Greek Tragedy

by Niki Kourofsky | History, October 2012

Photograph by Aaron Hobson

Not far from the sunny side of Route 374, in the northern Adi­ron­dack ham­­let of Merrill, rests the skeleton of a Greek am­phi­­theater. Its mossy tiers are broken by weeds and sprinkled with blow­down and beer bottles. Ancient lettering skirts the stage; a crumbling altar marks its heart.

The unlikely ruin, tucked within the chill of the forest, makes a spooky scene—even if you disregard the whispers about its architect, Franklin Sargent. One grisly tale casts Sargent as an en­raged lover who decapitated his lady fair and buried her head under the altar. Word around the schoolyards is the place echoes with her screams at midnight.

The real story is only a bit less sensational. Sargent, who founded New York City’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the 1880s, fell for Upper Cha­teaugay Lake during trips to visit friends, including dance instructor Alys Bentley. Around 1910 he commissioned his own summer home overlooking the lake—his special request, ac­cording to local lore, was a windowless, hidden room. The small-scale amphi­theater was cut into a hillside near his cottage in 1916. It was designed for private student performances, though Is­a­dora Duncan would later dance there to a reading of Iphigenia at Aulis.

The theater was modeled after classical structures; its performance area was originally framed by a columned temple. On the altar—traditionally dedicated to Dionysus, god of wine and patron of theater—an inscription urged visitors to “bring an offering … in remembrance and praise of a soul that has left us.”

Not the kind of detail to quash rumors of a buried lover. But the only person Sargent ever killed was himself. In 1923 the Plattsburgh Sentinel reported that the 67-year-old “sent a bullet crashing into his brain” during a layover in a Plattsburgh hotel. Al­though he left a businesslike note, it’s unclear why the successful and well-liked teacher took his life. A close friend, noted producer David Belasco, blamed Sargent’s failed romance with a student, the beautiful stage ac­tress Mary Anderson. “It was the memory of an old love,” he told the Associated Press.

Anderson, who died years later in England, is almost certainly not haunting Sargent’s knoll—which he left to his live-in maid, Sadie. But that hasn’t stopped troops of trespassers from trying to catch her lonely performance.

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