The summerhouses of Mohonk: Paying tribute to a Shawangunk icon

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

In his underrated novel Pattern Recognition, the father of cyberpunk fiction William Gibson offers for our consideration the postmodern character Cayce Pollard. The novel’s protagonist makes a comfortable living as a freelance evaluator of corporate logos and symbols. She does not design them, critique them or in any way improve, edit or explain them. She simply looks at a proposed logo and knows instantly in her gut whether it has the viral quality, the iconic and memetic energy, to become a powerful brand image, or whether it is a stillborn dud, a dead symbol. Her talent is nothing more than an extreme semiotic sensitivity – an exaggerated form of the allergic response to symbols that we all share to some degree. Pollard’s sensitivity pays well, but it also forces her to limit her exposure to brands at large and to grind the logos off the buttons on her clothes, lest she be made constantly dizzy and nauseated.

When New Paltz’s venerable Mohonk Mountain House decided upon a logo, it had several great options at its disposal, a crisis of options and no Cayce Pollard to contract. First, there is the Sky Top tower: a powerful image boosted by a compact, iconic name, but one that has become symbolically associated with the New Paltz community in general. The distinctively notched stony protuberance that looks down upon the town was, in fact, exploited as a formal icon by SUNY-New Paltz for years, before this crystal-palace business replaced it in a wall-to-wall institutional rebranding. I have a feeling Cayce Pollard would have been unmoved by that big glass pavilion/ship/pyramid thingy.

So, consider Sky Top taken, actively engaged in the service of another brand. Mohonk has many more bullets in its holster. How about the famous aerial shots of the Mountain House and the deep-set, sculpted lake upon which it is situated? From above, the cliff-hugging hotel seems hardly less accretive and accidental than the geology that surrounds it. It is a stunning, irresistible image that has been used as the money shot in every “I Love New York” television commercial for decades, speaking eloquently of both the ideal beauty of Mohonk and the cloistered concentration of it, the tight insularity and depth of its micro-world. The problems here are twofold. First, it is way too chatty to be a logo; second, it speaks to grandeur – certainly part of the Mohonk formula – but has little to say of Mohonk’s rustic and roughhewn modesty, without which it might as well be Marriott.


Thus enter the summerhouses, or gazebos as they are commonly misnamed: the rustic, roughhewn structures that dot the entire Mohonk campus, providing respite and vistas for hikers. The summerhouses are Mohonk’s flagship feature, reminders that Mohonk is not about nature per se; it is about the first artistic cut by humans into nature, the DIY aesthetic impulses to shape the wild with one’s hands.

The Mohonk summerhouses were inspired by the work of the landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, whose summerhouse designs were a fixture at the great family estates along the Hudson. A summerhouse differs from a gazebo mostly by being considerably more raw. The gazebos of Europe tended to be built of finished lumber. They featured screens and cushions, a few layers of insulation between person and the world of dirt and flies.

Summerhouses like those at Mohonk were originally fashioned out of unfinished poles by “rustic carpenters”: farmers mostly, with good carpentry skills. The amateur artisans were instructed to use the materials they could find at hand – American chestnut, usually – and to use their imaginations regarding the design of the house. This is my favorite fact about the Mohonk summerhouses. With one notable exception, they were truly improvised. No two are alike, and no designs exist on paper except for the one exception: the two-level summerhouse in the main garden.

Beginning in the 1870s as the Smiley twins began to develop their new property, the original summerhouses featured roofs of thatched rye straw. It was a point of dispute between the brothers. Albert wished to change over to chestnut shingle, arguing that shingle roofs were less obtrusive, more in keeping with the environment. Brother Alfred prevailed, apparently, as thatched grass roofs dominate the photo evidence of Mohonk’s first 100 years. The last of the thatched-roof summerhouses were seen in the 1980s, though most had been replaced by hemlock slab roofs first, and then later cedar shakes by the 1960s.

The chestnut tree blight of the 1910s began the move toward red cedar construction, but not for another 20 years, as the ever-industrious Smileys harvested the dead chestnut trees and stockpiled the wood for use in summerhouse construction. Several generations later, the use of red cedar led to dwindling supplies and Mohonk began a cedar reforestation initiative in 1996, with the goal of planting 200 new seedlings annually. In the maintenance of the summerhouses today, red cedar is mixed with the more-available-but-less-attractive white cedar: red for the visible parts, white for the substructures.

A testimony to the charming anachronism and eccentricity that Mohonk has somehow managed to maintain through portions of three centuries, and under the ever-increasing pressure of corporate modernity, nobody is entirely sure how many summerhouses there were. The first were built in 1870s. Mohonk seems fairly confident that none have been added since 1917. Best guess is that 125 survive out a high of 155, but “It is doubtful,” wrote Ben Matteson and Joan A. LaChance in The Summerhouses of Mohonk in 1998, “whether anyone today would be able to locate each and every one.” Why do I find that so comforting?

Ben Matteson (Mr. Matteson, to me, when I worked there in the late ’70s) engaged the advertising consultants Needham & Grohman and developed the spare summerhouse silhouette design as Mohonk’s official logo in the 1970s, locked down by trademark in 1983. Mohonk’s official historian Larry E. Burgess notes that, while the first formal use of the summerhouse logo on marketing materials occurred in 1970, a version of the iconic design had been used around Mohonk as early as the 1870s: a fact recognized in the trademark certificate.

From a semiotic perspective, the Mohonk logo is a 10, a knockout. They’d have to carry Cayce Pollard out on a stretcher.