A New Chapter for the Pavilion at Fort Ticonderoga

by Richard Figiel | August 2022

Photograph courtesy of Fort Ticonderoga/Anna Wesolowska photographer, www.photographerhedman.com

In the shadow of Fort Ticonderoga, on the shore of Lake Champlain, lies another extraordinary historic site—the Pavilion, a mansion with stunning gardens and a story intertwined with the fort’s 270-year saga. While Fort Ti draws more visitors each year than almost any other attraction within the Adirondack Park, the Pavilion has been mainly off-limits to the public for more than a century, visited mostly by pigeons and raccoons. Until now. Built in about 1826 as a summer residence for New York City merchant William Ferris Pell, the house, like the fort itself, has been rescued and restored.

Pell bought the bones of the fort and surrounding grounds from Columbia and Union Colleges in 1820. They had inherited joint ownership of the property in 1803 from the state, which was glad to be rid of a useless relic. The first thing Pell did was run a fence around the ruins to stop settlers from pilfering stone, timber and hardware—Ticonderoga had become a 19th-century Home Depot. Pell’s fence has been touted as the first act of historic preservation in America.

Pell family lore tells us that, not long after William built his summer house, as he returned by boat from a business trip, his youngest son saluted him with a shot from a small cannon. The gun exploded. Pell arrived to hold his dying son in his arms. After the tragedy, he never returned to the Pavilion. His large family took over and adapted it into a hotel, a fashionable stop for steamboats plying the lake. In time, the Pavilion Hotel lost its luster, devolving into a tenant farmhouse and barn.

In the first decade of the 20th century, William’s great-grandson Stephen H. P. Pell initiated the resurrection of Fort Ticonderoga from what was then a stone-pillared sheep pasture. At the same time he reclaimed the Pavilion, bringing back its early elegance with his extensive collection of colonial furnishings. He and his wife, Sarah, hired the prominent landscape architect Marian Cruger Coffin to design a magnificent brick-walled garden behind the house.

Stephen and Sarah spent summers overseeing the restorations until his death in 1950, when their son John moved in. Antique Magazine featured a resplendent Pavilion in the 1960s, but after John’s death, the place once again fell on hard times. By 2013 it was abandoned, crumbling, overrun with vines.

That’s when the Pavilion’s owner—the Fort Ticonderoga Association—hired historic architectural res­toration specialists to analyze the Pavilion. The team found that some timbers had come from trees harvested as far back as the 1600s. Entire walls appeared to be recycled from earlier buildings, probably the houses of French workers constructing the fort in the 1750s. Pieces of the Pavilion perhaps predate the fort.

The building’s design is striking: a two-story, Palladian-infused, Greek Re­vival central structure that reaches out through long, one-story wings to smaller, one-and-a-half-story versions of the center. Probing into walls revealed that the center section stood alone as William Pell’s original house.

When the fort’s board of trustees first contemplated the Pavilion’s fate, they projected a $4 million restoration cost. The final price tag now stands at $9 million, still only a small part of the fort’s current $70 million capital campaign.

After almost a decade of work, one of the Pavilion’s wings now displays period furniture, paintings, archaeological finds and storyboards of the building’s turbulent history. Rooms along the other wing host weddings and special events. There are meeting and dining spaces and a commercial kitchen. Extensive gardens have been planted between the house and fort, on the site of 18th-century farms that once fed the garrison. And an antique tour boat now operates from a pier in front of the Pavilion, recalling the old steamboat landing. The Pavilion stands ready to add another voice to Ticonderoga’s story, past and future.   

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