Croton Gorgeous – The Ottinger Cottage

IMG_0861Perhaps you’ve seen this sign? It’s just off the Croton Aqueduct and you’ll pass it if you walk up from the parking lot in Croton Gorge Park.

It came to my attention when I saw the following email on a neighborhood Google group:

Can anyone tell me what that house off of the aqueduct trail is? Does someone live there full time? How do they get there if the dam is closed! Do they have an actual address? They have a sign up that says @Crotongorgeous. I walk past it with my dogs all the time.  Thanks!

WHAT house, I thought?  I run here at least once a week and had no idea what this was about.  So I went off to do a little exploring.  And yes, I’d passed it many times but had somehow completely ignored it.  It’s about a mile south of the Dam and down a little ways off the Aqueduct, but you will see it if you’re looking for it.  From the Aqueduct, it looks like a snug little stone cottage (which is exactly what it is.)  But who lived here?  Who LIVES here?

Well, arguably, its most famous inhabitant was a man named Egon Ottinger, who lived here up until 1992.  According to a delightful article published that year in the New York Times, Egon lived here right until he passed away at the age of 93, still splitting his own wood, patching his own clothes and wearing his late wife’s glasses because his broke.  (Reading between the delightful lines, one might assume he was a bit of a hoarder too.)  Even more interesting is the fact that Egon left a $20 million dollar estate, earned from a career working in the shipping insurance business and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos.  A frugal, simple man, he left the bulk of his estate to the Inwood Canoe Club, the YMCA, Teatown and other wholesome, outdoorsy organizations. And oh, someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there might even be an Ottinger Wing at the Croton Library.

A neighbor who knew him told me the following:  “If you write this up, I think it’s important to add that he donated to colleges with work-study programs because he believed in the importance of work experience. He had not attended college, and I’m not sure how far his secondary education extended, but he rose to be the top executive of an insurance company.

One of my fondest memories of him was the contraption that he build to haul firewood up his steps. It was the bowl of a wheelbarrow bolted to his old wooden skis, and a rope to pull it up.

I would frequently catch him doing things he shouldn’t be doing, like standing high up on a ladder clipping the vines off his wall. When I, at least 30 years younger, offered to do it, he said to me,  “Oh no, it’s too dangerous.”  

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What an idyllic, otherworldly place to live, tucked just next to the Aqueduct and at the end of a gravel road up from Croton Gorge Park!  Apparently, the cottage was built about 1930 or so and the Ottinger’s purchased the property on May 1, 1946 for $26,500.  At least initially, the property was known as “The Hemlocks.”

And then there’s this stone tablet I photographed from a distance:

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Upon Egon’s passing, the property became part of Croton Gorge Park and is now occupied by a Park employee.

The world is a better place because of people like Ottinger!

4 thoughts on “Croton Gorgeous – The Ottinger Cottage

  1. The Ottinger Room at the Library isn’t named for Egon. Pretty sure it’s for a former congressman Richard Ottinger. Egon was great friends with both Ed Rondthaler and Theodore Cornu.

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  2. in 1984 a gnarled, barrel chested, bowlegged, bald headed, deep voiced, dwarf-like man visited my office for consideration of replacement of his incredibly worn knee. He was bright and spoke with great care and enunciation. A custom made prosthesis was essential, in those early years, and i drew it on graph paper held over his x-rays as he watched intently. I mailed the design to a manufacturer in Warsaw Indiana and waited for weeks and then months as the manufacturer dithered, occupied with more pressing, broader projects; he waited patiently as I seethed. I replaced Egon Ottinger’s knee with great success and the luck of a novice. We became fast friends and when his wife Lillian died shortly after she broke her hip, my wife and I “adopted” him for a few months, preparing storable meals of lasagna & eggplant “parm” to break the monotony of his principal diet of sardines and crackers.
    He was the son of a baker and slept on stacked flour sacks, attending Stuyvesant high school in 1910, after which he became a mail clerk for Frank B Hall, Maritime Insurance, where he worked himself up to president. He commuted daily to his romantic, impractical home, aforementioned and terraced the steep hillside down to the river using rocks of all sizes, some massive, to retain the steep embankments creating a cutback road, down to the Croton River. His parcel of land included a strip along Rt 129 and he devised a rope guided “ferry/canoe” of sorts to cross the river and get to his house at times when access through the gorge park was blocked by various catastrophes, including the cracking of the dam, in the early 1950s, by a storm surge that reached to just beneath the deck of the arch bridge, beyond the spillway.
    The house was rustically furnished, he wore overalls and flannel shirts, with rough stitched repairs, of the inevitable rips and tears sustained, as he tackled immense projects with his own serious equipment. I got him a grown male Airedale Terrier, Rastus, who had proven too aggressive for my surgeon friend’s family. Egon renamed the dog Lucky III, a true nominative determinant, and tore out the passenger seat of his old Jeep Wagon, substituting a plywood platform for his new canine companion.
    We grew quite close over the years before he died, and shared stories of our lives, ranging from my stormy ups and downs as a busy and temperamental surgeon, to Stavros Niarchos dragging Egon from work without any notice or spare clothes, to sail his yacht down to Bermuda for a week.
    He donated most generously to Phelps Hospital, at my urging, and his estate was much larger than you quote, distributed to innumerable charities, colleges, hospitals and most certainly the Croton library. He left an equal amount to distant relatives whom he neither ever mentioned in conversation nor whom I ever met. I was aware of his complex fortune as his only eating table was perpetually covered with reams of paperwork related to his complex investments, which he often cursed for their unfathomable convolution. On several occasions as he dwindled physically, I wrote medical notes to excuse him from having to go to White Plains to the IRS office, to settle disputes over long delayed submissions, forcing the agents to come to him. His road was often flooded and eroded to near impassability and he forever battled it with an immense Ford 500 tractor, under-slung with a huge hydraulic rake, which barely fit into his low garage and shed.
    I could go on and on; always enjoyed my career and the interesting people to which I became connected..

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