an introduction to mohonk
an introduction to mohonk to the uninitiated
We approach the Shawangunk Ridge from the Wallkill Valley with its own deep, fertile history still evident in the land. Whether the journey is via the melodious jostling of a horse-drawn carriage in a latter day, or shifting a Mini Coop through modern roadways rising to greet you in tight, winding curves, the initial cues you receive suggest little more than the pending advantage of a greater vantage.
Despite the relativity of time and route, approaching the Ridge offers at first what appears to be a pleasant version of the already expected— the impressive ridge line begins, in its turn, to perform its already anticipated function of elevation, providing opportunity for vision to turn-round on its path of arrival, transforming the recent journey into the spectacle of a scene.
Still unaware, you have been lulled by stretches of patchwork farmland, meadows, and open spaces laid out before you to behold the scenic— and behold you do, for although your gaze is well nourished, it remains fully capable of handling the vision spread out for cheerful digestion. But even though you have been adequately primed for the scenic by your approach to the Shawangunk Ridge, the appetizer has deceived you into a false sense of aesthetic. You anticipate the picturesque and the romanticized. You are a newcomer to the region and know not what’s in store.
“The traveller who journeys to Mohonk for the first time comes suddenly upon a region, for which, usually, he is quite unprepared. With all his roaming through many lands and with all his memories of mountain slopes and lakes, he is not ready for that remarkable combination that presents itself along the crest of the Shawangunk range.”
Albert Smiley, Cofounder, Mohonk Mountain House
It was still on their faces even after their arrival. It was in their whole manner of being. For a century and a half it’s been the same pattern: first-timers display nervous energy from a vision overwhelmed. At Mohonk, the simple and reflexive act of seeing has suddenly become inadequate— it no longer silently presents, but attempts, rather, to grasp. Vision has no other recourse than to recruit the body first, and the mind soon after, for assistance. Furtive movements follow. Scurrying seems the only means available for the body to discharge its overly excited senses.
They were struck first with an abrupt otherness— a presence bold and handsome in its immediacy— yet beckoning, somehow, with the familiar and the inviting in the very same urgency. It is by no means a self-evident or casual nature that is immediately presented at Lake Mohonk. It is a striking and rousing presence— one that invites movement and the promise of an unfolding experience. The impersonal, yet somehow intimate strangeness of the introduction is stirring, amassing the abandoned remains of discovery— awakening once again that simple, yet in-articulate recognition of nature as the primary stratum of our being.
Only meters above Lake Mohonk, a mahogany-stained reception hall gathers newly arrived guests in a parlor that floats a wide set of verandas, terraced balconies, and open porches overlooking the lake. Demonstrating a successful act of arbitration between internal and external grandeur, the angular Parlor Wing announces the more dignified Victorian and Edwardian vesting that the great house ostensibly wears, but its role is to artfully shed those heavy refinements at the opportune moment so as to directly feel the cliff-captured breezes that silently sweep through forests and caverns to caress the enchanting body of the lake.
The act is dignified by hand-hewn decking supporting chestnut paneled walls, with red-birch and oak notes gracefully reaching high-minded millwork upon timbered ceilings. Ornamental balustrades take over the formal introduction, greeting conglomerate stone arches of even greater nobility. The arches channel a unique blend of herbaceous scents from Mohonk’s expansive gardens into a native composition of pine and hemlock, and a generally coniferous air. The potent mix of embellished culture and bold nature courses through the rising senses, entreating each to remain alert to the coming discourse, as the environment continues to press in. The immediate surrounding is at first read to be equally noble, and bearing a similar timeless stature to that which the mountain house presents upon greeting— its own stasis bequeathed from the land itself. Despite the formality of the introduction, the environment still appears to be utterly unmoved by human affairs. The open parlor provides the first nudge into this strange landscape. Under the guise of a sought vantage to receive the great house in its entirety, guests are prodded to seek the appropriate distance in the immediate environment. But distance is not idly granted. Proximity to the lake forces select avenues for the revelation, but these, in turn, offer only new invitations that unveil their vision slowly—and only with movement. With each step away, the house grows in stature and grace.
