Homage to Champlain

The legacy of Samuel de Champlain lives on with a new museum located appropriately in Champlain, NY


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Champlain's portrait on a piece of memorabelia at the Samuel de Champlain Museum.

There was once a dirty, two-story building complete with broken windows, dead pigeons, and telltale signs of vandalism. Area kids wouldn’t hesitate to break in again and again, leaving their marks of rebellion wherever the stone could be broken or the walls smashed. Even after the building was bought up by a gentleman who intended to turn it into office space, the kids’ constant destruction led him to finally give up.

Now, eight years and several buckets of elbow grease later, the building has been cleaned out and shaped up. Behind this transformation is Celine Paquette, a Town of Champlain native who remembered the structure's past and decided to restore it to its former beauty. Her hard work and dedication have brought back the building’s former glory and given it renewed purpose of housing the new Samuel de Champlain Museum, honoring the man who gave the town its name and discovered the lake that borders it.

Paquette says, “I had always admired this building. When I was young, this was the town library up here and the librarian was a retired Wall Street stock broker, Malcolm McClellan. I didn’t speak English, because my first language was French, and he didn’t speak French, but we got along fine.”

“It’s a beautiful granite and stone building on the shores of the Great Chazy and I had developed a love for local history when I moved back here, so I always thought it would make a nice site for a local history center.”

With the library occupying the second floor, the first floor was free to run its business as a bank. “The summer I graduated from high school,” says Paquette, “I was asked to work at the bank here. I had never worked anywhere except on my father’s farm, but I ended up working at the bank.”

After that one summer, Paquette left the bank, and the building which meant so much to her growing up, and moved on to become a nurse teacher, or a school nurse as they are more commonly known today.

After graduating with her Doctorate degree in school administration from SUNY Albany, Paquette moved to East Greenbush, a suburb of Albany, to work as a school nurse for 24 years, then to Ticonderoga as a middle school principal for three years. Despite her travels outside of Champlain for those nearly 30 years, Paquette found herself back in her hometown after her marriage to her husband, Larry, who owned a local insurance company.

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An exhibit featured on the first floor of the Museum.

After her move back to Champlain, Paquette decided to buy the building which is now the museum. “I had always admired it,” Paquette says. “It’s a beautiful granite and stone building on the shores of the Great Chazy and I had developed a love for local history when I moved back here so I always thought it would make a nice site for a local history center.”

It couldn’t have been more perfect timing. Not only had the small town never been host to a history center but the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s exploration of the area was only a few years away.

Getting the building in prime condition to be able to house all of the exhibits that Paquette was planning, not to mention pass the building inspection, was not an easy task. After eight years of work and the help of local architect, John J. McKenna, Paquette can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Although the original grand opening was scheduled for October 11 and Columbus Day weekend, a few complications have forced the dedication back to an unspecified date some time in early summer of 2010.

McKenna explains that before any of the physical work could be started, there is a very important planning process which needs to take place. One of the most important decisions that Paquette needed to make was whether they were going to restore the building historically, which includes remaking elements that were destroyed, such as a pair of front doors, according to historical photographs and guidelines or completely redo the building and bring it forward into the modern design age.

“My thoughts were that the building was as interesting as it could be and was worth preserving.”

 “My thoughts were that the building was as interesting as it could be and was worth preserving,” says McKenna, and Paquette completely agreed. He went on to note, “When you do a restoration, though, you should balance it with some sense of energy conservation and longevity of materials.”

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Paquette's pièce de résistance: a 72in. x 30in. stained glass window featuring Champlain's portrait above the front doors of the building.

Basically, the building looks old-fashioned, but modern materials were used to create that effect. McKenna says, “It would have been possible to use single pane glass in the windows but that’s just not advisable and although plaster would’ve been the historic materials used on the walls, it’s very fragile and can crack over time so we used more modern materials, but got the same look as a plaster wall.

On the outside, the wrecked pair of front doors were taken to a local business which remade them to match those in the early 1900s photographs, and the slate roof was restored in addition to the brick and stone walls.

On the inside, the upstairs of the two-story building, which contains Paquette’s office, a Samuel de Champlain library, a viewing room complete with a custom-made map table, and a meeting room is about finished. “As far as the research materials, nothing is catalogued yet,” says Paquette, “but I have had graduate students from Plattsburgh state who are doing projects on Samuel de Champlain come over and I have even had people borrow some of the material as well.”

The first floor, which is intended to house exhibits and the larger pieces for display in the future, is not as up to date. Paint still needs to be applied to the walls and carpeting to the floors but that is not to say that steady progress is not being made.

One detail of the downstairs is already complete, though, and that is Paquette’s “pièce de résistance”, as she calls it, or the showpiece and highlight of the whole building: a magnificent 72 inch by 30 inch stained glass window featuring the historical face of Champlain, underscored by his name. The window perches atop the main entry as if Champlain is welcoming guests personally.

"How often does one get inside a vault to look around? That becomes part of the exhibition and the experience of the whole center. I think it’s nifty.”

Since the first floor of this building used to be a bank, there are still remnants of those days reflected in the teller window frame set into an inside wall and the large vault which rests at the back of the building. When asked whether he thought these elements would disrupt the exhibits of Samuel de Champlain, McKenna says, “I think it adds a lot of interest to the whole affair. How often does one get inside a vault to look around? That becomes part of the exhibition and the experience of the whole center. I think it’s nifty.”

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Paquette standing next to a model of Champlain's ship on display on the second floor of the new museum.

All of this attention and effort is going into this building from a woman with no formal education in history. According to Essex County’s historian, Margaret Gibbs, who has seen Paquette through this large undertaking and lengthy process, “She has really been the voice in this region for uncovering and sharing this history so I give her a lot of credit for that.”

Gibbs agrees that it is odd that a museum specifically about Champlain has never seen the light of day in this region, but now that it is finally here, she believes it will soon attract much traffic not only from the locals of Champlain and the tri-county area but also from Quebec, Vermont, and other places where Champlain has had a presence.

“It’s a small museum with a very particular focus,” says Gibbs, “and I think what visitors would hope for would be the opportunity to learn about Samuel de Champlain so he’s not just somebody who’s occasionally in a textbook and that he would become a more prominent figure in this region.”

What do you think about the founding of this new museum?