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Restoring a Prominent Woman Scientist’s Lakefront Cabin

By Anthony F. Hall

Monday, April 15, 2013

A lot has changed in Sweet Briar Bay since 1936, the first year Dr. Doug Langdon looked out upon the lake from the property he now owns.

Horace Barber’s Boat Livery is gone, and so is the Algonquin Hotel above the road.

The hotel’s lakefront has been replaced by the Algonquin restaurant and Chic’s Marina, and the level of boat traffic in the bay probably could not have been imagined in 1936.

But Langdon can still see Marcella Sembrich’s studio, and thanks in part to his family’s old friend and neighbor, John Apperson, Black Mountain, Shelving Rock, Sleeping Beauty, Buck and Pilot Knob mountains are part of the Adirondack Forest Preserve and will remain disturbed.

That, of course, suits Dr. Langdon, a life-long conservationist, perfectly.

Now Langdon is making his own contribution to the preservation of the bay’s heritage; in this case, its architectural heritage.

He’s secured most if not all the permits he needs to reconstruct a 1928 cabin just as it was built and in the location where it was originally situated: balanced on rocks, hanging like a ledge above the water.

The cabin, built of chestnut logs, extends so far out above the water that in the past, Langdon registered it with the Lake George Park Commission as a wharf. He found out only recently that he wasn’t required to.

According to Langdon, the structure will be raised and placed on rock cribbing.

American chestnut, which was all but wiped out on Lake George by the late 1920s, “is God’s answer to lumber,” said Langdon. “It never rots.”

The cabin was never used for anything but sleeping and protection from the rain.

“It was one step up from car camping,” said Langdon, who first visited the cabin when he was five years old. “There never was plumbing for running water and toilets, and there never will be.”

Because of its condition, the cabin today is used for nothing but storage.

“We had no objection to Dr. Langdon’s project,” said Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky, who submitted comments to review boards about the building. “We think it’s a historic structure that has minimal impact on the lake. It’s like a boat house. We don’t view that as shoreline construction.”

Steven Engelhart, the Executive Director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, an organization devoted to identifying and preserving historic buildings in the Adirondack region, says he appreciates the cabin’s significance.

“Throughout my travels in the Adirondacks, I’ve found vertical half log construction only in one other place, on Big Moose Lake. There’s a deep tradition of using that method of construction in that area,” he said.

As with the Big Moose camps, the vertical half logs form both the exterior siding and the interior walls. The Big Moose camps, however, were built with spruce rather than chestnut.

“When the Lake George cabin was built, the chestnut stands were either dead or dying. Because Adirondackers are resourceful, they made use of it,” said Engelhart.

Langdon said his plan was to carefully remove the chestnut logs, preserve them and put them back in place.

The cabin, which is 35.5 ft long and 12 feet wide, was built for Dr. Katherine Blodgett by Will Hill, John Apperson’s handyman.

Blodgett was the first woman ever to receive a PhD from Cambridge University in physics and the first woman with a PhD to work at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, which hired her after she completed a Masters degree at the University of Chicago in 1918 to be Dr. Irving Langmuir’s research assistant.

Returning to Langmuir’s lab after receiving her doctorate from Cambridge, Blodgett worked with Langmuir in his studies on the use of tungsten for lamp filaments.

According to an issue of a GE in-house magazine published in 1978, Blodgett’s other accomplishments included the invention of low-reflectance “invisible” glass, used today for camera lenses. She also worked on airplane wing de-iceing and creating effective smoke screens to camouflage ships in war time.

Dr. Blodgett – or Aunt Katie – as Langdon called the scientist, who was a friend of his parents, bought the property from a larger parcel acquired by friends and colleagues from GE.

Blodgett, who never married and had no children, left the property to Dr. Langdon’s family at her death in 1979.

“We still call it Aunt Katie’s Point,” said Langdon.

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