Welcome to the Mountains
Documenting the Catskill Mountain Lodge in Palenville, New York, prior to a planned renovation, was an immersion in a sublime emotional experience — and a journey back to another time.
If you are at a computer, please click the headline above to open a browser and get the photos at full size. They are published at printable resolution. Photos created Sept. 2, 2023. — efc
Photo Essay by Eric Francis Coppolino
PALENVILLE, Greene County, NY — I’ve driven past the Catskill Mountain Lodge many times — usually on the way to visit the site of the former Catskill Mountain House, which is about 15 minutes up the road. The Mountain House, the first grand hotel in American history, is gone, but the 1,500-foot cliff where it once stood is one of the great vistas on the East Coast.
It’s also near Kaaterskill Falls and the Hunter Mountain ski area, making it a year-round facility.
I had never stopped at the Lodge, but always planned to. Today, up and about early on a Saturday, I decided to visit. I was location-scouting for a model photo session. I had my concept of what it would be like — small, rustic, and well-maintained, with a solid feeling. Perhaps it would be a bit like The Great Northern Hotel in Twin Peaks.
So much for my imagination. But it was a masterpiece of Midcentury kitsch.
Soon after pulling in the driveway, I discovered that the place was closed for renovations. The cool, low, early morning light was perfect, so I went exploring the property. It was a more emotional experience than I would have anticipated.
Remnants of the Past are Everywhere in the Hudson Valley
The area where I live — thanks to the long-gone Mountain House, built 1823 — was the first vacation resort area in the United States. Its heyday was from about 1830 to about 1920, and it opened up the whole area to tourism. Eventually, the Catskills gave way to the Adirondacks, and then the age of air travel.
To frame my current subject in time: the Catskill Mountain House opened in 1824, closed in 1941 and was burned down by the state in 1963. The Catskill Mountain Lodge opened in 1969 and closed for renovations in 2023.
Between the traces of when this region was the nascent United States’ first vacationland, and the ruins of many industrial mining and manufacturing operations, I’m accustomed to observing the fading artifacts of a long gone world. Much of upstate New York has this feeling. Had I not lived in Paris, it might be depressing.
My sense of time helps me feel the whole story-arc of any place I am photographing, as if I can walk through the present and several shades of the past. My intent with these photos is to convey what I felt more so than what I saw.
Each of these rooms had two lawn chairs placed neatly outside of it, the kind that would fetch 50 cents at a yard sale. That was part of the sadness I felt — the sheer lack of quality of the hotel design and building materials. Yet the customers did not care; the place had many other virtues. It was long a thriving business, according to Vincent Neglia, who opened a fruit and vegetable stand down the road around the same time the Lodge opened. Many came here and had a fantastic time, and I would imagine, met back up at this very spot over the years. I tried to imagine who they were.
As I edit these photos, I’m wondering whether the place would feel this lonely if it was filled with customers. Today, it had the sense of everyone having suddenly vanished, never to return.
In this photo, all I can see are ashtray and the spider web. This is outside a small cabin where many hundreds of different people have stayed over the years.
I could not get into the rooms — I tried many — though here, and in the photo below, you can get a sense of the interiors. There are still some hotels that have those touch-tone phones with the red “message waiting” light, but not many. The bedside fan indicates that the rooms have no air conditioning. The view above is into a glass door, through the corridor, into the adjoining room, an out to the yard.
Hotels are a 12th house space, and they all extend into the dreamtime and the erotic realm. They span from the hoped-for to the unreal. Many people pass through each of them, undress, and are intimate with one another. Each room is a container for all that has happened there. Listen and you can hear the echoes of the souls of previous times.
This property first opened in 1969 — the summer of the Woodstock festival, and a time when personal fellowship and conviviality were much more common than they are today. Throughout the facility are outdoor spaces designed to bring people together and focus a conversation, many of them with an open fire pit at the center. I’m getting the sense that the place had a summer-camp like feeling to it.
I’m always longing for a time and place where people sit around a fire late into the night and hang out in the spaciousness of the universe. Maybe such places still exist today, though in my experience they have become rare. In the past I was usually the one to propose that people get together, and lit the fire myself. The interest does not seem to be there, and Facebook is no substitute.
This is reminiscent of a kiva, a Pueblo ceremonial space sometimes set below the ground. It’s a very special feature of the property and I am sure a place where many of the most transcendent experiences of gathering were had over many summers. The space invites conversation, sharing and connection. This is a true historic and architectural relic.
This is the interior of the bar and recreation area.
Exterior dining area for a restaurant or snack bar.
One of the little cabins on the property. They are quite small but most have some kind of private outdoor space, if tiny. OK, so, the hotel rooms were a little shabby, but the more I look at these photos, the more I appreciate the place for what it was. The point was not luxury — the point was getting out of the city, up to the Catskills, and hanging out with other people, in person.
A company in Utah has recently purchased the Lodge property and is planning a full-scale renovation. (Here is the real estate listing.) It will do well here in the era of boutique hotels, and the location is ideal. The stunning site of the former Catskill Mountain House is just a few minutes drive away from the Lodge.
I will get hold of the new developers, send them these photos, and make my case for preservation of the kiva fire circle.
I can be reached at email@example.com, or (845) 337-5095. This is a project of World Stage Studios, location consultants.
Substack is the new home of the Planet Waves you always remember. Thank you for purchasing a subscription.