Knapp’s Folly: Sullivan County’s Columbia Hotel


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ColumbiaAerial1940Many of the participants at the 14th Annual Catskills Preservation and History Conference at the Liberty Museum & Arts Center in Liberty, NY last month were quite surprised to see and hear about the magnitude of Sullivan County’s resort industry during its heyday.

The opening presentation featured an in depth retrospective of the Delano Hotel in Monticello by Marvin Rappaport, grandson of the founder.

Author and editor Barry Lewis followed with a hilarious glimpse into the life of a waiter at the Shady Nook Hotel in Loch Sheldrake, and retired professor Irwin Richman continued the trend with a nostalgic look at Woodbourne’s Hotel Levbourne, which later was later known as the Aladdin.
There followed brief looks at other small hotels, including the Woodlawn Villa in Kauneonga Lake and the Prospect Inn in Parksville, but it was the history of Hurelyville’s Columbia Farm Hotel that elicited audible gasps of surprise, perhaps because only a few in attendance ever knew that the Columbia was the oldest continuously operating hotel in the county when it closed down in 1969, just a few years after it had celebrated – with great fanfare – its Diamond Jubilee.

Locals called it “Knapp’s Folly” when the Columbia was founded by John Harms Knapp and his second wife, Mary C. Brophy Knapp in 1891. Mrs. Knapp had an extensive hotel background, her family having operated the Mountain View House (also occasionally known as Brophy’s Mad House) in Hurleyville. That resort, particularly popular with vacationing New York City policemen, burned in 1910.

The Columbia Farm, as it was originally known, was constructed strategically on the summit, with 250 feet of verandas providing an incredible panorama for guests. The hill was nearly barren of trees in those days, but Knapp planted a number of maples around the property to enhance the natural beauty. Like so many of the early Sullivan County hotels, the Columbia included a working farm, which housed a dairy complete with Guernsey cows. Guests were treated to milk, butter, eggs, poultry, maple sugar, and vegetables, all grown or produced on the premises. The hotel operation was small at first, but grew steadily. By 1898, the Columbia was able to accommodate 150 guests. Many of the guests at that time would check in for six or eight weeks at a time, and often brought their own staff of maids and governesses with them.

“Wide piazzas and balconies surround the main building,” a 1905 brochure announced. “It is modern in style, comfortably furnished, and replete with every convenience calculated to enhance the comfort and pleasure of our guests.

“The public rooms are commodious, the sleeping apartments large, light, and well furnished. Connecting rooms and rooms en suite with private bath and toilet are also available. The building is heated with steam and lighted with gas. Hot and cold water, baths and lavatories and toilet rooms are on every floor. We have the best sanitary plumbing. Both water and ice are obtained from one of the largest and best springs in the country.”

John Harms Knapp suffered a stroke, and died in 1912, and his wife took over until her own passing in 1936. At that time, their son, Benjamin G. Knapp assumed control. The hotel he inherited included a swimming pool, erected in 1923 – the first pool in the county completely independent of any direct water supply – and a nine-hole golf course, opened in 1932.

Ben Knapp almost immediately began a major expansion, which included the construction of 12 additional rooms, all with private baths, and a large dance pavilion. Within a few years, he had added 12 more rooms with private baths, and eventually constructed a new lobby, dining room, night club, and a second golf course.

By the time Ben Knapp died in 1960, the hotel had added an additional thirty rooms. In 1963, the Columbia, then run by Ben’s three sons, John J., Ben II, and William, joined the growing trend in the county to stay open all year around, and added another building with 25 rooms, and a ski hill.

When the hotel celebrated its 75th anniversary in the summer of 1966 with a number of special events, there were big plans for the future.

That year, the hotel’s weekly rates ranged from $87 to $126 for a full American plan. The Columbia could accommodate about 330 guests, and featured an Olympic sized swimming pool, two golf courses, and tennis courts. The brothers who ran the facility promised to continue the traditional homey atmosphere of the hotel.

“We plan to make it a quaint old-fashioned looking resort with every modern facility,” they told a local newspaper. There were plans for an indoor pool, additional suites, a new night club, and more public space for conventions and meetings, but every attempt would be made, they noted, to avoid turning the place into “one of those modernistic, glass and steel structures which eliminate the personal touch so much a tradition of their 75- year old hotel.”

But unbeknownst to the Knapps, as well as most of the other hotel owners in the county, the Golden Age had ended, and the resort industry was entering hard times. By 1969, the Columbia had closed, and filed for bankruptcy protection. In September of 1970, Ray Parker, president of the Concord Hotel, purchased the hotel for $111,000.

The Columbia was destroyed in a massive fire on Christmas Eve, 1971.

Photo: An aerial view of the Columbia Hotel, circa 1940. It was the oldest continuously operating hotel in the county when it closed in 1969, just three years after celebrating its Diamond Jubilee.

8 thoughts on “Knapp’s Folly: Sullivan County’s Columbia Hotel

  1. Janine Byers

    Loved the article about my family’s resort. One small error exists, though. Ben II was a child who died as a young boy. They named another son Ben III who should be the one recognized as one of the brothers who ran the resort. Thanks for the nice article!

    Reply
  2. Larry Howe

    Fascinating to find this history. I was a waiter in the Columbia Hotel, “the only Catholic hotel in the Catskills” the summer of 1963, recruited with others from Yale University. I sang in the bar, tutored by the staff pianist, and occasionally tried the nine hole course, which was below the hotel.
    Larry Howe

    Reply
  3. Bob moore

    Great read, we spent our honeymoon in the Columbia before I left for Vietnam. We had a very special stay and enjoyed the old bar and tha piano player. We were there during a blizzard January 30, 1966. Our 50th is this month and it was fun to look back and find this article. Thank you Bob and Peggy Moore

    Reply
  4. Dan Ashley

    My parents, who lived in Quenns, stayed at the Columbia every summer in the mid to late fifties. I was in college at Fordham and would occasionally join them on a weekend. The golf “pro” was a school teacher named Bob Barna who also worked as M.C. in the bar at night running a “name that tune” contest or amateur night. I won a bottle of Champagne for a rendition of “Danny Boy”. One weekend I fell in love with a Columbia waitress from Scranton named Jeannie. If I went up with a friend we would run over to the Laurels where there were a lot more girls and none named Kathleen or Bridget.
    My parents always preferred the annex which I think was called the Fairview. I played in a couple of guest vs. staff softball games. My recollection ifs that the field was in front of the Fairview.
    Thank you for your article, it brought back wonderful memories.

    Reply
  5. Jason Taylor

    Great story. I have inside information on the Columbia from a good friend and direct decendant of the family who owned and operated the precigiuos hotel.

    Reply

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