A Catskill Catalog: October 17, 2012

The big house on the hill in Arkville is The Erpf House. The Catskill Center for Conservation & Development has transformed their headquarters building into a community-nexus of local and regional non-profit organizations: The Erpf Center. Since 1974, local and regional artists have exhibited in that Center’s art-space: The Erpf Gallery.

Up Dry Brook, the Erpf Maze graces the grounds of the 500-acre Erpf Estate. The 1,680 foot landscaped brick maze was designed by English sculptor Michael Ayrton, whose 1967 novel, The Maze Maker, was much talked about in New York’s art world.

Armand G. Erpf was very much part of that art world. He was a partner in Loeb, Rhodes & Company, a Wall Street banker, corporate guru, and patron of the arts. It is said Armand Erpf met Michael Ayrton at a cocktail party, listened to the sculptor talk about the maze as myth and art form, and said, “I want one.” Two years later, the Armand G. Erpf Maze was unveiled. “A symbol in a world that doesn’t know where it is going,” is how Mr. Erpf characterized his maze.

It should be noted that the maze is on private property, and permission must be granted to see it. I’ve only seen it once, years ago. In 2008, 26-year-old Lynne Jaeger died, falling in the dark from a railroad abutment, while exploring the maze at night, trespassing.

Armand Erpf was a very successful businessman who invested in the unexpected; an entrepreneur who envisioned the modern corporation as it has, since, evolved; an intellectual as interested in discussing international affairs, modern painting, and mythic literature, as he was discussing the modern corporation. And he loved Dry Brook.

His origins are hard to pin down. Born in 1897, he graduated from Columbia University in 1917. His great success came after World War II, when, as a senior partner at Loeb, Rhodes, he picked up the pieces of the failed DuMont Television Network to create Metromedia, one of the first corporations that linked TV to other kinds of advertising outlets: billboards.

When the mass-market Collier’s Magazine failed, in 1956, Erpf bought the company, turning Crowell-Collier Publishing into a powerhouse. His purchase of Brentano’s Bookstore in New York integrated the retail and publishing sides of the book business.

New York Magazine gained a little local notoriety with its August 4, 2003 front-cover proclamation that the Catskills are the new Hamptons. Who knew that Catskills resident Armand Erpf had arranged the financing that allowed the defunct New York Herald-Tribune’s literary supplement to go it alone, in 1968, as New York?

Armand Erpf’s philanthropy was felt here in our community. His generosity built Sacred Heart Church in Margaretville. Mr. Erpf’s mother, Cornelia, lived full-time in the Dry Brook house, and was a regular communicant at the old Catholic Church, next to the firehouse in Arkville, now the Maple House apartment building.

Not only did Armand Erpf’s money fund the building, but also his taste in modern architecture certainly influenced the soaring A-frame design of stone, glass, and wood. He provided a further endowment with the gift of a Georgia O’Keefe painting, a blue and beige oil of a large cross, topped by a rooster. That modernist painting hung over the alter for three or four decades, before its sale brought in funds used for the construction of a Parish Center. So, years after his death, Mr. Erpf ended up helping to build the Very Reverend Robert Purcell Center.

In 1971, Armand Erpf died of a heart attack in Manhattan, at 73 years old. A long-time single divorcee, Mr. Erpf had, several years earlier, married Sue Stuart Mortimore, a New York and Rome-based artist. Together they had two children, Cornelia and Armand Bartholomew Erpf.

The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development has been working for four decades to benefit the Catskill Region. Armand Erpf was one of the Center’s founding incorporators. His generosity provided the Center a building, a building renovated and brought back to life, even after its donor’s death.

I was there when the Erpf Center opened, in 1974, with gallery exhibits and community activities. Upstairs, one room was devoted to the display of an extensive collection of woodworking tools. Those tools belonged to Seager Fairbairn, a native Catskill Mountaineer who worked, for a number of years, as the Erpf Estate caretaker.

I was young and impressionable then, and what impressed me, even more than the cool old tools, were the stories people told of the friendship that grew between Armand Erpf, international magnate and advisor to Cabinet Secretaries, and Seager Fairbairn, an intelligent and resourceful guy from the valley. It is said that when Mr. Erpf came to the Catskills he sought out Seager, respected his intelligence, enjoyed his company.
I liked those stories then. I like them now.
billbirns@gmail.com