by Ross Padluck. Schiffer, June 2012. 176 p. ill ISBN 9780764343179 (cl.), $34.99.
Reviewed January 2014
Virginia Kerr, Digital Program Manager, Center for Research Libraries email@example.com
This is an attractive, lavishly illustrated treasure trove of information on a lost world (actually two different eras)—the resorts in the Catskill region of New York. The author, a New York architect, notes a personal interest in the vanished upstate environment first nurtured on family visits during the waning phase in the 1980s. This is a labor of love: Padluck acknowledges “a certain sublime romance that comes with a stoic old building slowly succumbing to the elements of time.” He includes a number of his own photographs and early postcards and pamphlets from his personal collection (other sources include the Library of Congress and New York Public Library). Yet this is by no means simply a nostalgic vanity album; it stands on its own as a carefully researched and organized record of buildings arguably representing the beginnings of America’s vacation industry.
There were two robust periods of tourism here: the “Silver Age” (1890-1915) saw the building of 200 hotels and guest houses, drawing visitors from the New York metropolitan area seeking fresh air and farm produce. Following World War I and the Depression came the “Golden Age” (1940-1965), when 538 hotels largely replaced the Victorian establishments, and along with around 50,000 bungalows provided an appealing destination for primarily Jewish clientele.
After brief essays, the book is arranged chronologically in chapters evoking the various locales, such as “Grossinger’s: the Kosher Acropolis.” Each hotel receives an entry illustrated with evocative contemporary views and in some cases plans or elevation drawings. There is ample detail about the hotel owners, architects, typical clientele, and ongoing campaigns of remodeling or expansion. The entries are very readable. A bibliography and brief endnotes list some secondary monographs and contemporary news accounts. The index is perfunctory; since the chapters are not numbered or marked by headings it is possible to get lost among the fascinating photographs.
Padluck notes that while in recent years histories have appeared on the “Borscht Belt” social and entertainment milieu, there is no body of writing on the architecture; in fact, preservation support may have suffered from disrespect for the structures as serious architecture. This work will be of great interest to historians and fans of popular culture and vernacular building. It is not necessarily essential for all students of architecture. While Padluck references other work by these architects and their peers, including mid-century Miami hotels, he does not attempt deeper cultural analysis. Compare for instance Alice Friedman’s American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture, but this is a solid, appealing work of regional documentation.
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