Spa City recalls a 'titan'
Businessman Spencer Trask honored by book, summer benefit at Yaddo
By DENNIS YUSKO, Staff writer
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First published: Thursday, June 18, 2009
SARATOGA SPRINGS -- One hundred years after he was killed in a tragic accident on his way to saving the city's famous mineral springs, Spencer Trask's financial and philanthropic legacies remain mostly unknown.
Trask became a Gilded Age baron before coming to Saratoga Springs in 1881 and purchasing an Italianate villa on 500 acres. A tenacious Wall Street banker, Trask had invested in Thomas Edison's idea of electricity, railroads and more, and he'd intervened to rescue the New York Times when it faced bankruptcy.
But the Brooklyn native from Puritan ancestors always had an idealistic bent and was as fastidious about culture as he was about finance. In the later years of his life, Trask fought to establish this upstate community into a hub of artistic expression. The seeds he planted bloomed after his death into the Yaddo artist retreat, Saratoga Spa State Park and other city icons.
"His legacy was supporting American creativity and Yankee ingenuity," said Kevin Kimberlin, a venture capitalist who named his Manhattan equity firm after Trask. "What really inspired me was that he lost his eye, four children and his home, but he never lost his faith."
A big supporter of Yaddo, Kimberlin this year commissioned "Enigmatic Titan," a 124-page book about Trask's life, which he calls "the greatest story that's never been told."
Even in death, Trask contributed to city culture. In 1915, noted sculptor Daniel Chester French dedicated the "Spirit of Life" statue in Congress Park to Trask. The bronze sculpture has become the city's emblem.
Trask "was one of the fathers of the city," said Elaina Richardson, president of Yaddo.
This week marks the centennial anniversary of Trask being appointed head of the State Reservation Commission. The work of the mundane-sounding outfit would come to define the city.
Trask lobbied the state Legislature to form the commission in an effort to stop private gas companies from commercially mining carbonic gas from the city's natural springs. The companies extracted the gas to make carbonated drinks. But the spring water was a major area attraction because people believed it contained healing and recuperative powers. By 1908, the natural gas had been nearly depleted, threatening tourism and the health of the city.
Trask worked to preserve the springs and baths by having the state purchase lands that contained them. The effort would become the historic community's first and biggest act of preservation. By 1930, New York purchased more than 1,100 city acres, designated four state park reservations, including Congress Park, and built the Washington and Lincoln bath houses in what became Saratoga Spa State Park.
The reservation commission led to the liberation of the springs, the establishment of the Spa park, the city's Visitor Center and the Spirit of Life, said Lew Benton, city administrator of parks, open land and historic preservation.
"Absent the genius of Trask and his willingness to commit his considerable political and financial capital, the Saratoga Springs of today would be a greatly diminished place," Benton said.
Trask was a bearded, patient man who married the love of his life -- poet Katrina Trask -- but sustained several personal disappointments. His four children -- Alanson, Christina, Spencer Jr., and Katrina -- all died young between 1880 and 1889 from various illnesses.
Spencer Trask contracted a near fatal case of pneumonia in 1891 at the same time that the original Yaddo mansion burned in a fire. Within two years, he built the elaborate 55-room English manor residence that still stands. He lost his eye in a traffic accident in 1909.
With no immediate heirs, the Trasks turned Yaddo into an artist residence in 1900 to nurture the talents of writers, painters, composers and others. Visitors throughout its history include James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Mario Puzo. Writer John Cheever once said that Yaddo had seen more distinguished art "than any other piece of ground in the English-speaking community and perhaps the world."
But Spencer Trask would never get to see the artists or his commission's achievements. While riding in a train to New York City to deliver final revisions on the commission's work on New Year's Eve, 1909, another train struck the car in which he was riding at Croton-on-Hudson. He was the only person to die. Found on Trask's body was a tattered note that he always carried with him: "For a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth."
Dennis Yusko can be reached at 454-5353 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
If you go
WHAT: Yaddo Saratoga Springs Summer Benefit, silent auction and party
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Yaddo Mansion
WHO: Television writer and producer Matt Witten challenges the audience to solve a murder
RESERVATIONS: $150. Sponsorships start at $600
INFORMATION: www.yaddo.org or 584.0746