In its first set of disclosures, Mohonk Mountain House rises out of the fractured topography with a bearing so fantastic that it seems to have originated only in the imagination. Before the grand vision is gathered in its entirety, the lake’s depths divulge their mystery through mirrored images of stately white bedrock, spreading, stacking, and then hovering freely above the waters, leading the eye round its own gemlike presence to return again and anchor the fantasy into the heavy mass of an historical era. No longer merely a suggestion, the perception is complete when imagination withdraws and the actual is stabilized in the presence of the lake and its landscape. The great house becomes a grand bearing addressing itself directly to the seer— like that of an imposing personality donned in the heavy nobility of the past. Reminiscent of a continental chalet, much of the mountain house is red capped and gloriously appareled for an ornamental occasion— knowing full well that all eyes are upon it. Above its stout shoulders it adorns an eclectic diversity of angular, pinnacled, and conically swept dimensions, each crowning a multiplex of aspiring structures rising from massive walls of bedrock that still bespeak, through hidden corridors enclosed with secret sanctity, the slow momentum of geologic evolution. Its handsome reach along the bluffs approaches nearly an eighth of a mile, spreading into a singular glorious span. All along its accomplished facade it presents every noteworthy transition with clarity, each with a servile staff of out-thrusting balconies poised to personally receive the sun’s morning light reflected softly off the sky lake and filtered by the broad gardens, or later again from the opposite side, to feel the glowing embers of a sacrificial sun extinguishing itself in the rolling Catskill Mountains. Despite its duel-facing compass, the past and the present remain the principal terrain that the great house navigates. Projecting a diversity of eras in its angles, Mohonk never fully situates in the lost presence of a singular past. Its span is living time— presence organically flowering from a past still present. The environment to which it is coupled, like that of the past, is not disclosed except by the present, by presence, never fully completed, invoking afresh the ever-renewed and simple invitation to see. It is that invitation, prolonged and sustained, which lies at the heart of Mohonk’s capacity for an aesthetic experience. The aesthetic rises from a deeper source than the merely scenic— from the secret magic of perception itself— lingering in its normally reflexive process, and living the latent sentience that is already manifest through its mute act, prior to its rapid maturation into that second order manifestation of the I and its incessant need for a narrative.
The house’s main axis is anchored by a heavy stone section that rises seven stories— most of them in collaboration with earlier wood sections that rise directly upon the broad conglomerate cliffs above the lake. A wonderland of sky mountain dwellings is thus mirrored upon the lake surface— with shimmering aquatic versions often the more enticing of the pair. Here, the secret has been abruptly disclosed, for the source of the grand structure’s impressive arising is revealed to be the mysterious lake itself. The lake’s surface has transformed the exposed conglomerate into the meeting place between reflection and reality; into a massive-walled gateway between our own solid firmament— indeed, its first grounding— and the unknown depths of the not-yet-manifest caught in the act of throwing forth its burgeoning forms. Around much of the lake, rock strata firmly cradle cold, impersonal waters— waters still addressed to the retreating glaciers that had come to polish the very basin that had received their freshness so long ago. The genius of Mohonk’s evolution is that it has always lent itself to the characteristic style of the environment. In return, the environment lends its disjointed contours and firm logic to the slow moving glacial-like development of the building’s formal movement through our senses. By virtue of this integration, we become increasingly aware that it is not the impressive complex of structures that call our body to the task of movement and discovery; it is, in fact, the bold and handsome environment for which the house is but a feature.
Lake Mohonk situates in a natural ravine between a triad of exposed cliffs. On the eastern side of the lake, opposing the ridge that anchors the mountain house, the abruptly rising Sky Top escarpment bears the most immediate presence with its iconic Sky Top stone observation tower gesturing upward to pinnacle the already exposed and dramatic outcrop of the mountain, granting it the formal status of a modern-day monolith, and providing the chief counterbalance to the great house on the opposite cliff below.
