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Is a serial arsonist behind the rash of fires at abandoned Borscht Belt hotels?

March 2024

The Borscht Belt was 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.

In an era when Jewish people still faced discrimination elsewhere, Borscht Belt resorts were a popular choice for family vacations and for those hoping to escape the heat of New York City.  Offering kosher food, recreational and entertainment facilities, these resorts became an annual summer pilgrimage. However, all good things must come to an end.

The popularity of the Borscht Belt began declining as far back as the 1960s. Some of the factors that led to the decline were Jewish integration into the mainstream of society, the emergence of cheaper airfare and increasing family incomes, that enabled to travel to far-off places previously unaffordable or impractical, a desire of the younger generation to go to other exotic locations instead of accompanying their parents to the Catskills each summer and the increased availability of air-conditioning in homes.

Sullivan and Ulster counties once boasted a high of over 500 different hotels and thousands of bungalow colonies, but now just a handful remain today. Some hotels were renovated and have held on with a smaller clientele, while others were given a second life as religious schools and retreats.  However, most were abandoned and left to deteriorate or were outright demolished.

Now it appears that a serial arsonist has set about destroying as many of the abandoned former hotel buildings as they can. In August 2022, a fire consumed the Elaine Grossinger–Etess’ house, one of the few remaining buildings of the long-abandoned Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel that wasn’t demolished in the summer of 2018. Next was The Pines Resort in June 2023, a fire destroyed the main building, including the dining room.

Then in July 2023, a fire at the Homowack Lodge destroyed the lobby, dining hall and one of the guest wings.

Now, the Nevele Grande has been hit. Late in the evening of 19 March, a two-alarm blaze had firefighters from 10 companies busy for 15 hours, fighting a fire that had erupted in the Nevele’s century-old Winter Lodge, the oldest former guest building still standing that was last used as staff quarters. By the time the fire was extinguished, only the stone fireplace was left standing.

It appears no other buildings were impacted by the fire, although that wouldn’t really seem to matter. The Nevele was sold last September to New York City-based developer Somerset Partners, who have stated plans to demolish the existing buildings to allow for the construction of a new hotel and a 126-unit housing development.

The Ulster County Sheriff’s Office is the lead agency investigating the fire. According to Everett Erichsen, Ulster County’s director of emergency services, no cause has been identified yet. The fire is not being labeled as suspicious at this time.

Sources: Nevele fire in Ellenville burns Winter Lodge building, keeps firefighters from 10 companies busy for 15 hours – Daily Freeman, Massive fire engulfs abandoned hotel – Sullivan County Democrat (scdemocratonline.com), Homowack Lodge burns in Summitville (VIDEO) – Mid Hudson News, Grossinger resort building destroyed by fire in Liberty in Catskills (recordonline.com), Nevele sold for $5 million, with plans to demolish buildings to make way for housing – Daily Freeman, Nevele Grand Hotel fire under investigation: What we know (recordonline.com), Blaze at iconic Nevele Grand Hotel under investigation (news12.com), The Borscht Belt is burning: In the Catskills, abandoned resorts keep catching fire – New York Jewish Week (jta.org).

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.

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