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Adirondack Housing

By Carol W. LaGrasse
January 2002

In constructive humility as a present-day Adirondacker who, because of rearing in New York City, offers to bridge the divide between the North Country and those higher realms, I would like to offer Unterhaus to build a permanent peace between Dick Beamish's Adirondack Explorer elites and, dare I use the word, indigenous developers like Frank Casier.

According to the Explorer, Beamish is troubled by the visibility of houses. By building underground, Adirondack people would solve the problem of visibility, whether from nearby shores or distant hills, and put to rest the dispute that embroils the Explorer crowd. Since there is no question that houses are commonly visible, and since the pain stimulated by visibility of houses has caused the elite crowd so much dissipation of needless energy for decades, a simple solution would enable them to redirect their energy in constructive ways,— to music appreciation, art, photography, dance, nature treks, nonpolitical writing, and all the higher pursuits that give more grace to life than political and quasi-environmental commentary on, of all things, whether a person can see someone's house.

So here it is, the Unterhaus, designed specifically for non-elite Adirondackers, with a carefully conceived exception methodology for the elite crowd represented by the quasi-newspaper, the Adirondack Explorer.

The Unterhaus is a rudimentary underground house for common Adirondack people. The buried house will be a simple pre-cast concrete, dome-like structure that will withstand the earth load imposed by its concealment. The floor and the curved wall-roof structure will be manufactured off-site, and site-jointed at the base before burial. The entrance opening, chimney, and various vents will also be precast into the dome. The only skilled structural site work required will be the accurate jointing, to prevent seepage and unhealthy damp conditions inside, a small matter in any case, considering the low priority for the comfort of Adirondackers and the fact that the Unterhaus will be generously heated with the usual Adirondack wood-burning stove. The Unterhaus design can, naturally, be greatly embellished, and is amenable to microdesign of many features related to daily living procedures.

It is already obvious that both the off-site and on-site work will generate a great deal of constructive employment, some of a year-round nature, as well as take advantage of limestone deposits exploited at the periphery of the southeastern Adirondacks for concrete production and gravel deposits that are common in many areas. The utilization of any new deposits will arouse the usual enviro objections, but an exploitable location somewhere will be found. Aside from the external structure, the interior partitions and furnishings will involve commonplace carpentry skills and furniture, presenting no additional problems, although much potential for expert intervention, except that everything will have to be trekked in from the outside world into the concealed entrance via a somewhat long tunnel from the jitney landing.

The jitney landing is a necessary adjunct to the long-standing, pressing need to eliminate most personally owned motor vehicle use in the Adirondacks. The Unterhaus layout to meet the mass movement of Adirondackers to their daily work and school obligations is easily explained. Individual Unterhausen will be grouped, perhaps in colonies of thirty to fifty, allowing for a great deal of flexibility, and connected to each other and to the jitney landing with tunnels. The tunnel construction will be simple cut and cover, easily built, braced and roofed with permanent, arched precast covers. Jitney landings will also house community pickup trucks for firewood haulage and other purposes upon appointment approved by the local Unterhausen group supervisory committee.

Since transportation will finally be communal for all ordinary Adirondack people, purposes of jitney use will fit an approved list. Examples of approved jitney uses, aside from daily employment where Adirondack people will continue to be needed at tourist facilities, schools, and government services, will obviously be volunteer emergency and fire protection, library services, other approved above-ground communal centers such as churches and historic preservation projects at designated hamlets, and voluntary service at centers for Adirondack traditions and wildlife information. These latter will evolve from their present limited status as visitor information centers for the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and Community Information Centers (CIC's) sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society (more commonly known as the Bronx Zoo or by its old corporate title of the New York Zoological Society) to all-encompassing education, or re-education, centers where Adirondack people, as well as tourists, will become comfortable and proud of a developing heritage exclusively based on wildlife tourism, touched by the nostalgia of historic memories of rugged plain people.

The Unterhausen themselves will have some especially charming features, providing that these will pass environmental scrutiny. For instance, periscopes for occasional views of the surrounding, ever-denser forest, or—perhaps, for particularly well-placed residents—distant views of lakes, streams, highways, or even further vistas in winter, will afford relief from the "four walls," so to speak, although this can also be achieved much as in Sartre's No Exit, with the advanced imaging available today with either remote camera or virtual imagery at virtual windows. But Unterhausen groups would have a certain charm with the little chimneys, vents and periscopes protruding through the forest mantle, and real periscopes should be considered. If this plan is formally considered in the regulatory process, I hope that this point of mine will be given weight.

As they become ubiquitous, the Unterhausen groups will also have a charming physiographic impact on Adirondack landforms. Like pimples on a teenager's face, the little earth-covered domes will at first be offensive, but as they quickly grow over with vegetation, and even trees, as happens so expeditiously in the Adirondacks, their offensiveness to the eye will fade.

