Possessing history

Photo by George BlennerThe Catskill Mountain House in 1947.

In the Greene County Historical Society’s extensive photographic file on the Catskill Mountain House there is a snapshot I was already well aquatinted with many years before my employment. The particular photo was taken in 1947 by my grandfather George Blenner during one of his boyhood summer camping trips at North Lake, and it seems one of the many copies he made of the picture found its way to the Society’s permanent collections in the 1990s. The Mountain House as my grandfather saw it in 1947 was caught in limbo following what proved to be its final closure. Though the outlook was bleak there was still a caretaker on the grounds and ice in the icehouse which my grandfather recalled helping himself to when the caretaker wasn’t nearby. Campers are a resourceful bunch.

The scene he captured shows boarded windows and overgrown landscaping in stark contrast to the manicured wilderness the Mountain House offered high-born visitors of the preceding century. In spite of those visible signs of decline the old hotel somehow retained much of its presence and grandeur. The columns were intact, not yet toppled by a hurricane in the ‘50s, and the building still stood straight and square as though reopening it would take nothing more than a fresh coat of paint. Doubtless it was that lingering trace of majesty which inspired my grandfather and so many other visitors to take pictures of the old resort in its twilight years.

Possession is an integral component in the preservation of the memory of the Mountain House. In casual conversation participants demonstrate possession of their shares in its collective memory by giving rote recitation of the salient points of the hotel’s chronology. Collectors seek pieces from the hotel and trappings of its grandeur in order to possess the last physical manifestations of it. Historians grapple with the Mountain House as a phenomenon and come to possess intimate knowledge of its significance. Visitors who saw its decline recount their experiences at the site and share images. All of these tales and talismans, which vary considerably, are personal possessions to be distributed on the holder’s terms. These tales and talismans are probably guarded and treasured more than the Mountain House itself ever was.

The reason possession plays an integral part in the story is probably because we see ourselves as having been dispossessed of the actual thing. Some would probably go so far as to say the Mountain House’s destruction was outright theft. It is my experience that invariably all discussion and stories about the Mountain House culminate with the line “they burned it in 1963” — “they” of course being the bureaucratic and malign “State Conservation Department” which is always the bad guy in the tale. Sidestepping this gross misrepresentation of the Conservation Department and their merciful removal of a blight on the Catskill Park, the idea that outsiders took away one of the important pieces of our cultural identity certainly explains why so much value is placed on every trace of the Mountain House we can track down.

The odd part of all this is that for most of its existence the Mountain House was never really ours to possess. While the hotel’s success was thanks largely to a local man, its cultural role was strictly to benefit those clientele that author Alf Evers styles “the better sort.” Truly the Catskill Mountain House was operated for America’s aristocracy. Industrialists, influential artists and writers, financiers, and landed gentry made the Mountain House the center of a seasonal pay-to-play “see and be seen” which hinged on the principal of exclusivity. Only when “the better sort” had finally cast the Mountain House aside did we get a chance to possess it.

As the hotel sat crumbling in the late 1940s and 1950s it became a local attraction. Kids hiked up from Palenville to play hide and seek in rooms which were once off limits to all but the wealthiest visitors, sightseers strolled along the porch where once they would have been discretely shooed off by hotel staff, and picnic lunches brought from home were eaten out of paper bags in the same place where exquisitely catered meals were once served on fine china. For a time the final owners attempted to exact an entrance fee from visitors in order to see the ruins, but all was for naught, and now that the Mountain House is gone the only place to see it is in the memories and artifacts of those fortunate to possess them.

Years ago my grandfather and I walked up the road from South Lake to the site of the Mountain House. He had a copy of the photo he took in 1947 with him in his jacket and produced it when we got to the cliff and looked out over the valley. I was very young at the time, but my grandfather decided even then it was time he shared his piece of the Catskill Mountain House with me. With this article you now possess it too.

Questions and comments can be directed to Jon via archivist@gchistory.org.

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