The Painted Village
By Carolyn Bennett
Photograph by Susan James
Photograph by Susan James
The Village of Tannersville in Greene County, New York, has always had a gold rush “feel” to it, although its gold was not hidden in the hills but in the rough bark on the thousands upon thousands of primeval hemlock trees that covered the mountainous landscape of the Catskill High Peaks. Its earliest residents had learned how to tan animal hides and turn them into leather from their Native American friends, using the tannin extracted from the hemlock bark to soften the hides and make them pliable. By 1823, the Catskill High Peaks could boast having the largest tannery in the world in Prattsville, one of New York State’s first planned communities and Tannersville’s neighbor to the west. Settled shortly after the Revolution, Tannersville was a raucous place, filled with unshaven, two-fisted, hard-drinking men who worked in the tannery surrounding the small settlement by day and partied hard by night in the frontier-like structures that sprang up to accommodate their trade. 1846, however, saw the collapse of the tanning business and the gradual rise of the summer resort trade, which reached its peak in 1882 when the railroad came to Tannersville.
With the railroad came New York’s glitterati. According to historian Field Horne in his history of Greene County, “A very different community of summer residents had its start at the same time in the same town. Tannersville came to be the center of the private parks, where wealthy and cultured people built substantial cottages in which to spend much of their summer in private surroundings.”
Onteora Park was the first of several private communities which sprang up in and around Tannersville in the years between 1882 and 1890. Founded by Candace Wheeler, a native of Delhi, New York, who went on to become one of the leaders of the decorative arts movement of that period, Wheeler and her brother, Frank Thurber, bought the land they dubbed “Lotus Land,” built a cottage for themselves and began inviting others to join them to experience this summer paradise for themselves. By 1890, Onteora Park became a veritable who’s who of artists, writers and scholars.
The Lodge at the main gates was once the nerve-center of Onteora. Here was the Western Union office, the official U.S. Post Office and, presumably, the unofficial grapevine. Eleven and four were the principal gathering times, for that’s when the mail was sorted. It was all very social and festive. The Lodge was business-like, too. It was the Club Superintendent’s office. It was also the place where all billing and bookkeeping was done. When mail became home delivered, the offices were moved and The Lodge, which had been designed by Candace Wheeler’s son, Dunham Wheeler, was closed. It became a private house in 1959.
The Bear and Fox Inn, the original section of which was built in 1887 from plans by architect Dunham Wheeler, was conceived as a comfortable place to “put up” the many friends and friends-of-friends who came to Onteora—especially those who were in the process of building houses in the Park. The Bear and Fox at once became the hub of Onteora life. An orchestra was the resort custom of the day, playing luncheon and dinner music. There were Balls, costume and otherwise. There were lectures by the Onteora painters, statesmen, critics, scientists and writers. On July 4, 1890, Mark Twain had given an impromptu speech about the element of surprise in literature. The tale he chosen to tell to illustrate his point, “The Golden Arm,” seems embarrassingly racist by today’s standards but his audience loved it, and him. Twain spent the summer of 1890 on the broad porches and in front of big fireplaces of Onteora exchanging much amusing and rewarding conversation. Once in while, he might even go down to the village of Tannersville, strolling along in his snowy white linen suit, soaking up the atmosphere.
Photograph courtesy of Hunter Mountain
Columbine, of the earliest cottages to be built a member of the Onteora summer community, was constructed by writer Ruth McErney Stuart, author of many novels about the South where she was raised and married. She was widely known thoughout the United States, reading from her stories to social and literary clubs of every principal American City.
Wakerobin was built by essayist, critic, journalist and lecturer Laurence Hutton. Later, Wakerobin was owned by Albert and Adele Herter, who were the parents of Christian A. Herter, Secretary of State under President Eisenhower. Albert Herter was an important portrait painter, and Adele was an artist and designer of considerable note. The Flas was built by Mrs. Elizabeth Custer, widow of the headstrong and melodramatic General George A. Custer who made his “last stand” in 1876 at the Little Big Horn in Sioux Country. Mrs. Custer wrote four books about her life experience with her husband and lectured for four decades on his career. In 1896, Greyledge was built by prominent American portrait painter James Carroll Beckwith, who lived there until his death in 1917. Beckwith was one of the last pupils of Edouard Manet, the great French Impressionist. Beckwith’s studio was on this property. In 1926, Hamlin Garlin bought Greyledge. Garland was a well-known writer celebrated for his realistic novels about America’s Middle Border. It was during Garland’s ownership of Greyledge that Onteora staged its earliest theatrical performances following the transformation of the Beckwith Studio into a small theater, the direct predecessor of the Onteora Playhouse.
This was Tannersville in its heyday. Unfortunately, like many of America’s Main Streets and quaint communities, it was to die a slow economic death with the coming of the automobile, which allowed people to travel to far-flung destinations. The travelers were no longer rooted to one spot for an entire summer, but could travel the country at will or on a whim. Like Rip Van Winkle, the village of Tannersville went into a long sleep, but also like Rip, it has awoken in the 21st century with a new awareness of its history and heritage and an important champion, the Hunter Foundation, that has been working tirelessly for the last 9 years to restore it to its former glory.
