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Romantic Tourism in the 1800’s: Tobe Carey’s catskill mountain house and the world aroundby Jay Blotcher

A monumental sense of hubris seemed to guide the construction of The Catskill Mountain House, the grand 19th century hotel that is the topical foundation of local documentarian Tobe Carey’s latest film, The Catskill Mountain House and the World Around.

The Catskill Mountain House—nicknamed “the Yankee Palace”—demanded attention: it was built in 1824 on the edge of a ledge in Greene County. This placement offered exhilarating views but also the fatal opportunity of a 1600-foot free-fall drop. Certainly this was a boon for visitors not merely content to view the majestic landscape but desirous to become a part of it.

Carey, who began the film three years ago, takes pains to conjure the era in which the Greek Revival-designed Mountain House was erected, and grandiose rivals also materialized on adjacent alpine settings. It was a time when industrialism was quickly gobbling down the wooded sections of America. Suddenly awakened to the shrinking patches of pristine flora and fauna, artists and philosophers began rhapsodizing about the remaining sectors of America—especially in the Hudson Valley—where thoughtful people could be energized and inspired by a communion with nature. A new movement had begun.

Among these back-to-nature boosters were writers James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, and artist Thomas Cole. The Hudson River School, a free-form movement labeled long after the fact, brought many visual artists to this ruggedly handsome, untamed region that a writer had described as a combination of “civilization and savagery.” It was here that The Catskill Mountain House arose, a haven for those seeking a simpler life—and who, not incidentally, possessed the requisite wealth to ardently pursue such simplicity.

Carey, who has directed twenty documentaries in his career, several about the richly chaotic history of this region, described the movement that drew the well-heeled to The Catskill Mountain House as “romantic tourism.” Besotted by the paintings, stories and poetry extolling the virtues of nature, they came to the Catskills from New York City on riverboats and in locomotive trains (the Ulster & Delaware Railroad and Catskill Mountain Railway). For the final leg of the steeply vertical journey, they engaged carriages and coaches. Eventually, a funicular was invented by Otis, the elevator king.

It was a formidable trek for the sake of filling lungs with pure oxygen and attaining momentary peace of mind. Once wealthy patrons arrived at the proper juncture in the Hudson River, they still faced another five-hour journey up to the hotel. The Catskill Mountain House was a mansion replete with ballrooms, Corinthian columns commanding the facade, huge lawns, expansive porches and a view that afforded vistas 50 miles away. And so they pressed on, to reach this materialist nirvana, servants and footmen attending to their steamer trunks.

Through a robust array of old photographs, engravings, paintings and songs, as well as the running commentary of several area historians (too many of whom are merely drily informative), Carey takes us on a beguiling time-travel. Casting his eye beyond The Catskill Mountain House, Carey touches in a scattershot fashion upon other ornate temples of tourism in the region, including The Grand Hotel, Overlook Mountain House, Laurel House and Hotel Kaaterskill.

Charles L. Beach, the owner of The Catskill Mountain House, was a gleeful eccentric for whom sunrise was a sacrament. He would have staff ring a bell each morning to awaken guests so that they could witness the dawn. Beach also insisted that people attend church services every Sunday, conducted by on-premises ministers, and also refrain from drinking. The other hotels lacked such strictures, but they also lacked the elegant amenities of Beach’s enterprise. Nonetheless, they were all rivals and all waged a marketing battle to lure the wealthy and fill their rooms. (Jews were excluded from these environs and would create their own summer paradise in the lower Catskills.)

Built among the unforgiving elements of nature, The Catskill Mountain House was, surprisingly, not brought down by its harsh surroundings. But its days were nonetheless numbered. Hastened by changing tastes and a late-century recession that even brought robber barons to terra firma, it met its end with an ignoble gasp and then one final —and literal—blaze of glory, set aflame by the government in the 1960s, to return the area to its pristine state as protected woodland.

Tobe Carey enjoyed unearthing information about life in the Catskills during the Gilded Age, but he cautions viewers who may over-romanticize the grandeur of these hotels.

“People say, ‘Oh how romantic and wonderful,’” Carey said. But in the course of his research, the director learned that these elegant structures lacked running water and basic bathroom plumbing. Moreover, overhead sprinklers had not yet been invented.

“Who,” he asked, “would want to stay in a wooden firetrap?”

The Catskill Mountain House and the World Around will screen at The Mountain Cinema’s Doctorow Center for the Arts II, Main St., Hunter, on Saturday, October 23 at 1 PM. For ticket prices, call 518.263.2002 or visit www.catskillmtn.org. For additional October screening dates in Fleischmann’s and Kingston, as well as information about Tobe Carey’s full filmography, visit www.documentaryworld.com.



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