In October of 1908, the final touches were put on the original Gatehouse Tower in honor of the 50th wedding anniversary of Albert Keith Smiley and his wife Eliza Phelps Smiley, the co-founders of Mohonk Mountain House. The stone edifice with its large archway served as the formal entryway to the mountain hotel until 1935. Guests would arrive via train or trolley in downtown New Paltz, where they would take horsedrawn carriages across the Wallkill River and the Flats to check in at the Gatehouse Tower. They would then be led along the allée lined with towering pin oaks, past Duck Pond, through meadows and forests until they arrived at the Lake and eventually the resort.
With the influx of automobile transport, the Mountain House created a new gateway off Mountain Rest Road, which is still used today. Although it was no longer used by hotel guests as their introduction to Mohonk, the original gatehouse – or the “Testimonial Gatehouse,” as it is now referred to – has become one of New Paltz’s best-known and most iconic structures, standing stoically at the base of the foothills for the past 81 years.
In the course of that time, the structure was used in several different capacities. After it ceased to function as a formal entrance to the Mountain House, the building served as housing for hotel employees. In the mid-1960s, it was leased for a short time to the Mid-Hudson Catskill Museum as a field site for outdoor education. The museum later merged with the John Burroughs Natural History Society, which also leased the Gateway area for a short time in the 1970s. The Gateway building continued to serve as tenant housing for Mohonk Mountain House staff until 2009. It also served as an informal meeting place for hikers, cyclists, runners and as a bucolic playground for those who lived in it or near it around the Gatehouse Road neighborhood.
Now the Testimonial Gatehouse is once again having the light shone upon it, as it is in the process of a $2.7 million makeover. Its historic archway and stonework are being cleaned, restored and buttressed, and the tower, the tree-lined carriage road and its surrounding grounds are being turned into the first new trailhead that the 8,600-acre Preserve has created in more than 25 years.
Growing up around the Gatehouse
If you look at the old blue wooden door just under the grand stone archway, there is a sign that says, “No Trespassing, Private Property.” The New Paltz Times decided that it was the perfect time to talk to some people who lived and frolicked at the sentinel entrance to the magic kingdom of both the Mountain House and the Preserve, before its transformation into an official Preserve trailhead.
Steve Rappleyea lived in the old gatehouse as a young boy with his brother and their mom, who worked at Mountain House and served as the Gatehouse “caretaker” in the late 1970s. “It was one of the coldest, draftiest places I have ever lived,” said Rappleyea with a laugh. “You know, the regular drawbacks of living in a castle.” He indicated the covered balcony at the top of the tower and said that if you “caught the wind just right, you could fly a paper airplane from that window all the way to the end of the driveway.”
Rappleyea also pointed to the large windows above the archway that face west. “That was my bedroom,” he said, noting that the tot-finder sticker with the silhouette of the firefighter was still stuck to his old window. “I never got used to the beauty of the sun setting from my bedroom window. Even then, as a young boy, I knew this place was important. It was significant in that it was literally the gateway to this coveted hotel and the magical forest that surrounded it.”
He remembers being outside all of the time and riding horses along the tree-lined carriage road and ice-skating in the ponds that serve almost as a moat to the tower. “We moved a lot when I was a kid, and this was the place where I met so many great New Paltz people, like the Cotton brothers [Will, Keith and Neil] and the Schenker family and the Sample brothers. There was no social media, so we literally played outside all day every day, unless we were in school.”
Eric and Holbrook Sample, who grew up at 8 Gatehouse Road, just across from the tower, remembered it with the same fondness and Rappleyea did. “Without all the distractions of technology, we would arise early and hurry to the ponds in the winter, as they would freeze early, and we had a blast spending the day ice-skating on them beneath the Gatehouse, which was fully visible after the leaves fell,” said Eric Sample, now a professor at Champlain University in Vermont. “We would skate and skate and get cold and run home to Mom, who would have popcorn and hot chocolate.”
His brother Holbrook, now the director of the Cincinnati Public Library, concurred. “Absolutely, I was aware of the Gatehouse as being the entrance to Mountain House,” he said. “The allée is one of the more extraordinary features of any landscape anywhere.” Holbrook, who always ran the carriage roads and trails of the Preserve, remembered “always running from my house, through the archway of the Gatehouse and then up to the Mountain House and through the trails all around it.”
