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Inside Grossinger’s Catskills Resort in Liberty, NY

Waist-high grasses choke back the yawning entrances of the Jennie G. Hotel, whose toppled fence serves more as an invitation than a barrier. Here in the sleepy town of Liberty, NY, the derelict hilltop lodge is not only a destination for the curious, it’s a daily reminder of the town’s old eminence, an emblem of a dead industry, visible from miles around.

In its time, Grossinger’s Catskills Resort was a fantasy realized, where wealthy businessmen, celebrity entertainers, and star athletes gathered to mingle with those that they liked and were like, to see and be seen, and to enjoy, rightly so, the things they enjoyed. As the slogan goes—Grossinger’s has Everything for the Kind of Person who Likes to Come to Grossinger’s.

If you’re the kind of person that’s inclined to spend their vacation somewhere dark, dusty, and dangerous, the motto still rings true today, for just as quickly as the resort prospered into a world-class institution, it’s descended into a swift decay. Explorers frequent the grounds, armed with cameras in an attempt to capture the beauty in its devastation, sifting through the artifacts—a broken lounge chair, old reservation records—piecing together a lost age of tourism.

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The Hotel Jennie G.

A generation ago, this region of the Catskills was known as the Borscht Belt, a tongue-in-cheek designation for a string of hotels and resorts that catered to a predominantly Jewish customer base. In popular culture, the most notable representation of this place and time is the movie Dirty Dancing, which was supposedly inspired by a summer at Grossinger’s. The unexpected success of its film adaptation had little effect on the long-struggling resort—in 1986, a year before the film was released, Grossinger’s ended its 70 year legacy.

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I’m having the time of my life.  And I owe it all to you.

The story of Grossinger’s is, at its root, an American story; the Grossingers were Austrian immigrants, who after some early years of struggle in New York City opened a small farmhouse to boarders in 1914 without plumbing or electricity.  They quickly gained a reputation for their exceptional hospitality and incredible kosher cooking, and outgrew the ramshackle farmhouse, purchasing the property that the resort still occupies today.

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The ground floor of the management office, now on the verge of collapse.

Grossinger’s rise to prominence is largely attributed to the couple’s daughter Jennie, who worked there as a hostess in its early years.  Later, Jennie’s legendary leadership would transform the resort from its humble beginnings to a massive 35-building complex (with its own zip code and airstrip), attracting over 150,000 guests a year and establishing a new type of travel destination that renounced the quiet charms of country living for a fast-paced, action-packed, social experience that met the expectations of its sophisticated New York clientele.

This catwalk provided a comfortable commute from suite to spa year-round.

This catwalk provided a comfortable commute from suite to spa year-round.

At Grossinger’s, every sport of leisure had its own arena, with state of the art facilities for handball, tennis, skiing, ice skating, barrel jumping, and tobogganing, along with a championship golf course. In 1952, the resort earned a place in history by being the first to use artificial snow. Its famous training establishment for boxers hosted seven world champions. Its stages launched the careers of countless well-known singers and comedians. In its day spas and beauty salons, its ballrooms and auditoriums, guests were offered a level of luxury that even the wealthiest individuals couldn’t enjoy at home, earning Grossinger’s the nickname, “Waldorf in the Catskills.”

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The ruined Joy Cottage, not so joyful these days.

By the late sixties, the Grossinger’s model had started to fall out of favor as cheap air travel to tourist destinations around the world became readily available to a new generation.  Several renovation attempts have been aborted by a string of investors since the property was abandoned. Widespread demolition has greatly diminished the sprawl of the original resort, but several of the largest buildings remain.  Most have been stripped of any vestige of opulence, and some structures are barely standing, no more so than the former Joy Cottage, whose floors might not withstand the footfalls of a field mouse.

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The indoor swimming pool at Grossinger’s Catskills Resort.

An indoor swimming pool is Grossinger’s most enduring spectacle, and has become a favorite location of urban adventurers near and far.  Radiance remains in its terra-cotta tiles and its well-preserved space age light fixtures. Its dimensions continue to impress, as do the postcard views through its towering glass walls, all miraculously intact. It’s growth, not decay, that makes this pool so picturesque—the years have transformed the neglected natatorium into a flourishing greenhouse.  Ferns prosper from a moss-caked poolside, unhindered by the tread of carefree vacationers, urged by a ceiling that constantly drips. Year-round scents of summer have bowed to a kind of perpetual spring, with the reek of chlorine and suntan lotion replaced by the heady odor of moss and mildew—it’s dank, green, and vibrantly alive.

