Rediscovering Beauty Amid Ruins of Once-Glorious Catskills
Photographer Marisa Scheinfeld pointed to a pile of rubble at what’s left of the famous Catskills resort hotel the Concord — once a glamorous beast of luxury with 1,200 rooms, three golf courses and a 3,000-seat dining room. “Over here was the outdoor pool, which was a tremendous, Olympic-sized swimming pool that I worked at when I was 15. The pool is now that pile of, whatever that is,” she said, gazing out at an enormous expanse of cable and cement. “You can see why it’s such an eyesore.”
Scheinfeld, 33, grew up in Kiamesha Lake, down the road from the Concord, and has spent the past three years photographing the remains of the region’s catastrophic decline. Since closing in 1998, the Concord has been demolished. And Grossinger’s — the legendary resort that once boasted an airport landing strip and attracted the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy and Jackie Robinson — has become a modern-day ruin.
It wasn’t always this way.
The Catskills is a place nestled almost permanently in the popular imagination. From the 1920s through the ’60s, hundreds of thousands of American Jews flocked to the great hotels, bungalow colonies and camps of the Borscht Belt, as the area in Sullivan and Ulster counties came to be known, trading the stifling heat and pressure of life in New York for the countryside. These were the days of Mel Brooks, the mambo and Simon Says, that quintessential Catskills pastime made famous by social directors who turned an ordinary children’s game into something extraordinary. The names of the hotels alone — the Concord, the Laurels, the Pines, Grossinger’s and Brown’s — were synonymous with natural beauty, American Jewish culture, upward mobility and an inexhaustible menu of activities.
“I just remember that it was very special,” said Philip Lerner, 56, a court officer in the Bronx whose mother and father met playing Simon Says at Grossinger’s and later honeymooned at the resort. “I felt a special connection to my parents… I carried on a tradition.”
In 1953, The New York Times reported that Sullivan County alone boasted 538 hotels, 1,000 boarding houses and 50,000 bungalows. Today, none remain, at least not in their original incarnations.
“We’ve been sitting shiva for the hotels for a long time,” said John Conway, 60, an adjunct professor at SUNY Sullivan who has worked as the Sullivan County historian for more than 20 years.
A conspiracy of forces helped initiate a dramatic shift in the Catskills: The experience that so many had come to love has vanished. In its place a starkly different Catskills has arisen — run down, economically depressed, caught in the past. How did this epic transformation occur? What’s been lost? And what will it take for the community to rise again?
On June 9, 1914, a raging fire engulfed the Hotel Wawonda in Liberty, N.Y., — a regal exercise in Victorian architecture, with its pitched roofs, gabled dormers and sweeping 650 feet of porch — turning one of the Catskills’ then-greatest vacation destinations into ashes. The dramatic destruction of the Wawonda marked a critical point in the region’s history, foreshadowing the decline of what historians call the Silver Age and setting the stage for the rise of the Borscht Belt.
Built in 1891, the Wawonda was the premier Catskills hotel during an early period of rapid growth and prosperity in which the picturesque setting brought the railways, the railways attracted the hotels and the hotels lured the tourists. In the decades following the Civil War, railroads stormed through upstate New York, making it easier than ever before for New Yorkers to escape the city. Hundreds of hotels popped up around railway stations, including the Flagler House, in Fallsburg, and Ye Lancashire Inn, in Liberty. These establishments were mostly owned and visited by gentiles and open only in the summers. Up until 1899, when Jewish resort owner John Gerson started advertising a small boardinghouse in Rock Hill, there was no mention whatsoever of Jewish hotels or tourists.
The tourism industry that boomed during the 1890s and 1910s began to falter, due in part to the area’s growing reputation as a tuberculosis refuge. Still, the raw materials were in place for what would soon become the Jewish Catskills. The very same year as the Wawonda’s sudden, violent collapse, a family struggling to make it on the Lower East Side of Manhattan bought a modest farm in the heart of the Catskill Mountains and hosted nine guests for $81. Their name was Grossinger.
Everyone seems to have a Catskills story. Do you? Send us your memories and photos at [email protected].
When Selig Grossinger left Austria in 1897 for New York City, he joined throngs of poor, struggling Jewish immigrants chasing better lives at the start of the 20th century. Selig worked as a coat presser on the Lower East Side. Life was hard, yet a decidedly Jewish culture was thriving. Anyone arriving in New York for the first time encountered not a foreign land but a familiar landscape, reassuring in its sights, sounds and smells. That world expanded upstate in the 1920s.
Like many families seeking new business prospects and an affordable refuge from the city’s harsh work environments and anti-Semitic climate, the Grossingers bought a small farmhouse called the Longbrook in Ferndale, in the heart of the Catskills, and started hosting visitors. Grossinger’s wife, Malke Grossinger, ran the kitchen, serving up delicious kosher meals, and his daughter, Jennie Grossinger, thrived as the hostess. By 1919, they had sold the Longbrook and bought a sizeable portion of the nearby Nichols Estate.
