The Jerry Lewis Theatre Club at Brown’s Hotel. Photo by Isaac Jeffreys
Hudson Valley native Isaac Jeffreys creates stunning scenes at the abandoned Borscht Belt resorts that once brought vacationers to the Catskills in droves.
Isaac Jeffreys is far too young to determine his magnum opus, but if he weren’t, “The Stardust Room” might be a contender. In the picture, what was once a decorative ceiling has gone to shambles with holes that expose a building’s inner skeleton. On a stage, at the center of the photo’s focus, an unpopulated podium stands afront pale blue curtains opening to a city skyline alive with shimmering starlight. Like many of Jeffreys’ images, it is square, making its symmetry all the more masterful (one might recall Mapplethorpe, not for his choice of subject but for his stellar sense of composition). A yellow haze lingers between the stage and the viewer, obscuring the reality of the room. The picture is fraught with tension—between the past and the present, between a long-abandoned theater and Jeffreys’ interventions.
To say that the Rhinebeck native is just a photographer is something of an understatement. Nor is it appropriate to bestow upon him the lone label of historian. To produce his most prodigious body of work, which comprises images of Borscht Belt resorts in varying stages of decay, he has adopted both of these roles—as well as those of cultural anthropologist, lighting designer, documentarian, and investigator—to photographically resurrect an era he feels nostalgia for, despite having been born decades after its opulent climax.
His pictures, though too labyrinthine to snappily summarize, are essentially about the life and afterlife of the resorts that attracted thousands of vacationers to the Catskills during the mid and late 20th century. These getaways, imbued with the grinning naivete of postwar America, were “kitschy” and “flamboyant,” to use Jeffreys’ words, but also relatively progressive in their heyday. They were not merely hotels, but havens; our country, still segregated, was not a welcoming frontier for all travelers. However, somewhere in the constellation of resorts that dotted the Catskill region, all—or, perhaps more accurately, most—were welcome to take a breather.
Jeffreys, who is 22, earned his BFA in photography from Parsons School of Design at the tail end of 2022. Shortly before his graduation, we followed him for an evening as he made a picture at the Nevele Grande Hotel, just outside Ellenville, which shuttered in 2009. We arrived on an October evening as an Indian summer sunset ripened into vibrant orange hues, outlining the resort’s peculiar silhouette. In shadow, it looked like 10 UFOs had landed on top of one another. We parked outside of the chain-link fence that stands, however helplessly, as a barrier to discourage trespassers. Unlike many photographers and thrill-seekers who explore the abandoned resort, Jeffreys has express permission from the property’s owner to enter.
The exterior of the Nevele is monolithic—barring a shattered window or graffiti tag here and there—yet the interior calls to mind a treacherous cave. Its floor is covered with ash and refuse, and the ceilings drip. (Jeffreys quipped, lightheartedly but not without good reason, that the countless hours he’s spent among asbestos-laden debris have likely taken years off of his life.) It’s silent and dark, especially once night falls, which is typically when Jeffreys makes photos. He gave us a tour of the Nevele as though it were his own home, showing us the bar, the lounge, the theater, and the indoor pool.
The resort isn’t exactly “frozen in time,” though most of its major features—the bar tops, the lighting fixtures, the stage curtains—remain as fossils of the Nevele’s former glory. That’s where Jeffreys comes in. Whereas other photographers have made a subject of the deterioration of Borscht Belt resorts, Jeffreys seeks to reanimate them with his photographs. “A goal is to create a through-line [in] this body of work that illustrates the alive and vibrant atmosphere that one existed,” he muses. Using a Hasselblad medium-format film camera and handheld light sources, he shoots long exposures in near darkness, searching for signs of life.
Jeffreys has been exploring abandoned structures since he was in high school, but feels as though his body of work about the Borscht Belt is near complete. “I want to expand my horizons,” he shares, though he hopes to publish a book of his photos of the resorts. As he brings the project to a close, we sat down to chat with Jeffreys about his photography practice, the history of these hotels, and the future of the Catskill region.
Paint us a picture of the early days of this project. How was your interest in Borscht Belt resorts piqued, and how did you first go about exploring them?
Back when I was 16, I remember an image of Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher at Grossinger’s appearing on my screen. Being a sucker for old Hollywood, I was already hooked—shortly after, finding out that there were hundreds of mid-century modern resorts that were considered cultural epicenters in the Catskills was enough for me to embark on a multi-year journey in which I searched for every remnant of the era.
Of course, the shock factor played a role in my younger interest in exploring these sites—the idea of a decaying, lost paradise is something that still gives me a great deal of inspiration now, but my pursuit has changed from looking for decay and detriment to looking conceptually [at] anything that immerses me in the prospering version of the Borscht Belt.
At the core of your practice exists a sense of nostalgia for the “heyday,” to use your word, of these resorts. What is it about that time period—and its aesthetic consistencies—that you love?
