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A second helping of Borscht – The (crumbling) remains of America’s Jewish vacationland, Part 2

May 2019

Well, it’s official.  I’m hooked on the Borscht Belt, the colloquial name of the Catskills area of eastern New York State that was once populated with resorts and bungalow communities for Jewish clients from New York City. 

For those who don’t know the story, the Borscht Belt was a popular destination for family vacations in an era when Jewish people still faced discrimination elsewhere.  Cheap airfare, a decline in passenger rail service, more integration and a desire of the younger crowd to travel elsewhere are some of the factors that led to a decline in the popularity for the 500 hotel resorts and bungalow communities that once populated the area.

While some of the former hotels and bungalow communities were re-purposed into Othodox Jewish schools and Yoga resorts, most were either demolished, destroyed by fire or abandoned and left to crumble.

In May 2019, I made my third trip to the Borscht Belt to photograph some of the hotels I missed on my previous visits. I also re-visited some hotels to take more pictures, like Kutsher’s, the Nevele and Grossinger’s, and visited the graves of Jennie Grossinger and Helen & Milton Kutsher.

This time I purposely stopped at some of the resorts that are still in operation so I could photograph them and even stayed at one of them, unlike my last visit when I arrived at the front door of the Hudson Valley Resort & Spa only to find that it had closed three weeks earlier, with no one bothering to tell me. 

On this trip, I stayed at Honor’s Haven Resort & Spa, the former Fallsview Resort.  Although there weren’t a lot of guests staying there that weekend (I hope that’s not a bad sign), it was very clean and well maintained.  I would definitely stay at Honor’s Haven again on my next trip and I could definitely see the appeal of the Borscht Belt.  I could imagine being there back in the day.

The crumbling remains of the Nevele next door are still there and continue to deteriorate, despite a sign down the road advertising for the new Nevele Sports Resort & ProSport Campus coming in March 2020. Reportedly, there are plans to demolish the existing buildings, but there are no signs this will be done any time soon.

Note:  Trespassing is illegal and permission should be sought from the owner, if possible, before entering on to private property.

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Villa Roma Resort and Conference Center

Villa Roma Resort and Conference Center, located in Callicoon, NY, is one of the few resorts still in operation from the glory days of the Borscht Belt.  Opened in 1944 by Ernesto Vindigni, the resort catered primarily to an Italian clientele and thus was not kosher. 

Originally having 46 hotel rooms, 10 cottages, a pool and two bocce courts, the first major expansion occurred in 1973 when new owner Martin Passante, whom had bought the resort 3 years earlier, built the Club Forum and the Futura Wing, allowing Villa Roma to become a year-round resort.  An Indoor sports complex and ski hill followed in 1982 and 1983 respectively.  The resort also features family activities, nightlife, 5 swimming pools, go-karts, multiple sports facilities, horse-back trail rides, formal and casual dining as well as an 18-hole golf course, which opened in 1986. 

Today, Villa Roma offers 139 hotel rooms and 24 timeshares for guests to stay in, and is also popular with Jewish families who are able to choose from traditional Jewish food during the Passover holiday.

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Honor’s Haven Resort & Spa

Honor’s Haven dates back to 1906 when Charles Slutsky, owner and founder of The Nevele Hotel (eleven spelled backwards), divided up his property, giving the Nevele to his son Joseph, and building the Fallsview Hotel on the newly severed half.

The new resort grew to provide accommodations for 450 guests over the 300 acre property that included a lake, golf course, swimming pool, skating rink, dining rooms and other facilities drawing visitors on a year‐round basis.

The decline of the Borscht Belt hit the Nevele and Fallsview and by 1997, the Slutsky family sold both the Nevele and Fallsview to Mitchell Wolff and Joel Hoffman.

Despite their efforts, the Nevele Grande continued to suffer financially and by 2006, Wolfe and Hoffman sold off the Fallsview portion of the property and put all their efforts into the original Nevele.  The Fallsview was re-named the Honor’s Haven Resort & Spa.

While the Nevele ceased operations in 2009, the Fallsview continues to operate to this day as Honor’s Haven Resort & Spa.  

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Tamarack Lodge

Opened in 1903 as a modest six-room boarding house in Greenfield Park, the original boarding house morphed into the Tamarack Lodge that operated for the final half century of its existence. Owned until 1986 by the Levinson family, the hotel expanded to over 300 rooms with a variety of recreation activities from horseback riding and hiking to golf and rowing.

The “Playtorium,” would feature performances by entertainers such as Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye and Phil Rand and his Orchestra. 

