Overlooking a beautiful lake in New York’s Catskills is a large crumbling ruin. Painted completely white, its peeling paint, two wrap around porches and imposing grandeur wouldn’t look out of place in a Louisiana plantation. The vast lawns that stretch down to the lakeside are over grown, and it lies forgotten and falling apart. But once, this grand ruin was a luxurious hotel, whose rooms were filled with well to do Manhattanites escaping the city. We went to explore the sad tale of the White Lake Mansion House, a decaying relic of what was once known as the Silver Age of the Catskills.
We are in the Catskills of Sullivan County, an hour and half or so northwest of Manhattan. This charming region is filled with mountains, lakes and small towns, that made it an ideal location for weekend getaways from New York. Throughout the Catskills you can still find the abandoned remnants of the fabled holiday resorts that once made up the ‘Borscht Belt’.
This was the ‘golden age’ of the Catskills following World War Two, when grand, sprawling resorts such as Grossinger’s, the Concorde and the Pines attracted such glamorous names as Elizabeth Taylor, Mel Brooks and Eddie Fisher, as well as hundreds of thousands of mostly Jewish vacationing New Yorkers.
At one point, there were a staggering 500 hotels and resorts in Sullivan County. But the glory years of the Borscht Belt were short lived; the advent of cheaper air travel saw holiday makers travel further afield in the summer, and the grand resorts, ball rooms, swimming pools and hotels of the Borscht Belt crumbled away.
But half a century before, the Catskills were home to a different sort of vacationer; the upper middle class clubmen and well-heeled gentlemen of Manhattan. And more often than not, they came to stay at the White Lake House Mansion.
“There are few persons in the Great Metropolis who spend their summer-months in the country who not know and appreciate the attractive loveliness of this place; so that it has become the resort of substantial men,” wrote James Eldridge Quinlan in his 1873 guide to Sullivan County.
As more sporting gentlemen from the City came to the Catskills to shoot, fish, play golf and dine, grand hotels were needed in favour of rural boarding houses. Swiftly, modest traditional accommodations such as Pleasant View Cottage, Sylvan Grove House and Lakewood Cottage were usurped by swish hotels such as you might expect to find in Manhattan; the Grand Central Hotel, The Columbia, the Sportsman’s Home and the Kensington.
One group of monied gentlemen clubbed together to finance what would become the grandest of them all. It was named after the body of water, the front balconies overlooked: the White Lake Mansion House.
“One of the most luxurious and comfortable hotels north of Philadelphia,” claimed the hotel, which offered “pure and bracing air, beautiful view. Washroom with running water on every floor.”
These hotels in the Catskills were appealing to a new class of man in American history, the monied middle class gentlemen born out of the Industrial Revolution. Soon the Catskills were filled with clubmen from Madison Square Park, salesmen for the grand department stores of Ladies Mile, or merchants for the dry goods houses of Lower Broadway, all looking to escape the clanking street cars, gas lamps, soot and grime of Manhattan. Others came to the Catskills on doctor’s orders; “Physicians frequently send invalids to recover health from its life giving qualities,” reported the New York Times. “Instances of recovery almost incredible might be given: so that those who wish to combine rare scenery with healthiness of climate, a sojourn during the summer-months is desirable.”
This was the beginning of the middle class summer holiday industry. “A requisite amount of rest and recreation is a duty you own to yourself,” declared one brochure for White Lake. “If experienced, you will testify that more can actually be accomplished in forty-eight or fifty weeks of business effort, with the other two to four weeks spent in recreation, than by close application for the whirling fifty-two weeks of the year.”
Such was the take up of gentlemen and occasionally their families, for a relaxing trip to the Catskills that a new railroad soon thrived; the long forgotten Port Jervis, Monticello and New York Railroad, whose Pullman cars leaving Manhattan were soon filled with the well-heeled.
“This actual necessity for a summer outing has been established beyond dispute,” declared another brochure. “How often have you seen a neighbor or friend after arranging for a few weeks, during which the regular employment is laid aside, spend the whole time at home, and go back to the old life without the light step and hearty visor which characterises the man who toured, golfed, hunted or fished, breathing new life, and dollar upon dollar’s worth of renewed vitality in the fresh air of the mountains.”
Once the gentlemen arrived in Monticello, the main town of the Catskills, they were met by coach for the drive to White Lake. “The drive from Monticello to White Lake is one of the features of the trip,” claimed H. J. COX, the General Passenger Agent of the PJ, M & NYRR. “Mountain stages meet all trains at Monticello, and the road leads over hills by easy grades; the views en route are varied and grand.”
White Lake itself was originally known by the native Lenape as Lake Kaumaonga. The New York Times of July 21st, 1893, didn’t hesitate to proclaim its charms. “There is a locality in Sullivan County, New-York State, that in many respects surpasses in natural loveliness any place to be found even in these celebrated beauty spots of the world, that have been made historic by their diversified scenery and impressive general picturesqueness…it is known as White Lake.”
But for all its natural beauty, the Silver Age of the Catskills were short lived. Wealthy New Yorkers started venturing further afield for their summer relaxation, and the grand hotels gave way to the mostly Jewish resorts of the Borscht Belt, which in turn became ruins. The White Lake Mansion House thrived for around eighty years, but today stands as an empty reminder of a forgotten age. Where once Manhattan gentlemen would have gathered over a glass of Old Hennessy to discuss their day’s sport, today the hotel rooms are empty, stripped down to the bare floorboards.