April 7, 2013

A birthplace celebrates 100 years


---- — SARANAC LAKE — When bricks and mortar stand for a century, what they keep isn’t just held by design in sticks and stones.

There is transience in usable space; marks left from previous use and near constant recollection in community.

The old building drew from a lot of voices when Hodson Hall turned 100 on March 11.

Built in 1913 as the General Hospital of Saranac Lake, the three-storied structure is now the administrative complex at North Country Community College. 

People born there came for cake and ice cream last month to commemorate with people who teach and learn there now. For some, their workplace is also their birthplace.

The centennial celebration was put together by Dr. Steve Tyrell, NCCC’s president, and Amy Catania, the director of Historic Saranac Lake.

A tour through zigzagging halls, where floorboards beneath worn carpet creak of wooden joints, uncovered layers of regeneration.

“I was born here,” NCCC’s Chief Financial Officer Bill Chapin said with a shrug.

In fact, his current office is the former maternity ward, which was added onto the original building in 1923.

“I don’t remember that day,” Chapin admitted.

But outside his office door, across the hall is the old “nursery,” reused today as administrative offices.

Two windows in the hallway reveal the room’s former function — the windows, now curtained by overlapping college notices, were once where fathers and family members stood for a first glimpse at newborn children.

“Now the bills are born in Bill’s office,” Tyrell quipped.


Phil Gallos is a founder of Historic Saranac Lake and also a clerk of collections at the college library. He wasn’t born here, but many of his childhood friends were.

“I find it personally gratifying that a building which had served the community for so long as a health-care facility continues to serve the community as a facility dedicated in part to the education of health-care workers,” he said, marking Hodson Hall’s centennial.

“We should always look to repurposing our senior structures,” he continued. “And in this case, it is a repurposing that has an almost poetic symmetry. It is the kind of thoughtful reuse that is so important if we are to keep our architectural heritage intact and our history alive.”

And history is very much alive inside the former general hospital now busy with academic traffic.

What once was a chilly morgue is a partitioned storage area today.

The former X-ray laboratory is reclaimed for X-ray technicians, training them to work in modern hospitals.

Existing lead-paneled walls served the purpose well, explained Becky LaDue, clinical coordinator for NCCC’s Radiology Technology Program, as she led a group into the student lab.

Still latched to one wall are glass X-ray images showing two pairs of lungs. 

Their emulsion was burned into glass and dated in 1920 and 1921. Unnamed, they still serve a teaching purpose as the negative images glow from the old light box.

In a locked glass case nearby, a handful of antique X-ray tubes are still lined up for safe keeping. They were used in early diagnosis equipment. 


In two adjoining rooms, state-of-the-art X-ray-training equipment arcs over patient tables.

LaDue and Liz Wasson, radiology program director, found a pile of old notebooks on top of one of the lab’s anteroom shelves.

The documents detail early curriculum development of X-ray-tech training done at the hospital. 

Other notebooks describe the start of the Saranac Lake Study and Craft Guild established in the village here in 1936 to help rehabilitate patients recovering from tuberculosis.

The Guild moved into the hospital building in 1950 to coordinate education, job training and enrichment for people who moved to the region to cure from tuberculosis.

The notebooks relay, still, in yellowed pages, old and practical lessons typed up by hand, dated and signed for posterity.

Even though the General Hospital of Saranac Lake was built to serve the general population, its long, early decades were interspersed with the laboratory needs of patients “taking the cure.”

Lifelong Saranac Lake resident and filmmaker Jim Griebsch was born in what is now Hodson Hall, and his parents first met here: his mother a receptionist and his father a state trooper who brought a young patient in for treatment.

Griebsch is also on the Historic Saranac Lake Board of Directors and has conserved reels of antique Adirondack film.

He recalled the day he uncovered a box of old, glass X-ray images headed for disposal. They were being stored at Trudeau Institute by then.

Pulling them aside, he said he carefully sorted through the old exposures and found, among chest X-rays, a glass-plate photograph of his grandfather doing the same thing he was: peering through a view camera at glass plates. 

