Grand gardens

The view from the summer house at Mohonk includes a graceful rustic sphere sharing space with the tulips. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Between 1870 and 1917, Mohonk Mountain House on the Shawangunk Ridge in New Paltz installed 155 rustic gazebos known as “summer houses” throughout its magnificent grounds. Made by hand from red cedar harvested on the property, these summer houses have become so central to the Mohonk spirit and the experience of the guests that they remain the resort’s official symbol.

“No [pair] is exactly alike,” said Jim Clark, who began working at the Mountain House in 1975 as part of the “rustic crew” — the two-to-three-person detachment that maintains the 155 summer houses, wooden railings, fences, posts and stone walkways throughout the property. “No one summer house is [like another] because they all were constructed to fit a specific location and to maximize views, provide shade and rest.”

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Clark pointed to a tiny summer house with an umbrella-shaped roof and two love benches. The structure was nailed into a narrow rock that overlooks Mohonk Lake. Across the lake was another summer house with an oriental-styled flared roof. Still another, with a four-sided roof and interlocking benches, was tucked along the lake.

The summer houses and benches, all made from natural materials, were designed to blend into a specific setting or highlight a particular view. “The builders had to be imaginative and work with the idiosyncrasies each location presented,” explained Clark.

Now Clark is curator of the barn museum, a 15,000-square-foot 19th-century structure complete with a blacksmith shop, horse and carriages, a woodworking shop for the design of rustic furniture and a museum collection that includes everything from the hotel’s old barbershop and shoeshine stand to a beveled-glass mailroom, vintage carriages and photos documenting the construction of the property’s iconic stone tower.

Clark’s own rustic furniture is of a more sculptural style. He provides live demonstrations for guests. He also provides special pieces to the mountain house.

The rustic crew, which works three seasons of the year and is now led by Terry Meyers, is responsible for maintaining, reshingling and re-attaching the summer houses and railings, wooden benches and arbors. The work also includes building or rebuilding seemingly endless wooden fencing. They are currently working on the intricate fencing and trellises that surround the cutting garden. Left to the imagination of Meyers and his crew, the fences have a huge variety of unique geometric patterns and motifs.

The first crop of summer houses, inspired by the style of mid-19th-century garden design popularized in Hudson Valley region by Andrew Jackson Downing, the then-preeminent landscape architect, had thatched roofs that were labor-intensive to build and maintain and require highly skilled thatchers. The summer-house design throughout the resort moved towards slab roofs. Eventually, shakes and ultimately shingles, which last longer, were used.

Clark pointed to one of the more popular summer houses, a hexagon-shaped gazebo with six benches that perches at the very northern end of the lake just past a dock. “Look how well the red cedar weathers,” he said, sliding his hand along the benches which over time have turned in color from natural red to a silver-grey. “The crews back then used two-man saws to cut the wood, axes, hand saws. And they nailed the wood together.” They also had to drill holes with a steam-powered jackhammer into the stone slabs on which several summer houses were built. They would insert steel pins that would flare open once inside the rock.

Now the members of the rustic crew have the benefit of chain saws, belt sanders and deck screws to rebuild deteriorated rustic furniture and fencing or to refurbish and strengthen existing structures. “Many of these summer houses are old,” said Clark, “and while they were constructed by skilled woodworkers and thatchers and have withstood the tests of harsh winters and blazing summers they need to be continually cared for.”

A large two-story summer house emerges like a beacon from the center of the resort’s famous show garden. Recently alive with a profusion of cherry blossoms and crabapple trees, tulips and forsythia, Mohonk was awaiting the blooming of peonies and roses, showy clematis and a wide variety of perennial flowers, plants, shrubs and trees.

“That had been there for well over a century, but the wisteria that wrapped around it and started to destroy the summer house,” Clark explained. Several years ago the rustic crew had to tear it down and rebuild it. Now, with the wisteria about to bloom and the second floor providing views of the garden, the Catskills and the grandeur of the hotel, this summer house was once again the centerpiece of the show garden. There’s no setting quite like it anywhere in the world.

Clark’s work in the barn takes on a sculptural quality. The shapes of the limbs dictate each piece of furniture. One bench, with its stained, red-cedar base, has a curving cedar limb around it that literally holds the person sitting. There are cedar tables with stone bases and stone tables with cedar bases. “Nature’s my guide,” Clark said. “It tells me what piece I’m going to make. Everything I do works within the curves of the branches and limbs.”

The eastern red cedar has always been used by the mountain house because it does not rot. “It’s amazing and so fun to work with,” said Clark.

The venerable rustic summer houses and benches have encouraged visitors and guests to find tranquility and renewal. For every mood, season, cliff ledge, lakeside, woodland, marshland or grand view, there is a summer house and bench inviting a passerby to sit and commune with the natural world around them.

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