The tower suggests itself as an obvious first destination for many newcomers. After ascending the rugged escarpment and finally, the narrow stone steps to its apex, the effort is richly rewarded with the fullness of a round horizon. And yet, contrary to our expectations, visual satisfaction is not fully consummated, even here at the summit. Even though Sky Top pulls the distant horizon directly into the single occupancy dwelling that is reserved for every viewer at the top, it cannot gather the local environment with the same singular embrace. In the end, the vantage functions to further entice the call for movement and discovery. To the south and downstream of the mountain house, Eagle Cliff offers the third pole to anchor our expanded space, presenting views of Mohonk appearing perched atop an immense stone foundation that extends directly over the body of the lake. From there, Mohonk Castle seems to be directly carved from a great pillar of stone— its foundation sliding huge horizontal fractures over the lake in a perennial act of possession. The attentive fortress remains ever vigilant to Sky Top and all that lies beyond. In return, Sky Top rises strong and bison-humped to shoulder our vision back into the sloping ravine with the mysterious lake that spills out from the bottom of the fortress. Strong masses thus hold the lake at the center of a wide earthen bowl, but it continues to spill out directly below us, backing us up even further. Eagle Cliff hasn’t the room, however, so we are still obliged to remain within the space of the great fortress in the distance. Once again, the environment eludes a single over arching vantage— holding close the bounty of its beauty until movement can unfurl a portion of the perspectives that it piles up into a compressed region. Mohonk as a singular vision thereby never fully achieves the self-evident status of an object to behold— and that is precisely its fundamental magic.
We began our movement with a disjointed walk along the lake, heeding the rising pull of Sky Top. Immediately outside the Parlor Wing, the terrain unfolds a maze of lyrical labyrinths amidst the white conglomerate walls that begin at the lake’s edge and end at the foot of the tower. Many routes offer personal gazebos amidst the exposed rock bluffs. Dwarf pitch pines are naturally pruned with bonsai refinement to project a Japanese sensibility to an otherwise Occidental terrain. These hardy species have claimed their own modest territory directly from the broken bedrock. Large fissures and faults are spanned with well-crafted walk bridges— their cavernous depths cooling air in the same space that offers hidden stairwells to adventure seekers below. Giant quartz blocks glow with self-luminance so as to display lichen-speckled graffiti upon their surface, providing additional advertisement to an already vibrant city. Mountain laurels add to the fortunate arrangement with their own waxy displays. Boldness and subtlety combine artfully as the terrain continues to proclaim: “come hither, tread on me, I will show you more”. Our bodies have already deciphered the language, and with eagerness our soles oblige. Dwelling-sized boulders assemble and dismantle their mass according to our unfolding movements— their arrangement disclosing additional secret passages through gaping chasms that we seem to have willed into existence. All of this is centered around the mysterious depths of the dark green lake that asked for our movement. We answer— thereby raising movement to agency.
Granted eyes that now touch, our bodies have discovered that sensation was never a multitude of fleeting vantages bound together so as to bear witness from afar. There existed, instead, a sustained and potent invitation for movement, for manifestation— a distal calling made intimate and personal through our own active participation. The landscape was disclosed in that dialogue. We have discovered that this strange, yet intimate environment proclaims its bearing as an imperative— the mandate to extend our being outward into its boldness, and thereby make of the experience a personal space, i.e., a natural environment. And after we have done so, our scurrying settles into the same strange, yet intimate calmness that the environment bears in its mode as object, as other, as that quintessential imperviousness to all of our conceptual affairs. And strangely, we too find refuge in that same unmoved stratum; only now it is no longer inhuman, no longer without coupling to our own silent sentience— for although its language is prior to the mind’s ever-bubbling chatter, it remains the party doing all the expressing.
It is as if this dynamic environment has granted itself an ever-unfolding source of secret spaces, both internally and externally occupied. And of course we know that it has: us.
C.H.Carver from Philosopher's Stone
slideshow Below of select mohonk interior and surround
(note: not all images same quality as getty images
The links below access the online adapted version of the book and do not correspond to the order published in the physical booklet. Only a few master copies of the book remain (published 2018), so this set constitutes the original impetus of the work in a different order. In the physical book, the essay "Intimate Otherness
" (below) introduced the Gunks through Mohonk Mountain House, the historical introductory anchor to the region. Don't forget to check out related Gunks landscapes (on istockphoto
by Getty Images).
a phenomenological essay series