Photographs by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

From the New York Times
August 26, 2000

Fragile Recovery for Village of Spas


New Admirers Try to Rebuild Retreat of 19th-Century Elite

By GLENN COLLINS

S

HARON SPRINGS, N.Y. -- The ghost town of the white elephants.

That is the way many old-timers here still think of this historic mineral-spring village. For decades its gingerbready, abandoned Victorian resort hotels perfectly demonstrated the triumph of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics: disorder always increases. Porches inevitably sag. Roofs must collapse.

Even now, to boast that Sharon Springs has undergone a miraculous rebirth is way premature.

But here's the situation: The moldering wood-frame hotels have ceased flaring like Ronsons from the torches of firebugs. The din and sawdust of restoration are everywhere. The most threatened hotels and guest houses are being renovated. Eager tourists are arriving to seek out shabby chic amid the phosphorescence of decay. Spas, mineral baths and curative waters have a select new generation of acolytes. And it must be acknowledged: there is now cappuccino. There are focaccia sandwiches. There is chilled curried ginger carrot soup.

The Roseboro Hotel, being restored by Dawne Belloise and Dennis Giacomo, top, dates to an era when Sharon Springs, N.Y., drew luminaries like Oscar Wilde, who signed the register at another hotel.


 

 In the Mohawk Valley and Leatherstocking domains, the revival of Sharon Springs "is representative of what's happening all over the region, but the village was so far down that the effort is all the more impressive," said Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society of New York. He has spent every summer near Sharon Springs since boyhood and has observed the nascent renaissance with surprise, and delight.

State Senator James L. Seward, who represents Sharon Springs, said: "There are many such efforts by revitalization groups in a lot of towns in this region, but the turnaround in Sharon Springs is more dramatic than anywhere in my district. These people are making believers out of everyone."

 Less than a decade ago, said Dawne Belloise, "at least 80 percent of Main Street was condemned." Ms. Belloise, a Coloradan who first saw the crumbling five-block main drag in 1990, was so charmed by "this eerie village," as she put it, that she moved to Main Street and now, to her astonishment, she finds herself working "100 hours a day" restoring a ruined grande dame, the 130-room, 150-year-old Roseboro Hotel.

The comeback of this profoundly neglected village in an economically stressed region was not sanctioned by a penny of government money at the start. Nor was it underwritten by millionaires. "It came right up from the ground, a grass-roots effort by a group of individual people making individual decisions," Mr. Barwick said. "And it could reach critical mass."

The viability of this revival is related to such variables as the prevailing economy, the uninterrupted supply of affluent, educated second-homers from New York City (three and a half hours away) and Columbia County (two hours away) and new cyberworkers in the area, and the exponential growth of a new travel phenomenon, heritage tourism: the quest for things historic by well-heeled tourists.

There is history all right, in abundance. Sharon Springs, which has a current year-round population of 550, once drew 10,000 resort visitors in the summer. In the mid-19th century, Vanderbilts and Roosevelts arrived with Adirondacks of baggage. President Ulysses S. Grant visited the village's Pavilion Hotel to take the waters. Oscar Wilde led porch-side readings.

Then the fickle rich abandoned the village for Saratoga Springs. But members of the wealthy Jewish elite were snubbed there, so they made Sharon Springs a refuge of their own. Ultimately the village became a magnet for middle-class Jews. Sharon Springs was known for its magnesium water, iron-rich water, sulfur water and "bluestone" water for healing the eyes.

After World War II, Sharon Springs got a second wind from the West German government, which paid medical care reparations to Holocaust survivors, holding that therapeutic spa vacations were a legitimate part of the medical package. Many hotel guests had tattoos on their arms.

"It was flourishing when I was there," said former Mayor Edward I. Koch, who in the summer of 1946, at the age of 22, was a busboy in the Adler Hotel. "But I couldn't enjoy the mineral springs because I was a slavey."

Mr. Barwick remembers "streets awash with Satmars" and "70 women on the Roseboro porch, all playing cards." But by the 1960's, the resort hotels were dying or dead, victims of turnpike motels, cheap jet fares and a restless new generation of tourists. Driving through on his way to Albany, Senator Seward, who lives half an hour from Sharon Springs, remembered that "there were times when you wouldn't see a living person," he said. "It was an eerie scene, with these magnificent structures; the phrase 'ghost town' would come to mind."

 


Ruth Fremson/ The New York Times

A woman soaking in water from sulfur springs at the Imperial Baths. The resorts of Sharon Springs once drew 10,000 summer visitors.


 

 The most imposing surviving white elephant in the village was the disintegrating four-story Roseboro, which started life in the 1830's as a residence, began welcoming guests in 1850 and kept expanding until 1915. Until recently, the collapsing structure was a time capsule, with calendars on the wall from 1968 (the year it closed).