Jennie Grossinger’s business savvy and signature warmth made her the right hotelier at exactly the right moment. Under her watchful eye, Grossinger’s expanded dramatically. Tennis courts, a riding path, a children’s camp and daily activities were added in the 1920s.
During the 1920s and ’30s, small and medium-sized hotels prospered alongside goliaths like Grossinger’s and the Flagler. With a vibrant Jewish culture, a relaxed atmosphere and a celebrity clientele, the region offered a place for upwardly mobile American Jewish immigrants to be just that: American and Jewish.
“This was their mecca, their paradise,” Conway said.
In the summer of 1949, 19-year-old Ruth Scheinfeld was hitchhiking with a friend to the Stevensville Hotel, just north of Monticello. Suddenly, though not entirely unexpectedly (it was the late ’40s, after all, a different era — a safer era), a car of young guys stopped to pick them up. The two girls, both rail thin and wearing heels, got in. A year later, Ruth married one of those guys, and by 1956, she and Jack Scheinfeld had two children and were spending summers immersed in the Catskills experience. They are the grandparents of Marisa Scheinfeld.
Jack worked in Manhattan during the week (he owned a fabric store on the Lower East Side) and joined his family at the bungalow colonies on the weekends. He played poker. His wife liked the nightlife. The couple went to the Concord for Jewish holidays and watched beauty contests at the pool. (The 1999 movie “A Walk on the Moon,” about a young housewife who rediscovers herself during the summer of 1969 at a Catskills bungalow colony, captured this experience perfectly.)
During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the Catskills claimed its place as one of the most popular leisure retreats in America. The region’s hotel industry spent around $4.1 million each year in new construction and guests spent $55 million in a single summer, according to New York Times reports in 1955 and 1954 respectively. Historically, Jews had not attended Christian resorts, and vice versa. Only as Jews assimilated and those ethnic barriers began to break down did the heyday reach its peak. By the 1960s, non-Jewish guests made up one-quarter to one-third of Grossinger’s annual visitors.
During this period of rapid expansion, larger resorts, like Grossinger’s and the Concord, sprawled across hundreds of acres. Each summer they jockeyed for big-name entertainers like Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar and Red Buttons. Sports stars such as Jewish boxer Barney Ross and tennis pro Jack Kramer trained at the hotels, and future NBA stars such as Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Cousy played on the resorts’ basketball teams.
Under the large hotels’ shadow, smaller resorts and bungalow colonies thrived with family-sized staffs, a few buildings and a few acres of land. These modest retreats did not offer a full menu of entertainment, so their guests stimulated the local economies, visiting movie theaters, restaurants and shops.
Summering in the Catskills also presented an unrivaled social opportunity for throngs of young men and women: their sexual awakening.
“Every year, I had a new boyfriend,” recalled 59-year-old Jona Strauss, who works in fashion. Strauss grew up in Queens and started spending her summers in the Catskills in the 1950s. “Then you went home, and if you were a Queens girl and he was from Brooklyn, you were geographically undesirable,” she said.
Local kids caddied, worked in kitchens and served on wait staffs.
“I remember Monticello being just shoulder to shoulder with people on the streets into the wee hours,” said Conway, who spent his childhood working at his father’s gas station and romancing girls from the bungalows.
Phil Brown, 64, a professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern University, worked his way up, from busboy to waiter, at various Catskills hotels.
“As a young guy, it was very exciting to be there Friday nights,” he told the Forward. “Guests would check in, and you’d be waiting around for young girls to show up with their parents in the lobby, and meet them, and hope that they’d be interested in meeting you later and going to a show. It was like growing up quicker in an exciting, fast-paced way.”
Brown co-founded the Catskills Institute, which promotes research and education on Catskills history. “The whole culture of the hotels was very integrated. Black and white lived together and ate together in staff areas.”
The Catskills heyday also launched a generation of comedians into the big leagues.
“This was a stepping stone for any entertainer,” said Mal Z. Lawrence, who got his start on Catskills stages before graduating to the Copacabana, Las Vegas, Broadway and the movies (he played himself in “A Walk on the Moon”). “We had a place to express ourselves, make good money and become somebody in the business.”
In the final scene of the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing,” set in 1963 at a fictional resort in the Catskills, Max Kellerman, the resort owner, stands backstage during the end-of-summer show. Peering out at his guests — an audience of gray-haired couples, parents and semi-bored teenagers — he sighs wistfully: “It all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come with their parents to take foxtrot lessons? Trips to Europe! That’s what the kids want.”
When people talk about the beginning of the end of the Catskills, they often blame the three A’s: air conditioning, which cooled off hot New York summers; the airline industry, which made it easier to vacation abroad, and assimilation, which brought a new era of acceptance for Jews. Yet the story of the region’s decline is more complicated.
