The island road twists through a series of snake-like turns and suddenly there it is - Thousand Island Park- a bit of Americana tucked away on Wellesley Island in the heart of the Thousand Islands. Survivor of the ravages of fire and time, an architectural gem from the past, the Park remains today, what it was over 135 years ago, a unique summer community.
Thinking back over the last 36 years of the historic preservation movement in the Park, it does give me pause, as it was not supported by the majority of cottage owners for many years. That in itself is the problem in the United States where the motto is “ I own it, therefore I will do with it as I want”. There is very little sense of stewardship, that we as citizens, need to cherish our heritage and protect it.
The historic district of Thousand Island Park is unusual as It encompasses the entire Park, its cottages and public buildings. There are only 13 non-contributing structures in the district, which is a very low percentage. The Park fits the adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The leaseholders of the cottages basically had no grounds to turn over the stockholders decision to support National Register Nomination for the Park and the Preservation/Architectural Code that was implemented 3 years after the nomination was accepted on a state and federal level.
The leaseholders do not own the land and therefore have little say if the stockholders vote on an issue. I call the Thousand Island Park Corporation, the benevolent dictator. For the historic preservation of Thousand Island Park it worked to a great advantage. Today, people are attracted to not only the Park’s architecture but to its special social history.
Thousand Island Park is an old new urbanist community. People long for “walk-ability” and social interaction. In an era of technology where quick response is the norm, it is sweet to talk to your neighbor, linger awhile viewing a magnificent river, sit on an open porch, catch frogs in South Bay, hike Rock Ridges Nature Trail, buy penny candy at the Guzzle, catch the may pole in the playground, dine leisurely at the Wellesley Hotel and really sleep well. I am immersed in this place. It is like my 3rd child. I want to nurture it and care deeply for its movement into the future for all the generations to come.
The Park Today
Yes, the road leads past the library, center of summer reading and intellectual activity to the Main Dock pavilion, rendezvous look-out and century old landmark at the Rivers edge. Uptown on one of the “four” corners is the Wellesley Hotel, sole survivor of a vanished era when the Park bustled with 10,000 summer residents. The nearby business block contains stores and shops and the tiny post office where neighbors chat over the morning mail, the quaint chapel, and at the end of the street stands the open air Tabernacle where hymns still rise to the tree tops on summer Sunday mornings.
From this center, the streets, shaded by mature oaks and evergreens, wind through a community of late 19th century cottages touched with the charm of Victorian gingerbread, their front porches brightened with flowers. Many have been carefully maintained by the same families through generations; others have been lovingly restored by new families who have discovered the charm of Thousand Island Park.
Over a century ago, in 1875, the Thousand Island Park Camp Meeting Association was founded by Rev. John Ferdinand Dayan. Caught up in the religious revival movement of the time, Rev. Dayan dreamed of a Methodist Summer Community where families could enjoy both spiritual and physical renewal. The Camp was an immediate success. Within a year of the first sale on June 9th, 1875, families were summering in their tents or newly built cottages, actively participating in all the Camp had to offer. Arriving daily (but never on Sunday) with their trunks, they found, here, most of the conveniences of city living *** without its vices.
At the turn of the century, the Park was a dynamic summer community which boasted, among other things, a library, yacht club, golf course, roque courts, annual tennis tournaments, daily concerts, an art school, its own printer, a needlecraft shop, a Japanese bazaar, an oriental shop, contractors, fishing guides and boats, a book shop, photographer and *** Sunday services. This was the height of resort life.
Fire always a major threat to this wooden resort*** struck several times over the years the first major fire hit in 1890, burning down the Thousand Island Park Hotel and taking with it many cottages and commercial buildings. The “ Iron Cottage “ still stands as a bulwark of the east side of Coast Avenue. In the wake of those flames, the more splendid Columbian Hotel opened in 1892, the Wellesley Hotel in 1903. The largest fire took place in 1912, razing the Columbian and over 90 cottages to the north and east of today’s “ Commons”. Rebuilding commenced again, but times had changed. Facing a new reality, the Trustees did not rebuild the Hotel. The community began its return to the past as a family resort. Homes were rebuilt, the Playground and Recreation Association was founded, films were brought in for entertainment, and the ban on Sunday docking was lifted.
Twenty years later, in 1975, the Parks Centennial celebration was one of renewed strength. Cottages had been renovated; the Park’s architectural charm and setting was once again appreciated. This appreciation sparked a core in a generational summer residents to gather a group of volunteers to begin the nomination of Thousand Island Park to the National Register of Historic Places. That honor was achieved in 1982.
A Preservation Code was written and accepted by the Trustees in 1984. In recent years another appointed volunteer group presented an accepted Land Use Plan that brings the Park full circle as a planned community, its forever green status protecting the Park in perpetuity. The Thousand Island Park Historic District is a unique collection of late 19th and early 20th century structures, and the only surviving example of the late 19th century summer religious colonies found in the Thousand Islands region. The architecture of the buildings derives its characteristics from the prominent styles of the 19th century: Queen Anne, Eastlake, Stick style, Shingle style and later Craftsman. Much of the charm of the Park is in the combination of influences of the 19th century. Many of the buildings were conceived and constructed by individual carpenter-builders.
Using textbooks and trade journals, they improvised, often producing hybrids that combine several styles. This is a nineteenth century town, which has changed very little from the way it was 135 years ago and during those happy decades through the turn-of-the-century. The place conveys many things to today’s visitors, some of them intangible and elusive, as if the community had a collective character, or personality, as if on this island there had developed, and remained from the long past, some different way of life.
Certainly there is a strong sense of community here, and the very design of the place, with its tiny lots and narrow streets, has a meaning which the place tells us, about people who have much in common living together, sharing those things which they value. Perhaps the happy quality of the buildings in Thousand Island Park is a natural expression of the people who built them and who continue to use them today.
Thousand Islands Park Museum
The Park’s history and visual importance is on display for the public at the Thousand Island Park Museum. This museum is absolutely wonderful and a must see for all. Nellie Taylor, a TI Park resident, has literally put together this delightful and awe-inspiring museum herself with the help of her friend and Thousand Island Park summer resident, Mike Ritter. Do not miss it! The museum is located on the porch of the historic Wellesley Hotel, which was built as an annex to the Columbian Hotel which burned to the ground. It is the last existing Hotel on an island in the Thousand Islands region.
The Thousand Island Park Landmark Society
The Thousand Islands Park Landmark Society is housed in a small building that was originally the MacIntyre photo studio. It was restored to its original 1879 facade in 2005.
The Landmark Society is the steward for the entire National Register survey and the written nomination. Our every other year “themed house tours” provided the funds for the Landmark Society renovation. It is open daily in the summer season.
by Trude Brown Fitelson, Thousand Island Park
Trude Brown Fitelson has developed a special understanding of this unique area. Trude was recognized in 2008 by The Preservation League of New York State. Each year the League honors notable achievements in “retaining, promoting and reusing New York's historic resources”. Trude was presented with the Individual Excellence in Historic Preservation Award.
Trude has a successful real estate business with an office in Clayton and when not on Wellesley Island she and her husband have a home in Rochester, NY.
When Trude presented this article to TI Life, she stated, “Much of this article is pure Paul Malo, who guided me from a five page letter that was a response to mine sent in 1974 requesting guidance for National Register nomination for Thousand Island Park. Thus began a 30 year friendship. I miss his guidance and love of river, daily. It was his hope with Thousand Islands Life to keep the region and its architecture in front of a national audience”.