A campus grows at Ashokan! An educational retreat “Village” & Conference Center, blending environment, sustainable living, history, culture & arts.
One of the new buildings at the Ashokan campus. (photo by Dion Ogust)
Quietly rising in the Catskill’s over the past months and with hopes of enriching the entire region, the new campus being built at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge, funded in part by a payment from the NYC Department of Environmental Protection is nearing completion. The project was formulated because New York City wanted to use the former Ashokan Field Campus, the Ashokan Center in recent years, for new water releases designed to relieve flooding pressure on the lower Esopus.
Officials at the new campus are currently hoping to open for use come this autumn, with the final landscaping and interior touches of its completion expected to take place over the coming summer. Dismantling of the old campus by New York City is expected to occur in 2014, with full restoration landscape plantings currently being planned.
The entire project’s $7.25 million price tag, noted the Ashokan Center’s Executive Director Wayne Turner, includes not only the City’s initial payment and accompanying funds and technical aid provided by the Open Space Institute, but $250,000 in grant funds from the Catskill Watershed Corporation, $750,000 in private monies raised by the Center’s overseeing Ashokan Foundation in recent years, and $1.5 million in CWC loans that Turner is planning to repay, at low interest, via then many bookings for educational retreats already rolling in, or being promised, for the new facilities.
“I like to say that this is not a transition, but a transformation we’re undertaking,” Turner said on a recent sunny summer afternoon as he hosted several interested parties wanting to set up programming at the revitalized Ashokan campus. “And it’s all the result of a great combination of fortuitous events.”
As he spoke, the sounds of active camper enthusiasm rose up from the old creekside Ashokan Center campus, still running full throttle up until the new mix of bunkhouses, teachers quarters, performance hall, laboratory, classrooms and dining facilities gets the fall grand opening, if all goes well.
Work crews bringing architect Matt Bialecki’s eco-visionary designs to life scampered about, busily painting interiors on some of the new structures, and closing in electrical grids and radiant heating features on others.
“We’ve got the Wayfinder Experience here for two weeks. We just finished one of Jay and Molly’s Fiddle and Drum camps and have a guitar camp coming in later this month. Everything’s back to back,” Turner continued. “Onteora’s been doing its team building exercises for their new school configuration here, and are planning to bring all the Bennett kids here for overnights.”
Five years ago, the state decided to sell its field campus to Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, noted folk musicians who had been renting the facility for their music and dance camps over the decades. Ungar and Mason formed the Ashokan Foundation to focus their vision for the site, aided from the beginning by the city’s relocation payment deal involving its own water release plans for the property, to become all about “shared experiences in nature, history, farming and the arts,” as their mission statement puts it.
In an increasingly virtual world, Ashokan Center is a place where visitors can truly experience nature, history and the arts. Many school and retreat groups have also found Ashokan to be a place that fosters community.
As you enter Ashokan and pass through the forest down successive levels of terrain, it feels as though you’re going back in time and are leaving the hustle and bustle of the modern world behind. You soon arrive at “the village,” a cluster of 18th and 19th century craft shops: the blacksmith shop, the print shop, the candle shop, the tin and broom shops, and a meeting hall/classroom with a colonial kitchen in back.
Climb the sheep meadow and you can look down on the farmhouse and farmyard where you can visit the animals and walk through the fields. Or continue down the inner road to the athletic field and outdoor pavilion where you may be greeted by delightful aromas wafting up from the kitchen as the dinner bell beckons you on to the camp buildings nestled below along the stream.
Ashokan has been a pioneer in the world of outdoor and environmental education and living history since 1967. We’ve also hosted a wide range of cultural retreats since the early 1980s. While we continue these programs, we seek to increase our focus on sustainable living, community and the arts.
The Ashokan Center’s new education director, Kerissa Fuccillo — who led the tour of the new buildings after Turner left to entertain other visitors — noted how she was hired out of her University of Oregon PhD program in botany and ecology to help guide the transformed campus into a new life as the one place to go to learn about watershed issues — as well as the rich interaction between history and emerging sustainable cultures that are shaping the region’s, nation’s and globe’s future.
“I came out here for a fiddle and dance weekend and fell in love with then place,” said the energetic and enthusiastic Queens native who never thought she’d return East from Oregon until she voluntarily wrote an action plan for the new campus’ educational future…and then got recruited for her present position. “It matches my own combined interests in science, education and music perfectly.”
All the new buildings have barn-like elements that hide sustainability functions, from ventilation to radiant heating and walls that work with the hillside site’s natural slopes. There are plenty of big porches for music-making and pathway connections between dorms and dining hall, performance center and classrooms. Most of the board and batten lumber was milled from New York City properties around the Catskills; giant tree trunks, some with branches, grace the interiors of the larger rooms — using the trees replaced by the new structures.
At the center of everything is a large structure with a pass-through like some vernacular structure from the 1830s, when the former Winchell’s farm (later a mill and inn) first hit its prime (after being founded a whole century earlier).
Fuccillo pointed out how she’s happy to have the time, as a trained Botanist, to figure out the native plantings that will be used to bring the construction site back into balance with all that surrounds it over the coming years. And to be able to watch this new campus come into its own.
“This is what I’m happiest about,” she later noted, from a large room that will be a state-of-the-art classroom and wet lab. “We plan to do a lot of innovative work here over time.”
In addition to serving as a long-held base of operations for such entities as Jay & Molly’s camps, Wayfinders and the Northeast Blacksmiths Association, the new campus is already seeing the benefits of New York State and Northeast schools ramping up their budgets for field trip getaways, including overnights, where environmental sustainability and other new ecological lessons can be both planned out as curricula and taught effectively, in such a perfect setting.
“We’ll have 25,000 square feet,” he said of the project that finally broke ground a little over a year ago. “But it’s not all about the facilities, this transformation. We have a lot of new staff and we’re launching some innovative new educational programs…I’m so proud of all that’s going on here at Ashokan now. Given the times, it’s really something to have such progress underway.”
He thanked Jay & Molly for their vision, inspiration, and continued enthusiastic leadership in all Ashokan Center activities…“from the flexibility of the designs they wanted from Matt Bialecki to the mix of elements that make this place special.”
As for a final opening…Turner only said there would be some major public events come Fall.
The Ashokan Center, formerly the Ashokan Field Campus, is an outdoor / environmental education center and retreat/conference facility, located in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, ten miles west of Kingston, in upstate New York. The Center consists of 372 secluded acres adjacent to the Ashokan Reservoir and wilderness areas of the Catskill Forest Preserve.
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