The Hunter Foundation is a not-for-profit organization incorporated in 1997 to restore the historic integrity of the existing building stock within the Town of Hunter, its hamlet (Haines Falls) and its villages (Hunter and Tannersville). During its 9 years of existence, the Foundation has renovated or contributed to the renovation of over 85 buildings in the Town of Hunter—an impressive accomplishment for this small foundation!
The Hunter Foundation has been very successful in raising funds, through grants and private donations, as well as volunteer labor for area building improvement projects. Though all are meaningful, perhaps the most notable program is the town wide “Paint Program”—the vision of Elena Patterson, a local artist—and with the help and support of corporate sponsors and local residents, the Foundation has implemented this invaluable program.
Patterson came up with this project, she said, because “the Village was looking sort of shabby and needed to be spruced up.” Having received positive feedback from the interest generated by her own house, Patterson said she “felt the Village could also benefit.” She pitched her idea to the then mayor, Glenn Weyant, who was “extremely receptive.” It was Weyant who suggested Elena team up with the Hunter Foundation as they were already administering several rehabilitation grants throughout the Village.
The Paint Project, combined with the ongoing rehabilitation projects, created quite a stir for miles around as many tourists came to see the dramatic paint schemes. The project prompted much attention as it was publicized in The New York Times (May 28, 2003), Ladies Home Journal (November 2003) and Benjamin Moore’s publication Profiles (Winter 2004). Stories on the project also hit the airwaves as it was featured on NBC’s Today Show, CNBC, as well as all three of the local Albany based networks.
When asked about the impact the Paint Program has had on the Village, Patterson said “it has had a wider impact than I could have imagined: it has freshened up the Village, business and home owners are more attentive to their own places, businesses are better, restaurants are fuller, streets are livelier. And I know first hand that people are driving up to look at the painted buildings.”
Prompted by the success of the Paint Program, Elena is currently working on a project to write and illustrate a children’s book based on the success of the Paint Project, with proceeds going towards a maintenance program for the upkeep of the painted projects. Additionally, Elena tells us that Ed Chachianes and Morgan Patterson are currently making a short movie also based on the Paint Project “with specific focus on the creative urge that spawned the project.”
The quaint little home of Alice Jurgens that once housed the Blacksmith’s Shop, sits along the Gooseberry Creek and will no longer fade into the background…Paint Program funds are being used to give it a whole new reflection. After previously helping Alice with a new roof, she wrote: “What a wonderful job Hunter Foundation is doing for our town. Tannersville is now the showplace in New York Sate. How proud my parents would be to see Tannersville revived. The beauty of our Catskill Mountains will live on thanks to all the efforts of the Hunter Foundation.”
In 2004 the Hunter Foundation and Town of Hunter received an award in the amount of $400,000 from the Governor’s Office for Small Cities to implement the “Rip Van Winkle Trail Micro-Enterprise Program,” which provides grant monies to create new businesses, invigorate established businesses and ultimately create 22 new jobs. Thus far, the Micro-Enterprise Program has provided assistance to six existing businesses and has aided the start-up of eight new businesses in the Town of Hunter. This program comes to a close in September of this year so get your applications in!
The Hunter Foundation’s restoration of the “Astor House” (5980 Main Street) was a huge and awe-inspiring renovation. What was once a dilapidated eyesore—centrally located in the Village, next door to the Fire House—is now a beautiful Victorian landmark. Nominated by the Village of Tannersville for this restoration, the Hunter Foundation, on November 16, 2005 at a meeting of the Greene County Legislature, was presented with the “Ellen Rettus Planning Achievement Award: 2005 Community Main Street Revitalization.”
Rendering of the Orpheum Performing Arts Center, to open in the summer of 2007
The Village Bistro (formerly Warm’s Restaurant) is another noteworthy project of the Hunter Foundation. Using combined funding sources to rehabilitate this modernized old building into an already popular new eatery.
Having very recently acquired ownership of Slopes, Aspens and Bubba’s, the Hunter Foundation has hit the ground running to transform the neglected buildings into a source of community pride.
Another source of community pride is the Orpheum Performing Arts Center with a price tag of $2.4 million. The Catskill Mountain Foundation (map) is breaking ground for the construction of this state-of-the-art performing arts space, which will be able to accommodate dance, music, poetry, theatre, film and a variety of other performances to create a vibrant arts and cultural venue in the heart of the Catskill High Peaks. The Center, which was designed by the renowned architectural firm of H3 Hardy Collaboration (the new firm of Hugh Hardy, formerly Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and Associates), will incorporate the existing Orpheum Theatre, a movie theatre at the west end of Tannersville that has been closed for more than 15 years. An addition to the building will include the stage house and a new lobby. When complete, the Center will feature adjustable seating capacity of 265 to 350; raked seating for optimal sight lines; a 33' x 63' stage to accommodate large-scale musical and theatrical performances; a professional stage lighting system; a flexible orchestra shell system with acoustics that can be adjusted for different types of performances; dressing rooms and a green room, and a large lobby with adjoining park area that can be used by audiences during intermissions. When complete, the Orpheum Performing Arts Center will host a year-round performing arts series in the arts center with more than 30 performances each year, film screenings, and special theatrical events. The Center is scheduled to open in summer 2007.
With the opening of the Orpheum Performing Arts Center, the village of Tannersville will once again become the center of cultural life, this time year-round, for the Catskill High Peaks and surrounding areas.