It’s hard to describe a place like the deteriorating ruins of The Cold Spring House, especially if you’ve never had the experience of visiting it yourself. The remaining residue of The Catskill Mountains and their heyday as a resort destination – hotels such as this one once catered to primarily Jewish clientele during the 20th century, looking for a little relaxation from the turbulence of New York City in the scenic Catskills. Driving through the gripping, winding road through the Kaaterskill Forest, with wild rivers cutting through steep hardwood shrouded peaks that resembled saw teeth, it wasn’t hard to see the allure.
This is the first time I had ever been to the Catskills region before, and my target village of Tannersville made an attractive first impression, which I was incredibly relieved with after the problematic start to my day. It almost seemed like I would never make it to the Catskills, as numerous setbacks, construction projects and traffic jams kept delaying travel time, each hour of precious daylight being swallowed by the oncoming October evening. Because we were making a 5 hour drive down from Vermont, I was determined to make this count.
Navigating the highways of New York, we passed by many derelict structures and sordid towns that were more depressing than anything, reminders of the decreasing amount of tourists in the area. A passing visitor to the area, I admittedly knew little about it apart from conversations with friends who grew up around there, and a few things I’ve read. I definitely had no local insider information, so anything I took in was most commonly coming through the view of the windshield.
As we approached Tannersville, the comedown daylight was filtered through a black sky foreshadowing fury that never seemed to come. The air was crisp, carrying the smell of dead leaves, as chilly mists began to settle on our faces. It felt like it was going to rain, but it never came, and the mists continued to be misleading. There we were, staring up at the imposing ruins of the Cold Spring House, and it’s various stages of decay. The slumping roofs and bending wooden frame ripped open several holes in the building, giving off dead weight that popped out windows and pushed various items through the glass. It was well into the evening now, but we had made it, with just enough light to photograph and do a little exploring. But the question was, where do I even start?
From what I know about the place, it was one of the earlier Catskills hotels, on the outskirts of the Borscht Belt, an area once a dazzling vacation-land now reincarnated as a collection of behemoth and storied abandonments. The Cold Spring House was a grand showpiece, which was very different from the closet cottages and revelrous resorts the area was known for at that time.
Built on what is now Spruce Street in the 1890s, it was the second largest hotel in Tannersville, as well as the first Jewish hotel in town – able to accommodate 200 guests at the base of mountains rising to around 2,200 feet. It started as a hotel called Bieber’s Cold Spring House, but was sold in 1922 to Saber Khouri, and re-branded simply as The Cold Spring House.
According to a 1904 advertisement I was able to find online, the property featured expansive lawns, offering tennis and croquet grounds, surrounded by old trees offering comfortable shade on summer days. There were farms on the property that supplied the hotel with fresh milk and vegetables everyday, which were pared with what the ad boasted as excellent table service in the form of German and Hungarian cuisine. And of course, fresh spring water was offered – from the springs which the hotel derived it’s name from. The hotel was also widely regarded for it’s popular classical concerts on the lawn. Two signature towers at opposite ends of the building, now slumping dangerously, were once observatories, giving guests extensive views of the mountains. Today, that view would be worth the price of your life.
What I found interesting about the advertisement was that it boasted such amenities as “sanitary plumbing and fire extinguishers on every floor” – items that we take for granted today, but around that time period, were new features and were only beginning to be enforced by laws. I’m sure that was a selling point – definitely a plus when I choose a hotel. But it makes sense. The time period was a time of transition. There was a nationwide push that required to implement such systems, but it was a costly expense to outfit these old buildings, and many old hotels couldn’t afford keeping up with the competition.
The advertisement also stated that the hotel was continuously expanding as it’s increasing popularity was luring more and more people to stay there each season. Older photos showed a much different building, with only one tower, and most of the western wing not yet added. The final product was a much larger and grander property – the brooding structure you see today.
But times certainly have changed. During the late 20th century, much of the region fell out of favor as a vacation destination. With an increase of automobile travel and an ever burgeoning highway system, more Americans were driving, and could travel farther distances and see more places,. Now, they no longer had to settle for the closest area available – a trend that I’ve seen so many times in humbled abandonments I’ve visited. Tannersville was no exception. Many vacation homes eventually were abandoned and hotels were shuttered. The Cold Spring House fell into the trend, and was abandoned in the 60s, leaving quite the compelling ruin in it’s wake.
