New building is a natural fit at Arboretum

Originally published April 21,2016 by the Windham Journal

By Michael Ryan Columbia-Greene Media

TANNERSVILLE — Some unusual Hudson River crossings and a return to the past have resulted in an old-fashioned barn-raising at the Mountaintop Arboretum in the village of Tannersville.

The twin-county project has spanned three seasons, starting in the autumn of 2015 when Kaspar Meier, the creative force behind May Hill Timber Frames, came to the woods in Catskill’s high country.

Meier had been summoned from his shop in North Hillsdale, Columbia County by Arboretum executive director Joan Kutcher who was looking to combine functional necessity with architectural uniqueness

“We needed to replace the old barn and decided we wanted to do something both utilitarian and beautiful,” Kutcher says.

“The original Arboretum purpose was studying the adaptation of native species. This shows another aspect of what trees can do,” Kutcher says.

Something ordinary could have been done and nobody would have been the wiser since the barn is located in an inconspicuous spot.

And almost no one visits the sanctuary, with its Bird Cove, Rain Gardens, Spiral Labyrinth and Dwarf Conifers, to look at a building.

Until now, that is, after Meier and his May Hill crewmen brought their sharp chisels and thick mallets to the site earlier this spring, expecting to be wrapping up finishing touches in late April.

Neither typical 2 feet-by-4-feet nor standard 16 penny nails were used, relying instead on bygone-era mortise and tenon construction.

Sturdy beams were joined with the “commander,” a special Thor-like wooden hammer, and the rest was literally putting their backs into it.

Meier started his timber-frame business twelve years ago, spending part of his youth in Switzerland where he unexpectedly discovered what would become a lifelong love for working with hand tools.

It would have been more than enough if May Hill merely structurally time-traveled, but Meier takes his commitment even deeper.

 He picked out the trees on Arboretum lands that were cut down and transported to his mill and shop across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.

A pair of hearty woodsmen, Josh Woolheater and Randy Ostrander, and a team of muscular Belgians did the hard part, dragging out the pine, larch, cherry and hemlock trees that would become the new barn.

The milled sections were fitted in his shop then hauled back across the Hudson River where crewmen and the commander did the rest.

“There’s a pretty simple reason for me doing it this way,” Meier says. “It gives me a relationship with each piece of wood.

“It ties me to the tree which is connected to nature, connecting me to everything. We can do and have done jobs with axes. It’s primitive but very effective. I can’t imagine doing it any other way,” Meier says.

Kutcher is in full agreement. “It’s gorgeous,” she says, having been a consistent observer of the workmanship, bringing in the Dakoit film company from Brooklyn to document the process.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. Regular construction hides everything behind Sheetrock. The timber framing stays visible. You can see the wonderfulness of the wood. I love it,” Kutcher says.

The Mountaintop Arboretum was founded by Dr. and Mrs. E. H. Ahrens, evolving from a research center on the hardiness of trees growing in rugged, elevated terrain into an internationally known nature sanctuary.

There are seven acres of plantings spread throughout the West Meadow, East Meadow and the Woodland Walk which windingly leads to a pristine, 159-acre wild forest and wetlands called Black Spruce Glen.

Seventy species of winged creatures, including bluebirds, indigo buntings and tree swallows (in the summer) and chickadees, nut hatches, crows, hawks and owls (year-round) find peace and quiet among 50 species of conifers, flowering crab apples and fantail pussy willows.

“We are loved by bees and we love our bees too,” Kutcher says, inviting any and all to attend the upcoming Memorial Day “Garden Fair.”

A network of trails linked to the nearby Deer Mountain Inn entice visitors to take a 15-minute stroll, a half-hour walk or a three-hour hike.

Plans are in motion to add a four-seasons educational center in the near future. “We’re excited about expanding our programming,” Kutcher says, noting the grounds have gained notoriety as a birding hot spot.

The gates are never locked at the Arboretum, a living museum of woods and trees, two miles up Route 23C, turning right at the traffic light (coming from the valley) in the center of Tannersville.

“This is great for the whole community,” Kutcher said, thanking donors for their continuing support. Telephone 518-589-3903 for information.