Hotel Kaaterskill, Hunter, New York (2)

The western side of the Hotel Kaaterskill, around 1890-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

The first photo shows the side and back portions of the Hotel Kaaterskill, a 1,200-room resort hotel that was constructed here atop South Mountain in 1881. Built as a rival to the nearby Catskill Mountain House, the Kaaterskill was a popular summer destination during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, guests could enjoy the cool, clean mountain air, while also taking in the expansive views of the Catskills and the Hudson River Valley. The operating season generally ran from the end of June until the beginning of September, and over the years the hotel hosted a number of prominent guests, including Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Chester A. Arthur.

The first photo was taken facing east. On the right side of the photo is the main portion of the hotel, which featured a large entrance portico and a piazza on the other side, along with towers on either end of the building. The interior of this section had reception rooms, parlors, a smoking room, and a barber shop on the first floor, and guest rooms on the upper floors. On the left side of the photo is a large wing that extended north from the front lobby area. The dining room was located on the first floor of this wing, with more guest rooms above it. There were several other wings on the opposite side of the dining room, which housed more guest rooms along with the kitchen, the boiler, and living quarters for the employees.

The hotel stood here until the evening of September 8, 1924, when it was destroyed in a fire. It started in the kitchen, and the flames soon spread throughout the large wood-frame building before firefighters were able to reach the mountaintop. The building was a total loss, and it was never rebuilt. Instead, the state eventually acquired the property, and it is now part of the Catskill Park. The 2021 photo shows the scene from approximately the same spot as the first photo, but there is little left to indicate that there was once the site of a massive Gilded Age resort. Only a low stone foundation remains of the hotel, along with scattered debris like rusted metal and broken glass and china. Otherwise, the forest is steadily reclaiming the mountaintop, hiding the scenic views that had once drawn thousands of visitors here every year.

Hotel Kaaterskill Front Lawn, Hunter, New York

The front lawn of the Hotel Kaaterskill, around 1900-1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

These two photos show a view similar to the one in an earlier post, looking east along the front façade of the Hotel Kaaterskill. The hotel was built in 1881, and it was designed by Stephen Decatur Button, a prominent Philadelphia architect. His design for the building featured a large portico above the main entrance, supported by four-story-high columns. Flanking the portico was a long piazza that ran along the width of the building, and at each corner was a five-story tower, one of which can be seen in the distant center of the first photo. Further in the distance is the Annex, a separate building that was constructed to provide additional guest rooms, and on the right side of the photo is the main driveway to the hotel.

The Hotel Kaaterskill stood here until September 8, 1924, when it was destroyed in a massive fire that had started in the kitchen and quickly spread to the rest of the wood-frame building. It was never rebuilt, and nearly a century later there is little visual evidence that the hotel was ever here, aside from a low stone foundation and scattered debris. The forest has steadily reclaimed the area here atop South Mountain, and the site is now owned by the state of New York as part of the Catskill Park.

Hotel Kaaterskill Lobby, Hunter, New York

The lobby of the Hotel Kaaterskill, around 1900-1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

The first photo shows the lobby of the Hotel Kaaterskill, which was built in 1881 as a resort hotel atop South Mountain in the Catskills. Said to have been the largest mountaintop hotel in the world, the Kaaterskill was a popular destination during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and during this time it had a number of prominent guests, including Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Chester A. Arthur. The hotel stood here for over 40 years, before it was destroyed by a fire in 1924.

This photo was taken from just inside the front entrance, facing northwest. On either side of the lobby are stairs leading to the upper floors, and between these staircases is the door to the dining room. To the right is the eastern wing of the building, which had a reception room, parlors, a smoking room, and a barber shop on the first floor. In the center of the scene is a counter that appears to have sold souvenirs and possibly food. The exposure time was probably a few seconds long, as indicated by the moving rocking chair on the left side and the blurred figures on the far right.

The hotel was never rebuilt after the fire, and today the forest is steadily reclaiming the site of the hotel. There is very little left of the massive building, aside from the stone foundations and scattered debris like rusted metal and shards of broken glass and chinaware. The 2021 photo was particularly difficult to line up with the old one, since there are no surviving features from the first photo. However, it was taken from approximately the same spot as the first photo, and facing the same direction, as indicated by the hotel’s floor plans and the remnants of the foundation.

Hotel Kaaterskill Piazza, Hunter, New York

The view looking east along the piazza of the Hotel Kaaterskill, around 1900-1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

As explained in the previous post, the Hotel Kaaterskill was built in 1881 as a mountaintop resort here on South Mountain in the Catskills. This area had been a popular summer destination throughout most of the 19th century, but in 1881 George Harding, a wealthy Philadelphia patent attorney, built the Hotel Kaaterskill as a competitor to the far more established Catskill Mountain House nearby. It cost around $1 million to build, and with 1,200 rooms it was said to have been the largest mountaintop hotel in the world.

