his wife Glad,” she said. “He was a wonderful, astonishingly colorful and acute storyteller, with a great sense of humor. People sought him out just to hear his stories.”

Mackinnon’s interest in Arto was sparked again when she wrote an article for Adirondack Life Magazine titled “Arto Monaco: From Tinseltown to Land of Makebelieve” in the May/June, 2001 issue.

“Land of Makebelieve was Monaco’s masterpiece and ultimate vehicle,” she wrote. “Every inch of its 12 acres expressed his quirky imagination, his joy in color, his delight in detail, his outright respect for downright fun.”

Like many who grew up in the area, Supervisor Douglas remembers visiting the Land of Makebelieve as a child.

“Arto was just a big baby sitter for a lot of us,” he said. “Parents would just drop kids off, and Arto welcomed it. Those days are long gone, but they are great memories for a lot of locals.”

“It’s funny to say, but a lot of people in town got their first work experiences there,” Douglas said. “Arto employed a lot of people who worked for him for years and years.”

Mackinnon added that she remembers children getting off the school bus and going straight over to “Uncle Artos” to check in.

“He was a prolific toy designer,” she said. “Local kids would test out his toys, decide whether or not they were too breakable, and tell him if they were fun or not.”

An artists’ legacy

“One of the things that’s intriguing about Arto, is that he chose to live in the Adirondacks,” Mackinnon said. “But he was part of really big movements, big forces that shaped the 20th century.”

Arto Monaco spent much of his life in the Adirondacks, but his influence was far-reaching. After studying art at Pratt Institute in New York City, he spent years in Hollywood working as a set designer for MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers and even worked a short stint at Disney.

“These were really exciting times in Hollywood,” Mackinnon said.

Later in his life Arto joined the army and helped set up the first Training Aids Division in Aberdeen, Maryland. Using his skills as an artist he set up a German village to train soldiers for street fighting with an old movie set, according to Mackinnon.

“You could see the influence from his years in Hollywood throughout his work,” she added. “When you walked into Land of Makebelieve, it was like walking onto a movie set.”

Later in his life Arto partnered with Julian Reiss and designed Santa’s Workshop, North Pole Park in Wilmington, which was constructed in 1947 and opened in 1949. It’s still a favorite for visitors today. In the early 1950s Arto also designed Old MacDonald’s Farm in Lake Placid, a smaller park that only stayed open for a few years, before working with Charley Wood, of Lake George, in designing parts of Storytown which is now the Great Escape. And at every turn, he was a toy designer.

“During the post-war era and baby boom, there was this huge force in the development of leisure activities and also commercial toys,” Mackinnon said. “Arto was a very big part of that, creating toys for people. He also, I’d have to check on this, was one of the first to introduce the idea of educational toys. He said all of his toys were educational.”

Preserving the artifacts

Transforming the grounds of Land of Makebelieve that once hosted hoards of laughing children into a community park is only one of the historical society’s goals.

“At the moment the collection is what’s taking our time and commanding most of our attention,” Mackinnon said. “It’s a very extensive collection.”

In the beginning, the society considered having of a museum of its own on-site to display the collection of Monaco’s memorabilia — including toys, signs, souvenirs, drawings, plans, papers, notebooks and photographs representing the range of his career — but found it wasn’t feasible.

“At this point, the goal is to make sure the materials we’ve purchased end up in institutions so his artistic legacy can be available to the public,” Mackinnon said. “We’ve been working with several museums and we’re delighted to see the level of interest.”

Currently the historical society is working with the Adirondack Museum, as well as the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester. Along with the society the Denton family (Lynda and also her son and daughter, Scott and Carrie) are making sizable donations.

Although negotiations are in progress and no decisions have been made, Denton expects to see museum exhibits in the near future. She said she hopes it will help the legacy of her uncle to live on.

“As long as it’s in our heart and in our minds, it will never die,” she said.

Article Photos

The Land of Make Believe during its heyday.

Photos provided



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