In the early morning hours of January 25, 1963, half a dozen prominent members of the New York State Conservation Department made their way through deep snow to the top of a high ridge in the Catskill Mountains. There, as furtively as a band of pyromaniacs, they set fire to one of the most famous and fashionable resort hotels in American history. Roland Van Zandt, in The Catskill Mountain House (Rutgers University Press, $12.50), says they acted "in necessary secrecy." By 6 o'clock the last remnants of the old hotel were consumed in a monstrous blaze that was visible to awakening householders in villages along the Hudson River.
The author does not blame anyone for the terrible end of the hotel, though he certainly suggests that the local residents should have waked up to the danger facing it long before. If any commercial building could be classed as an historic monument, the Catskill Mountain House was it. Erected first in 1823 as a shelter for those hardy enough to climb a disused tannery road for the sake of a great view of the valley and the mountains, it grew within two years to a three-story structure with 60 rooms and a magnificent columned veranda. Through the genius of Charles Beach, a small-town stagecoach operator, the hotel was transformed in time into a mountain aerie boasting more than 300 rooms and a river frontage of 190 feet. Its long row of Corinthian columns was enticingly visible to passengers on passing ships. Some 30 of its best bedrooms faced directly east. These were reserved for such favored guests as Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, Jenny Lind, Ulysses S. Grant and Oscar Wilde, all of whom were happy to be awakened at dawn so they could enjoy the sunrises for which the area was famous and for which the Mountain House provided the best of all views.
Thomas Cole made many paintings of the hotel, as did Frederick Church and innumerable lesser artists of the Hudson River School. (There are 45 paintings among the 103 illustrations in The Catskill Mountain House, including four in color.) Henry James, Bayard Taylor, Harriet Martineau and most of the European authors of travel books wrote enthusiastically about it, no matter how critical they were of American culture in general.
All of this is remarkable since the Mountain House, as a matter of policy, gave them little to write about. Its management took pride in the fact that nothing ever happened there. A vague, unlocalized sensation of happiness suffuses all descriptions of life at the famous hotel. Even Oscar Wilde, who behaved scandalously almost everywhere else, passed his vacation at the Mountain House coaching children for an amateur theatrical.
There were no murders, no memorable robberies, not even many complaints, except the perennial one that the costs ($4 to $5 per day in 1893) were too high. Since there was one employee for every guest, however, the service was good enough to keep these at a minimum.
What doomed the Mountain House was that it lay within an area set aside in 1885 as the Catskill State Forest Preserve. Under the New York constitution land subsequently acquired by the state within that preserve had to be kept "forever wild." After years of success, the Mountain House fell upon hard times in the period between World Wars I and II, and in 1943 it closed for good. A small-town banker, Milo Claude Moseman, who had been a bellboy in the hotel, tried to save it, but the building had deteriorated to the point where no commercial use could be made of it. The New York State Conservation Department gradually acquired most of the 3,000-acre grounds around the hotel, but the very law that protected the wilderness in which the Mountain House stood would have doomed the building had the state purchased the entire property. The law preserving the forest "absolutely prohibited" the Conservation Department from buying any land that contained standing buildings, writes Van Zandt, "without their preliminary destruction."
Despite this, in April 1962, the Conservation Department bought the property from Moseman's heirs for $61,000. The building was a gigantic ruin by that time and a danger to trespassing hikers. In this most carefully phrased and meticulously researched book, Dr. Van Zandt is generous in apportioning responsibility for its loss. "There is no question here of praise or blame," he says. "The state acted in good faith and, indeed, up to the very limits of its constitutional authority." But the general reader is likely to wonder: Was the purpose of the law establishing the perpetuation of the forest really served by burning a structure whose tradition was so much a part of it? Should conservation be concerned only with trees? One gets the feeling as he reads that the officials involved were almost eager to see the old hotel go, like a posse at hanging time. "Everything had been perfectly timed and coordinated," writes Van Zandt. "The signs and omens of success could not have been more auspicious: the moon shone brightly—there was hardly need of flashlights...in all the towns and villages, above and below, the people slept." This disquieting book makes one wonder what other historic treasures are about to be destroyed while the people sleep.