On the exterior, perhaps the hotel’s most distinctive feature was its large front piazza, as shown here in the first photo. The piazza ran the entire width of the front façade, and its columns rose three stories in height. From here, guests could sit in the rocking chairs and enjoy expansive views to the south and east. Among these was President Chester A. Arthur, who spent a week at the Hotel Kaaterskill in August 1884. As part of his daily routine, the president typically spent his evenings here on the piazza, sitting in one of the chairs and smoking cigars. One news article, published in the August 7, 1884 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote about how Arthur had spent the previous evening here with one of his political allies, General George H. Sharpe:

The remaining portion of two fragrant Havanas were tossed carelessly away at half-past one this morning by President Arthur and General George H. Sharpe, who had until then occupied chairs on the hotel veranda talking love and taking intense interest in astronomical problems and the workings of heavenly things in general. Both then sought their apartments after bidding an affectionate “good night.”

George Harding continued to own the Hotel Kaaterskill until his death in 1902, around the time that the first photo was taken. It was still a popular resort at this point, as shown by the many people here on the piazza and on the front lawn, but the heyday of grand Gilded Age resorts was nearing its end. The million-dollar hotel came to be seen by many as a white elephant, and by the 1920s it was in poor condition and outdated, lacking modern conveniences like electricity and running water.

The Kaaterskill was ultimately sold in 1922 for just $100,000. The new owner, Harry Tannenbaum, soon set about modernizing the hotel, with the goal of catering to the growing number of Jewish tourists to the Catskills. His renovations were completed in time for the 1922 season, but this revival proved short-lived. On September 8, 1924, a week after the hotel closed for the season, a fire started in the kitchen, where a group of employees was making soap. It soon spread throughout the rest of the wood-frame building, which burned throughout the night and illuminated the sky for miles around. The hotel was a total loss, and it was never rebuilt.

Today, some 120 years after the first photo was taken, there is very little in this scene to indicate that a massive hotel once stood here. The most visible remnant here is the stone foundation, which reveals the footprint of the building. A portion of the foundation is visible in the lower left corner, near what had once been the southwestern corner of the hotel. Otherwise, all that is left of the hotel is scattered debris like rusted metal and fragments of broken glass and chinaware. Over the years, this site has been steadily reclaimed by the forest, and the land is now owned by the state as part of the Catskill Park. The nearby Catskill Mountain House is likewise long gone, and today the only overnight accommodations here in the vicinity of these two 19th century resort hotels are campsites at the North-South Lake Campground.

Hotel Kaaterskill, Hunter, New York

The front entrance of the Hotel Kaaterskill on South Mountain, around 1900-1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

The second half of the 19th century was the heyday of mountaintop hotels in the northeastern United States. The Romanticism movement, particularly the paintings of artists like Thomas Cole, had helped to generate interest in the region’s various mountain ranges, which had previously been viewed merely as unimprovable land or as hostile wilderness. At first, these hotels were generally located in accessible and relatively low-elevation mountains, including here in the Catskills and on Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. However, by the post-Civil War era, they could be found on many of the higher mountains, including New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeast. The quality of these hotels also varied significantly, from small, spartan bunkhouses to grand Gilded Age resorts.

Here in the Catskills, there were several establishments that would have fit in the latter category, but by far the largest of these was the Hotel Kaaterskill, shown here in the first photo around the turn of the 20th century. Opened in 1881, the Kaaterskill was not one of the early mountaintop hotels, nor was it at a particularly high elevation at 2,500 feet. However, it was certainly one of the grandest, and with 1,200 guest rooms it is said to have been the largest mountaintop hotel, not just in the northeast but in the entire world, in addition to supposedly being the largest wood-frame hotel of any kind in the world.

Despite its size and opulence, perhaps the most famous attribute of the Hotel Kaaterskill is the story surrounding its construction. The exact details tend to be muddled in the different versions of this oft-repeated story, but it centers on George Harding, a wealthy Philadelphia parent lawyer who was vacationing at the Catskill Mountain House during the summer of 1880. His daughter (or by some accounts, his wife) was in poor health and had dietary restrictions, so at one meal (some say breakfast, others say dinner) he asked for broiled chicken (or chicken broth, or fried chicken) for her. The kitchen refused to accommodate the request since it was not on the menu, and Harding subsequently had an argument with the hotel owner, Charles Beach, who suggested something to the effect that, if he wanted chicken so badly, he could build his own hotel and serve chicken there.

