Photo by Jackie Jakaitis
Upstate Mod House and basement jazz club Love, Velma curate a retro experience with live music and craft cocktails in the Hudson Valley.
Nick Gordon always wanted to revisit the Borscht Belt model and run a classic Catskills hotel of his own. What he didn’t foresee was reviving a mid-century modern masterpiece with a swinging jazz club in the basement.
“I was not looking for a house quite like this when I was searching in upstate New York. I was searching for something small and easy,” Gordon recalls. When he discovered the Mod House in Ellenville, it was a far cry from small; nearly 4,200 sq ft and four bedrooms comprise this time capsule of the 1960s. However, the home’s unique history immediately captivated him.
Prominent architect Dick McDole built the house in 1959, and it’s only had three owners in its lifetime since. Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence shines through McDole’s design, which was perfected while the architect lived in the Mod House with his family. Eventually, he sold it to an eccentric doctor and his wife, Velma—the namesake for Gordon’s pop-up speakeasy.
“The lore of the house always goes back to them whenever I hear stories from the locals,” he explains. Apparently, they threw wild parties in their 2,000-sq-ft basement. Initially constructed as a shooting range, the space downstairs presents a window into a bygone era. Loud music, eclectic crowds, and plenty of dancing marked the experience down there. This certainly wasn’t the home Gordon expected to find.
“My realtor tipped me onto the listing, which had unbelievably beautiful photos….I came to love Ellenville’s past, as well as its potential. It changed my vision of life,” he says. Gordon, a seasoned vet of the music industry, spent the last two decades living in Brooklyn. During his real estate search, he initially only wanted a weekend home in the Hudson Valley. Yet upon finding this architectural treasure, he was tempted to relocate to the region full-time. He closed on it in 2019 and, when the pandemic struck, he retreated to the Shawangunks permanently.
While in lockdown, his concept for the Mod House started to take shape. Gordon began by bringing the home into the “ecologically progressive age.” He equipped the Mod House with the tech to run on 100-percent solar power with help from a friend of his who, like many others, lost work due to COVID-19. This triple threat electrician-contractor-plumber moved into the Mod House with his partner and, together, the three of them tackled a myriad of restorative projects over the next year and a half. They built a retaining wall and a new roof. In addition, they tore up all the oak wood flooring in the basement (due to mold from Hurricane Sandy).
Next, Gordon had to furnish the house. Beer in hand, he spent hours browsing auction sites online. He drove out to vintage stores, garage sales, and estate auctions throughout the Hudson Valley.
“Yeah, well, that’s been the fun part. I mean, I’ve been collecting mid-century modern pieces forever,” he reveals. After studying classic brands and contemporary trends, Gordon’s eye was sharpened for quality. Slowly, the Mod House came to life with retro furniture and funky décor.
The first official guests of the Mod House checked in during July 2021. Gordon hosts the property as “a communal lodge of sorts, with me, my dog Puddin’, and my cat Neala serving as maître d’s.” He advertises “bed n’ booze” stays via Airbnb. as each room comes with complimentary beer, wine, and pastries. Currently, visitors choose between the Zen Bedroom on the main floor and the Artists Quarters downstairs. (If two parties know each other, there’s a third room available upstairs that shares a bathroom with the Zen Bedroom.)
Guests have access to the entire house, striking up esoteric conversations in stunning common areas. While on the property, it’s possible to see wild turkeys, eagles, bears, bluejays, turtles, and the property’s resident groundhog, nicknamed “Gary.”
Of course, there’s also something you won’t find mentioned on Airbnb. Gordon saves the surprise of his basement speakeasy for check-in time. On Saturdays, he invites guests of the Mod House downstairs for free cocktails and lively conversation. On special Saturdays, pop-up jazz club Love, Velma takes over.
