New York's Mohonk: a turreted, rambling resort for the whole family
| New Paltz, N.Y.
''Don't change anything!''
These three words have been the ''war cry''of ''Mohonkers'' for generations.
Mohonkers aren't members of an Indian tribe as their name might suggest. Rather, they are people who inhabit the top of the Shawangunk Mountains here -- people with a desire to leave well enough alone. More precisely, a Mohonker is one who frequents Mohonk Mountain House, which, depending on how you look at it, is either something on the order of Dracula's castle or St. Moritz, the famous resort in Switzerland.
The ''house'' is a rambling 300-room cornucopia of antiquated Victorian turrets, shuttered windows, stone buttresses, graceful wrought iron-rimmed balconies, more than 150 fireplaces, and bathtubs that are bigger than some backyard swimming pools.
The surrounding 7,500 acres look enough like parts of Switzerland that a New York Department of Commerce camera crew shot the ''I Love New York'' ads there last summer, ads that suggested: Why go to Switzerland, when New York has Mohonk?
But Mohonk is unique, not because it is reminiscent of something in the Alps, but because it is a kind of three-dimensional museum of living Victorian-American history. (One prominent architect, who requested that his name not be used, affectionately calls Mohonk's architectural style ''hodgepodge Victorian.'') It is virtually the sole New York State survivor of the grand mountain house hotels that flourished in the 1870s and 1880s. Most went out of business during the Great Depression.
Dilys Winn, who runs the ''mystery weekends'' at Mohonk, says: ''I feel as if I've come to live in a Grandma Moses painting.''
''It's an architecture of developing styles,'' says New York architect Benjamin Mendel, who specializes in restoration work. Guests here have the choice of staying in the old part, built in 1878, or the new wing. It should be pointed out that the ''new'' wing was completed only a few years after the turn of the century.
But Mohonkers flock here for more than the architecture. Many come here for the stress that is laid on the importance of the family and its basic values. For example, although liquor is available, there is no'bar and the waitresses don't ''push'' alcohol, as is often the practice in hotels and restaurants.
Just as the Smiley family that owns and runs Mohonk takes pride in upholding traditions, so do the guests. When the Smileys built what by most standards would be considered a small parking lot near the mountain house, irate letters poured in denouncing this ''radical'' step.
Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, writing of the Mohonk Parlor in the New York Times several years ago, said: ''I like this room so much that I would be sorely tempted to put its authentic period elegance more in formal order, but not at the risk of destroying its air of easy survival and comfortable use from past to present.''
Unfortunately, not all of Mohonk's ''air of easy survival'' has survived. Rachel Smiley, a descendant of the same Smiley family who started Mohonk in the 1870s, laments that many of Mohonk's genuine Chinese antiques and original American prints have been stolen from the function rooms and corridors over the years. Nevertheless, the Smiley family, in sharp contrast to common hotel practices, refuses to put valuables under lock and key or to bolt them to walls and tables. Although Mohonk is considerably larger than most inns, the family continues to maintain this innkeeper's philosophy, which is, in essence: ''When you come to Mohonk, you're coming to our home.''
But if the average homeowner or, for that matter, innkeeper had to sink as much money into renovations and restoration work as has been done at Mononk, there would be little or no money left for anything else. The place was on the verge of falling down and closing by the late 1960s. It was then that Rachel's husband, Ben Matteson, a mechanical engineer by profession, joined his brothers-in-law, Keith and Daniel Smiley, in the running of Mohonk. To their sense of history and vision, Mr. Matteson added practicality and an affinity for all things mechanical. But even he didn't realize the job that ay before them and still lies ahead.
Since 1969, millions of dollars have been spent to shore up sagging floor-to-gable structural beams, replace wrought iron-railed balconies, and conform to current fire-safety regulations. Besides enclosing the hotel's open stairwells, sprinklers and smoke detectors have been added to the high-ceiling, wood-paneled rooms and hallways. In fact, since water for the sprinkler system is fed from a lake at a much higher elevation than the mountain house, the water pressure is far more powerful than it is ordinarily in the city.
Despite all these improvements, people shouldn't expect a Holiday Inn here. The buildings are, to put it mildly, ''whimsically eccentric'' by today's standards. And Mr. Matteson and others are not above admitting it - with considerable relish.
''You practically have to miss the kitchen and go past the old powerhouse to get to the front entrance,'' he notes.
''We have more furniture in the shop being repaired than we have in the rooms ,'' Rachel says.
The special even s here are far out of the ordinary, too. Over the years, some of the world's finest musicians have played at Mohonk. Fut at a recent concert aimed at including amateurs, Matteson says there were ''200 musicians on stage and 100 people in the audience.''
Besides hiking and swimming in the summer and skating and skiing in the winter, Mohonk has two ''mystery weekends'' during which mystery buffs gather to solve imaginary crimes. On one of these weekends you'll meet a former KGB (Soviet secret police) agent, and think your way through a chessboard full of plots and counter plots.