A Catskill Catalog: June 20, 2012

Oscar Wilde once stayed in Phoenicia. Figured a few folks would like to know that.

It was the summer of 1883, when Oscar Wilde came here. The celebrated 27-year-old poet and playwright was on his second trip to America, and second trip to the Catskills. The year before, the Dublin-born, London-based, spokesman for the Aesthete Movement had delivered a lecture on the Decorative Arts at the Hotel Katterskill, up on the Pine Orchard, above Haines Falls.

“Life had to be lived intensely, with an ideal of beauty,” was the core ideal of Aestheticism, an artistic and literary movement, mostly of the young, that valued beauty of form and manner – “art for art’s sake” – and rejected any idea of social, political, or moral utility for art and literature.

The aesthetes were the rebellious young of their day. Intense commitment to beauty was expressed, yes, in finely-crafted poems, insightful plays, and witty lyrics, but also in luxurious clothes, sensuous interior design, and beautiful dishes. “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china,” Oscar Wilde was frequently quoted as saying.

Wilde, early, became a major celebrity throughout the English-speaking world, celebrated for his caustic wit, charming manner, witty conversation, and utter disregard of the norms of a Victorian gentleman.

His stay at the Tremper House in Phoenicia was a coup for Hudson River steamboat owner and hotelier Jacob Tremper, who had opened the Tremper House five years earlier. The building of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad opened up the Esopus Valley to the resort business, a business that had once been exclusive to the Pine Orchard, the Mountaintop above Haines Falls, where the Catskill Mountain House was newly challenged by the Hotel Katterskill, built around the same time as Phoenicia’s Tremper House.

The Tremper House was a gamble because it was situated at the base of Sheridan Mountain, rather than on its summit. This was a break with mountain-resort tradition, a tradition, then, only 60 years in the making. Ripe time to try something new, Jacob Tremper must have figured.
See, the cool thing about Catskill Mountain resort history is that it all goes back to one place: the Catskill Mountain House.

The Catskill Mountain House was built in 1824 on the precipice of the Catskill escarpment, on a cliff 2,000 feet about Palenville, overlooking the Hudson Valley. Renovations in the 1840s added a long open portico, facing the view, framed by 13 two-story Corinthian columns, open to the valley below. The Mountain House defined the mountain resort: high elevation, big view, long porch, elegant architectural details.

So when George Harding built the 600-room Hotel Kaaterskill to compete with the Catskill Mountain House, he followed that formula, putting his hotel up on the top of South Mountain. The story went around that Mr. Harding built his challenge to the Mountain House over a dispute in the dining room.
George Harding was a wealthy Philadelphia patent attorney fortunate enough to have represented Samuel F. B. Morse in securing the patent for the telegraph. (Wonder if he got a share of the profits?) The Harding family vacationed yearly at the Catskill Mountain House, so Mr. Harding thought reasonable his daughter’s request for fried chicken rather than the prime rib the dining room featured. “If you don’t like what we offer, why don’t you build your own hotel?” the owner of the Mountain House supposedly told him. So, Harding did.

I think the coming of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad had more to do with George Harding’s investment in hotel building, than did the “Fried Chicken War” of local legend. The U & D built a branch through Stony Clove, connecting the main line at Phoenicia through Chichester and Tannersville to the Pine Orchard. The railroad would deliver vacationers to the Hotel Katterskill through the back door. The hotel’s long veranda, however, would still face the view.

Getting Oscar Wilde to the Hotel Katterskill in 1882 was a big deal. A hotel is only as stylish and fashionable as is its clientele. Oscar Wilde’s lecture would draw a younger, hipper crowd, lend the place an air of refinement, give the new hotel a shot of the current, make it modern.
At least that’s what George Harding hoped.

Jacob Tremper was looking for the same thing when the fabulous Oscar Wilde visited his Phoenicia hotel those late-summer days of 1883. It was the height of the season, and the celebrated Anglo-Irish writer’s mere presence at the Tremper House meant fashion, style, and taste had come to the new resort along the railroad, so much easier to reach than the Pine Orchard, with an elegant veranda and a gentle walk to the village.

By all reports, Oscar Wilde enjoyed his time in Phoenicia. After a couple of days, he took the train through Stoney Clove to the Catskill Mountain House. There, a young, stage-struck couple, teen-aged children of Mountain House regulars, suggested an amateur theatrical, a light musical they would write, a pair of 16-year-olds, if Mr. Wilde would help. Help he did, turning the Mountain House summer theatrical of 1883 into a “sparkling” entertainment – a gilded age Glee - remembered for decades.
billbirns@gmail.com