In the first part of the evening, hip jazz bands perform on the subterranean stage. Love, Velma’s jazz-adjacent lineup often expands to groovin’ funk groups and moving soul artists. Gordon is recreating a lounge scene in the foothills of the Borscht Belt. Solo piano players, comedians, and performance artists are all on the table for future events. Once the “variety show” portion of the evening concludes, Love, Velma transforms into a bumping dance floor with live DJ sets.
“Many artists come up from the city, or are on tour and have dates in New York City or Canada. If they have a show the night before or the night after, it’s a great way to make some extra money and experience a destination weekend,” Gordon says. He has a knack for selecting top-tier talent, with 25 years of experience in music. For instance, he currently serves as the CCO and GM of Symphonic Distribution, a digital music services company. Wayne Tucker and the Bad Mothas, Tamar Korn, Jesse Gelber, and Sweet Megg round out a few of the acts to grace the stage so far.
“Plus, [the artists are] getting a built-in audience who are coming for the experience and not paying for a concert ticket. They’re paying for a one-night membership to Love, Velma.”
And, when it’s time to see a show at Love, Velma, you’ll be ready.
Once a month, “members” are contacted to pay their “dues.” For one price, members get a ticket to that month’s Love, Velma event. Think cocktail attire, mod makeup, dashing ’60s airline pilots, and retro gowns. Every part of the house is built for entertaining. In most cases, each room has a line of sight to the other rooms of the house (as well as the lawn). According to Gordon, its design creates this feeling of connectivity—even between people spread throughout the property. Once downstairs in the speakeasy, members are treated to complimentary drinks, entertainment, and cannabis.
“I have been sourcing from the Berkshires, and integrating the cannabis element has been really cool. It’s very lowkey and again, something that just comes with your ticket,” Gordon describes. “Pre-rolls are available, and you can have a nice puff while you’re listening to good jazz. What could be wrong with that?” Eventually, he hopes to work with local Hudson Valley cannabis growers to make it a “homebrew club” in a sense. So far, it’s been it’s been more difficult to pull that off.
Gordon continues to foster relationships with local beverage producers. Love, Velma will serve Hudson Valley products when possible. Morning coffee comes from Ellenville businesses, and herbs and vegetables are cultivated in the Mod House garden.
As far as the cocktails go, they’re as much a part of Love, Velma’s mystique as anything else. For instance, the airline-themed Halloween party had an equally top-flight menu of drinks. “First Class” was a red wine/whiskey cocktail, while rum-based “Bermuda Triangle” brought a tropical vibe to the party. A gin cocktail called “The Stewardess,” featured lime, ginger, and an earthy gentian liqueur. It actually sold out—the “scarlet letter of any quality speakeasy, but the product of a very well-mixed drink,” Gordon recalls.
In his brief time running a bar, Gordon learned that the best thing you can do is listen to your bartenders. They will help you run a great bar and create a really good flow. So, he lets them curate the drinks, with one stipulation: don’t be too hoity-toity.
At Love, Velma, bartenders pour concoctions at an original wooden bar. Legend has it that the bar originally belonged to Matthews Pharmacy in the ’50s, until McDole sourced it for the Mod House.
The second season of Love, Velma events commences in January 2022. In addition to live music, the Mod House also hosts art events. In fall 2021, it held a group art show, titled “Hanging at Home”—a cheeky play on the setting. The curator was Julie McKim, a mainstay of the New York art world with experience at The Whitney, Performa, The Kitchen, and Kunsthalle Galapagos.
Above all, Gordon wants the Mod House to be a center of creativity.
“There’s a piano, there’s a studio for painting, there’s tons of room to write. I’m trying to attract people who want to come to a unique hotel experience and work on things—either in collaboration with other guests, or just an escapist experience. We had a ballet dancer, and a painter who were here separately. After the Love, Velma cocktail party, there was a collaborative ballet music jam, while another couple made paintings in the back room,” Gordon says. “It was really incredible, and something that just happened completely extemporaneously. I encourage people to come and actively use the space.”