THE MOHONK MOUNTAIN HOUSE MASTERPLAN, NEW PALTZ, NY 2005-2012

In the late 1980s, I was on a plane reading the airline magazine about an historic rustic retreat in upstate New York with an incredible setting as illustrated in the pictures in the article. I have a passion for visiting these historic resorts that couldn’t be built today for environmental reasons because I believe that often the combination of man and nature creates the most powerful places, like Fallingwater or Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. I put it on my mental list of places to go and then deplaned, leaving the magazine in the back seat pocket. A few years later my wife and I were planning a trip and I remembered the hotel and said we should put it on the list, but I couldn’t recall its name, only that it was in the Adirondacks, or so I thought. We planned a week-long circuit through the Adirondacks looking at and staying at Great Camps, and I assumed that if it was famous enough to make the airline magazine, we would find it on our travels. Frustrated that we didn’t find Mohonk during the trip, we did however discover an amazing world of rustic architecture in the Adirondacks, similarly irreplaceable for its location, craft, economics, and environment. The trip was far from a bust.

Alfred Smiley had no trouble finding it in 1869, when he came for a day hike up to Paltz Point, now known as Sky Top. There was a small tavern on the lake that he learned was for sale. He told his brother Albert, a Quaker school principal, about it, as he was looking for a site for a personal estate. Albert said that he was too busy to go see it and that if Alfred thought it was the right place, he should go ahead and buy it. They negotiated a price of $28,000 for 280 acres. Albert and his wife Eliza put $14,000 down and then had to pay off the rest, so they started a hotel which Alfred ran for the first ten years.

From the beginning their goal as Quakers was to get people out on the land for a contemplative natural experience, so they eliminated the indoor activities: alcohol, cards, and dancing that had been part of the original tavern. All the “fun stuff” as Tom Smiley, a fifth generation member of the Smiley family and the current Director of Properties, told me.

Then in the late 1990s, again on a plane reading the flight magazine, I came across the magical hotel once again—the Mohonk Mountain House (MMH) in New Paltz, New York. A 250 room castle in a 6500 acre setting that was just as stunning as I remembered, and this time I was taking the magazine with me. I still didn’t know where New Paltz was, but I was definitely going to find it this time. In 2000 with a three-year-old in tow, we ventured up the Hudson River for a week starting at the Mohonk Mountain House for a day visit, since it turned out to be beyond our young parent budget to stay there overnight. We had a delicious lunch and tour, hung out on the porch, and hiked up the Sky Top path and looked back at the hotel, a rambling composition of rustic Victoriana set at the edge of a lake, the mountain continuing to rise on the opposite side of the water, and off the other side, amazing sunsets looking over the Shawangunk Valley. It had everything you could wish for in a resort and I couldn’t imagine a better setting. There is an old joke in New England that the Pilgrims took all the good building sites, but the Quakers got this one.

View back to the hotel from the Sky Top trail.

In the early 1990s, Dan Wojcik, FASLA, a landscape architect and Michael Rudden, a higher education planner with Saratoga Associates, would begin working with Mohonk on master planning. Michael noted that “both universities and Mohonk believe in legacy and heritage and play a long game,” so many of the planning issues are similar. Michael Rudden had opened the Boston office of Saratoga Associates and rented office space from DiMella Shaffer. We occasionally pursued higher ed projects with Michael and one day in his office I saw a drawing of Mohonk on the wall and asked him about it. I relayed my story about how I discovered it and said that it was one of my dreams to work on such places of history and setting. Michael ultimately joined DiMella Shaffer in 2006 to head up our planning efforts, bringing an opportunity to work at Mohonk one step closer. Shortly after joining the firm, Michael led an effort to produce a Site Vocabulary Study for Mohonk in 2007 that identified ten precincts and the character of design elements in each precinct. This study established a vocabulary for all visible exterior ‘site elements’ like roads, paths, fences, and site furnishings. It further clarified approaches to accessibility on the property, acknowledging that heavily trafficked carriage roads and paths will provide an increased level of safety and accessibility, while areas further away from the House and other major destinations have increasingly more challenging trails that are clearly designated as such.

I wondered how a place like Mohonk, that changes so slowly, thought about master planning so I asked Tom Smiley how the process helped them preserve their legacy and remain relevant in today’s hospitality environment. I found his answer very interesting. “People have an expectation of their experience at Mohonk and we need to meet or exceed that expectation. Today they want Wi-Fi, but we still need to make sure they have hot water. We need to think about projects to do tomorrow – those that increase revenue, reduce expenses, improve the guest experience, or improve operations, and ask what is holding us back for the future.” He cited the example of corporate business clientele which is a smaller part of Mohonk’s revenue than at many other hotels. It could be increased, but that would require increased infrastructure, meeting space, and a philosophical decision on how more corporate business might alter the hotel’s character and guest experience.

