Published October 12, 2005 in Trumansburg Free Press (Trumansburg, NY)

Land & People
The Bar of the Rongovian Embassy

by Bill Chaisson

When Hermon Camp built his home between 1845 and 1847, nearly all the materials were obtained locally. In the later 19th and 20th centuries the steady expansion of transportation networks caused progressively fewer local materials to be used in construction. Abner Treman’s sawmill, built in 1793, was the first of many. By the late 19th century there was little local timber left standing. But as agriculture in upstate New York declined through the 20th century, much of the formerly tilled acreage has reverted to forest.

The top of the bar in the Rongovian Embassy is a single continuous plank of black cherry  with some black walnut almost seamlessly joined to it from the wait station to the back of the room. Dave Gell and Marty Morris installed the planks and several other “nouveau rustique” features in the Rongo in January 1995. The wood was obtained locally by Gell. He is a firm believer in “conservation by design”, which means, among other things, that a designed space should be matched to the materials that will be harvested to construct it.

The old bar in the Rongo had a crook in it about two-thirds of the way down its length. Gell found an old cherry tree that had a crook in its trunk. The top of the cherry had been damaged in a windstorm and water was seeping into the broken bole at the top of its trunk. Gell, who teaches sustainable forest management through his Black Locust Initiative (blacklocust.org), could see that disease was going to overtake this old tree before it grew much more. It was time for it to come down. Gell used a portable mill to saw the trunk where it was felled. Other planks from the old cherry are in the bars of Collegetown Bagels on Eddy Street and the Stonecat Café in Valois.

Between 1987 and 2002, while Eric and Mary Ott owned the Rongo, they closed the doors at the beginning of every year to renovate some part of the interior. By the mid-1990s the original bar, installed by Alex Brooks in the early 1970s, had had it. “It was just rotted,” according to Morris. Brooks had salvaged 
various pieces of the oak andmahogany furniture from a barn in Seneca Falls. According to Eric Ott, the center panels were made of mahogany of varying sizes. Part of the peripheral rail was also mahogany, but the remainder was “just 1x6 boards from the hardware store”.

Ott has a photograph from the newspaper dated January 3, 1995 that shows him, Gell, and Morris bringing the irregular slab of cherry in through the front door. Over the next three weeks many pieces of the distinctive décor of the Rongo were constructed. In addition to the bar counter, Gell and Morris made and installed the ash cabinets on either side of the mirrored oak liquor cabinet, the maple frames for the chalkboard on the back wall and the timeline mural on the far wall of the dance floor, the elm steps to the seating area to the left of the front door, the cherry slabs over the front windows, the ash around the front door, and the stalls in the ladies room, which are either tulip or basswood. One of the more enigmatic features is the half-trunk of a tulip tree that runs floor to ceiling to the right of the one of the arches. The tree covers a drainpipe that runs down from the apartments up above. The small seat that protrudes about two feet above the floor conceals a sanitary Y-joint.

All of the wood is from the forest in the immediate Trumansburg area. Gell likes the phrase “value-added close to the resource” to drive home the point that it actually saves money to use local resources. But, he hastens to add, one has to “preserve the rural character of our area” and “let the forest pay its taxes”. Through mindful selective cutting a landowner can maintain a healthy woodland indefinitely, while making money from the sale of the timber.

Gell points out that even the finish on the wood is from a plant and not made at a plant. He rubs Joe Robson’s “Tried & True” varnish oil into his furniture, rather than coating it with polyurethane. Robson’s formula includes linseed oil, made from flax, which, Gell notes could be grown around here (although it isn’t). Maintenance of the Rongovian Embassy bar requires only one hour per year. Hermon Camp, no stranger to spirits, would probably have been only too glad to do his part to keep a shine on the cherry surface.

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Last revised:  January 2, 2006