Mohonk Mountain House marks 150th year

Kayaking on the lake at Mohonk Mountain House. (Courtesy of Mohonk Mountain House)

Sometimes the most enduring voyages of one’s life can begin with a small, seemingly innocuous decision. Where do you want to hike today? What trail shall we take? In fact, that was the question, posed 150 years ago, that led to the creation of what is now considered one of the world’s Top Ten greatest destinations: the family-owned-and-operated Mohonk Mountain House Resort and Spa in New Paltz. The words “hotel” and “spa” seem to minimize the magic of Mohonk Mountain House, positioned like an ethereal castle at the edge of a silken sky-lake with a stone tower made of conglomerate rock, known as Sky Top, appearing like an earthbound northern star pointing its way towards a version of heaven.

According to Eric Gullickson, a fifth-generation Mohonk family member and now the president of the Mountain House, it was in the summer of 1869 when Alfred Smiley decided to celebrate the summer harvest of his farm in Poughkeepsie by taking some of his friends and family on a picnic outing. “A friend suggested West Point, or a place called Paltz Point,” recounted Gullickson. As fate would have it, the group settled on Paltz Point, which was much closer to the farm. “After climbing up the steep rock path to the top of Paltz Point, now known as Sky Top,” said Gullickson, “Alfred saw the still waters of a pristine glacial lake surrounded by forest. At the edge perched a small inn, which he knew immediately would be the perfect summer home for his twin brother, Albert.”

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Stokes Tavern was built in 1858. It occupied the site before Mohonk Mountain House was built in the 1870s. This postcard image was made from a Currier and Ives lithograph. (Courtesy of Haviland Heidgerd Historical Collection)

The Smiley twins were Quakers, and Albert, who was then the principal of the Friends Boarding School in Providence, Rhode Island, fell in love with the scenery his brother had scoped out the moment he first saw it and quickly went about trying to purchase the property. After asking the Stokes Tavern owner how much he would be willing to sell the tavern, inn, lake and surrounding 280 acres for, they settled on a price of $28,000. According to Gullickson, “Albert had $14,000 in savings, including $300 that his wife Eliza had saved, but they had to borrow the remaining $14,000 from the bank.”

 It was a college friend of Albert’s who suggested that they rent rooms in the small inn to help pay back the loan, in addition to his continued employment at the school in Rhode Island. Albert was quoted as saying, “My sole purpose was to provide a home, and in order to pay for it I started a business. I had no more thought of going into the resort business than going to the Moon.”

After Alfred convinced Albert to purchase the Stokes Tavern and surrounding lake and land, the inn evolved under the family’s management into Mohonk Mountain House: an eclectic architectural assemblage of towers, balconies, porches and hand-hewn wooden gazebos or “summerhouses.” Soon after the acquisition, the Smileys began to develop the first network of paths, hiking trails and carriage roads for guest use that would eventually grow to create a wonderland of picturesque byways, dotted with rustic summerhouses, that allowed guests to explore the mountain and lake scenery.

Rocking chairs on the lake porch at Mohonk Mountain House. (Courtesy of Mohonk Mountain House)

What began as a simple “inn” for family and friends and some paying guests soon began to grow and become a magnet not only for those interested in rustic rejuvenation that the Mountain House provided, but also for those concerned and impassioned about world peace and the health of the larger human and ecological ecosystem. In their quest to utilize the magic of the mountains as a meeting place, in 1895 the Smileys held their first convention on “International Arbitration” in an effort toward world peace initiatives. Around the same time, the Smiley brothers began to keep a daily log of weather recordings including temperature and precipitation that would become the foundation for the Mohonk Lake Cooperative Weather Station with the Mohonk Preserve that has one of the longest-known daily weather recordings in the US, with more than 123 years of daily, monthly and yearly weather reports and calculations. This data collection, along with animal, flora and fauna research, goes on daily at the Mountain House.

While annual conferences dealing with national and international issues of justice and environmental protection might be enough to distinguish this resort as unique, or its 115-year daily weather recordings or the creation of a stone tower on top of a mountain perch, there is more that puts Mohonk Resort in a class of its own. “From the very beginning, Mohonk Mountain House has been family-owned and operated,” said Nina Smiley, a fourth-generation Smiley family member who is the director of Mindfulness Programming at the resort. “Albert [Smiley] established a home where he and his family could live in a beautiful natural setting and where guests could enjoy recreation and renewal of body, mind and spirit inspired by nature.” At the heart of the “difference between Mohonk Mountain House and other resorts is that we’ve always deeply understood that our ‘Mohonk family’ includes Smileys, staff, guests and our community,” she said, adding that many of the above have been with them for decades.

Sky Top Tower (courtesy of Mohonk Mountain House)

Another thing that sets them apart, according to Tom Smiley, a fifth-generation family member and CEO of the Mountain House, is their “commitment to the community, guests and staff.” He said that the “family has always included the impact on staff, guests and the local community (environmental and social)” in their decisionmaking, and to that end the owners have had an “approach that led to decisions a typical business might not have made, but they were the right decisions for the Mohonk Mountain House.”

The Smileys, as a family and as Quakers, always maintained a deep respect for the sanctity of nature and human rights. As they grew and evolved with the times, they were always careful never to corrupt these sacred beliefs. In fact, while they developed their hotel to include a Scottish-inspired nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, a beach for lake-bathers, paddleboats, a fitness center, equestrian barn and state-of-the-art dining facility, there were decades when the Mountain House had no alcohol, television, air conditioning or other “modern” amenities – and still the guests poured in.

