Catskills Resorts: The Beginning of the End


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NewRoxy1964Many of the 75 or so people at the recent 13th Annual Catskills History and Preservation Conference at the Liberty Museum & Arts Center were shocked to hear that the Sullivan County’s heralded resort industry has been in decline since 1965.

That’s not unusual. Most newcomers– and even some old timers who should know better– find it hard to believe that the county’s heyday was over by the mid-1960s. Many cite the existence of dozens of hotels in the 1970s as proof that it couldn’t possibly be so.

And yet these days most historians who have done any research at all agree that the Golden Age of Sullivan County’s tourism industry, which began around 1940, came to an end around 1965, and they cite a number of reasons for choosing that particular year.

For one thing, a fire at the Prospect Inn in Parksville on August 11, 1965 resulted in the death of five people, and caused a clamor to tighten up fire codes for resorts, many of which could not afford to make the necessary improvements. Smaller resorts – the bulk of Sullivan County’s 538 hotels during that golden era – began to close down. Those that could make the necessary upgrades found themselves hopelessly in debt.

Many establishments had already invested capital they didn’t have in trying to keep up with the larger hotels in the increasingly competitive Catskills tourism market. In fact, by 1966, this disturbing trend had become so obvious that it caught the attention of the New York Times.

Reporter Homer Bigart outlined the phenomenon in a September 5, 1966 article with a Loch Sheldrake dateline, entitled “Keeping Up With the Grossingers Strains Many Catskills Hotels,” using the occasion of the Labor Day weekend – traditionally one of the busiest of the year for Sullivan County resorts – to visit a number that had closed down or seemed on the verge of doing so.

“A singular hush, betrayed only by the occasional romping of crickets or the stomping of a stray hen on the greensward, fell this Labor Day weekend on the rococo precincts of the New Roxy Hotel,” Bigart wrote.

“Gone were the glamorous, fun-loving vacationing crowds of former seasons. A rancid smell of decaying food filtered down the carpeted corridors from the kitchen. An eerie silence ruled the lobby, mocking a notice forbidding card-playing and another that urged, ‘Sign Up Now for Talent Night.’”

The New Roxy had closed in mid-August that summer, “the latest in a long list of casualties among the medium-sized hotels in the Catskills, hotels accommodating 200 to 700 guests,” Bigart noted. The end had actually come the previous year when the hotel’s owners were forced to sell to a group of orthodox Jews who changed the entire complexion of the place.

The Fleischers, the hotel’s owners, had borrowed over $700,000 in an effort to successfully draw vacationers to their resort. At the time of the sale, the Fleischers were in debt to their laundry for $28,000, their butcher for $26,000, and their grocer for $11,000.

“Trying to keep up with the prosperous giants like Grossinger’s and the Concord, they have gone heavily into debt for Olympic swimming pools, indoors and outdoors, ornate lobbies and glittering nightclubs,” Bigart wrote.

He quoted an unnamed South Fallsburg banker and lawyer who pointed out that “many of the smaller hotels are in trouble because they are obsolete,” and could not afford to modernize to “meet today’s more luxurious standards, like baths in every room.” Also, he said, the lure of more glamorous places like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Europe, were attracting more and more of the traditional Sullivan County vacationer.

Bigart also reported that in Loch Sheldrake, where there had been 42 hotels “ten years ago,” there were now only 12. He visited the Loch Sheldrake Inn, Goldberg’s, and the Overlook, each of which had recently closed. In Swan Lake, he stopped by Paul’s, once one of the county’s premier resorts, “which last year advertised ‘An Unforgettable Family Vacation,’ (and) is now Daytop Village, a private institution for the rehabilitation of narcotics addicts.”

Some larger resorts, such as the Waldemere in Livingston Manor and the Flagler in Fallsburg, had filed for bankruptcy protection. Abe Rosenthal, manager of the Waldemere, specifically blamed the hotel’s financial problems on the “new fireproof building costing $2 million” built after a fire three years before had killed three guests.

And former Flagler owner Jack Barsky cited debts incurred for his new Empire Room nightclub, a new indoor pool and a new lobby for putting that hotel– once the most prominent of the Sullivan County resorts– into receivership.

