Upstate Motels Make a Comeback, With an Aim to Captivate

The Four Percent


Dana Bowen and her husband, Lindsay Bowen, both 49, initially had been looking to buy a roomy outpost away from New York City that could double as a vacation rental. The couple have a Brooklyn apartment, and a small house in the quaint village of Athens, in Greene County, and habitually scouted Catskill and Hudson Valley property listings looking for “the one” — something big enough to host family and friends, and rent out the rest of the time.

But they didn’t want to be innkeepers. Bed-and-breakfasts felt too stodgy, and nothing quite fit what they envisioned: a place with a vibe or infrastructure that felt special, with ample private guest rooms and bathrooms, and enough space for sizable groups to gather.

Like the rest of the world, social distancing wasn’t on their radar until the arrival of Covid-19 when, suddenly, pandemic-induced guidelines for human interaction became sobering edicts of a new reality. For the Bowens, these protocols got them ruminating about buying an upstate motel instead. They weren’t alone.

Bygone roadside motels and bungalow colonies, which have been hiding in plain sight throughout the region, are getting a second chance at becoming tourist destinations. Now, these rentals are primed for visitors craving a chance to be social with strangers, but in moderation.

In the future, the Starlite plans to offer foraging sessions for edible mushrooms and plants abundant in the area, and essential oil formulation workshops, even opera performances from a second-floor balcony. Guests can also expect to see art in the outdoor spaces.

The business partners bought the circa 1958 property in 2018 for $300,000 and have spent about half a million dollars on renovations. “It was a true time capsule,” said Ms. Farmiga, who partially grew up in the Catskills and works as a visual artist and an associate dean at Cooper Union School of Art. “The curtains matched the wallpaper, which also matched the bedspreads in rooms,” she said. The original sign stayed, as did the vintage blue on the doors, which matches the retro key tags. The outside got a face lift in a shade of pale pink.

“It’s somewhere between the Venn aesthetics of Wes Anderson, Palm Springs and the Caribbean. I was also imagining this color palette could weather the seasons here,” Ms. Farmiga said.

The Starlite had a soft opening in December 2019, and accepted reservations two weeks before Covid lockdown shut them down. But the motel hung on. This summer, all 16 rooms have been fully booked, and they are anticipating a packed fall and winter season. Currently, weekend rates range from $250 to $299 a night with a two-night minimum stay.

In the early to mid-20th century, resorts catering to throngs of city dwellers seeking a social summer upstate blanketed the region. Many of these Catskill destinations, in what is known as the “borscht belt,” were in the business of exuberance. Properties with hundreds of acres. Dining rooms that could seat thousands of people. Endless entertainment featuring stand-up comedians, touring bands and nights full of dining and dancing.

These roadside stops were more modest and are now filling a void, said Lisa Berger, the director of tourism and film for Ulster County. Motels, a blend of the words “motor” and “hotel,” first appeared in California in the 1920s as a place for motorists who sought an efficient car-to-bed arrangement, an idea that is seeing a resurgence.

Motels aren’t as familiar to younger generations, because road trip travel changed forever when domestic air travel in the 1960s became more popular. But today, outward-facing rooms and unshared hallways are optimal in a pandemic world.

“We wanted to be as respectful to its history as possible and give the community a chance to own a piece of the Terrace,” Ms. Nelson said. Sure enough, some die-hard pickers traveled up to five hours one way to attend, and even the vintage drapes were sold. But not everything was relinquished. Existing motel signs and a telephone booth will be restored, and the vintage reception desk and bar will be rehabbed, along with several light fixtures.

Though the redesign is only just starting, future guests aren’t waiting to express their interest in blocking time for celebrations. “We’re shocked at how many requests we’ve already received to book weddings,” Ms. Allen said.

Some owners are taking this moment to sell and move on, ready to start new chapters outside of the motel business.

Kate’s Lazy Meadow, which features 10 cabins on 6.5 acres in Mount Tremper in Ulster County, and was owned and operated by the B-52’s singer Kate Pierson and the artist Monica Coleman since 2004, just sold for $2.25 million.

The cabin interiors look plucked straight from the past: a bonanza of colors, retro-inspired furnishings and 1950s style kitchens.

Forty miles south in Sullivan County is the Glen Wilde, a 1940s colony of eight renovated one- and two-bedroom seasonal bungalows on 11 acres, now on the market for $850,000. The property, in Mountain Dale, has 17 units — nine unrenovated units have been gutted and are in need of T.L.C. — as well as a newly renovated four-bedroom stone house. The remodeled dwellings each feature a full kitchen and bath.

Guests started arriving in July. Rates are $1,750 (plus tax) a night for use of the whole property, which includes all 10 rooms and 16 beds, with discounts for longer stays. (The Bowens manage the lodge from their home in Athens.) “While it’s ideal for family reunions and friends’ weekends, we also figured it would be the right size for creative and nonprofit communities to work on projects together,” Ms. Bowen said.


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