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At Land’s End, a Point of Permanence

By Anthony F. Hall

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Architecture is aspirational. Its function is not only to accommodate life as it is, but to cultivate life as it could and should be. One hundred years ago, summer life was supposed to be distinct from ordinary, urban life: less formal and less constricted, more sociable and more elemental. Nature was to be embraced, not shunned. The best architects, from William West Durant to Stanford White, designed summer homes to call forth the characteristic features of that way of life.

One of the few surviving Lake George houses from that era and built in that spirit is Ferncliff, a 1917 retreat on northern Lake George, just south of Huletts Landing. It is also the only house of that type on the lake currently on the market.

Below the main house, and reached by a rustic footbridge, is a small island known as Psyche.

On this spot in 1882, Seneca Ray Stoddard staged one of his most famous photographs of urban dwellers “rusticating” on Lake George. The photograph, titled the Horicon Sketching Club, was shot when the property belonged to a boarding house.

Guests would have arrived at Huletts Landing by steamboat or by stagecoach from Whitehall, prepared to spend the entire summer here. One of them was Theodore B. Starr.

Born in 1837, he was, by the 1880s, one of New York’s most prominent purveyors of jewelry, watches and clocks, silver and art, a rival of Tiffany and Company.

According to family members, Theodore Starr purchased the boarding house as a summer home for his family and as a place to entertain guests for extended periods of time. (Among them was George Ives and his family. The childish signature of one his sons, Charles, who would become the greatest American composer of the 20th century, can still be seen in a guest book.)

By 1917, Theodore Starr was dead and his son Howard White Starr, an engineer who had worked for the Mohawk Gas Company in Schenectady, decided it was time to construct a house of his own.

The result was Ferncliff. Influenced by the British arts and crafts movement, the house is still a singularly American cottage, built from local stone and wood.

Over the decades, the family multiplied and built or bought surrounding homes, including one used by Hudson River school painter Asher B. Durand as a summer studio and another attributed to Stanford White.

But Ferncliff, as the largest house, remained the center of the extended family’s collective social life.

There were dinners in the large dining room, followed by singing around the piano, with a repertoire that leaned heavily on college songs. Although the first Starr to come to America in the 1630s, Comfort Starr, was an overseer at Harvard, “the Starrs are not smart enough for Harvard, they go to Yale,” a member of the family quipped.

When Tom Starr, a broadcast journalist, was growing up at Ferncliff in the 1960s, the family was large enough to provide a circulation base for its own newspaper, which he edited and published.

The cousins also formed their own yacht club to sponsor races in Cape Cod Knockabouts.

“My cousin raced Cape Cods at the Lake George Club, and she came up with the Lands End Yacht Club as an umbrella organization for all of our activities, including the newspaper and the plays we would stage,” said Tom Starr.

“It was just a lot of fun to be brought together for a period of time every summer,” says Starr. “We spent almost all of our time outdoors, climbing Elephant Mountain or hanging out at the waterfront. If we were together in the house, it was usually on the porch. But the house is filled with rooms and alcoves when you wanted to get away with a book or some privacy.”

Most of the furniture, the books and the artwork have been in the house for so long that no one remembers where anything came from.

But like any house that’s been home to one family for generations, Ferncliff is not only a repository of objects, it’s a repository of stories and legends, passed from generation to generation as deliberately as any piece of furniture.

Among them: the Paulist Fathers’ grant to all Starrs the right to picnic on the Harbor Islands, an expression of gratitude for the family’s successful effort to extinguish a fire at the retreat. Or Howard White Starr’s decision to build a cabin for himself, purportedly to study French, but in reality to escape, at least on occasion, his large and growing brood. And the time when Tom Starr’s mother, a Texas-born newspaperwoman who kept a shotgun, killed a rattlesnake.

These days, the house is rented for most of the summer. Members of the family use it in the spring and fall.

“Over time, people fan out across the country and acquire different responsibilities and priorities and it’s no longer possible to maintain a house like this in the way that it was done in the past,” says Tom Starr, explaining why he and his siblings have decided to sell the house.

“In my 37 years in the real estate business, no listing has ever excited me as much as this,” said Lonnie Lawrence, the Sherwood Group real estate broker who is representing the sellers. “It’s what Lake George in general and Huletts Landing in particular once was like. I grew up in Huletts Landing, and even then I thought this was a special place. I used to come by here and wonder, who are these people, living in this magical world?”

According to Lonnie Lawrence, the house has nine bedrooms, four outbuildings and 240 feet of lakefront. The price is $2.9 million. For more information, call Lawrence at (518) 361-0230 or (518) 668-9745.

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