Resort Historical past: Libby’s Resort and Baths, New York, NY
- Mortgage companies began offering mortgage-backed securities, a new type of investment.
- One of the new buildings was the 12-story Libby’s Hotel and Baths, built in 1926 on the corner of Chrystie Street and Delancey Street in New York’s Lower East Side.
- It was the first all-Jewish luxury hotel with an ornate swimming pool, modern gym, Russian-Turkish baths, and lounges that were open to the entire community.
The developer was Max Bernstein, an immigrant from Slutzk, Russia who came to New York with his family in 1900 when Max was 11 years old. The streets Max grew up on on the Lower East Side were filled with handcart sellers, some with horse-drawn carts, children playing street games, and tenement residents chatting on the steps. Unfortunately, when his mother Libby died within a year, Max ran away from home and spent the night in a small park nearby. In later years, Max said that his dream of building Libby’s Hotel on the corner of Chrystie Street and Delancey Street came to him that night.
After having owned a number of restaurants, all called Libby’s, for years, Max was able to purchase land in his favorite corner, where he built the hotel, which opened on April 5, 1926, putting an extraordinary amount of energy and money into an extensive advertising campaign in the many Yiddish-language newspapers . On the opening day, the New York Times and other newspapers reported on the grand opening. The Libby Hotel had a spectacular two-story lobby with a colorful plaster ceiling supported by fluted marble columns. The hotel had meeting rooms, ballrooms, and two kosher restaurants. Max hosted charity events and swimming classes for neighborhood kids.
The Libby Hotel broadcast from the first Yiddish radio station WFBH (from the top of the Westside Hotel Majestic) with famous entertainers, live theater and luminaries such as Sol Hurok, Rube Goldberg and George Jessel. Bernstein spared no expense and hired Josef Cherniavsky, director of the Yiddish-American jazz band and widely known as the Jewish Paul Whiteman, as its musical director. The hotel appeared to be a huge hit for the first two years, but in late 1928 the roof collapsed.
A flood of new hotels had opened in New York. In order to remain solvent, many began to take care of Jews by vacuuming Max’s customers. Max might have been more competitive if his emotional state wasn’t already in a downward spiral; his wife Sarah died on October 20, 1926. In a later trial, Max would testify that the grief he was experiencing had made him inoperable.
In addition, its main creditor was the American Bond and Mortgage Company (AMBAM), a nonsensical predatory lender. Just before the 1929 stock market crash, AMBAM forced foreclosure on the hotel and, in a curious twist of fate, Mayor Jimmy Walker appointed Joseph Force Crater, a lawyer with Tammany connections, to be trustee. According to Judge Crater, AMBAM may have had inside knowledge of the city’s plan to expand Chrystie Street. In any case, AMBAM now claimed the hotel was worth $ 3.2 million (after Libby’s Hotel was only valued at $ 1.3 million for foreclosure). New York City took ownership of a major domain and paid AMBAM $ 2.85 million. The city then destroyed the buildings in the block, including Max Bernstein’s Libby’s Hotel and Baths.
But there is more to the story. In 1931, AMBAM was convicted of a similar scheme regarding the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. The same Judge Crater was the recipient of the Mayflower foreclosure. He disappeared four months later and has not been found since. Chrystie Street was widened, the Great Depression set in, and eventually the grounds were converted into Sara Delano Roosevelt Park by Robert Moses.
When Max Bernstein died on December 13, 1946, the New York Times obituary wrote: “Max Bernstein, 57, once a hotel owner … He built $ 3,000,000 buildings in slums just to see the memorial to Mother destroyed.”
That would be the end of this fascinating story, except that the article by Pakn Treger * reports on the following sequel:
Libby’s story was forgotten until the summer of 2001 when a section of sidewalk near the corner of Chrystie and Delancey Streets collapsed and a sinkhole was created. The hole grew large enough to swallow a whole tree and penetrated the streets of the city and the nearby senior center in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park. In those innocent days leading up to 9/11, the sinkhole appeared to be the greatest threat to Lower Manhattan.
The city’s engineers didn’t know the cause, so they dropped a camera into the void. To their amazement, they found an intact room with bookshelves 22 feet below the surface. When they searched the files in the city archives, they learned that Libby’s Hotel was once located there and that they had discovered a room in the basement. In a September 11, 2001 article in the New York Times, New York Park Inspector Henry J. Stern was quoted as saying, “It reminds me of Pompeii.”
Unlike Pompeii, no attempt was made to reach or excavate the space. The city’s engineers decided to fill it with mortar and bury the space and its mysterious contents. A new tree has been planted and the park has been repaved.
* “Ritz with a Shvitz” by Shulamith Berger and Jai Zion, Pakn Treger, spring 2009
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• Built to last: over 100 year old hotels west of the Mississippi (2017)
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