When reflecting on the era as a whole, I see the story of the Catskills as a three-act play: a rise in the early 20th century [when] Jewish-Americans were creating an inclusive environment built upon the pursuit of leisure and pure happiness; the ostentatious peak in which the hotel industry dominated and became a premier destination for guests and entertainers country-wide; and then, of course, the swift downfall, with the resorts slowly shuttering due to low patronage, taxes, bankruptcy, and beyond, leaving a drastically altered landscape that isn’t reminiscent of the past at all. It’s a tragically beautiful story of a forgotten cultural renaissance. I think all three acts factor into the work I make. Not only is time a crucial factor in the physical creation of the images, but I’m capturing rooms with legacies larger than my own and feel as though I have to reflect each era simultaneously. Or at least that’s what I go for.
Aesthetically, I’m invested in the obsession with the façade of the Catskills. Each hotel, by the 1950s, was essentially competing over who could make a more glamorous, immersive, opulent, and colorful establishment that reflected quickly changing trends. Growing up upstate, I spent a good amount of time dreaming about Miami and Los Angeles and their respective flamboyant architecture, and unbeknownst to me, an extension of that era existed within an hour of my hometown. The temporal quality of these places, design-wise, is something that really sticks out to me, too. Everything was flamboyant or kitschy.
After we walked through the Nevele, you showed off some incredible postcards and advertorial photographs of the resort. How does your familiarity with historical documents related to these resorts affect the way you engage with them now as a photographer?
I’m inspired by a variety of things from the 20th century, notably movie sets, the analogous day-to-day lifestyle, the aesthetic qualities, and that general longing for an era I’ve never lived. These hotels and the advertising around them was designed to be eye-grabbing, forwarding the idea that these hotels were the cultural epicenter of the country and represented the peak in design, art, and culture. Seeing how truly vibrant and thought-out these spaces used to be has been a great reference point in trying to visually emulate it now.
What sort of equipment do you use to make your images?
I’ve shot with a Hasselblad 500c for the majority of this project. I figured that the postcard images of these hotels I use for inspiration were taken in an era when film dominated, so it would make sense to try and see what visual qualities will stay consistent if I shoot the same locations on film nowadays. I like the idea of staying [consistent in] the process of creating my photos. It requires precision and focus and really makes me think about what I’m photographing in detail.
A vast majority of my photographs are created at night as an homage to the ‘golden’ silhouettes many of these hotels were known for, and I think it allows people to see a new side to these places, which are normally captured with natural light during the day. A single light at night can completely change the perception of a space in person and through photographs, and I attempt to use that to my advantage, messing with lights for hours until I create a version of the room that still feels like there’s a sense of life there.
You will often take up to six hours to perfect a scene for a shot. Can you speak a little to why this is integral?
Every image is different because no two rooms or structures are alike, so I try to leave a window of time for setup before I capture the photo. Everything in my work is intentional, highly conceptual, and meticulously staged. When photographing something like a theater, it can take initial time drawing curtains back or moving extra clutter out of the way to give me a clean slate to work with—but what truly takes up the time is how the room is lit.
With something like a theater or a nightclub, I feel like I need to either do the room justice photographically or not make the image at all, and normally that means a few hours of toying with dozens of lights to make a scene that I think will register to other people as grand and convey the faux opulence of the past. I’m intrigued by the façade, so a lot of my pictures are the result of me trying to make something look physically appealing—even if it’s rapidly crumbling.
Who, generally, were the patrons of these resorts back in their prime? And who owned them?
For the first half of the 20th century, the majority of resorts in the Catskills catered to specific cultural groups. Jewish, Spanish, Polish, Black, Irish, Italian, and LGBTQ+ resorts are what made up the region at large due to the reputation of the Catskills as a haven for marginalized groups. As the mid-20th century ushered in the boom of the Catskills, specifically within the Jewish resorts, social and cultural trends changed the clientele, especially as cultural assimilation became a tad more normalized from the 1950s onward. The Catskills has historically always been a place of acceptance and the owners of these hotels—many being first-generation immigrants—opened their establishments in hopes of gaining a profit on land that was difficult to farm on.
When these resorts were first being constructed, what did they offer that was culturally novel? How were they advertised?
Because this idea of a ‘haven’ was so prevalent and desired by many, that’s how they were advertised. Within the Borscht Belt, specifically in Sullivan County, many hotels began as two- or three-room farm-style boarding houses and subsequently grew into multi-acre multiplexes that catered to every wish a guest could ask for. The goal was to create an immersive world [so] you didn’t have to leave the property the entirety of your stay.
Have you had the chance to converse with anyone who used to patronize the resorts you’re photographing?
Knowing that this history is still so fresh and many hoteliers and guests (or their descendants) are still around, my respect for the era has increased tenfold. Seeing these places on their own after not living the era myself is priceless, but meeting people that experienced life at the hotels humanizes the entire project. I keep this in mind when creating photos, too—obviously there’s a shared knowledge that the Catskills’ cultural prime came and went—but I don’t want to reflect on this era by portraying ‘what once was.’ It just isn’t my style. I see such potential in recreating a moment of time in which life breathes back into these resorts and immortalizing them through photographs.
Beyond this, I want these images to appeal to everyone and serve as a sentimental homage to a prosperous and vibrant era. If people see them as somber, I’d hope that one could find the beauty in the melancholia.
