There’s a wonderfully useful quote by some famous person or other — originally about the Nazi Holocaust, but with many less grim applications — that goes something like, “Heaven defend us from the things that one can get used to.” A recent case in point is the construction barrier that has been blocking the view of the (OMB) on the campus of SUNY-New Paltz for the past three years. After driving or strolling past such an eyesore enough times, one ceases to see it anymore.
But now those sly dogs in the college administration have put one over on us: Just when we were beginning to accept those unsightly fences and dirt piles and scaffolding as permanent fixtures of the Old Quad, they’re coming down. The huge OMB renovation project is nearly complete, and students and teachers actually began to use the building once more as the 2010/11 school year got underway in late August. Who woulda thunk it?
Most of the 65,000-square-foot structure was built to house the entire State Normal School (what they called a Teachers’ College back in those days) after the previous headquarters — located where the Gilded Otter now stands — burned down in April 1906, when an oil lamp exploded in the attic while workmen were doing repairs during spring break. It almost didn’t get replaced: The New York State legislature was reluctant to allocate funding, and the City of Kingston, citing New Paltz’s inaccessibility and declining enrollments, was actively bidding to move the campus to a more urban location — namely itself. But the Normal School’s determined trustees, who included Mohonk Mountain House founder Albert K. Smiley and a whole lot of guys with Huguenot surnames from the town’s founding families, fundraised and lobbied hard until reconstruction was authorized with a state appropriation of $125,000.
The new building site on Plattekill Avenue, originally comprising ten acres, had formerly been a farm known as Harcourt Heights. The groundbreaking ceremony in May 1907 was attended by a host of international dignitaries who happened to be in the area for one of the peace conferences that used to be held at Mohonk in the process of trying to organize the League of Nations. Albert Smiley bragged that the site enjoyed a view unrivaled by any point in the area save Sky Top itself, and at the age of 80, put his own hand to the plough that broke the ground. Construction proceeded over the next two years, carried out primarily by Italian immigrants described by Ralph LeFevre, editor of the New Paltz Independent, as “a peaceable class of men. In the evening they amuse themselves by singing and music on the accordion.”