By the 1960s, musical acts such as the Four Tops, Cream, the Who and Janis Joplin performed at the resort, which had grown into a stately Tudor-style complex.

In decline for years like the other Borscht Belt resorts, the beginning of the end came during Passover in 1995, when a fire destroyed 300 rooms at the hotel’s Hampshire building, putting out their 500 guests.  Although the owners tried to keep the resort afloat, it was a blow from which the Tamarack Lodge would not recover.

In 2000, the hotel was closed by the Ulster County Department of Health, citing numerous violations and forcing guests to find accommodations elsewhere.

The end of the Tamarack Lodge came on 7 April 2012, when a fire destroyed thirty buildings and leaving nothing but scant traces of the Tamarack’s glorious past.

The Yeshiva of Ocean Rabbinical College was established on the east side of the property in 2013 and remains in operation today. 

Greenfield Resorts LLC, who owned the neighbouring property that included a townhouse development, bought the 246 acre Tamarack property and proposed subdividing it into two parcels: one, measuring about 25 to 30 acres, would include additional facilities for the rabbinical college, with the townhomes used to house the students, which are now being constructed.

The remaining land would be targeted for development into a seasonal summer colony of townhomes.

Nothing remains of the old resort today.

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The Karmel Hotel

The Karmel Hotel in Loch Sheldrake was one of the smaller ones, once owned by the Kreutzer family.

The hotel closed in the early 1970s, but re-opened a few years later as the Stagedoor Manor, a popular dramatic arts summer camp. 

The Stagedoor Manor has trained countless young actors, many of whom have gone on to find success in movies, TV and theatre. Robert Downey, Jr., Bijou Phillips, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jon Cryer, Mary Stuart Masterson and Natalie Portman are notable alumni of the camp. 

The barn, the nightclub and the health club were all converted into performance venues.

The 2003 independent film, “Camp”, was filmed at the Stagedoor Manor by writer-director Todd Graff, who based the story on his own experiences at the Stagedoor, where he once served as a counselor for then-student Robert Downey Jr.

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LeRoy Hotel

In 1962, the Sullivan Campus for the State University of New York (SUNY) was opened on the former site of the LeRoy Hotel.

One famous alumni of SUNY Sullivan is Gene Simmons, bass guitarist and founding member of the rock band KISS.

Another infamous alumni is David Berkowitz, the serial killer known as “The Son of Sam,” who terrorized New York City in 1977 & 1978.

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The Waldemere Resort

The Waldemere, opened in 1921 by the Rosenthal family, was once the largest hotel in Livingston Manor and one of the better known Borscht Belt hotels.  Their slogan was, “I found a husband at the Waldemere.”

The resort would go on to become a 350 room hotel, with around 20 additional buildings, a nine‐hole golf course, six tennis courts, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and a 75‐acre lake.

A fire destroyed the main hotel building in 1963, but the Rosenthal family quickly rebuilt at a cost of $2‐million.  This heavy financial burden, coupled with the decline of the Borscht Belt that began around this time, saw the Waldemere go into bankruptcy within a few years. 

New owners Abe Rosenthal and Milton Cohen revived the hotel, but sold it the Students’ International Meditation Society in October 1973, who turned the former resort into their Academy for the Science of Creative Intelligence, a Transcendental Meditation centre.

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Paramount Resort

Opened in 1906 as a boarding house in Parksville by the Gasthalter family, originally from the Lower East Side of New York.

Fred Gasthalter, son of the original owner, took over operation of the hotel with his mother after his father’s death in 1957.

Originally a summer-only operation, Fred Gasthalter decided to keep the hotel open year-round in the early 1960s when he started catering to the fall hunting crowd who came to Sullivan and Ulster Counties.  It was an innovative business opportunity that would help counter the gradual decline with the traditional Jewish clientele that impacted all the Borscht Belt hotels as the 60s led into the 70s and beyond.

While the Paramount had an indoor pool, Gasthalter decided it was too expensive to have an outdoor pool or tennis courts or indoor ice rinks, preferring to send potential guests who wanted to indoor skating to nearby Grossinger’s.  Instead, the Paramount took advantage of the natural amenities like their 20-acre lake for outdoor skating and a network of trails to attract snowmobiling guests.  It was due to this strategy that the Paramount was able to weather the declining fortunes of the Borscht Belt better than most of the larger resorts, many of whom had expanded past a point where they were profitable anymore.  The indoor skating rink at Kutsher’s was one of the many cutbacks that hotel was forced to make in their last years.