Tom credited the 2006 master plan update, which studied the gate house and entry circulation, as a particularly good example of the value of planning. The traffic circulation was studied and multiple options for the building were sketched, operations were thought through, and then the recession hit and improvements were put on hold. In 2010, the gate house was unexpectedly destroyed and the earlier planning allowed Tom, who was not in his current position at the time of the study, to hit the ground running, confident that the relevant issues had been thoroughly vetted. He was able to have new plans to rebuild the gatehouse submitted for a building permit in only six weeks. This would not have been possible without the earlier conceptual thinking in the master plan.

Left: Gate House master plan study         Right: New Mountain Rest Gate House

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Evolutionary change also comes through planning. Tom mentioned that there had been no significant new construction projects in close proximity to the Mountain House since 1910, until the skating pavilion was built in 2001. First identified in the 1998 plan, the pavilion increased the available event space and revenue. Its rustic design fits seamlessly into the landscape and is consistent with the character of the hotel. As Mohonk remains today a family-run operation, the master plan process helps build consensus among members and ensures that they build the best project possible since they are their own toughest critics. Following on the success of the pavilion, the spa became the next major project to be completed in 2005 from the 2001 plan. Tom recalled a first time guest asking him when they finished the renovation, but the spa was 30,000 square feet of new construction. Tom was pleased that the guest’s response suggested planning and design success, reinforcing that taking the time to get things right is the way that works best for Mohonk.

Left: Planning sketch from 1998 master plan       Right:  Skating pavilion completed in 2001

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Michael describes the planning process as a 20+ year facilities master plan that has identified a variety of projects that will enhance operations and the guest experience. Among the projects are renovations to the existing hotel, enhancements to parking facilities, service facilities, guest amenities, and guest cottages. He credits the consistency of the leadership team at the hotel with contributing to the success of the master plan process. By re-evaluating the plan every 5-7 years they can take stock of successes and misses and adjust to market conditions. A flexible implementation plan allows the current generation of owners to confidently pursue short term priorities without compromising longer term opportunities.  Tom credits Michael’s ability to understand the economics of the business and to know when to push and when to ask another question to draw out important information. The planning process helps leadership stay focused on Mohonk’s unique brand. Tom also highlights the consistency of the consultant team including Michael Rudden of DiMella Shaffer, Andy Allison of AJA Architecture and Planning as architect, and the landscape architects at the LA Group. He notes that this group understands that this is a planning process that is less about turning ideas into projects and more about finding the right ideas with the right timing.

Tom’s biggest challenges today are dealing with 100 years of infrastructure in 400,000 square feet of building across 1,200 acres. He is in the process of computerizing the documentation of the systems and infrastructure. He is fortunate to have about 80% of the drawings from projects dating back to 1879. He noted that these include lots of drawings for things that were never built, confirming that the current approach of studying options carefully before proceeding is consistent with the historical approach to managing the property and is part of what makes it special.

Evolution of the buildings in the main hotel.

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The latest master plan effort in 2011 brought forward five major projects that addressed operational efficiency and the guest experience, and because of locations and logistics they were all interdependent. However, Tom noted that only one was revenue generating and four were not, resulting in a slate of projects that although needed, did not generate a payback. Further study of the new kitchen option (one of the five projects) indicated that lost business was equal to the construction cost. Additional study and involvement of the chef identified a few changes to the existing facilities and operational procedures that would get 90% of the benefits with much less operational downtime and a significantly smaller construction cost, proving once again that letting things incubate and working collaboratively results in the optimum solution.

Spa completed in 2005.

What we have learned from the Smiley family and their national historic landmark property is that such work requires planning and architecture without ego. Like the example of the spa and first time guest, if no one realizes that the team worked there, that is a key part of what defines success. Part of Mohonk’s magic is working with nature. It is the way stone is used to grow the building out of the ground and wood to weather and blend into the forest. It is the contrast of the manicured gardens with the forest. It is the skill of a carpenter with rustic materials used with minimal machining. It is our shelter in the wilderness, a warm hearth when it’s cold and a refreshing dip when it’s hot. Things only last for hundreds of years when they touch our core values and we can all be thankful that things change slowly at the Mohonk Mountain House.

Towards the end of our interview Tom told me that the brass room keys are finally giving way to electronic locks. With technology and efficiency accelerating off the mountain, Tom indicated the time had come to accept technology to meet current guest expectations. His team has spent two years of research to make sure they can deliver the Mohonk experience electronically. Through our association with this special place over the last decade, we can appreciate their effort to get a guest touch point right. It has been a gratifying experience for the firm to contribute in a small way through master planning to help insure the Mohonk Mountain House continues to be “the same, only better.”

All photos courtesy of the Mohonk Mountain House.