Old Sky Top Tower at Mohonk Lake, 1910’s. (Courtesy of Haviland Heidgerd Historical Collection)

Part of the resort’s allure, for a long time, was its proximity to modernity (with New York City less than an hour-and-a-half away), and at the same time its adherence to the charm of old-fashioned and rustic fun. It was populated by urban guests who craved a quiet, pastoral getaway. That charm still exists, but guests do have access to television, spirits and cable if they so desire. When you’ve run a hotel for more than a century-and-a-half and have been named one of the Top Ten Greatest Destinations in the world, there has to be both constancy and evolution.

Asked what is the single greatest improvement they’ve made to the Mountain House to increase its popularity and solidify its longevity, Tom Smiley said, “There have been many improvements made over the last 150 years, including indoor plumbing, electricity, telephones, Wi-Fi, private bathrooms and upgrades to the finishes of the house.” While he acknowledged that all of these improvements were “critical to our longevity,” the modern amenity “with the most significant impact on our popularity would be the Spa at Mohonk Mountain House,” he said. Built in 2005, the Spa includes, among many things, an indoor pool, outdoor hot tub and mineral bath, steam rooms, saunas and every kind of massage, facial, manicure, pedicure and holistic spa treatment. “The Spa helped us to raise the bar on all of our offerings and provided a critical group of amenities modern travelers have come to expect,” he said. “Another significant improvement is the kitchen renovation currently underway and slated for completion this summer.” He said that the new kitchens will allow them to “showcase the full range of our culinary team’s skill sets, which will place Mohonk at the forefront of culinary offerings in the Hudson Valley.”

Asked what he believed the top reasons were for the Mountain House to have survived the hospitality industry for 150 years and flourish, Tom Smiley said, “Our proximity to the tristate area and Hudson Valley provides a large client base. Add to that the fact that anyone who has visited the Mountain House or seen pictures is quickly drawn into the property by its amazing views, pristine lake, dramatic terrain and castlelike structure. And finally our service…”

With all of the fine dining, farm-to-table delicacies, Swedish massage and eucalyptus steam room, the guests equally enjoy a simple walk around the lake or a rock scramble up the Labyrinth, a dive into the cool mountain-spring-fed water or simply lounging on a rocking chair and watching the light fall across the water and cliffs.

The first illumination of the mountain for the Fourth of July took place in 1900 and was described as “a truly splendid spectacle of colored illuminations of the face of Sky Top, with red and green and fires blending, as it were, the spring and autumn foliage into one.” That tradition has been maintained throughout the history of the Mountain House, and in 1923 the final version of the Sky Top tower was completed in memory of Albert Smiley.

Mohonk summerhouse with a view of the Shawangunk Mountains. (Courtesy of Mohonk Mountain House)

Because the Mountain House offers so much just by its setting, with the lake, hiking paths, rock scrambles, voluptuous gardens, horseback riding and gazebos looking out over the Catskills and Adirondack Mountains in the distance, it is hard for the Smiley family to say exactly what their guests’ favorite activity is. “It can depend on the season,” said Nina Smiley. “In summer, the lake is like velvet and, along with the bathing beach being available throughout the day, guests can swim all the way across the lake during designated hours. Pausing to look up at the cliffs while gliding through the water is a magical experience. In fall, spectacular trails are embellished with magnificent foliage for hiking. Winter has cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, weather permitting, and ice skating every day of the week, with hot chocolate or a cocktail as a warm-up after an invigorating day. Spring is all about moment-to-moment renewal, as colors and textures seem to change as we watch. And renewal happens year-round at our spa, where we carry on our 150-year tradition of nurturing body, mind and spirit.”

Eric Gullickson remembered when he first moved to the grounds of the Mountain House with his family at the age of ten. “I remember waking up to the sounds of the tree frogs and walking up to the Mohonk Lake through the Grove among the squirrels and chipmunks. When I reached the lake and saw the hotel perched at its edge, I thought I was dreaming!”

If it’s your first visit or your 150th visit, that sense of being in a dream still exists.

Pink dahlias in the turret gardens on top of the port cochere at Mohonk Mountain House. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Ways to enjoy the 150th celebration

There are many ways that guests, community members and Mohonk enthusiasts can participate in and enjoy the 150th celebration that has already begun and will continue throughout the remaining anniversary year. There is currently an exhibition of the evolution and history of Mohonk Mountain House at the Samuel Dorsky Museum on the SUNY New Paltz campus. This small exhibition features art, photographs, postcards and ephemera related to Mohonk and the Shawangunks, with contributions from students in professor Kerry Dean Carso’s fall 2018 Art History course, “Art of the Hudson Valley.”

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CEO Tom Smiley noted that Mohonk is offering a “House History Tour each day of the week for our guests. We’ve created a list of 150 Things to Do during your visit to Mohonk, from exploring the gardens to ice skating at the Pavilion, going on a nature hike or relaxing on a rocking chair.” The resort has also partnered with Jane’s Ice Cream to create its own custom flavor, Mohonk Mountain Crunch, available in the gift shop and dining venues. It will also be hosting Anniversary Weekends with guided hikes and history tours.

The resort has been and will continue to be releasing “Mohonk Stories” throughout the year, which include videos of Smiley family members, Mohonk staff and longtime guests sharing their personal Mohonk stories. “We are also encouraging our guests to share their Mohonk memories on postcards, to be placed in our time capsule at the end of the year,” said Tom Smiley.

To learn more about the history of Mohonk, go to www.mohonk.com/gallery/stories. For more on the evolution timeline of the Mountain House, you can go to the website’s history section at www.mohonk.com/history/timeline.

Keep an eye out for community events that the hotel sponsors, Community Appreciation days that provide discounts on day passes and spa passes, or just take a moment and look up at the night sky to see the light of the Albert K. Smiley Memorial Tower on Sky Top guiding us all back home.

An 1888 advertisement for Mohonk Mountain House. (Courtesy of Haviland Heidgerd Historical Collection)