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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Living History

Mohonk Dept.: I’m heading again to perform at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY, one of the last of the old-fashioned, all-inclusive, doesn’t-get-more-comfortable-than-this resorts. I’ve written about Mohonk’s foodservice here. Now I’ll share a piece I wrote a decade ago.


THE SECRET OF MOHONK is something no event planner or interior designer could ever achieve. It’s based on the age of the place, which was built between 1869 and 1910. It’s sparked by the Quaker sensibilities of the Smiley family who built it and who, generations later, still own it. The dress code is definitely a throwback to an earlier era; so too, it can be argued, is the unfailing hospitality of the staff.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson | 17 January 2003
Jack Finney’s novel Time and Again suggested that time travel could be achieved by putting yourself so thoroughly in the milieu of your destination that you easily slip into the past. This is what happens at Mohonk. You don’t notice it at first. But once you finish the long drive up the switchback road and surrender your car at the entrance, the pace begins to slow. There’s no TV set in your room. Your connection with the outside world evaporates quickly.

You’re becoming part of history. If it were possible to view from afar the guests at Mohonk– if you could see yourself even after only a day on the premises, you’d see someone moving a little more slowly, someone thus able to enjoy the splendors of nature. You’d see a living museum.

Unlike your visit to other museums in the area – and the Hudson Valley has its share – here you’re not allowed to be a mere observer. Nor would you want to. If sheer relaxation isn’t pleasant enough, there always are activities on tap. An open-air pavilion accommodates ice skating, although the pavilion itself, built of stone hewn from the construction of the rink itself, is distracting with its 39-feet-tall, ten-feet-wide fireplace and palatial feel.

The real palace, however, is the Mountain House itself. The 251-guest room structure glides an eighth of a mile along a ridge overlooking a lake carved into a glacial tumble of stone. The building grew in a variety of architectural eccentricities, with stone and wood and unexpected turrets, paneled in dark Victorian restraint. Just to walk from one end of the house to the other is to round a dizzying array of corners and discover comfortable armchairs seemingly forgotten in comfortable corners.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson | 17 January 2003
When brothers Albert and Alfred Smiley discovered this outpost in the Catskill’s Shawangunk Mountains in 1869, they also established a land preservation process that ensures un- or at least under-spoiled surroundings. The property itself has been declared a National Historic Landmark, and its 2,200 acres adjoin the 6,400-acre Mohonk Preserve.

Tying in the Mohonk experience with the art of Hudson River School painters, Brendan Gill notes that the artists “painted what they saw, but also something more than what they saw, and this ‘more’ – this sublime – was what the Smileys sought to foster at Mohonk Mountain House.” He goes on to wonder whether present-day visitors encounter the sublime while playing tennis and golf, hiking, swimming and horseback riding. They know, he suggests, “they are happy at Mohonk and somehow better able to relax there than at other, more contemporary-seeming places. To relax is permissible in our time; to be in touch with the sublime is not.”

Exactly. That’s why time-travel is necessary. You’ll find yourself slipping into it if you avoid the golf and settle into one of those armchairs.

On the Journey . . .

YOU’LL PASS HUGUENOT STREET on your way through New Paltz. It’s worth stopping to explore. Another natural museum, it’s the oldest continuously inhabited street in America. Dutch vernacular architecture is featured, which means an unspectacular-looking array of houses that turn out to be spectacular in their quiet perseverance.

Built from the 1680s through early 1700s, the houses remain private residences, open to inspection anytime from the outside and for tours from May through October. Look for more information at the Visitor Center at the DuBois Fort on Huguenot Street.

In the nearby town of High Falls, you can explore the old Delaware & Hudson Canal. Start at the D&H Canal Museum, which offers a trail map to take you by five stone locks in varying conditions. The town itself is worth exploring, too.

Heading east, toward the Hudson itself, more architectural splendor awaits. The Payne Mansion in Esopus is a forty-room estate built in 1905 to resemble a Mediterranean palazzo, complete with an open central courtyard. Originally the home of oil magnate Oliver Hazard Payne, it’s now owned by the Marist Brothers.

Just across the river is the magnificent Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, a 50-room Italian Renaissance-style designed by McKim, Mead & White and built (at a cost of $660,000) from 1895-98. It’s probably the most spectacular of the Hudson River estates, and now is owned by the National Park Service, which makes it available for tours.

The fabulously wealthy got lonely from time to time, and tended to build these estates fairly close together. That’s why it’s a short hop to Springwood, also in Hyde Park, the birthplace of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It started as a two-story clapboard house; by the time Franklin’s father acquired it, a wing and tower had been added as well as stables and a carriage house. Roosevelt senior went all out, however, and converted it into an Italianate 17-room villa.

In 1915, his widow transformed the place into a 35-room Georgian Revival mansion now owned by the National Park Service, which has maintained and preserved the structure even through a fire 20 years ago.

Make sure you get your touring out of the way before you get to Mohonk, however. Once you arrive on the mountaintop, wild horses won’t be able to pry you away. Not that you’ll see any. It’s more likely that you’ll catch sight of the tame horses that are available for pleasant jaunts around the Mohonk grounds.

Metroland Magazine, 30 January 2003

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