Lake Placid News, January 30, 1914Highland Manor, c. 1910, at 127 Park Avenue
mentioned in the accompanying news story as the Virostek residence
Detail of 1931 Sanborn Map, updated 1945J. J. O'Connell & Sons was a builder and sawmill founded in the early 1900s by Joseph J. O'Connell.

Lake Placid News, February 7, 1974

JJ. O'Connell: builders of history

by Bill McLaughlin

Everyone will agree, strangers included that the O’Connell name has been synonymous with fine architecture since 1908 not only in Saranac Lake but in a wide circumference that includes all of the Adirondacks.

Many of the ruggedly dominant buildings dotting the mountain terrain bear the O’Connell stamp of excellency. An expert in the field of architecture could readily define the O’Connell touch. The keynote is quality. Quality combined with harmony to blend a style that is ageless.

Joseph OConnell, founder of the J.J O'Connell contracting and building firm arrived in Saranac Lake in 1900. His point of origin was just south of Elizabethtown. He planted his roots with a finality of purpose that held true till this month when the famous mill began to phase itself out. Joseph, a carpenter by trade, first went to work for Branch and Callanan but in a very short time made a decision that would affect his life and those of his children for 75 years. He plunged into the competitive building business, gambling on the future of Saranac Lake and has own ability to overcome financial obstacles in a raw but expanding community with a lumbering background.

By 1909 he had already erected two showplace homes in Rockledge Park, one belonging to the Stanley Tool Co. family and a second the property of millionaire Walter Cluett, a community benefactor during the early years of the century

On Friday, January 25th 1974 the O'Connell mill offices yielded a ton and a half of paper from its well kept files and another ton or more is forthcoming. These records constitute a readable history of Saranac Lake in the boom years which preceded World War II.

The war itself provided great thrust to the O'Connell mill when the company manufactured under government contract various knockdown military buildings, boxes and crates, ships fenders and even spliced rope and cable, utilizing labor supplied by Norwegian seamen who were recuperating at Stoneywold Sanatarium [sic] following exposure and physical hardship in the north Atlantic.

The firm employed 50 men at this time, nearly double the peacetime personnel. During the peak years of performance which encompassed the 1920's and continued through 1967, J.J. O’Connell and Sons either built or remodeled 141 separate and distinct Adirondack homes, businesses, camps, schools, churches or garages.

It would be impossible to walk the streets of this community or those of its neighbors without encountering the work of this exceptional firm in every field of architecture.

A brief cross-section of those diversified projects would include St. Joseph's Friary in the Glenwood Estates built in 1929 as the Rumsey Estate, St. Bernard's School on River St. built in 1925, the Adirondack Airport Administration Building which was completed in 1950, the Pontiac Theatre constructed in 1926, the Mrs. W. Alton Jones residence on Mirror Lake in Lake Placid erected in 1965. the toll house on Whiteface Mountain completed in 1934 and the Guggenheim Camp on Lower Saranac Lake, a showplace installation created in 1926.

O’Connell and Sons contributed many buildings in the Lake Placid Club complex as well as those of Mirror Lake Inn. Many fine residences in Lake Placid were also built by the Saranac Lake company.

This community as a health resort relied on the O'Connell magic for many of its medically oriented structures. The Administration Building at Trudeau in addition to many doctor's homes were built by the corporation. Ray Brook State Hospital embodies many touches recognized even today as O’Connell hallmarks The men's ward of the old Saranac Lake General Hospital was a construction project of the firm in 1942. Work completed on the Will Rogers Hospital was also included in the mills records.

Doctors who either had homes built by O'Connell or remodeled by them were Dr. Petroff, Dr. Trudeau, Dr. Worthen, Dr. Vorwald, Dr. Gardner and Dr. Brumfiel. There were probably others.

Business concerns catered to by O'Connells in prime years included the Adirondack National Bank, Frank Kresse Garage, Newman and Holmes, The Bowling Alley, the N.Y. State Conservation Department, Kolleckers, Veterans Memorial Assn., Hotel Marcy. N.Y. Telephone Co., Eastern Airlines, Gulf and Standard Oil, North Country School, Savings and Loan, Wilson Clothing, Sara-Placid Drive In Theatre, Adirondack Community Church, A. Mason and Sons, Uihlein, Van Brunt Bar, Latour Fuel and of course, the villages and towns themselves with their many buildings, offices and sheds.

The Adirondack cottages and camps alone would entail another complete page of facts and figures.

