I am not a historian but I gave a history talk recently at my local library about a hotel that was torn down nearly 50 years ago. Sounds like a fun evening, right?
It was for me. I like to tell stories, particularly about people and places that have stuck to my soul. The General Worth Hotel in Hudson, NY, was one of those places.
I called my talk “A Community of Worth” because of the remarkable communities that surrounded the hotel, that lived nearby or worked there, and, ultimately, the broader Hudson community that fractured over its fate, resulting in its demise.
My story was not about the heated debate in 1969 on whether to save the hotel, although that is part of it. It is about how this place intersected with the lives of people on and around the 300 block of Warren Street. This included my mother's family and their life-long friends.
It was a neighborhood of working-class people, many descendants of Italian immigrants, who celebrated, gossiped, laughed, and mourned together. Many shared the same church, played the same numbers every day, and visited the same bars. The got by by running small shops, bartending and waitressing, or taking in work, such as sewing. The Worth was smack in the middle of their block and their lives, and they watched the world come and go through its doors.
My interest in the hotel's story started with the photo above of my parents outside the Worth on their wedding day, May 26, 1956. It always looked like a Hollywood movie set to me. That’s my mom, Rachel Borrelle Sheffer, in the wedding gown, with her arm over the shoulders of her mother, Anna Borrelle. My dad, Kenneth “Red” Sheffer, is trying to behave in front of his new mother-in-law. My parents had just been married around the corner at Mt. Carmel Church and were headed to their reception at the hotel.
My mother grew up two doors from the Worth in an apartment above a pool hall and soda fountain run by my grandfather, Frank Borrelle. My parents met in the Paramount Grill, which was three doors from the Worth.
There were other family connections to the Worth. My grandfather, Elmer Sheffer, was president of the Common Council and a mayoral candidate during the debate about the future of the vacant hotel. He expressed hope that some deep-pocketed savior would appear, but ultimately sided with those who feared a fire or wanted the site redeveloped.
I wrote a story about the Worth for the local newspaper in 1985 but my first experience with it came when I was 7 or 8. My brother and sister and I would walk back from Mass at Mt. Carmel on Sundays. Sometimes we stopped to run through the empty hallways. That was until my grandmother found out what we were doing and told us to stay away. We did because we were afraid of her.
I told you I am not a historian but some history is in order for you to understand this story.
The hotel, built in 1837, was a shining and rare example of Greek Revival architecture. It endured many owners and renovations but retained it majestic presence to its dying days (it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places just before being torn down). It had 100 rooms and a ballroom that seated 300 people. Every civic group of every kind held its events there and its comfortable lobby was filled with salesmen, brides, celebrities, transients, and party-goers.
Its financial health rose and fell with advances in transportation and the economy of Hudson. In its early days, stage coaches stopped there on the trip from New York City to Albany. This held true for early automobile era, but when cars became more reliable, their passengers no longer needed a room and a meal at the Worth.
The best part of the story was learning about the people who worked there or lived nearby. For example, one waitress said that when Eleanor Roosevelt visited for a political event in the 1950s, the waitresses stole and kept the silverware Mrs. Roosevelt used at dinner.
Business tapered off in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The building deteriorated. In 1965, after 128 years of hoteling, the Worth closed and four years later it was demolished by the city.
I am still drawn to the hotel's story and hope to learn more about it. At this point in my life, I know a good story when I see or hear it. This one is worth telling.