Closed since 2010, visitors to Skinner State Park, Hadley, glad to see iconic Summit House open again

Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2014
HADLEY — The sun shone on Mount Holyoke Saturday morning as dozens of hiking groups young and old made their way through A.J. Skinner State Park to the newly refurbished Summit House, open to visitors for the second week in a row since its closing in 2010.

“Though last Saturday was a little slow, on Sunday, the number of visitors doubled from 300 to 700,” said veteran Jim Terruso, a park interpreter and tour guide. “It was an excellent opening weekend and today, we’re expecting to hit around a thousand.”

Deemed unsafe and sealed off from the public four years ago after a state inspection found structural deficiencies in the building’s porch, the Mount Holyoke Summit House gleamed Saturday in its fresh white paint, new handicapped-accessible ramp and the iconic wraparound porch giving visitors a stunning view of the Connecticut River Valley.

“(An) absolutely beautiful view,” said Mark Verville of Agawam, as he took in the sights with his wife, Lisa. “We were on a bike ride today and figured we would come up here. We usually bike in Southwick but we thought we’d try the Northampton trail and it’s been beautiful.”

Dating back to 1821, when it served as a refreshment cabin for visitors to the summit, the historic site overlooks the Valley from its 935-foot perch atop Mount Holyoke, catching the eye of passers-by like Tom and Carla McLaren of Sturbridge.

Unfortunately, when the couple first visited, the Summit House was in the middle of its delayed renovation.

“When we first discovered the (Summit House), we went to find the access roads and hiked up to see it only to find the building blocked off due to the deck’s state of disrepair,” Tom McLaren said, after speaking with the Summit House tour guides.

“Now that it’s open, it’s fabulous. We brought food for the picnic area and on a clear day like this, you can see the Westover air base, Northampton and Hartford.”

Inside, the couple, joined by other visitors, saw displays of plates, postcards and pianos dating back to Mount Holyoke’s golden age as a hotel in the late 19th century, though they were limited to the first floor .

The second floor is only accessible during guided, scheduled tours at 1, 3 and 5 p.m.

“Oh, I’d like to head upstairs, but you know, they just opened it for the first time last weekend, so bit by bit, I’d imagine they’d increase the access,” McLaren said.

“Last weekend’s tours were full in the afternoon,” said park interpreter Matthew Fidanzato, while giving one of the day’s three upstairs tours. “The deck was packed and Sunday’s crowd was so big, we couldn’t take all of them up due to the fire code. At most we could only let in a maximum of 50 people.”

“After an inspection, it was deemed that everybody needs to be able to get up the stairs, otherwise it isn’t possible,” Terruso said. “So as of now, we’ve received a temporary permit and with it, we’re only allowed to go upstairs on tours.”

Having worked for state parks for 19 years, including the Mount Tom Reservation and the Notch Visitor Center among other places, Terruso considers the Summit House’s reopening “a huge relief” after years of dealing with construction and delays.

“With the house being closed for four years, it was trying at times since we wanted it open as much as anybody and now, it takes a whole lot of pressure off our backs.”

Donated to the commonwealth by businessman Joseph Allan Skinner following the Great Hurricane of 1938, the Summit House has remained a staple of the Mount Holyoke Range. It receives support from the public, including conservation groups like the Friends of the Mt. Holyoke Range, that has helped keep the facility active with tours and concerts.

However, when state officials found the porch to be structurally deficient and unsafe in the spring of 2010, the facility closed as steps were taken to update and repair the structure with plans to reopen in 2012.

What followed was a series of bid errors and construction delays, including the redesigning of a concrete retaining wall as well as the removal of a glass-infused wood used in the early renovations known by the trade name Timbersil.

Due to the wood’s inability to retain paint, the project faced further delays. Two wood science specialists were hired who confirmed the flaw.

That was preceded by communication delays state officials said they encountered trying to reach Timbersil’s manufacturer, Timber Treatment Technologies in Greenville, South Carolina.

Now complete and handicapped-accessible for the first time in its history, the Mount Holyoke Summit House stands open for visitors on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 6:30 p.m.

The house will also be open on Labor Day weekend through Columbus Day from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with tours at 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m.