Regardless of the exact details of this confrontation, the result was that Harding almost immediately set out to build a hotel that would rival the Mountain House in every way. By September he had selected the site here on South Mountain, and workers broke ground for the new building. He employed some 700 workers throughout the winter, not only building the hotel but also laying out a road up the steep Catskill Escarpment, connecting the village of Palenville to the hotel. The hotel was designed by prominent Philadelphia architect Stephen Decatur Button, and it was four stories in height, with a long piazza here on the southeast side. As shown in the first photo, the front entrance featured a massive portico, and the hotel also had towers on the corners of the main façade. It would take several years to complete the hotel, but it was finished enough that Harding was able to open about 600 guest rooms in time for the 1881 summer season.

Building this hotel, especially in such a short time, required a vast amount of money. Contemporary newspapers had differing estimates but it appears to have cost around $1 million, or nearly $30 million today. However, this was no issue for Harding, who had earned a considerable fortune as one of the nation’s leading patent attorneys of his era. Among his early clients was Samuel F. B. Morse, whom he successfully represented in a patent infringement case. Then, in the late 1850s he worked on a case alongside future Attorney General and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, defending against a lawsuit from mechanical reaper inventor Cyrus McCormick. This powerful legal team was also joined by a relatively obscure Illinois attorney named Abraham Lincoln, who acted as local counsel on the case. However Harding and Stanton both looked down upon the provincial Lincoln, and he played little role in the trial, leaving him somewhat embittered by the experience, although Lincoln would ultimately appoint Stanton as his Secretary of War.

Aside from this experience with Lincoln, George Harding had many other political connections, and the Hotel Kaaterskill saw a number of prominent guests, including at least two presidents. Ulysses S. Grant visited the hotel during the summer of 1883, and he was planning on making another visit in August 1885, despite his declining health. However, he died of throat cancer at a cottage in the Adirondacks on July 23, a little over a week before he was supposed to arrive here at the Hotel Kaaterskill.

The other president who visited the hotel during this period was Chester A. Arthur. For a week in August 1884, it became the summer White House, with the president spending a vacation here accompanied by his daughter Nellie, his niece and de facto First Lady Mary McIlroy, and political ally General George H. Sharpe. The president and Harding took daily drives together, and Harding showed him many of the area’s scenic views and other points of interest. He also held a banquet for Arthur, which Harding and his family attended along with a variety of other distinguished guests, including Chief Justice Morrison Waite of the United States Supreme Court. Over the course of the week, other prominent visitors came here to meet with Arthur, including Secretary of State Frederick T. Frelinghuysen and former Supreme Court Justice William Strong.

In 1886, the New York Times published a lengthy article on the Hotel Kaaterskill, which included the following description:

The Hotel Kaaterskill is a city in itself. It has a fine broad front with a tower on each side, and an ample veranda with tall columns running clear to the roof. Two years ago the hotel was found to be too small, and an addition was put up a little to the north of the main building. This is as big as an ordinary hotel. The house as it now stands will accommodate about 1,200 people. This seems to be an exceedingly large number, but in August last year there were nearly 1,100 persons in the house for two weeks. They were not crowded, however, for the hotel has 648 sleeping rooms, and every one of them is surprisingly large and deliciously airy. No hotel can offer more cool, comfortable, and roomy sleeping apartments than this one, and they are furnished excellently. Mountain climbing is apt to tire people, but if they cannot rest on the beds of the Hotel Kaaterskill they cannot rest anywhere in this world. The mattresses are so soft and elastic that people are tempted to lie down during the day just for the sake of the comfort offered by the beds.

In a wing of the house running back there are a large number of unusually well appointed rooms, which are rented to families that come up for the season. There are people who have occupied the same rooms in this part of the house for five consecutive years. The corridors that lead to the rooms are remarkably wide and commodious all through the house. They run all the way around the building on every floor and act as conduits for the cool mountain air, keeping the sleeping apartments at a delightful temperature. The dining room is on the ground floor, immediately behind the office. It is a large and handsome room and has seated 712 people. It will accommodate as the tables are now arranged, with plenty of space to spare, 650 persons. . . .

The servants of the house have their own kitchen and their own dining rooms. Each department of servants has a separate dining room. There are five of these in all. By keeping the different departments separate the excellent system of the house is preserved. The servants’ apartments are near their dining rooms. There is also a separate eating apartment for nurses and children, and a very pretty and well attended place it is. There is a good billiard room in the hotel. There are also four bowling alleys and a bar. The house has its own theater, too; that is, it has what is called the Opera Hall, where concerts and entertainments are given, and where church services are held on Sunday. The hotel has also its own printing office, which looks not unlike the home of some promising country paper. Here the menus and such other printing as the hotel requires are prepared.

