It’s not common to come across an intact County Home, but a well preserved and unique example lies tucked away in a remote corner of New York thanks to a preservation-minded caretaker.
In a historical context, the care of the indigent was left to churches and Almshouses, and the quality of care varied greatly. With few regulations, Almshouses were rife with mental and physical abuse which led to the passage of a law in New York in 1824 that required each county to establish a Poorhouse. Toward this requirement, the Essex County Board of Supervisors constructed a facility on a 45-acre farm south of Whallonsburg, which opened as the Essex County Home in 1832.
An inspection in 1858 determined that the building was “so dilapidated and decayed” that it should be torn down and replaced. Its replacement, the Home Building, was opened in March 1860 and expanded with an easterly wing in 1874. The services of the County Home were expanded in 1892 to include the care of the aged and infirmed, and an Infirmary was added in 1899.
To make the County Home as self-reliant and at a low cost to taxpayers as possible, the site featured a working farm and some domestic industries. A report from the 1880s noted that the facility produced enough grains, hay, silage, straw, vegetables, dairy, candles, and soap to support 100 residents. Surplus items were sold in local markets.
Federal dollars that supported the County Home were revoked in 1962 because the infirmary—and its all wood and brick construction—was not up to modern building or fire safety standards, and the decision was made to build a new infirmary on the grounds of the existing facility a year later. The infirmary was condemned in 1964, adding urgency to the matter. Ultimately, no infirmary was built as a citizens’ advisory group and a taxpayer’s advisory group were opposed to the county project because of the potential for duplication of services with the Moses-Ludington Hospital at Ticonderoga. The County Home remained in use until 1980.
The dormant property was later acquired by the Daytop Village Foundation. In 2002, the Leaveners Community Foundation, founded to provide assistance to individuals who are materially disadvantaged, disabled, or wounded in the body or spirit, acquired the former Essex County Home property with the goal to restore the site into a holistic respite center for humanitarian workers and caregivers. The center would have a focus on environmental and agrarian ecology.
While driving along the byways along the eastern fringes of the Adirondack Mountains, by late summer fields of golden wheat, field corn, and goldenrod, I came upon the former County Home which stood out for its all Georgian Revival architectural style and all brick construction. Driving around to the rear of the property, I met the caretaker who was gracious in providing a historical perspective of the former County Home while also expounding on the ideals of the Foundation and the potential for the site. As the day had been long and the light was growing dimmer by the minute, I decided to come back the next morning for a revisit to the County Home that included a brief tour of the property by the caretaker.
I stepped inside into the circa 1860 Home Building and marveled at its construction and how well it had held up over the past 160 years. Gorgeous old-growth Balsam Fir woodwork adorned one of the staircases, while original tin paneling was patterned throughout the upper floors. Tin paneling, touted as being fireproof and durable, and cheaper and quicker to install than decorative plater, were commonplace in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The mass-marketed items in builders’ magazines and trade catalogs were available in many patterns. While I have encountered numerous buildings with tin ceilings and one building with tin covered walls, I have not encountered a building with such widespread usage of tin paneling as the Home Building.
Some renovations were taking place in portions of the Home Building, which included the installation of drywall to replace deteriorated plaster, new compact radiators, and electrics.
The Kitchen and Dining Building, erected in 1873, is currently used for storage.
The Infirmary Building was added in 1899 after the services of the County Home were expanded to include the care of the aged and infirmed. It is currently used for storage.
Of a tangent interest, the caretaker is a devout collector of antique furnishings and stoves. While my focus on this visit was not of the relics, I did capture this Hub Oak stove by the Smith & Anthony Company, which designed to heat large, open spaces, and could burn wood or coal. It made me think back to my own days of salvaging buildings for antique furnishings, fixtures, and materials that could be repurposed—including old stoves!
Perhaps it was the more friendly and laidback atmosphere of the eastern Adirondacks, or possibly it was a sense of normalcy during a time of COVID, but the caretaker, and by extension the Foundation, but I came out of my first visit to the former Essex County Home more enlightened and inspired.