Although the Sullivan County Hotel Association maintained that “despite some attrition among ‘obsolete’ hotels, the resort industry was in excellent shape,” it was apparent that the heyday had passed. In 1967, the Youngs Gap in Parksville, once one of the county’s largest and most innovative hotels, closed, and by 1968 the Times was reporting that a number of smaller hotels, “unable to keep pace with the large establishments and their newer, plush accommodations,” had begun taking in campers. One such hotel, Sokolow’s Mount Vernon in Summitville, had torn down walls in some of its outer buildings in order to provide large recreation rooms for visitors to use on rainy days and had added roadways, electrical connections, and plumbing hook-ups to campsites.

“If the plan at the Mount Vernon works out,” the county’s Director of Parks and Recreation, Joe Purcell, was quoted as saying, “there is no doubt that owners of some of our smaller hotels will enter the camping business.”

Evidence enough that the Golden Age had come to an end.

Photo: The New Roxy Hotel was one of several Sullivan County resorts that closed during the 1966 season, signaling an end to the regions Golden Age of Torusim.

7 thoughts on “Catskills Resorts: The Beginning of the End

  1. steven paul mark

    In the early ’60s we used to visit my maternal grandparents each summer when they stayed in the Edgewood House, a large boarding house in Parksville. My father hated being with his in-law for the week but my brothers and I, ages 9 to 14, enjoyed the surrounding woods where we loved to turn over rocks to see creepy things and pick up little red efts, which you could almost call cute. We also would go into the hamlet where a general store was a wonderland of cool things and pinball machines had all the mesmerizing attraction of today’s video games. For real adventure, we’d walk along the railroad track watching out for a train that never showed up. Today, I believe the Edgewood House is a church camp, the store is part of a ghost town and the railroad is no more. Perhaps the best metaphor is that Route 17, which used to run right through the hamlet is now bypassed, all because the single traffic light on that interstate had to be avoided.

    Reply
  2. michael burns

    I always thought that the “golden age” of the Catskills was the 1950s 60s and 70s. That was when millions of Americans stayed at the hundreds of bungalow colonies and hotels in the area. Most were in Sullivan county and Ulster county. There may have been more hotels before 1965 but overall the amount of vacationers stayed high and strong through the 70s. The best and most exciting part of the Catskills came during this period. It was said That the Catskills was hotter than putting present day las.vegas and Atlantic city together. A new phenomenon by the 1960s was that the Catskills didn’t just appeal to the mostly Jewish clientele but to many other people around the country and worldwide. Hotels like the world famous concord was a “must” for many people into the 1980s. Its sad that the era came to an official end after the closing of kuthshers country club in 2014. Impossible to fathom.
    My experience up in the Catskills started in 1965 And has continued to last. My current choice is the new villa Roma. I’m told that a new world class hotel is currently being built where the concord used to be. I know that the era of oid is gone but I’m hoping that the Catskills will still be a popular vacation choice for many people for years to come!

    Reply
    1. John ConwayJohn Conway Post author

      Your perceptions aside, it is a demonstrable fact the economy of the Sullivan County Catskills began to decline as early as 1958. Of course, the resort industry was so big and there were so many hotels and so many visitors, it took a few years for anyone to notice. County officials became aware of the trend at least as early as 1962 by which time the so-called “Kennedy slide” had caused a nationwide credit crunch and economic downturn so the area wasn’t alone. That doesn’t mean that all the hotels were impacted equally, some continued to grow well into the 1970s and even a few beyond that, but by the mid-1970s, as many as 500 hotels had already closed down since the heyday in the mid-1950s.

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      1. scott silverman

        Thanks for your insights on the Kennedy slide… have not heard of that. Would you say 1951-1953 — was the rise– and 1957-1960 the demise?

        Reply
        1. John ConwayJohn Conway Post author

          That would probably be about right. !953 was the year the NY Times reported there were 538 hotels, 1,000 rooming houses and 50,000 bungalows in the S.C. Catskills. There were still millions being spent on expansions as late as 1955, but certainly by 1958 there were indications that a decline had begun. It wasn’t necessarily a straight line decline, but rather one of ups and downs through 1965, at which time the decline became more precipitous. Of course, many of the hotels continued to grow well beyond that, but by then small and medium size hotels were closing in droves.

          Reply
  3. Evan

    Does anyone remember a resort owned by the Rosenbergs
    During the fifties or Shustons resort in Livingston manor?

    Reply
  4. Carl kaminsky

    Does anyone know the address of the holiday hotel in loch sheldrake ny ? Wanted to visit the where I hD so much fun as a kid

    Reply

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