The Hotel Kaaterskill remained a popular destination over the next few decades, and Harding owned the hotel until his death in 1902. Harding continued to develop the property over the years, and by the mid-1890s the grounds around the hotel featured a variety of recreational facilities, including a gymnasium, a golf course, tennis courts, and baseball and cricket fields. In addition, the hotel hosted events such as concerts and balls that drew hundreds of attendees to the mountaintop. As was the case for the other major Catskill resorts, the operating season was relatively short, usually running from the end of June until the beginning of September. Room rates during the 1890s started at $21 per week, equivalent to about $700 today, and the hotel also offered special weekend packages that included round trip rail fare from New York City and a three-night stay at the Kaaterskill for $15.

The first photo was taken around the turn of the 20th century. The hotel was still drawing plenty of visitors by this point, but its demographics were starting to change. Around this time, the Catskills were starting to become popular among Jewish residents of New York City. The region had long been the domain of affluent Protestants, but by the turn of the century there were several Jewish-owned hotels in what would come to be known as the “Borscht Belt.” The more established hotels like the Mountain House and the Kaaterskill also saw a number of Jewish guests, a change that is evident in guest lists that were published in newspapers of the period. In the 1880s and 1890s, these lists were primarily comprised of Anglo-Saxon surnames, but by 1910 the vast majority of the guests here had Jewish names.

In 1922, the Hotel Kaaterskill came under Jewish ownership when Harry Tannenbaum of Lakewood, New Jersey purchased the property. It sold for $100,000, a mere fraction of what George Harding had spent to construct it some 40 years earlier, but by this point the Kaaterskill was showing its age. At the time of the purchase, Tannenbaum estimated that it would cost an additional $200,000 to renovate the hotel, which would include modern amenities such as electricity and running water. He worked on these improvements throughout the spring of 1922, and in the fall the journal New York Hotel Review published an article about the Kaaterskill, which included a description of the extensive work that occurred here:

Tons of paint were carted atop the Kaaterskill peak. Equally as much glass soon followed. An army of mechanics: painters, plumbers, glaziers, electricians and linemen, swarmed the old hotel buildings and grounds from early in April until late in May. Marvelous transformation! Electric lights, telephones, hot and cold running water, modern baths, newly carpeted halls, modern, sanitary bedding, furniture and interior room decorations, began to appear where none existed before in the old, cob-webbed corridors and rooms. A magnificent lobby, with broad, inviting stair cases, a beautiful ladies’ parlor, lounge rooms, card rooms, bowling alleys, moving picture hall, and a grand ball-room, capable of accommodating comfortably over 800 persons, and one of the finest, most brilliantly appointed dining-rooms, seating 1,000 diners, presented an aggregation of comforts of which few hotels in the northern part of the state could boast.

The newly-renovated hotel opened for business on Memorial Day weekend, and the article indicated that Tannenbaum’s first season was a success, despite unfavorable weather throughout much of the summer. The future seemed promising for the Kaaterskill, and it opened again during the summers of 1923 and 1924. As it turned out, however, 1924 would prove to be its final season. The hotel closed after Labor Day weekend, but many of the employees were still here a week later, including some who were making soap in the kitchen on the evening of September 8.

During this soap-making process, a fire broke out, and it soon spread from the kitchen to the rest of the hotel. The building’s wood-frame construction, combined with its isolated mountaintop location, allowed the fire to spread throughout the hotel, and by the time firefighters arrived there was little that they could do. The fire burned throughout the night, where it could reportedly be seen from as far away as Massachusetts, and by the next morning there was nothing left but smoldering ruins.

The fire caused an estimated $250,000 in damage, only half of which was insured. The hotel was never rebuilt, in part because by this point the era of grand mountaintop hotels had passed. With widespread car ownership, tourists were no longer limited to places that were accessible by rail, and vacation trends shifted away from the once-popular Gilded Age resorts. The Great Depression, which started only a few years after the Kaaterskill burned, did not help matters, and most of the mountaintop hotels in the northeast had closed by the start of World War II. Among these was the Kaaterskill’s former rival, the Catskill Mountain House, which experienced a steady decline before closing for the last time in 1941. It was likewise destroyed by a fire, in 1963, although this was deliberately started by the state in order to dispose of the badly-deteriorated structure.

Today, the former Hotel Kaaterskill property is now owned by the state of New York as part of the Catskill Park. This site here has been largely undisturbed since the fire, although as the second photo shows there is surprisingly little left from what had once been the world’s largest mountain hotel. The row of stones near the foreground appears to mark the site of the retaining wall from the first photo, and further in the distance is the foundation of the hotel itself, which is mostly hidden from this angle. When seen in person, the foundation gives some indication of the size of the building’s footprint, but it is otherwise unimpressive, looking more like a typical stone wall than the ruins of a grand hotel. Within and around the foundation, there is an assortment of rusted metal and shards of broken glass and pottery, but otherwise there are few visible remnants of the massive building that stood here in the first photo.