It literally hunches over Spruce Street in it’s old age, leaning in all directions. A symbol of human progress and the change of the times, something inevitable that tends to leave growing pains on the often bumpy road of advancement and the fodder of bandwagon fads. In an ironic sense, this more off beat form of tourism can also serve as a poignant melding of public awareness, a chance to learn from our past.
Today, Tannersville is more known for it’s proximity to Hunter Mountain Ski Area than a summer destination, but while many Borscht Belt towns are still struggling, Tannersville seems to be in the middle of some sort of revival. As it was explained to me, people started to rediscover the town and were taken by it’s natural beauty. Old vacation homes began to be fixed up at expensive costs because of the bad shape they had deteriorated to, and more businesses have opened up on Route 23A.
As for the Cold Spring House though, I had the pleasant chance to speak with photographer Linda O’Donnell, who has been researching and documenting the building’s deterioration for the past several years. She informed me that the place has been scheduled for demolition since 2012, but demolition by neglect may happen before any actual bulldozers arrive on the property. It makes you wonder, when will the familiar become just history?
This was truly one of the most spectacular places I’ve had the chance to photograph (and a great change of scenery from Vermont!), but with it’s awe inspiring profile came very tangible dangers. As I walked around and got to know the place better, I was able to recognize something very quickly. The building was far too dangerous to venture inside, and because of our late start, there was little daylight left. Peeking in through an opened window, I was met with an interior of collapsing floors, wooden walls intended to support the structure were crushed into an accordion like resemblance, and various artifacts collected in indistinguishable piles of fragments covered in dust and lead paint speckles. The weight was so great in some places that many things had actually been pushed through the floor, which was already cracking on the added weight of my body. That musty old building smell wafted out from the opening, mixed with a heavy damp musk. To my far left, a staircase, illuminated by the dull light of broken windows, climbed above the wreckage and into the mysterious upper floors. Or what was left of them. Though I ached to go inside, that would have been an idea that probably would have been counter productive to my travel plans, which were to leave intact and alive.
For a relatively rural back street, the traffic was thunderous, a constant roar of pick up trucks going by, and slowing down when they noticed me with my camera. Because New York State has very unforgiving rules against trespassing, and with me being in such a surprisingly public area where I would no doubt be trapped should I be caught, the odds were stacked against me.
I had no choice but to keep a safe distance. But the exterior alone was worth the drive. The tops of the building still wore it’s yellow paint job, the original color of the hotel, while the lower levels were weather worn into a dull grey and showed signs of various stages of rotten cavities that completely ate through the walls. Older photos showed a sign that read “Cold Spring” that hung over the porch near the front entrance, but when I visited, that was also long gone, the last clue to it’s identity.
Signs of human presence were everywhere. Graffiti was found on many of the upper windows, and not the good kind of graffiti – instead, it was the almost expected profanity and unoriginal racial slur sort of stuff. But, it also meant that some adventurous intruders made the trip to the upper floors…
I often find strange items left behind when I explore – and this was no exception. There was an interestingly large collection of abandoned records found all around the hotel, most on the front lawn, tangled in tall grass and cedar trees. Some of them were arranged specifically, with various items such as kitchen utensils and bottles filled with suspicious colored liquids in them, propped purposely around the sides. I didn’t recognize any of the artists – but some looked like they would have been right at home in some embarrassing 70s porno.
Just gazing up at the place and looking in the numerous windows offered many things to see. Radiators that had fallen out broken windows. A glimpse of a bed post. Dark rooms with holes in the ceiling letting in the dying daylight. Old glass bottles left on windowsills. Then the wind blows, and the eerie creeks of a shutter can be heard, before it bangs loudly against a wall several stories above you – you see the movement, and your pulse quickens as you jump to conclusions. Despite the reliable hum of noise outside, closer to the hotel, things faded into an uncomfortable silence that was almost loud in itself. It was quite startling considering it was just a short walk down the lawn that offered such a fast transition.
Not wanting to draw attention by staying too long, we left and began the journey back to Vermont, the Cold Spring House leaving a lasting impression.
The Cold Spring House Today
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of information on this place. Most of what I was able to compile in this post came from speaking with various people, and a good article I found online from the Register-Star
There is also a group on Flickr I found, dedicated to sharing memories and photos of it.
This is one of my favorite things I came across while researching. Here is a fascinating article and photographic journalism piece about the Borscht Belt
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