Right now is a great time to go Saratoga Springs and enjoy its many treats—especially the architecture that nearly disappeared.
Colonial Tavern on the east side of Broadway in Saratoga Springs: August 25, 1946. Photo by George Bolster
It nearly disappeared because of a plague of “fires of mysterious origins,” as the newspapers would term them.
Let me explain. This August marks the 60th Anniversary of the arson that destroyed Piping Rock Casino on August 16-17, 1954. For all its mystery, it was in reality only one of the hundreds of “fires of mysterious origins”—so many of them unsolved arsons—that bedeviled Saratoga Springs for more than a century. As it was, many of Saratoga Springs’ beautiful buildings disappeared in the same way as the mob-controlled Piping Rock Casino, which was torched by “a person or persons unknown” another phrase too commonly used in the newspapers of that time.
All that remains of Piping Rock Casino, which sat on the NW corner of Union Avenue and Gilbert Road in Saratoga Springs, is the overgrown concrete driveway of its entrance and, near that, a street named Piping Rock Circle.
It could have been the same with much of the Spa City.
Walk Saratoga Springs’ streets today and you are delighted by its lovely architecture. But, given the number of “fires of mysterious origins” that occurred in Saratoga Springs, it is a wonder there’s a historic structure left to admire there.
Saratoga Springs Public Library’s History Room has documented 146 fires in the 20th century—and that is not a complete listing! Of those 146 fires, 63 occurred between 1931 and 1961. Of the six most famous (or infamous) casinos in Saratoga—Arrowhead, Piping Rock, Newman’s Lake House, Riley’s, the Brook Club, and the Meadowbrook—four were destroyed by arson (Arrowhead, Piping Rock, the Brook Club, and Meadowbrook). Individual fires—most “unexplained” and many regarded as arson—claimed huge historic landmarks such as the Drink Hall, the United States Hotel in 1945, the Worden Hotel in 1961; the Convention Hall in 1965; and the Columbian Hotel in 1965. Also, houses, barns at Saratoga Race Course, and other structures are found on the Library’s list of fires in Saratoga.
The Saratogian and numerous other newspapers reporting on the blazes regularly used phrases such as “mysteriously burned” or “burned by causes unknown.” The worst conflagration in Saratoga Springs’ history occurred in 1957. That fire destroyed buildings on the east side of Broadway. Beginning at 396 Broadway (the old MacFinn’s Drugstore, which my father had managed from 1946 to 1952) it worked it way up to 418 Broadway. It caused $1 million dollars damage. In today’s dollars, given the history of the buildings, the replacement cost of such structures, and the current worth of Saratoga Springs real estate, the same buildings’ loss could easily be calculated as high as $15 million.
For years, fires were expected in Saratoga. I recall as a boy in the ‘fifties that, whenever there was a fire, the eyes of the adults in my family would roll and the question would be asked, “What would burn next?” My grandmother worked in Saratoga Springs as a house mother at Skidmore College. It was assumed by everyone we knew, who lived in, or was familiar with Saratoga Springs in the 1950s and 1960s, that those mansions along Union Avenue would all be “mysteriously burn.” That they didn’t, I consider a miracle.
More than personal assumptions and anecdote were involved in this fear, however. Bob Dillon, son of the chief legal counsel for the old Glens Falls Insurance Company, a huge national insurance firm back then, said that his father complained constantly of the claims submitted for arsons that were consuming Saratoga Springs in the 1950s and 1960s. By the late 1970s, Saratoga County had the highest percentages of occurrences of arson of any county in America!
Saratoga Springs: Broadway fire, January 27, 1957
The change for the better, ironically, began in the late 1970s, when a group of concerned citizens began fighting for the preservation of Saratoga Spring’s architectural heritage and the renovation and adaptive reuse of this precious resource. The result today is evident, a vibrant and beautiful city with gorgeous old architecture that is being sensitively adapted and reused, and which is influencing the creation of a new generation of lovely buildings.
This is not to say that fire—particularly arson—isn’t still a threat to Saratoga’s history, as is evidenced by the fire in July 2013 that destroyed the historic structures on 106-108 to Woodlawn Avenue. According to The Saratogian of October 2013 Saratoga Springs police determined that fire to be arson. (http://www.news10.com/story/23820342/saratoga-spring-police-determine-woodlawn-ave-fire-to-be-arson) However, very happily, the incidents of accidental fires and intentional arsons are much lower now than they were in Saratoga’s past.
So, as the racing season wraps up in Saratoga Springs, let me urge you to go Saratoga Springs, and walk the streets of the historic Spa City, enjoying its architectural treats. And while you’re there, hoist a glass of spring water and give a toast to Piping Rock Casino, would you?