By the late 1960s, the biggest resorts, such as the Pines and Grossinger’s, had expanded so much that guests had no reason to leave — until it was time to go home. This success had a downside: Smaller hotels attempted to keep up by spending money they didn’t have. Many fell into disrepair and eventually shut down.
“The area died, and people didn’t want to come up here anymore,” Conway said.
The Catskills were also not immune to the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and ‘70s. Economic prosperity, the Cultural Revolution and the anti-war movement reduced the appeal of the area for a new generation of young adults that had other visions of vacation and family life. The ’70s and ’80s brought yoga retreats and ashrams as well as drug rehabilitation centers and health care facilities. Then the Orthodox Jews arrived, founding yeshivas and buying up inexpensive land. Today, tourists visit the Museum at Bethel Woods, which celebrates the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair, and New Yorkers who have been priced out of the Hamptons have discovered more affordable retreats.
Everyone seems to have a Catskills story. Do you? Send us your memories and photos at [email protected].
Still, the area that once housed America’s great vacation destination is struggling to find its new identity. “Jews made this area very unique. It was the Borscht Belt! The Catskills! The entertainers!” said Alan Barrish, who co-founded the Catskills Institute and worked as the director of the Monticello Public Library for 25 years. His father, Abe Barrish, was the longest-running maître d’ at Kutsher’s. “Now they have the Orthodox Jews…. They certainly support local businesses, but it’s a whole different feel and culture.”
On a Friday morning in August, I took the 8:00 a.m. New York City bus to Monticello, 100 miles north of Manhattan, past billboards for kosher food brands and Torah study groups; past rundown motels, gas stations and fast-food joints, and into the heart of what’s left of the Borscht Belt.
At the Monticello bus stop, I found Scheinfeld wearing loose, baggy clothes — perfect for a day of exploring the Grossinger’s ruins. It’s a far more dangerous pursuit than I had imagined. The original buildings, at least what’s left of them, are in such a state of disrepair — sunken floors, caving ceilings, broken glass, crumbling foundations — that it’s not particularly safe to enter. There are also squatters, vandals and scrappers who traipse through, unannounced.
The main entrance to the pool was boarded up, so we took an overgrown path toward a side door, passing a small, gutted brick building with pipes and wires dangling from the ceiling. Walking into the pool’s atrium was like entering a cathedral of decay. The first thing I noticed was the smell: moldy, damp, earthen. Then the sound: pure silence, aside from leaves rustling outside and a faint, steady drip of water from the roof. And then the sheer size: massive, with three walls of windows, an enormous lofted ceiling and a yawning patio with lush green ferns growing up through the red-and-white checkerboard-tiled floor. Windows are covered in spray paint. And there in the center is the drained swimming pool, an empty coffin lined with graffiti.
Scheinfeld knelt down on the slippery, mossy ground, clasped her medium-format camera and started clicking.
“As a kid, the hotels were like my playgrounds. They were devoid of the crowds that once existed, but I didn’t care,” she said. Working as a lifeguard at the Concord, she met her first boyfriend, played bingo and shuffleboard, and visited her grandfather in the card rooms. “While I only had a taste for it at the end, as a child… I was experiencing a bit of what it once was.”
For the past three years, Scheinfeld has been photographing the ruins of the Borscht Belt hotels and bungalow colonies, memorializing the region’s decline and revealing in fine detail the effects of time, nature and neglect.
“In another 20 years or 10 years, these hotels might not be here, so this project serves as a record…. It’s horrible that the hotels fell into the state that they’re in,” she said.
Scheinfeld plans to publish a book of her work, including 80 photos of hotel ruins (edited down from hundreds); more than a dozen re-photographic images (also called “now and then photography,” which involves selecting an old image and then taking the very same photo from the same vantage point today) and a collection of ephemera.
Today, a few large companies own what’s left of the fortress hotels. The Concord is owned by EPR Properties, formerly Entertainment Properties Trust, save for a couple hundred acres where the original main buildings sit. Those are owned by Cappelli Organization, a real estate development and construction company that also owns most of Grossinger’s, including the golf course. Recently, Cappelli proposed a hotel-casino-spa at Grossinger’s. Meanwhile, EPR has plans for a multi-hundred million dollar year-round resort.
These plans for expansion depend in part on casinos being approved in the election this November.
“It might be really great if the area sees gambling,” Scheinfeld said, “but I think it needs to go back to the basics and bring people here for what it was known for: nature, this respite for New Yorkers to get out of the stifling city and into the country.”
For those who, like Scheinfeld, are invested in the region’s future, sitting back as the community slides further into depressed economic times simply isn’t in the Catskills’ DNA.
“I think there will be a revival,” Scheinfeld said. “If you look at the industries that existed (lumber, tanning, tourism), each one failed, but something always sprung up in its place. The county has always prospered and faltered and renewed itself again and again.”
Abigail Jones is the senior editor and head of special projects at The Forward. She also edits its women’s blog, The Sisterhood. Find her on Twitter @abigaildj