Its would-be saviors are Ms. Belloise and her partner, Dennis Giacomo, now both 48, who were on vacation looking for property near Cooperstown 20 miles away and were "sucked in by Sharon Springs the second we saw it," she said.

They bought an 1859 Italianate house on Main Street for $25,000 in 1992 and have been renovating it ever since. Mr. Giacomo, an executive recruiter for Dennis Allen Inc., a specialist in insurance-industry management, was able to move in "because I'm in a fax-and-phone business," he said.

The mayor invited Ms. Belloise to be on the planning board, and within a year she was heading it up. Then she reinvented the inactive Sharon Springs Chamber of Commerce. Soon Ms. Belloise, an overachiever, became president of the Sharon Historical Society, and she and Mr. Giacomo founded a free summer concert-and-theater series on Main Street.

Ms. Belloise also led a successful 1996 application to list the 177 structures in the village on the National Register of Historic Places as a mineral resort.

Meanwhile, Doug Plummer, a former actor and caterer for Glorious Food in Manhattan, and Garth Roberts, a pianist and musical-theater director, were so taken with the area that they bought a vacation house near Sharon Springs in the early 90's, then moved there permanently.

Looking for a way to make a living, and eyeing the village's defunct greasy spoon, they opened the Rockville Cafe and Bakery in 1993 on Main Street. Before long it became the local hangout for townies, farmers and new residents, many of whom became the nucleus for the rebirth of the village.

Concerned that the collapsing Roseboro might be demolished or succumb to firebugs, Ms. Belloise and Mr. Giacomo tried to find a buyer. No such luck. To their mutual horror, they found themselves offering the owners a low bid of $20,000, "knowing they'd turn it down," said Ms. Belloise, but ultimately it was accepted. "We had a stiff drink. The reality was that we thought we'd just committed ourselves to a $3 million project, when we had maybe $30,000 to spend."

Actually, so far they have spent $250,000, by dipping into savings, selling off properties and getting second mortgages on everything in sight. Now they have a $150,000 line of credit from the Bank of Richmondville, a local institution.

Their ultimate goal is to open the Roseboro as a hotel, but in the interim, they have sufficiently refurbished the lobby, the parlor and the men's prayer room (now the kitchen) to accept their first banquet booking, a wedding on Sept. 23.

Up Main Street, Mr. Plummer, 40, and Mr. Roberts, 39, are restoring a smaller white elephant, the stately American Hotel, an 1847 Greek Revival with 26 rooms that closed in the 1950's. They bought it for $18,000 "and if you like decay," Mr. Plummer said, "it's quite something." Mushrooms sprouted from timber supports. Dead raccoons were on the second floor.

Totting up their savings, loans from parents and friends, and a low-interest loan from the Mohawk Valley Economic Development District, they have amassed $400,000 to save the American. They and their contractors are toiling to open nine guest rooms, a bar and a dining room by next April.

Locals were startled by the energy of the newcomers. "I couldn't fathom the idea of these people getting in so much trouble over an old hotel," said Omer Cousineau, 65, a letter carrier in Sharon Springs for 30 years. "You know, other people tried to bring them back before, and failed."

Beyond this, "a lot of the older people around here were opposed to change," said Henrietta McFee, 77, who has lived in Sharon Springs since 1961. The new revivalists struggled for three years to change the village zoning so that hotels, restaurants and bars could legally operate once more.

"There were times when I thought it was all over here," said Richard Brustman, 58, who has witnessed the death and rebirth of the town since 1945, when his family ran a hotel, the Brustman House.

"The town was resigned to its fate, but Dawne wouldn't let people give up," he said of Ms. Belloise.

Once the ball got rolling, Senator Seward helped the town get a $25,000 state grant to develop a park on Main Street; the New York State Council for the Humanities kicked in $11,000 to install 20 permanent walking-tour plaques on Main Street. And Ms. Belloise, a Web designer, created and paid for the village's elaborate site, www.sharonsprings.com.

The nucleus of regenerators slowly grew. Maureen Iseman-Broeking, a model and actress and a friend of Mr. Plummer's, bought a house on Main Street and is now a yoga and dance teacher and village trustee. Clyde and Pat McLean drove to a garage sale in Sharon Springs and wound up buying not only the garage, but also the house.

They allow themselves to think it will all work out. "What's happened is great, but it could all disappear so easily," Mr. Plummer said.

The restorers, most of whom are not Jewish, keep toiling away, trying to make Sharon Springs new again while retaining such artifacts as the ritual mezuzas on the door frames and other traces of the lost world. So what are all these gentiles doing restoring Jewish hotels?

"We were chosen," said Mr. Plummer with a laugh. "No, really, we have a feeling that the hotels picked us. We believe these are living entities. That's the only way to explain why they survived so much adversity and neglect."