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The ruined entrance to the hotel spa.

Meanwhile, areas across the region that once relied on a thriving tourism industry have fallen into depression or emptied out.  The Catskills is attempting to rebrand, updating its image and holding online contests to determine a new slogan.  The winner?  The Catskills, Always in Season.

Though it remains to be seen whether the coming seasons will bring new visitors, there’s no doubt they’re serving to erase the area’s outmoded reputation.  With each passing year, in ruined hotels across the Catskills, the physical remnants of lost vacations dwindle.  Indoors, snowdrifts weigh on aching floors; leaf litter collects to harbor the damp or fuel the fire.  Vines claim what the rain leaves behind, compelling the constant progress of decay.  Scattered in photo albums, hidden in bottom drawers, excerpted from yellowing newsprint, the memories will follow, clearing the way for new journeys, and a new beginning for the Catskills.

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Office on the bottom floor of the Jennie G. Hotel.

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Most of the hotel rooms were empty, but a few pieces of furniture remain.

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The best preserved room, with two murphy beds, and a carpet of moss.

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Hotel records neatly arranged on a mattress, by a photographer, no doubt.

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An 80s artifact stuck in the swampy indoor pool.

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A pitch-black beauty salon lit with the aid of a flashlight.

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6 Comments

  1. Kiwiwriter says:

    My family used to have a little country place near Liberty, and we went up there every weekend in summer, so I remember Grossinger’s in the 1960s, at its tail end.

    Liberty was hardly a “sleepy” town and still isn’t — I have pals who live near it. It bustles as the economic center of that portion of Sullivan County. It still has a large community of Jews and Mexicans, descendants of people who worked in Grossinger’s and other hotels in the area, the former in management, the latter in service jobs.

    The artificial ski slope was hard by the Route 17 Quickway, one of the first multi-lane superhighways, and we were amused to see skiing on it in September or April.

    Numerous famous boxers trained there for the “big fight” and would be seen greeting equally famous Hollywood celebrities who came up there to get away from Hollywood or be seen with famous boxers, for their own and each other’s publicity purposes.

    Grossinger’s, like all the Borscht Belt hotels, was best-known for a generation of comedians that came out of its evening shows…everybody came out of there: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Bill Dana, Jerry Lewis (mostly at Brown’s), Phyllis Diller, Rodney Dangerfield, Estelle Getty, Jack Gilford, Shecky Greene, Buddy Hackett, George Jessel, Danny Kaye, Jackie Mason, Zero Mostel, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Soupy Sales, Dick Shawn, Larry Storch, and Jonathan Winters. And two relatively recent names: Richard Lewis and Billy Crystal.

    Nowadays these folks all start in comedy clubs play casinos, and resort hotels in the Catskills were basically wiped out by jumbo jets and immense cruiseliners. Sullivan County couldn’t compete with Disney World, Club Med, and Caribbean Princess, even when the locals built an “International Airport” at White Springs, lobbied for casinos, and hosted Woodstock.

  2. Bob Lamm says:

    There is a glaring omission in this piece. The clueless author mentions that the cliente of Grossinger’s was “predominantly Jewish,” which surely was true. But he is unaware of–or simply doesn’t care about–WHY this was true. If he reflected for 30 seconds about the widespread discrimination of that era, all the hotels and resorts where Jews were NOT welcome, then he wouldn’t be quite so clueless.

  3. So sorry to see what it’s become. Remember what it was back in the day’s when the Catskill’s was in it’s hay day.

  4. Andy Hunter says:

    this is great. reminds me of spelunking in Northampton State Hospital, which I believe is no longer there… a room with 3 player pianos, the floor covered with puzzle pieces; an abandoned auditorium with a pile of hundreds of books of common prayer on the stage, some with notes inside… unfortunately we had no cameras. http://www.opacity.us/site13_northampton_state_hospital.htm

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