By 1992, Gasthalter accepted an offer to become a Best Western franchise in an effort to forestall the inevitable.  Re-named the Best Western Paramount, the hotel continued operation until October 2000, when a fire damaged the hotel beyond Gasthalter’s ability to repair it.  Although he tried to rebuild, Gasthalter was forced to file for bankruptcy protection in May 2003 and as a result, the hotel closed after nearly a century of operation.  The irony was that it was a fire that ultimately spelled the end for the Paramount, which had thus far been able to weather the decline of the Borscht Belt.

Fred Gasthalter died at his home in Florida in June 2013, at age 75. The same year, a proposal was put forth to turn the abandoned hotel into a home and job training center for homeless and low-income veterans, but nothing came of it.

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Young’s Gap Hotel

Opened in 1923 by business partners Louis Gelberg and Joseph Holder out of a farmhouse purchased the year before from Josephine Armstrong. Operating as Young’s Gap Hotel, named after William Young, the man who built the farmhouse, it was one of the first to have electric lighting, while most others still operated with candles and kerosene lights. 

The nineteen room boarding house also had a large concrete swimming pool, one of the first in the Catskills, and a golf course.

By 1928, Gelberg and Holder had built a new four-story main brick building sufficient to accommodate 400 guests.  The hotel also had a barber shop, tailor shop, ballroom, gymnasium, indoor pool and sun parlor. The incorporation of the shops into the hotel was an innovative feature that later evolved into the “fortress hotel” concept by which many of the large hotels offered their guest every imaginable amenity – from sundry shops, hair salons and boutiques to gas stations.

By 1930, Young’s Gap expanded their accommodations to house 600 guests, making it the largest of the forty hotels in Parksville.

The Young’s Gap featured a regular roster of entertainers for the enjoyment of their guests.

In 1949, the hotel was the setting for the film “Catskill Honeymoon,” a film directed by Josef Berne and filmed on location on the hotel grounds throughout the summer.

Like all the Borscht Belt hotels, Young’s Gap saw a significant decline in the number of visitors each year as the 1950s came to a close and the 1960s began.  Part of the decline was also attributed to the decline in popularity of railroad travel corresponding with the opening of the Interstate Highway System in the late 1950s. 

Despite efforts to try to attract a younger crowd, the inevitable came in 1967 and Young’s Gap Hotel closed its doors for good. 

The property is now home to Camp HASC, which for 40 years has operated summer programs for Jewish children and adults with special needs, intellectual and physical disabilities.

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That’s all until next time.  Stay tuned for Part 3.

Read my first article on touring the Borscht Belt at http://militarybruce.com/the-crumbling-remains-of-americas-jewish-vacationland-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-borscht-belt-part-1

Read my article on Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, my introduction to the Borscht Belt at https://militarybruce.com/crumbling-resort-hotel-a-relic-of-a-by-gone-era

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Sources:
https://www.e90post.com/forums/showthread.php?t=1018685, https://abandonedhudsonvalley.com/tamarack-lodge/,
https://www.recordonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120410/NEWS/204100338&cid=sitesearch,
https://www.recordonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20000421/NEWS/304219994&cid=sitesearch,
https://www.shawangunkjournal.com/2013/11/21/news/1311214.html,
http://www.theoutsidersstudio.com/zoom/dabbc000-02160fd574-42f0c202,
https://www.recordonline.com/article/20150216/NEWS/150219460,
https://www.nytimes.com/1973/11/25/archives/catskills-hotel-sold-as-meditation-center-catskills-resort-sold.html,
http://www.classiccatskills.com/stories/interview2.html,
https://www.recordonline.com/article/20130821/NEWS/308210327,
http://abnf.co/NY-best_western_paramount_hotel.htm,
http://www.parksvilleny.org/,
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https://www.nytimes.com/1979/05/27/archives/catskills-hotels-turned-to-new-uses-hotels-in-catskills-turned-to.html,
https://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2014/10/catskills-new-uses-for-old-hotels/,
https://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/22/nyregion/in-catskills-resort-s-death-darkens-the-view.html,
http://www.classiccatskills.com/stories/interview2.html
http://www.stagedoormanor.com/about/,
https://www.recordonline.com/article/20130821/NEWS/308210327,
www.camphasc.org,
http://www.parksvilleny.org,
https://www.villaroma.com/about-us/#tab-8c947a2e4b3da8cfa46, http://www.stagedoormanor.com/about/, https://sunysullivan.edu.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/a-second-helping-of-borscht-the-crumbling-remains-of-americas-jewish-vacationland-part-2/

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