“Probably no art has so few masters as that of decoration,” wrote the long-heralded “mother of interior design” Candace Wheeler. Born in the Delaware County seat of Delhi, Wheeler was locally famous for her role in starting the Onteora Park development of summer homes, which shifted the way that the world looked on our native mountains. “Insofar as the principles of decoration are derived from other arts, they can be acquired by everyone; but an exquisite feeling in their application is the distinguishing quality of the true decorator.”
Wheeler bristled at being behind-the-times as a girl, but then brought her native Catskills’ rural sense of inherent style to bear on her design principles, which heralded the instinctive and vernacular over the prettified and presumptive. She was one of those game-changers who brought attention to the natural gifts – and earning potential – of all women, setting the stage for later suffrage and the ascendancy of popular tastes.
But she also set into motion the idea of closed communities via her own rarefied mountaintop Onteora Park: a land of stone-and-timber “cottages” around a central, meadow-surrounded lake and clubhouse/theater. There, she was joined by the likes of Hans Brinker author Mary Mapes Dodge, Mark Twain and countless other major thinkers and doers of her day. But from the start, Wheeler stressed the need to keep mornings free of socialization, the better to retain the inspired work to which she felt that all inspiration must lead. That was the purpose of her idyllic retreat.
“It is by no means an unimportant thing to create a beautiful and picturesque interior. There is no influence so potent upon life as harmonious surroundings, and to create and possess a home which is harmonious in a simple and inexpensive way is the privilege of all but the wretchedly poor,” Wheeler wrote over a century ago, setting a mighty ball rolling to today’s world of Ikeas and West Elms. “In proportion also as these surroundings become more perfect in their art and meaning, there is a corresponding elevation in the dweller among them – since the best decoration must include many spiritual lessons. It may indeed be used to further vulgar ambitions or pamper bodily weaknesses, but truth and beauty are its essentials, and these will have their utterance.” Talk about bringing the timeless lessons of rural beginnings – and the Catskills – to everyone.
Roxbury, way up in the Catskills, has always had a level of cool beyond many other rural communities its size. Robber baron Jay Gould and pioneer environmentalist John Burroughs were both born here (and attended a one-room schoolhouse together). Later, each built homes in the area – to which they invited the key Americans of the day, many of whom also built summer retreats in the area. Now the community’s getting known, internationally, as home to one of the hippest motels anywhere, complete with an equally hip cocktail lounge and moderne eatery across the street.
How did this latest incarnation come about? Blame two ex-Manhattanites with a bit of theater background: Greg Henderson and Joseph Massa, who bought and renovated an old closed-down rural motel years ago, and then used their former Off-Broadway theatrical experience and dreams to guide their room-decorating aesthetics. The result gained Henderson a state entrepreneurship award, and is centering a stylish revival to Roxbury and surrounding upper Catskills life in the former dairylands of Delaware County.
They call the place – in operation since 2004 – the Roxbury. It’s a gem, and well worth a wild weekend’s or weeknight’s visit.
For more about the Roxbury Motel and Public Lounge, call (607) 326-7200 or visit www.theroxburymotel.com. For more information on Candace Wheeler (1827-1923), visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art website at https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cawh/hd_cawh.htm.