As president of the Friends of Grant Cottage, the non-profit group that has operated the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage State Historic Site on Mount McGregor near Wilton for three decades, Tim Welch imagines the day when the razor-wire-topped fence of the former prison is gone and visitors can again walk to the summit of Mount McGregor where Victorian-era guests of the Hotel Balmoral once roamed.
After an exhilarating ride up the mountain railroad, 19th century visitors would disembark at a rail platform near the current Grant Cottage Visitors Center, then go up the hill under a rustic covered walkway to the luxurious 100-room Balmoral on the summit. Along the way, they would pass close by the two-story cottage where Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885 after completing his two-volume memoir of the Civil War.
The security fence was installed in the early 1980s as the state converted a former tuberculosis sanatorium from the early 20th century into the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility. The new prison needed a recreation area for inmates, so the flat five acres on McGregor's summit that inspired William Arkell and Joseph Drexel to build the Hotel Balmoral 100 years before was turned into a softball field, with an outdoor recreation and basketball court created nearby.
"The fence sliced Grant Cottage's story in two and made the Balmoral half inaccessible," says Welch. "With the closing of the prison, we have an opportunity to reconnect these historic properties, undertake archaeological work, and tell the entire remarkable story of Mount McGregor, the Hotel Balmoral, and Grant Cottage."
The Friends of Grant Cottage currently are focused on multiple infrastructure projects that Welch considers to be essential. Among them are the installation of both a fire-suppression system to prevent Grant Cottage from going the way of the Hotel Balmoral, which burned to the ground in 1897, and a solar array that will enable the Cottage to become energy-independent.
Also, there is a need for more parking and event space that will only become more critical when Grant Cottage is designated a National Historic Landmark, a milestone that's expected soon. The best way to address both parking and event space, says Welch, is to remove the fence and open the entire historic summit to the public. With that achieved, Welch would favor building a parking lot on the site of the old basketball court, putting cars out of sight from the Cottage. On the softball field above, Welch envisions a 200-seat open-air pavilion with a handicap accessible northern outlook offering spectacular views of the Hudson Valley and the mountains beyond.
"Imagine the programs and concerts we could host there," Welch says.
For this expansion of parking and the Mount McGregor Pavilion to become a reality, the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency tasked with selling the former prison property, would have to rewrite the request for proposals it has produced in its search for a buyer. The parcel could then be transferred to the Parks agency, securing it for public use. This would reduce the number of acres being offered for sale from 325 to 320.
Can this be done? It's worth asking. Toward that end, the SMARTACUS Creative Group is planning a public discussion at Caffe Lena in October, Visioning Grant Cottage and Mount McGregor. Look for details at SMARTACUS.com.