Rappleyea also reflected on the connection between the Gatehouse and its sister tower, Sky Top perched above on the mountain. “I think it’s so different when you just rocket yourself up the Ridge in a car,” he mused. “Living here and even coming back as an adult, it’s so different to walk the carriage roads and trails and enjoy the enchantment of the ponds and meadows and forests that lead up to Lake Mohonk and the hotel. You’re very mindful of entering through the gates of nature and being enveloped by it. I would often think what it must have been like for the guests, who, having left the hustle and bustle of the City, would begin to exhale as their carriage climbed the wooded roads to the hotel, where they would be able to relax and calm their nerves and discuss various religious or political matters of the day. Just this one section of the carriage road lined with trees is reminiscent of an old English manor home. Where else does this exist? There’s nowhere like Mohonk or Sky Top, and the Gatehouse, with its intricate and beautiful stonework that is part utilitarian and part fanciful. I guess I felt so fortunate to be part of the Mohonk mystique.” Ironically, Rappleyea, now an assistant superintendent at the Lakeland Central School District, has a Doctor of Psychology in Counseling Psychology, with a focus on adventure-based counseling. “Funny how it all comes full circle, just knowing how restorative nature is.”
Holbrook recalled getting permission to have a garden on the Gatehouse side of the road, which he would tend as a child. “I always found great repose in the Gatehouse, and it influenced my aesthetic. When I would travel to help my parents prepare to move to Vermont, after over 40 years at 8 Gatehouse, the Gatehouse and allée were solid companions – as were the ponds, where we had skated hundreds of times growing up. Over my life at 8 Gatehouse, I observed the almost complete eutrophication of the ponds. Every year and every season would fill them in with humus a little more. One of mom’s [artist Gloria Sample] favorite painting subjects was the Gatehouse. If you include the lands between it and the mountaintop and cliffs south, you have almost the whole of her interest. We used to bale hay on the mountain, and in some years the fields along the allée. I still remember how deafening the peepers would be in the spring near the ponds.”
His brother agreed. “We were very aware of the significance of the Gatehouse and our proximity to it,” said Eric. “My dad [William Sample], as a conservationist and a Quaker, would take us up to visit Dan Smiley, who was so down-to-earth and incredibly generous about sharing his nature observations and weather studies.”
Both Sample brothers remembered biking to swim practice and lifeguarding at both the Ulster County Pool on Libertyville Road and the Moriello Pool via the old carriage roads that are now covered over. “We would bike to swim practice at the county pool along the old carriage road that continued across Route 44/55 and down to the Wallkill River. We even tried to cross the river, when it was low, on our bikes, to see how the carriage road was connected on the other side – it had grown over,” said Eric. “We imagined people getting off at the old train station and taking the carriages up that glorious road to the Mountain House. We knew it was nice, and loved it; but, having lived a lot of other places now, I realize how completely unique and pristine it was. Growing up in the shadows of both the Gatehouse and Sky Top watching over us from above was part of a dreamy childhood.”
Now that dream will be opened up to the rest of the world who choose to seek it out.
Ongoing work at the Testimonial Gatehouse
If you’ve driven by the old Gatehouse or attempted to park at the base of the gated driveway, you may have noticed that land to the south has been cleared to make way for a new parking lot, and that restoration work has begun on the 111-year-old edifice. According to Gretchen Reed, media spokesperson for the Mohonk Preserve, “Maintenance work on the Testimonial Gateway Tower has been ongoing, and stabilization work on the Testimonial Gateway Tower roof, windows and selected masonry will begin this spring.”
The Testimonial Gateway Trailhead at the Mohonk Preserve Foothills will be the first new Preserve trailhead in 25 years and, according to Reed, “will expand public access for people of all ages and abilities to the Foothills’ carriage roads and footpaths.” Site preparation for the Gateway Trailhead project, which began in January, will include an off-road 80-car parking lot, EV charging stations, visitor contact stations, restrooms, restoration landscaping and wayfinding signage. According to Reed, the Preserve recently conducted a bidding process, and a contractor “will be selected in the next few weeks.”
“We hope to have the new Testimonial Gateway Trailhead in place by the end of the year,” she added. Additional sitework will include replacement of the Lenape Lane Bridge and resurfacing of the Lenape Lane Carriage Road, which is slated to begin later this year. The total estimated project cost for the Testimonial Gateway Trailhead Project is $2.72 million.
While the lands in the foothills originally served as an entryway and agricultural resource for Mohonk Mountain House, by the late 1900s they were being used primarily for hay and cattle-grazing. In October 2011, wishing to preserve the foothills as open space, Smiley Brothers, Inc., owners of Mohonk Mountain House, sold the entire Foothills parcel, including the Testimonial Gateway area, to the Open Space Institute (OSI). OSI in turn engaged the Mohonk Preserve to create a management plan and manage the property, with the goal of the Preserve eventually purchasing the lands.
In December 2014, the Preserve entered into an agreement to purchase the 836-acre Mohonk Preserve Foothills from OSI. The Preserve then began the planning process for the Testimonial Gateway Trailhead project and trails master plan. After a two-year review process, the Town of New Paltz Planning Board granted final site plan approval for the Mohonk Preserve Foothills Project in 2016.
“Work is also continuing on completing the connection to the Mohonk Preserve Foothills Loop of the River-to-Ridge Trail, in partnership with Open Space Institute,” noted Reed. “That connection is expected to be completed this summer.”