LIBERTY–The last time Elaine Grossinger Etess was in the area two summers ago, she was struck by the advanced decay of the buildings once representing her family’s
“It’s like London after the blitz,” she said recently from her home in Boca Raton, Fla. “I drove up toward my mother and dad’s home, and when I saw all the broken windows, it just broke my heart.”
The granddaughter of Selig and Malke Grossinger, who built one of the world’s most famous resorts, got a further jolt when she saw how nature
had overtaken cherished spots at the former Grossinger’s Resort.
“When you see the overgrown ice-skating rink and the swimming pool with the weeds in it and the mold…you kind of say, ‘This was absolutely the most magnificent resort.’ Like so many things in life, you really don’t appreciate it until it’s not there anymore.”
Only a handful of the resort’s 35 buildings still stands. They include the towering “Jennie G.,” named after Etess’ mother–the grand dame of Grossinger’s–responsible for putting the hotel on the international map.
While still an impressive structure, it has been sullied by vandals and thieves.
Doors and windows are smashed. Exterior walls are tagged with graffiti. The grounds are littered with cigarette butts, broken bottles and discarded cups.
Jagged remains of porcelain toilets are scattered in weeds and blend with shards of glass. A bellman’s luggage cart lies on its side, ivy and bramble weaving through it.
Vintage pink chairs, presumably from a long-ago guest room, are arranged in pairs outside, a place for the trespassers to lounge and overlook the blight.
That is a snapshot today of the once grand resort said to be the diamond of the Borscht-Belt hotels that decades ago welcomed Jewish-Americans on their summer-long siestas in the Catskills.
As HVNN.com once again teams up with “Abandoned Hudson Valley” founders Liz Cooke and Andy Milford, we will examine the current degradation of Grossinger’s and what led to it.
According to Cooke, images of Grossinger’s and other now-defunct Catskill resorts resonate well with those who have a connection.
“It can be a very emotional ride for people to see a place like Grossinger’s, which was once so important,” she said. “When people think of the Catskills, they think of Grossinger’s, so when we post something on social media, it does get shared. It does get seen. People do react from their own memories of the place.
“We always get comments like ‘I remember going there as a kid. I remember swimming in that pool,’ so when people see pictures from these places now, it can be very unsettling for them,” Cooke said.
“It can also be very nostalgic, and no place evokes the nostalgia like the Catskills. People remember very happy times–whether they went there as a kid or with their parents or with their friends–and it’s bittersweet. People remember it in its glory days, and when they see the pictures, they really see how far removed it is from those days.”
Crucial to any discussion of the Borscht-Belt hotels is looking at the future of these eroding vacation playgrounds. Is there hope of reviving the ghost hotels on mammoth properties in Sullivan and Ulster counties and reincarnating them for modern use?
Elaine Grossinger Etess certainly hopes so. After all, she grew up there and watched her family build it into one of the world’s most respected hotels.
Its beginnings were modest.
After a few business failures, her grandparents bought a 35-acre farm in Sullivan County in 1914 and opened a seven-room boarding house, renting rooms to summer visitors from New York City and quickly earning a reputation for their hospitality, according to catskillarchive.com.
Selig and Malke called it the Longbrook House and got their daughter, Jennie, involved as a hostess. By 1919, business was so good that the family bought property in Liberty with a spacious home. They called it Grossinger’s Terrace Hill House.
“Under Jennie’s direction Grossinger’s steadily grew. Delicious, strictly kosher food and top-rate entertainment made the hotel famous,” notes catskillarchive.com. “Sports facilities of every type were built, and its championship golf course began to bring non-Jews to the resort. To attract winter visitors regardless of the weather, the world’s first artificial snow was made at Grossinger’s in 1952.”
Like many of the neighboring resorts that catered mainly to middle-class Jewish vacationers, Grossinger’s was responsible for launching the careers of comic geniuses like Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Red Buttons.
Popular Hollywood entertainers, world-class athletes and prominent political figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Edward Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller often checked in.
During the first half of the 20th century, antisemitism in America got in the way of Jews joining country clubs, but the Borscht Belt, known as the “Jewish Alps,” welcomed them with tender arms.