When we met and explored the Nevele, one thing that stood out was your genuine love for the history of these resorts. Your considerations go far beyond the purely aesthetic. When you walk through these structures, what or who is it that you see?
To put it plainly, I attempt to see spaces like the Nevele as if they’re existing in their former grandeur. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to lighting when it comes to creating my photographs. I’m reimagining the space, trying to tap into elements from the past while being given [a] consistent visual reminder of how they look in the present day.
I’m trying to capture the hopeful and triumphant feeling of the era through a still image, void of people. It’s a difficult task to take on, but I really feel like these places have an energy, if you will, that has stayed ever-present though people have long moved on.
The aesthetics are a large part of my personal investment with these places, however. The bright colors in the rooms, the materials chosen for walls, ceilings, and furniture, and the ever-present opulent and gaudy chandeliers keep me coming back.
You can go back in time and spend a weekend at any one of the resorts you’ve photographed. Which would you choose, what year would it be, and how would you spend your time?
I’d easily go to the Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake. That hotel was the epitome of over-the-top architecture inside and out and has a great repertoire of artists who regularly performed there. To me, it represents the spirit of the 1950s and ’60s, and I see it as one of the greatest triumphs of the Borscht Belt and the Catskills at large. Designed by Morris Lapidus, it housed the Imperial Room, which was the largest nightclub of its kind when built. It’s simply fabulous. I’d likely spend the entirety of my time there awake exploring and photographing every room I could find. I’m sure it would be amazing—but I imagine I wouldn’t sleep throughout the entirety of my time there.
You tend to shudder at labels like “run-down” or “decaying.” Can you speak a little to your aversion to this particular imagination of the resorts you’re photographing?
The reality is that the era I’m trying to capture was over a good 25 years before I was born, if not longer. There were and still are a rather large number of resorts that remain shuttered towering over towns and serving as an eyesore-worthy reminder of what once existed.
While these are the facts, this doesn’t mean that the entirety of the Borscht Belt era is sitting stagnant and falling apart. Of course, with my photographs you can’t escape the occasional broken window or peeling paint on the walls, but I try to highlight the glory of the past to show not only what once existed in this area, but as a reminder that the Catskills and Borscht Belt was always about [success], facing aversion, and growth. I see a lot for the area in the near future, and don’t want to paint a picture of desolation.
I would imagine that, after having spent hours and hours inside the resorts in their current state, you would come to appreciate certain aspects of their decomposition. Is this so? Do you ever purposely allow this quality to remain unveiled?
At times, yes. I’m grateful for spaces where I can take down a sheet of wallpaper or mess with the lights and not worry about further destroying or compromising the future of said space. I also think there are some beautiful aspects of decay. It is a reminder that nature will always prevail and does make for some pretty cool images and interesting atmospheres to work with though. It’s nice to document things that have been ‘frozen in time,’ but over the years, abandonment got tiring to capture for me.
Would it be more accurate to say that you are resurrecting the resorts via your photographic practice, or that you’re illustrating their persistent state of aliveness?
I think both could define my photos. I think there’s a realistic and conceptual way of going about viewing or talking about my practice, the realistic aspect being that I physically enter these spaces and arrange objects and lighting in a way that looks presentable—again, emphasis on the façade—and then the conceptual aspect, [where my] goal is to create a through-line [in] this body of work that illustrates the alive and vibrant atmosphere that one existed, and figure out how to bring that back photographically.
It is uncommon for an artist your age to have worked with such focus on a single project for the length of time that you’ve been making images of Borscht Belt resorts. What is it about the resorts that continues to compel you?
I think it’s all in the journey, as corny as that may sound. Every time I thought I’d finished and seen everything there is to see, I’d find a new (old) hotel that still exists or go down another historical wormhole. I’ve felt like an investigator just as much as a photographer throughout this process, and it simply never stops being interesting to me. I also think that longing I speak about for experiencing an era I never truly lived factors in. I want to see everything while I still can.
You’ve expressed that this project is winding down. How do you sense that you’re approaching its conclusion?
I know that no matter what, I’m always going to make photos in the Borscht Belt when I can—but, the bulk of this work is ultimately in pursuit of a photobook that chronicles the past three years of work I’ve created at these hotels. I want to expand my horizons a little bit, but then again, I would say the same thing if I were working on a completely different project.
What, in your best -case scenario, should happen with these resorts? And realistically, what will—or what has already begun to—happen to them?
In a dream world—or if I had millions of dollars—I’d rehab one of the resorts that has stayed stagnant and turn it into a Catskills/Borscht Belt-inspired hotel. The resorts that now operate as camps will likely stay operating and continue to demolish and build over hotel buildings that have fallen into disrepair or are too outdated. The ones sitting abandoned are up in the air, but more than likely will end up being demolished and redeveloped as time moves on. That’s what makes this entire experience special—I’m not quite sure how the area will look 50 years from now and surely nobody expected it to look this way 50 years ago. It’s an honor to get to walk in and see history like this firsthand, before everything is truly but a memory.