When does a sign cease to be a sign? It’s not a deep philosophical question, but the answer is important to the inhabitants of the former Rainbow Lodge in Mount Tremper, who were directed by the Woodstock building inspector to take down what many consider an iconic piece of history. The hamlet straddles the line separating the towns of Shandaken and Woodstock. The former lodge on state Route 212 is just over the town line in Woodstock. The sign violated a section of town zoning that prohibits the display of a sign for a business that no longer exists.
Woodstock and Shandaken have two different though sometimes overlapping cultures. Woodstock is not known for loose enforcement of its relatively strict land-use regulations and building codes. Shandaken is willing to listen to people stating their cases. Truth to tell, Woodstock supervisor Bill McKenna, seems to have some of the Shandaken culture in him. He has some understanding of the attachment of creek-loving Shandakenites to all things fishing, and he frequently takes a common-law approach based on cases rather than codes.
McKenna told the family that now owns the borderline property to call the sign art and put it back up in its place. He had considered the matter settled a couple of decades ago when he served on the ZBA. and had informal discussions with Paul Shultis, the building inspector at the time.
“The Rainbow Lodge had already been closed ten, twelve, 14 years at that point, and there was this sign, and we called it art,” McKenna said. “People are allowed to put art up. It’s got the name Rainbow Lodge. It’s got a fish. There’s no number on it. It doesn’t have a vacancy sign on it. It’s a piece of art on the wall.”
McKenna said he doesn’t fault building inspector Francis “Butch” Hoffman for issuing the directive to remove the sign. “I can understand why Butch reacted,” said McKenna. ”I praise him for being thorough and getting out there and looking for violations.”
The violation Hoffman cited in his January 24 letter was Section 260-97, Termination of Certain Uses. It states: “Any sign existing on or after the effective date of this chapter which advertises a business no longer conducted, product no longer available, or service no longer provided on the premises shall be removed by the owner of the sign and/or premises upon which the sign is located within ten days after notice to the owner from the zoning enforcement officer to remove such obsolete sign.”
The establishment was founded as a fishing lodge in the 1950s by Dick Kahil and family, and was a host to the famous and not-so-famous who needed a getaway from the city. It was run that way until 1986, when Eve Baer and her husband Marshall purchased the property.
Not just fishing
People in Shandaken have fond memories and an attachment to the place’s history not just because of the Kahils’ lodge, but also because of what it meant to Eve Baer and her family.
“My husband came out in 1986 with his friend Sylvia Miles, the actress, and they were yard-saling. There was a little sign at the bottom of the Rainbow Lodge sign that said ‘For Sale By Owner,’ and that’s how we came to be here,” Baer said.
“Marshall’s line was ‘We came here for a yard sale and we bought the yard,’” said Eve’s son Geoff.
The plan was to run the place as a sort of bed-and-breakfast, but tragedy struck Eve’s son Ian, who suffered traumatic brain injury in a car accident the same year, making him a paraplegic requiring constant care.
Many members of the community came to help with Ian’s care, explained Molly Holm, a friend who provides assistance. “For years, people from the community would come here to do what they call patterning, which was a way to try to rewire the brain, and we would each grab a limb and right there in the living room we would have these patterning sessions. People on this arm will go this way, and this went on for years. So it was a hub of activity from the community. It was intense. It was beautiful,” Holm said.
Every Sunday, Eve would make a big dinner for all the volunteers, Holm said. “People met and fell in love here. People got pregnant here. People broke up here There’s a whole line of babies. So that aspect of the Rainbow Lodge apart from the Kahils was really about Ian in those years, of trying to help him recover,” Holm said. “For those people, the Rainbow Lodge sign really symbolizes that whole energy of heart and hope because it really did not look like [Ian] had any hope at all. If you were lucky, you felt him give you a little squeeze, but his eyes weren’t responsive. And then slowly over the years he started to just kind of come to the surface — and now he’s totally in there. He still can’t talk, but he’s completely in there.”
That attachment to the family and what the sign means brought an outpouring of support that touched Eve. It had against formidable odds turned into a happy ending.
The community culture
“It’s Facebook that made it happen,” said Eve Baer. “We got the letter to take the sign down. The next day, Geoff took the sign down. The next day, my friend Sylvia Bullett [listen to her music on Apple Music] came over and said, ‘I’m going to start a petition.’
Then on Sunday Bill McKenna called and said, ‘Please don’t take your art down.’ And he came to speak with us Sunday morning at 10:30 and he said, ‘Sometimes the people that we hire are new, and they don’t know the culture of the community. Please put your art back up.’”
In two days, 200 people signed the petition, Baer said. “I was honestly overwhelmed. It started when Geoff took a picture of the sign, put it on Facebook, and I wrote, ‘I’m going to miss this fish when I come home.’”
The most beautiful thing, she said, was how much the sign meant to people who drove by and looked for it as a landmark.
“Every summer, inevitably people stop and ask if they could have their picture taken in front of it, or people are lost. There’s no cell coverage here, and GPS leads them in terribly wrong directions,” chimed in Holm. “When people are lost, they’re like, we’re going to take a chance and knock on the door.”
Baer said the sign “kind of gives permission, especially if they need help.”
Vita brevis, ars longa
Some surprises came out of having to take the sign down, as Geoff Baer explained. “We found some hidden art because of it, and the sign will live on because of this whole adventure,” he said, explaining he found an older version of the sign behind the existing one.
James Cox Gallery, up the road toward Willow, has offered to assist in having both weathered and fragile signs preserved.
Geoff Baer speculated that the sign violation likely stems from a driveway put in for the neighbors last year so they wouldn’t have to use a right-of-way. Baer constructed a fence at the same time and acquired a permit for it. Code dictates it could only be four feet high.
“But six feet seemed to make more sense. So we put it up at six feet, and we’ve kind of left it to see what they’d say. And Butch did come by and said, ‘You’ve got to put your fence down,’ but in the same envelope he included that we should take our sign down as well.”
Geoff is not sure whether Hoffman issued the order because of a complaint. Regardless, the Baers are happy the sign will return.
“Now we were going to be able to put it back up and it’s going to be beautiful,” Geoff Baer said. “Through this compliance was the discovery of this lost art and a mystery solved.”
Hoffman could not be reached for comment in time for this article.