Summers of Unity

Jul 23, 2013

It’s funny, you grow up hearing stories about a place that your grandparents used to go to, and it feels so abstract. But then you look at pictures, and it becomes real.

The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union’s summer retreat, called Unity House, in the Poconos, was one of those amazing places.

It started in 1919, when the union bought a former hotel and 750 acres of woods on a lake in Forest Park, PA.

They expanded the main lodge, added cabins, a dining hall and docks, and ran it as an affordable summer resort for union members and their families. (Non-union members could go, but they had to pay more than members.)

One of the lodge’s early pamphlets urges people to, “Declare your Independence From the Sweltering City!” A full weekend—Friday dinner to Sunday dinner—cost about $10, and you could stay an extra day for $5 more.

My grandparents were both garment workers in the union, and my grandfather, Israel Horowitz, eventually became Vice President of the ILGWU—so they spent a lot of time there. My Dad spent his summers waiting tables at Unity House.

In its heyday, in the 1940s, some 10,000 people came each summer to enjoy outdoor fun and for the educational forums, conferences and musical productions.

Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy both gave talks at Unity House.

The resort was set up as a nonprofit, and by the 1980s was operating at a loss. It closed in 1989.

Credit: All photos are from the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Martin P. Catherwood Library at Cornell University, International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Photographs.

Undated: Swim competition on the lake

1920s: Boating and water slide

1926: An outdoor lecture on social psychology

1930s: Cabins and footpaths in the woods

Date unknown: Circle dance on the lawn.

Circa 1945: Eleanor Roosevelt visited Unity House.

Circa 1955: Couples playing tennis.

1961: Unity House staff photo. (No, my Dad is not in this pic. It's a few years after his time.)

Circa 1969: The main lodge was twice destroyed by fire. First in the 1930s, but it was soon rebuilt in a design by architect William Lescaze. The new lodge included Diego Rivera murals originally commissioned by John D. Rockefeller for the lobby of R.C.A. building in New York City, that he ultimately rejected as too radical. The artist gave the union duplicates of the murals. The building suffered another huge fire in the late 1960s, depicted here.

This is part of our summer series, "Let's Co-Vacation: Together we can own the summer again," where we highlight collectively-owned vacation destinations. We recently profiled the Knickerbocker Field Club in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Sara Horowitz

As the founder of Freelancers Union, Sara has been a voice for freelancers for over two decades.