Many had come to the cool mountains of the Catskills to escape the summer heat of the city. The decline of Grossinger’s and the other Catskill resorts can be directly traced to advances in modern conveniences and changes in attitude, according to Sullivan County Historian John Conway.
“The main reasons were the three A’s–airfares becoming affordable, air conditioning and assimilation of the Jews,” he said. “There were probably 100 more legitimate reasons as well as more subtle ones.
“The larger hotels were improving at such a rate–with indoor swimming pools and skating rinks–that a lot of the smaller ones couldn’t keep up. Some didn’t even have private bathrooms, so, in order to modernize, they were borrowing money or going out of business.”
Conway noted that changes in state banking laws in the mid-1960s further affected the Catskill hotels, which were used to working with the smaller, more community-minded lending institutions.
“That Grossinger’s was able to continue after that was really a testament to their owners and their financial wherewithal and ingenuity,” he said.
Ultimately, though, the times caught up with the family-run business. On President’s Day weekend in 1986, the resort closed.
Servico bought the property and had grand plans, even bringing in entertainer Eddie Fisher, who got his start at Grossinger’s, to promote the project, Conway said.
“They tore down a lot of the buildings on the main site and supposedly spent about $27 million. They went bankrupt and abandoned it,” he said.
The property changed hands several times before developer Louis Cappelli bought the hotel site and golf course. He initially intended to demolish and rebuild it as a luxury boutique hotel with 200 rooms, a full spa, gourmet restaurants, swimming, tennis and indoor and outdoor recreation.
The scenic Grossinger Country Club, known as the “Big G (Golf) Course,” remains open to the public and is well-maintained by Cappelli’s staff.
Muss Development Corp. also owns 500 acres adjacent to the old hotel. The firm wanted to build homes, but the project did not materialize.
After Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced legislation authorizing three upstate casino resorts, including one in the Catskills, the two developers joined with Foxwoods Resort Casino in proposing a 500-acre resort-style casino on a portion of the Grossinger’s property.
In December 2015, the state Gaming Commission awarded the license to Montreign Casino Resorts, a $630 million project planned at the site of the old Concord Hotel in the town of Thompson in Sullivan County.
Evan Bloom, who had worked as an electrical technician at Grossinger’s and many other hotels, said it was a sad day for Liberty, which had high hopes for the redevelopment of the beloved property and an economic revival.
“It was a family. We were all part of a family. It was a bygone era, and I really regret that it ended way too fast,” he said.
“It still could be flourishing. The area still could come back. We could use a good convention center or a good hotel. Water parks today are big, and now we have Bethel Woods. There are so many amenities in the area to put a whole package together. It’s a crime to see a hotel like this just sitting here, but I have a good feeling that somewhere down the line, something good will come of this.”
Marc Baez, the chief executive officer at Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development, said interest in the property remains high, particularly in the hospitality sector.
“It’s ongoing and consistent, so depending on who it is and when, there have been several suitors taking a look at the site. It has the infrastructure. It is approximate to the I-86 corridor. When you look at that site, those are the elements that attract potential developers,” Baez said.
For Cooke, that is encouraging. As a photographer who has chronicled many abandoned sites in the Hudson Valley and Catskills, she said the stories that emerge are pretty much the same–dreams die due to lack of vision or financing and properties are given up completely.
“I don’t think it benefits a community to have that kind of grim reminder of something that was once so vibrant in its midst.
“Communities have this responsibility to maintain structures when they can be renovated if possible, but this one doesn’t look like it can. It looks like a battle field, and I think it’s a hazard,” Cooke said.
Andy Milford, her partner at “Abandoned Hudson Valley,” called it a “squandered opportunity.”
“They lost out on the casino. It’s just sitting there and falling down in plain sight,” he said.
“There’s potential…if they can get someone who is willing to invest, but people seem to be sitting on the parcels of land, waiting for something to happen rather than making it happen. I’m no real estate expert, but it’s not making much money at the moment.”
For more Abandoned Hudson Valley photos of Grossinger’s and other deserted structures, go to http://abandonedhudsonvalley.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/abandonedhudsonvalley/?fref=ts&ref=br_tf