Actually, the visibility of Unterhausen will be nil, except for the inescapable pimple effect, and the ever-present chimneys, periscopes (hopefully), vents, and arched veins of raised earth-covered tunnels connecting each Unterhaus to each neighbor and to the jitney landing. But all of these endearing features will be perceptible only at close view, and gradually these will be fondly received by "outside" hikers as evidences of the vernacular, much as stone walls and empty cellar holes—as opposed to offensively visible houses where people actually live—have their charm to visiting hikers today.

Without offending the intelligence of readers, considering that children and those uneducated in Adirondack geology may be among them, the explanation of the pimple and raised vein effect should probably be explained. It is, of course, obvious, that the Adirondacks are mountains, a great, ancient raised rock plateau eroded to varying elevations, the extreme elevations represented, of course, by the peaks that afford the majesty and beauty to certain popular areas. It is the very mountains, actually, throughout most of the Adirondacks, that have precipitated some of the concern about the visibility of the houses where Adirondack people live, and which has generated this proposed solution. But the rock base below the shallow soil of much of the Adirondacks makes it largely impossible to build a buried house without raising the soil elevation over the roof. Put in other words, this is not the Napa Valley in California where wealthy individuals are building multi-million dollar, individually engineered fantastical underground wine cellars to host unforgettable parties. No, this is the Adirondacks, with shallow pocketbooks, no, I mean soils.

But I didn't mean to get to chatting so far afield as California. Getting back to the engineering restrictions on the Unterhaus, the reader should also understand, that there are indeed riverbed areas where deeper, sandy soils exist. But these could never be used for Unterhausen. Riverine areas are ecologically sensitive and must be preserved undisturbed, even from underground construction, except for particular, exempt purposes.

Moreover, the inherent appeal of Unterhaus is deeper than the pimple and vein effect. Its subtler psychological attributes involve security and nostalgia. The fallout shelter era of the Fifties and early Sixties, followed by the back-to-the-land eco-freak movement of the Sixties and early Seventies, hearken back to the days when security and safety were simple contrasts with a single threat, and the countryside was the place to hide out from the rat-race. The fallout shelter era and back-to-the-land rush may have passed from first-hand memory for the bulk of the population, but for those who remember these decades with fondness, my Unterhaus solution is offered with a particular rapport.

One problem remains to be addressed. The little Unterhaus "settlements," to use an approved APA term, will be inadequate for the houses of certain people who have residences, although generally not primary ones, in the Adirondacks. Elites will not be willing to live below ground. A system is easily conceived, however, to enable a limited number of visible houses such as Rockefeller-style waterfront condominium development to be built to satisfy this demand. It could also permit elite eco-construction, such as quasi-owner built waterfront houses like that of Anne LaBastille, one of the members of the board of directors of Getting the Word Out, the non-profit organization that publishes the Adirondack Explorer. The key to a workable system is to accredit certain wealthy people to qualify to enter a periodic lottery with a generous proportion of winning tickets, each ticket providing a conceptual APA building permit for an Überhaus.

In fact, who would be better qualified to design and administer the lottery for the opulent and eco-houses than the board of directors of the organization behind the Adirondack Explorer, George Davis, once the executive director of the locally hated Cuomo/Berle Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks in the Twenty-first Century, which with such virtuosity argued for invisibility of most housing outside hamlets; Beamish, the president and visible member of the otherwise invisible board of directors, who so demonstrates his depth of commitment to the house invisibility issue; and Anne LaBastille, the third of the four members of the board, who reached her zenith on the APA Commission debating about windshield insect mortality at various vehicular speeds? The less-known fourth board member, John Quenell, could serve in his same capacity as secretary on the Überhaus lottery commission.

This system of Unterhaus and Überhaus is easily implemented without the promulgation of new regulations. By map clarifications, the APA could classify all property holders in either the category of "elite" or "commonplace," issue the elites information for the yearly lottery as requested, and issue the commonplace their instructions for the Unterhausen, with a stern warning.


Note and references:

1. German translation:

unter = under
über = over
Haus = house

2. Attacks on Frank Casier's development on Mt. Pisgah (subdivision is actually in APA "hamlet" zone, and precedes the 1973 APA) in Adirondack Explorer (Publ. by Getting the Word Out, 36 Church Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983):

"When even one conspicuous structure intrudes on this landscape, the wildness of the Park is diminished...," Editorial "Man over nature", by Richard Beamish, "Publisher," Adirondack Explorer, Oct. 2001.
Feature article: "House mars mountain view," by Robert R. Worth, Adirondack Explorer, October 2001, p. 25.

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