Not so long ago, the Catskills were the only real place to be during the dog days of summer in New York. Once the warmers months arrived from the 1920s through the 1970s, vacationers, the bulk of whom were Jewish, flocked en masse to the Borscht Belt hotels for all-inclusive retreats in the picturesque Hudson Valley.
During that period of 50 years, resort culture thrived. As rooms filled to their bursting points, hotels welcomed big-time performers like Duke Ellington, Dean Martin, and Jerry Seinfeld when they were still up-and-coming. The legends did their thing on stage while guests lounged their days away amid tightly-knit cultural and social circles that reconvened year after year.
When the resorts fell into decline — the combined result of decreased anti-Semitism and changing eras — in the 1980s, they brought down iconic hotels like Grossinger’s, Kutcher’s, and the Nevele down in the blink of an eye. Although the building skeletons fell to the wayside, sometimes hauntingly so, memories of golden summers in the Catskills continue to live on in stories passed along from one generation to the next.
Now, a new proposal seeks to channel the history of the Hudson Valley’s famed Borscht Belt hotels into a brick-and-mortar museum. Dubbed the Catskill Resort Museum, the project hopes to create a central hub for local resort history while simultaneously revitalizing the Village of Ellenville. It will find a home at Ellenville’s former Wayside Inn, a long vacant property at Liberty Square.
“Our focus is on the museum as the centerpiece of the revitalization of the community,” says Catskill Resort Museum Board of Trustees President Jack Godfrey. A former Ellenville resident, Godfrey dates his family roots back to 1924, when his grandfather worked as a farmer in the region. In the 1930s, his grandfather opened a boarding house, which he and his son eventually converted to the Maple Leaf Inn and, later, the Maple Leaf Bungalow Colony in the ‘50s. Because of this, Godfrey grew up loving the hospitality industry and working in resorts throughout the region. After honing his expertise as a hotel executive and restaurant entrepreneur in Washington D.C. and Florida for years, he’s excited to refocus his attention on his hometown.
In fact, Godfrey’s idea for the Catskill Resort Museum dates back to 1995, when he read an article in the New York Times about The Catskills Institute, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Catskills history. Although he was living in Orlando at the time, he couldn’t shake the idea of a Catskills resort museum from his mind.
In 2010, he decided to act on his idea. After forming a 501(c)(3) in February 2011, he began putting feelers out in the Ulster County community to see how feasible his vision could be. A handful of conversations with a former Ellenville mayor and village manager later, he turned a significant corner during a talk with a representative from the National Comedy Center in Jamestown in 2018. Two years prior, in 2016, Jamestown won a Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant from New York State thanks, in part, to the comedy center’s inclusion in the proposal. Drawing a parallel between his museum idea and the comedy center, Godfrey saw his opportunity to pursue a similar grant for Ellenville.
Now, he’s on a mission to help Ellenville submit and secure a Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant. Just as towns like Kingston, Middletown, and Peekskill have received funding in the past, Godfrey hopes that Ellenville can follow suit with the Catskill Resort Museum as a leading driver of the proposal. Thus far, he’s discussed the idea with Village of Ellenville Mayor Jeff Kaplan and Ulster County Executive Patrick Ryan. On January 13, he even ventured away from his home in Florida to present his proposal in person to the Town of Wawarsing.
If all goes according to Godfrey’s plan, Ellenville will submit a proposal for a $10 million grant from New York State’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative by June 1. Of that sum, Godfrey requests $2 million of it be allocated for the development of the museum.
“The whole idea of building the museum is to be an economic catalyst and create jobs,” Godfrey explains. “It’s beyond preserving the history of the Catskills resorts.”
That being said, preservation is an integral part of the museum’s planned function in town. Godfrey envisions a two-story, 42,000-square-foot hub dedicated to the stories and memorabilia of summers spent at the Hudson Valley’s iconic resorts. The facility will be an innovative one, with interactive technological exhibits to complement the preserved artifact displays.
To create the exhibits, Godfrey plans to collaborate with the Catskills Institute and put out a call for submissions to the public. He also hopes to work with Elaine Grossinger Etess, the daughter and heir of Grossinger’s resort owner Jennie Grossinger, who he met during a Catskills festival in Boca Raton, Florida in February 2019.
In addition to crafting a home for the shared history of Borscht Belt summers in the Hudson Valley, Godfrey hopes to enshrine the entertainment for which the resorts were famous in a Comedy Hall of Fame.
“It will be the revitalizing centerpiece of the Ellenville community,” he enthuses.
While he still needs to work with Ellenville officials to put together a proposal, he has confidence that it will come together and that the inclusion of the museum will help the village secure funding. If everything goes smoothly and he secures the $2 million in aid he requests, he estimates a target opening date for the Catskill Resort Museum in 2025.
“The impact that the Catskills resorts had on resort culture was phenomenal,” he says. “It’s important for people to understand the impact they had on American culture.”