THE BLOG
05/15/2008 05:38 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tearing Down History

Try to think like a billionaire for a second. Make that a super-tacky billionaire.

You want a vacation retreat. So you head to the Adirondacks in upstate New York, the largest national park in America. You buy -- no, not just a house, not merely one of the Great Camps of the type built by Vanderbilt and pals at the turn of the last century, but an entire historic resort. The Wawbeek, on the shores of Upper Saranac Lake, is made up of 19 buildings designed in 1899 by noted architect William L. Coulter.

And then what do you do?

Then you knock it down.

That's what Dick and Diane Sittig are doing. He's the voice of the clown in the Jack in the Box commercials and was recently named Creative Leader of the Year by an advertising association. Residents of Malibu, California, the Sittigs last year bought the historic Wawbeek Resort and now they're about to tear it down.

Why? Well, because they're going to build a much bigger, grander version of the same thing, of course. Tear-downs are the done thing out in Malibu, so why not up in the Adirondacks, where complicated laws make it difficult to save many historic structures? And though many other Coulter buildings in the Adirondacks are on the National Historic Register, the Wawbeek fell through the cracks.

If you act now, you can weirdly see the resort in all its glory on its ghost of a website: http://www.wawbeek.com. It's easy to understand why someone who made a killing in fast food might want to gobble up such a place all for himself, even if he only gets to spend a couple of weeks a year there.

But it's not easy to understand why someone would buy a beautiful historic property only to destroy it. Why not just build on a couple of thousand acres of empty land in some other middle of nowhere? Especially as the Sittigs claim that they bought the Wawbeek because they valued its history.

The Sittigs have done this before, however, so maybe they're just addicted to the thrill of demolition. A decade ago they replaced a little Malibu ranch house with a 6000 square foot McMansion, an all-new septic system and a pool cabana bigger than your apartment.

And they're not the only ones. The grandeur of the Adirondacks seems to inspire many a modern pioneer looking to demonstrate his wealth by building his own latter-day Great Camp, each one bigger and gaudier than the next. A tour I took with Adirondack Architectural Heritage last summer alternated visits to gorgeous historic properties with a walk-through of a pretentious new behemoth built on the ashes of a beautiful but humble (ewwww!) original building.

The Heritage folks begged the Sittigs not to tear down the Wawbeek buildings. Several dozen concerned citizens, including me, wrote to them too. The latest news is that they're doing it anyway.

You'd think they'd be embarrassed to be go down in history as the people who destroyed an irreplaceable piece of America's architectural heritage. But I guess a guy best known for his clown voice is impervious to shame.

Pamela Redmond Satran,the author of 14 books, is at work on a historical novel set in The Adirondacks. She recently wrote about authors' houses for The New York Times. Her website is http://www.pamelaredmondsatran.com.