The sleepy hamlet of Pine Hill, at the western end of Shandaken, is poised to capitalize on its past as a significant tourist destination by obtaining legal designation as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. Residents and businesspeople hope that signage and official listings — appearing on maps, Smartphone apps, brochures, and GPS units — will revive the hamlet by once again attracting tourists to view its many homes, hotels, library, former school building, churches, and stone bridges that were built between 1880 and 1925.
To be granted historic district designation, says Rusty Mae Moore, owner of the Pine Hill Bookstore and Gallery, a town must prove that it has “a critical body of historic buildings. We were part of the Catskill resort era. This was a major destination, and the population peaked around 1900. Pine Hill was called the ‘Saratoga of the Catskills’ because of the Crystal Springs Bottling Company, and there was an amazing number of small hotels.”
Moore is a member of the Main Street Committee formed during the efforts of Ulster County’s Main Streets Strategic Toolbox initiative, designed to help develop strategies for revitalizing small towns. With support from the Pine Hill Community Center and donations from local residents, the committee hired Neil Larson and Jill Fisher of preservation planning firm Larson Fisher Associates to help apply to the New York State Department of Historic Preservation.
The consultants cited research indicating that 25 percent of the motivation for traveling in this country is “to learn new things and visit historic sites,” relates Moore. “We could put a sign up at the Thruway interchange — where there’s already a sign for Pine Hill, for some historic reason. The story is that someone who lived here was powerful politically.”
At an open house, townspeople came to talk about their properties. There were two major sources of controversy. Many were concerned that historic designation would prevent them from renovating their properties.
“It’s a valid concern,” says Moore. “I used to live in Lexington, Massachusetts, where there were heavy controls on the central part of town. That won’t be the case here. Private homeowners can do anything they want. Approval is required for businesses to renovate, but it’s not onerous — they just have to report what they want to do.”
In fact, the designation makes tax credits available for property owners who want to make changes, presumably to encourage them to retain the historical character of their building, although Moore says there are no strings attached to the credits. She adds, “There may be some sort of peer pressure” to keep up the proper appearance. “Most things I’ve seen done on houses here haven’t changed them fundamentally.”
On the other hand, some homeowners were distressed that they were to be left out of the district, due to the isolating effect of the rerouting of Route 28 in 1960. The construction of the highway bypassed the hamlet’s Main Street (formerly part of Route 28), cutting off Maple Street, which also features historic homes.
“There can’t be a visual or physical disconnect within the district,” explains Moore. “That’s the policy taken by the Department of Historic Preservation.” The application, as delivered, omits Maple Street from the district. Moore says the reports from the state indicate that the application will most likely be approved. Now efforts are being made to persuade the department to accept the addition of Maple Street, which can be easily accessed via the Route 28 underpass or by simply walking across the highway.
Economic decline saved old houses
On a stroll through town, Moore pointed out a few of the 26 structures that have been identified as historical, four of which are already on the National Register: the Morton Library, a stone building erected in 1903; the former school building that now houses the Shandaken Historical Museum; and two arched stone bridges.
On Main Street, the Colonial Inn is one of the few hotels still in operation. Originally built as a tavern in 1810 and then expanded into a hotel in 1824, its Italianate style is accented by a wraparound porch that was common at Catskills resorts.
In the early 1900s, there were four churches in town, but today only two remain. The Catholic Mission Church, circa 1888, on Bonnie View Avenue, catered to the Irish immigrants who came to work in the hotels that burgeoned when the Ulster and Delaware Railroad established a station in the hamlet.
The former Methodist Episcopal Church on Main Street, dating from 1860, is now a private residence. The original Pine Hill fire house was constructed next door in 1901, designed to match the church’s square towers and decorative criss-cross boards.
The community center is housed in a former mechanic’s garage, built in 1925. Cloudspinners Antiques is a Queen Anne Victorian from 1894. It features a bay window on the second floor, beneath a large-windowed cross-gable.
Moore hopes that historic designation will boost tourism and inspire new businesses to open up on Main Street. “We have two empty restaurants that should be operating,” she says, including the former Pine Hill Indian Restaurant. It closed after many years in The Zephyr, an 1895 Italianate building that once had a turning mill in the back and a bar up front, with apartments on the second floor. The building is for sale.
Most of the historic structures are residences, but many of them served as boarding houses in the area’s heyday, and often homeowners would rent out a room or two to tourists in the summer.
The area’s heyday came to a close as interstate road systems made other parts of the country easily accessible by car. An element of that system was the new Route 28, which diverted cars and potential customers from Main Street.
The application for historic designation theorizes that it is partly due to the economic decline that many of the vintage homes still stand. It points out that Pine Hill “is a small, relatively dense, and walkable settlement that by all appearances reflects a late 19th century tourist haven due to its striking number of buildings in the picturesque style of that era.”
In other words, except for the former throngs of visitors on the streets, Pine Hill looks rather as it did a century ago. Even the quietness, though, has its charms. While she would like to see the town busier, Moore notes, “For me, a great attraction is that the streets are so walkable. Most of the time, you can walk right down the middle of the street.”++