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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 18, 2005

Window of opportunity

The Altamont Fair has been around longer than any of us who are alive today. It has a life of its own as each generation shapes and redefines it.

This week, we interviewed an 86-year-old man, Orloff Bear, who has been coming to the fair for more than eight decades. For him, the most important part is the animals. He used to run his horses in harness races at the fair, and he can remember, as a child, leading his family’s cattle on grand parades about the fairgrounds.

His wife, Jeanne Bear, entered the baking or sewing of her 4-H protégés for a half-century at the fair. For her, such domestic creativity is the most important.

We’re pleased the fair is honoring the Bears with lifetime Gold Passes this year that will admit them to the fair for free. It’s important to understand and celebrate the fair’s history — with which the Bears form a living link — even as the fair evolves and progresses.

New attractions this year include the Canadian Hell Drivers’ show — "It’s a show of chills, thrills, and spills like you’ve never seen before," promises the owner in grand promotional tradition — and the somewhat quirky lawn-mower races, where men in revamped mowing machines compete like race-car drivers without the hefty costs.

What pleases us most, though, is that, as the fair looks to the future, it is mindful of restoring its past. Under the leadership of Robert Santorelli, president of the board of directors, the board has undertaken a massive campaign to upgrade the fairgrounds — spending about $600,000 in capital improvements.

"We’re on a mission," Vice President Marie McMillen told us last week, "to bring the fairgrounds back to being a beautiful spot under the great Helderbergs."

The thought is that this will be lucrative, attracting events, from weddings to car shows, in the off-season. Such restoration, though, also holds an aesthetic appeal as well, verging on the ethereal.

McMillen called the newly restored Fine Arts and Flower Building "the gem of the fair." It is the crown jewel of the refurbished grounds. One of the fair’s oldest buildings, it was constructed in 1896, in time for the third fair, as the Exposition Hall.

In the same way that a church, with its spire dominating the skyline, can be the architectural and cultural center of a community, this building is the center of the fair.

We pictured it last week on the front page of our fair preview section. With his camera, our publisher, Jim Gardner, captured three men hard a work, scraping the building in order to paint it. The men who work for Clark King of First Choice Painting are justifiably proud of their work. They look small in the picture as the grand building looms over them; they are part of something bigger than themselves.

The story that ran with the picture told of victory over vandalism. Last year, vandals had hurled rocks at the venerable old building, breaking 20 windows. When we first reported on the story, we heard from many villagers who were outraged or upset.

That made us think about the importance of the building and of the wonder and vulnerability of windows

Window — the word itself — is a metaphor. In the early Middle Ages, the Scandinavians who invaded and settled England brought with them the Old Norse word "vindauga," a compound made up of "vindr," meaning "wind," and "auga," meaning "eye." So a window, which at that time had no glass, was literally a "wind eye."

Grand windows were not a given in 19th-Century American life. Laura Ingalls Wilder, in the books that chronicle her family’s travails and triumphs in the frontiers of America, writes of how, when one house was left, the precious window glass was carefully packed and carried to the location where the new house would be built.

The Exposition Hall in Altamont, like many of its era, owes its design, including its windows, to the influence of Andrea Palladio.

The Renaissance architect borrowed ideas from ancient Rome to create a straightforward approach to design that builders anywhere could follow. He wrote about his buildings in The Four Books of Architecture, published in 1570. Printed in English a century later, the books inspired the 18th-Century Palladian Revival in England and America that can be seen in buildings as central to our country as the White House and the Capitol.

Palladio, who began as a stonecutter and mason near Venice, found his true calling in Rome where he studied the city’s ancient temples, arches, and landscapes. He was the first to conceive of buildings as part of the landscape. And that influence can be seen in the many centuries of later builders who learned from his work — even in siting an exposition hall for a country fair so it enhances the view, from within and without.

Like the great builders of ancient Rome, Palladio believed that beauty comes from harmony. Our buildings, he wrote, should be proportioned like our bodies, with rooms balanced equally on each side of the entrance hall.

Such influence can be seen in the perfect symmetry of the gem of the Altamont Fair, with four wings spreading from a center hall. The center hall is rimmed with clerestory windows and each wing, at its end wall, has what has come to be known as a Palladian window — after Palladio.

The rounded arches at the center of the Palladian window are as Roman as the Coliseum. The arched center window is flanked by two matching rectangular windows. The effect is one of grandeur — a triumph of geometry, inspiring awe.

The windows serve a practical purpose, of course, letting light in a large hall before the era of electricity made lighting abundant. But the windows do more — they offered the farmers and city-dwellers who flocked to the fair each year something spectacular, and they still do in their restored form.

The community’s finest was on display at the Exposition Hall. And the fair-goers responded in kind: Women in their best dresses and bonnets, and men in pressed suits and straw hats promenaded through its doors.

The current board of directors has had the foresight to turn the tragedy of vandalism into a triumph for the fair. We received a letter last week from a resident of Chemung County who lamented that her fair had been put out of its Exposition Hall; she told us the grand old building had fallen into disrepair. She congratulated the Altamont Fair on its persistence.

We’re pleased the Altamont Fair has used this window of opportunity to preserve its past; it bodes well for a bright future — illuminated with the grace of light streaming through a Palladium window.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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