The images are now conserved at the Saranac Lake Free Library.

Griebsch agreed it was a little like slipping through the looking glass only to find the past staring back at you, which isn’t hard to do winding through the maze of corridors at Hodson Hall.


In the X-ray training area, Tyrell peered through a thick antique-glass window that lab techs once used for protection while taking pictures of their patients.

He observed aloud how a building established for healing 100 years ago now trains healers in a long tradition of caretaking based in Saranac Lake.

The X-ray wing was added to the hospital on May 17, 1950.

“I watched them build the X-ray department,” recalled Marvin Best, a lifelong resident of Saranac Lake who lives in a house next door.

His father, Vincent Best, was facilities manager of the General Hospital for decades.

As a child, Marvin was allowed to visit his dad at work and often talked with doctors and lab personnel.

“I remember walking into what was the old lab room where they kept specimens,” Best said.

“They had organs preserved in jars, and one time — I was very young — I walked up to a table and came eye-to-eye with an eyeball in a glass bottle.”

He said the hospital’s X-ray lab was built in part of the building that used to be a reception area. And before that, it was his father’s office. That room appears to be what is now an unused film-developing room.

LaDue pointed to the exterior wall.

“There used to be a door right there,” she said of the room’s many incarnations, where even now an old Kodak film processor the size of a kitchen stove sits idle and ready for resale.

Against the wall, an antique cast-iron cabinet worked as a pass-through for X-ray plates and film.

It is marked distinctly on two sides for “exposed” and “unexposed” plates.

That so many traces of technological progress exist in a shared few hundred-square-feet seems remarkable, from both a teaching and historic point of view.

“I think it’s amazing, and I love working here,” LaDue said.

LaDue and Wasson presented the old Craft Guild and X-ray-lab notebooks to Historic Saranac Lake on Hodson Hall’s birthday.

They aren’t ready to part yet with the old X-ray tubes.


Around the corner from the lab, down a wide set of stairs is a long cement hallway that leads to the basement. 

The corridor passes through what are now computer-science professors’ offices, to the old morgue.

Built underground, the halls are naturally chilly and kept colder than the rest of the building to protect computer equipment nowadays.

Through a door beyond the locked offices, cement curbs mark out parking spaces in the hallway where bodies on stretchers once waited for autopsy or a last trip to the mortuary.

Former morgue lockers are now storage areas for college records and stacks of unused furniture.


Recalling a storied history of Hodson Hall, Tyrell read aloud the same words Dr. Edward L. Trudeau spoke in dedicating the building on March 11, 1913.

Trudeau, by then, had gained world acclaim for his scientific work isolating tuberculosis bacteria. 

He had come to Saranac Lake from New York City to cure, drawn to the cold mountain air believed to have healing properties.

Trudeau’s work here helped attract resources for the new General Hospital of Saranac Lake in 1913, but the facility was designed to take care of the general public and not specifically built for TB patients.

Dozens of sanatoria throughout Saranac Lake provided wide, open porches for taking the cure.

“When I look about me at this beautiful building,” Tyrell read as Trudeau had a hundred years ago, “I am carried back in thought to my early days here when Dr. (Francis J.) D’Avignon at AuSable Forks was the nearest available surgical help.

“When at last he was notified, he would drive 42 miles over almost impassable roads, reaching here and operating after nightfall, and would do amputations and major operations by the light of a kerosene lamp or a few tallow candles, and with no assistance but what he could obtain from the guides or lumbermen.”

The General Hospital moved to new quarters on Lake Colby Drive in 1967 and became the Adirondack Medical Center.

In 1969, the first graduating class of 17 students received diplomas from NCCC at Hodson Hall, many of them trained for work in the medical profession.

And the building was rededicated to Dr. George Hodson, first president of NCCC, on July 21, 1988, three years after his death.

It cost $25,000 to build the hospital 100 years ago.

“It is tied to a tradition of healing in this community,” Tyrell said.

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