Hubert O'Connell suffering the usual nostalgic pangs associated with closing out a business of long standing said the toughest job encountered was not in construction but merely “in surviving” the lean years in Saranac Lake. Times were difficult in the village in 1933 and 1934 when outside money stopped coming in. The effect of the 1929 stock market crash was just being felt here at the time The nation's banks were closing. Panic was in the air

They were fortunate in another area however, the business never suffered a major fire. A conflagration of great proportion swept through adjacent Branch and Callanan’s in the 1920’s leveling many of the sheds and buildings The heat was so intense it threatened to ignite the railroad station nearby and O'Connell's men spent the night keeping their buildings hosed down as much as possible though there was a water shortage at the time caused by repair work on the lines and cleaning of the reservoir.

The original mill consisted of the main building which still stands and a woodworking shop where every possible segment of a home or business was made by craftsmen from windows, doors, flooring, mouldings and siding right up to the shingles on the roof.

“Our lumber was shipped in to our own railroad siding from Canada.” Hubert recalled.  “the switch yards, passenger and freight stations were busy places. We were flanked by both Branch and Callanan and the Latour Coal, Wood and Feed Co. who also had lively siding traffic when two major railroad lines were coming in here.

“Our workers were the best we could hire” he said. “We normally carried about 25 men on the payroll. Carpenters, laborers and masons were fairly plentiful even in the days when the hourly wage was 50 cents. When this figure finally reached $5.30 we were pretty well priced out of the middle income housing field. We then concentrated on high quality production in fine homes rather than on mass construction.”

If you had to single out one person who carried on through the company's growth years up until the present day, it would be Louis Fobare. a genius in every sense of the word in the building trades. Today at 72 Louis can look back on 52 of them spent successfully carrying out the multiple duties as chief trouble shooter, preparing plans, projected drawings, estimating and on the job supervision of all major O'Connell projects.

Louis today is a walking encyclopedia of the Adirondack building industry. From the available records it appears that only Benny Woodruff a cabinet-maker challenges Louis' record as senior employee in point of years. Benny was with the company from 1910 until 1958 just under a half century.

Another long-term employee was John Callanan who started work there as a teamster and through the years learned bookkeeping. He remained on the job for 47 years. . . almost till the day he died.

Herb McDonald, a sash and door man, joined the O'Connell combine in the early 1920's and stayed for 35 years. Sam Ebare, a carpenter boasted a 30-year record with the firm. Other faithful long-term hands were Robert Purvis a pattern maker and 30-year veteran, Oscar Morehouse a glazier who put in the same number of years beginning in the 1920s. Dick Carlson fire-tender and steam boiler supervisor whose 25 years of service began about 1930. George Straight, a machine man was credited with 25 years at the mill. A few names have been misplaced.

Art Downs drove a truck for the O'Connell company for over 25 years and Norm Cook, a teamster from Tupper Lake liked working for J.J. so well he moved over here to live out his life. The record shows he stayed on the payroll for 30 years. Carl Hall, a shopman was another faithful worker who enjoyed long tenure as an O'Connell employee.

Oher names who graced the record over the years were Donat Gendron, father of Rene Gendron, Joseph LeBeau, Cyrus Shelhamer, Frank Thew and Henry Burdick There are others deserving of mention whose names don't appear on the sheets available.

Hubert recalls a little of the craziness of the Roaring 20’s when one of our area millionaires spent a great deal of money building a beautiful camp. He spent almost as much tearing part of it down when its popularity became legendary among his friends of the prohibition era who made it a halfway-house between New York City and Montreal. They utilized the camp as a free hotel, drank up all the expensive liquor and dined on roast duck and Texas beef-steaks.

When Joseph J. O'Connell died in 1959, Hubert assumed full command though he had held the executive reigns since 1943 as president and treasurer. The business was incorporated in 1928 with immediate family members the chief stockholders. Hubert was born at 57 Margaret Street in 1903 in the home his father built with funds borrowed from the Saranac Lake Federal Savings and Loan. The first school he attended was located on Bloomingdale Ave. He transferred to the Broadway School when it first opened.

Hubert would probably hesitate to change a day of his life. His span of years covers great service to the community as well as to the family business . He has made it a lifelong crusade to improve Saranac Lake and to keep it a first rate village and a place people will want to come to live.

He has served as chairman of the board or trustee on most local banks and lending institutions including the Adirondack National Bank, The Marine Midland Trust Co. and the Saranac Lake Federal Savings and Loan Co.

His dedication to the Saranac Lake General Hospital program has placed that institution foremost in northern New York in all phases of treatment. Its expansion is assured as increasing demands on the medical front make it feasible.

The J.J. O'Connell and Sons contracting firm will live on in memory as long as there is a Saranac Lake. They exercised a major role in shaping it as a first rate community for which we are all thankful.