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ON THE SCENE: A beloved vista destroyed in Keene

December 29, 2016
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

On Tuesday, Dec. 20, the people of Keene lost an old friend, the red barn that been slowly sinking into the field at the bottom of Spruce Hill, the junction of Routes 73 and 9N midway between the hamlets of Keene and Keene Valley.

The red barn delighted photographers as it was perfectly positioned in the foreground of a large field punctuated some small stands of bushes and trees backed by a wall of mountains.

Of consequence, and with its location on the main artery between the Northway and the villages of Lake Placid, Wilmington and Saranac Lake, it was one of the most photographed barns in the region, if not the state.

Article Photos

Workers get ready to tear down the iconic red barn in Keene on Tuesday, Dec. 20.
(Provided photo — Kent Wells)

So inspiring was the image and its location, it attracted many photographers particularly during the fall foliage season, and this year after the state Department of Environmental Conservation radically reduced the size of the parking area, coupled with an extended peak season, traffic congestion at times was intense.

What was the DEC's solution to addressing this aging artifact that attracted more people than the shrunken parking lot could handle? Remove the barn without any prior public notice or consultation. Their logic: the barn was a safety problem, some people used it for a toilet, and unattended it would soon collapse.

"Human health and safety were the biggest reason we removed the red barn," said Bob Stegemann, director of DEC's Region 5, based in Ray Brook. "People were going into the barn. Some were taking pieces of wood. Some were using it as a bathroom. People were inside an unsafe structure. With winter and snow loads further stressing the building, rather than waiting for someone to get hurt, I decided it was time to bring the building down. "Notwithstanding the land classification issues that have been sitting there for a while, the safety issues were becoming paramount, and I felt it was the prudent thing to do. I appreciate its aesthetic value and that it will be missed, but the question in my mind was if not now, when?"

That said, the DEC has been itching to remove the barn for some time because it was a "non-conforming" structure without historical value, like a fire tower on Hurricane Mountain, or Great Camp Santanoni in Newcomb. It was just a barn built to initially hold road equipment and then used to store hay after from the adjourning field.

The barn came to the state as part of a land swap with the town of Keene that enabled it to expand its cemetery. Officials on both sides knew the barn and the adjacent mowed fields were non-conforming, but they also knew it was a tremendous tourism draw. Therefore, they made a gentleman's agreement. The state would get the land, a far larger piece of property than that received by the town, and agree to keep fields open and the barn in place as means of preserving this beloved asset, one of 49 scenic vistas identified in the APA's 1973 Land Use and Development plan.

The aging barn was an iconic vista of the region, just like the Plains of Abraham, the wide-open fields with the distant views of the High Peaks Range at the junction of Route 73 and the Adirondack Loj Road in Lake Placid and the distant view of Whiteface Mountain at Donnelly's Corner west of Saranac Lake on Route 86. These are Travel Corridor Scenic Vistas that received emphasis for protection in the APA's 2001 Trends Analysis Plan. Little did that matter on Dec. 20.

Kent Wells of Keene saw some DEC trucks out by the barn that morning, assumed they might be planning to take it down, and was able to get his camera in time to catch its demise on film.

"Once they got started, it took them about an hour," said Wells. "I know there has been a lot of talk about getting a fund together and reinforcing the barn, but my feeling is that was a big surprise to everybody. It was typical EnCon way of doing things, as it is it takes the town board pressuring them to mow the field. It used to be mowed 100 percent, and now they do about 25 percent. I've got a feeling that soon we won't see a mower there at all without a big fight. They could have had a meeting and explained what was going on. It reflects an underhanded way that the state often has for doing things."

While the red barn was not historical, it reflected a spirit of this connection we humans have with nature, a connection that's part of the unique framework that makes the Adirondacks so special. Plus, it reflected the beauty of aging, something that all of us go through, as does nature. That the barn was aging was part of its charm.

Taking it down early in the morning, with no public notice, reflects an awareness that there would be a public outcry against such a proposed action, as has proven to be the case in the amount of media attention and public chatter generated on social networks ranging from Facebook to the Adirondack Almanack and Nextdoor Keene.

"Conservation? Maybe I need to look that word up in the dictionary," wrote Linda Bogardus on Nextdoor Keene. "I thought conservation meant something other than destroying."

"What I am sad about is that we as a community did not have a chance to say goodbye to this iconic landmark," wrote Mary Peabody. "It truly deserved some sort of passage ceremony before being removed. I am deeply saddened."

"This is just as insulting and destructive as the mindless tear-down of the old buildings in Tahawus," wrote Tom Fine. "Well, we now have another safe space. Elite know-it-alls just can't leave well enough alone."

What the DEC and Bob Stegemann, who made the decision, missed is that this was an icon worth saving that had safety problems worth addressing. Taking a strict interpretation of a rule book is not always the best decision; sometimes our society benefits when we can step back and seek alternative solutions that take in account a variety of concerns. The process can be a bit messy, as is the nature of democracy, but as this park is owned by the public, they have a right to be heard. Stegemann's safety concerns are valid, but mitigating options could have been investigated.

As an example, many individuals offered to fund or provide the labor to reinforce the barn, offers that were turned down. Why? How are volunteers fixing trails and restoring lean-tos OK, yet offers to protect a recognized vista not? Further, just as portable toilets are placed at the Cascade Mountain and other popular trailheads to reduce people going to the bathroom in the woods, so too the DEC could have installed them at the parking lot near the barn. Not exploring such options with local stakeholders resulted in a legacy of anger and frustration.

"This was just an early morning teardown squad without any prior notice or informed consent," said Dan Plumley. "A rape of our cultural heritage and needlessly so. There were alternatives; they just never got explored or even discussed. It's a tragic loss."



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