• by Karen Cummings

Remembering the Good Old Days

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but for Jim Amster, a little curiosity made for a very enjoyable weekend. "I had heard new people bought this place," he said Saturday evening, August 19 [1984], after a "fabulous" dinner at the new Wentworth Resort Hotel, " so I thought I should make the effort to come for a visit and see what they've done."

You see, Jim Amster knew Wentworth Hall well. "Seventy-six years young" now by his own description, Amster first came to Wentworth Hall as a young boy when he, his family, and their entourage were refused accommodations at a posh hotel in Saratoga due to a religious prejudice. "My father heard of this place in Jackson, so we packed up and drove all night to get here," he explained. Still run at the time by "Colonel" Wentworth, the resort intrigued the elder Amster and he made an off-hand bid to buy it, should the colonel ever be interested in selling.


"It wasn't very long after, 1912 or 1913, that we got a call from Mrs. Wentworth saying that Colonel Wentworth had died," Amster said, "and would my father still be interested in buying a place." Leo Amster, a Romanian immigrant and a mining engineer by profession, had made his fortune in mining and railroads, and was looking for something else on which to expend his energies. "My mother said, 'Leo, you don't know anything about the hotel business,' " Amster said with a laugh, "but he went ahead anyway."


That was the beginning of years of wonderful memories for the entire Amster family, who ran the Wentworth until 1945. "We were lucky that we had enough money so we didn't have to run it for a profit," said Amster. "It was my father's hobby, and my mother loved it, too."


In those days, Wentworth Hall stayed open for a mere two months in the summer -- "Our kind of people went to Saratoga for the races in the fall," Amster explained. "We had great people who came here, " he added. "They would come up for the whole season and bring their servants, maids, children's nurses, chauffers. And we would do everything to entertain them -- hayrides, games, sumptuous meals. No matter what our clients wanted, we would give them. Service was the name of the game." According to Amster, the guests returned for 20 to 30 years. "They loved the ambiance of Jackson."


Just as the country in the early part of the 20th century was different than it is now, so was the atmosphere at the Wentworth. With servants to attend to all the menial tasks, guests led a distinctly elegant life. Amster remembers wearing linen suits and his mother in evening gowns. Caviar was among the free hors d'ouevres served every evening. Guests brought their rubies, emeralds, and diamonds to Jackson for the season and stored them in a safe, bringing them out for formal dinners or dances. "It was a most extravagant place," he remembered. "We charged $75 to $100 a day even back then."


Wentworth Hall grew under the ownership of the Amsters. "It was much larger then," he remembered, "and seemed to just grow like topsy." When a soda fountain was added, it wasn't long before a building was built to house it. "I opened a ski hotel called Fairview Hall, but I think it was a bit too early," he said. "It wasn't really successful." Amster also put his talents to use decorating the entire Wentworth complex. Still a prominent interior designer in New York City, Amster has just completed the lobby of that city's Hotel Pierre. His offices are located in a renowned New York City landmark, Amster Yard.


Having not traveled to Jackson or to the Wentworth since it was sold to the Shiners almost 40 years ago, Amster found himself pleased and surprised with the changes current owner Ernie Mallet had made to his old summer playground. "It's just marvelous what they've done with this place," he said. "I thought it was lost--it was a disaster for a number of years. I think it's most remarkable, just the fact that it is still standing up -- and that it's here. It's wonderful to see it renewed."


During Amster's four day stay in Jackson, he visited old friends in the area who had been fellow innkeepers during his era, or had been under his employ for many years. "There were a lot of people to love in the area," he said. "This whole town is full of charming people." Names like Charlotte Haskill, Julia Gray, Anna McGinnis, the Trickey family, and the Whitneys, came immediately to his mind. "My, my," Amster remembered, "we had nothing but characters here -- working for us, staying with us. We were characters, but they were characters, too."

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