Mountain Laurel Center has storied history in Poconos | Something to Think About

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The Poconos have been buzzing about a revival since last week. The dormant Mountain Lauren Performing Arts Center, including the Tom Ridge Pavilion, were recently purchased by a new real estate development and venue management company, From The Roots.

Once again, the hills be alive with the sound of music and other events!

The company acquired more than 200 acres of land which includes the center and pavilion. The plans include a multi-million-dollar investment that will revitalize and redevelop the property into an entertainment complex to be renamed, Pocono Park. Those plans include playing host to world-class tours and productions as well as special events, expecting to begin this summer and fall.

The property has a long and storied history it is not the first time it has played host to the famous.

During the 1800s, the tourism industry was in full swing in the Poconos, especially between Delaware Water Gap, through Shawnee and north to Bushkill. The area became well known, much as it is today, as an outdoor recreation destination. Whether you now know it as Pocono Park, or Mountain Laurel Center for the Performing Arts, or as Unity House, it was the home of Forest Park Hotel.

This property dates back to 1892 when it became one of the earlier built hotels, Forest Park Hotel. Larger hotels began to replace the many boarding houses and taverns that housed the travelers to the area. The hotel was successful until the World War I, when anti-German hysteria and pressure from the Federal government forced the owners to sell the resort.

In 1919 the hotel buildings, 750 acres and a lake were purchased by an affiliate of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Locals 22 and 25 of the Dress and Waistmakers’ Union. The Union bought the hotel as a permanent home of its new “Unity House.”

It was a bold experiment designed to have a place for worker education and leisure activities. The experiment failed, so by 1924, the property was sold to the General Executive Board of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), at the time the largest women’s union in the United States.

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The union made major improvements to the property and transformed it into Unity House, a “workers’ play land,” where rank and file members could take affordable vacations by charging minimal fees and subsidizing the operation. The members and their families were able to enjoy summer sports, dramatic performances, concerts, and lectures presented by college professors, union leaders and other public figures making it very popular during the 1920s.

During the Great Depression, thousands of new members joined the ILGWU, and the resort became the vacation location for these members. After World War II, the resort became a showcase for the union. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote after a visit in 1945, “You could not put children in a more favorable environment.” Summers that followed found more than 10,000 visitors coming to the resort for summer vacations, retreats, forums, and conferences.

In 1956, Unity House opened a new 1,200-seat theater modeled after Radio City Music Hall. It included a ninety-foot state and up-to-date lighting and sound. The performers featured comedians, opera companies, the Harlem Dance Theater Group and Radio City Music Hall entertainers.

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During the 1950s, the popularity of the resort grew and continued through the 1960s. In 1972 the membership in the union began to move from Italian and Jewish members to include Hispanics, Asian Americans, and African Americans. But the membership of the union fell from its 1968 peak of 451,000 members to 360,000 by the mid-1970s and by the late 1980s only 160,000 members remained.

In January of 1990, with declining membership and annual subsidies of some $1 million, the union made the decision to close the resort. Pocono Park inherits a long history in the Poconos,

Bushkill in particular. The return of life and entertainment will add to that history and create new pages for the book!

— Debbie Kulick writes a weekly news column for the Pocono Record and Tri-County Independent. She serves on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic as an EMT.

columnist Debbie Kulick
columnist Debbie Kulick

This article originally appeared on Pocono Record: Mountain Laurel Center in Poconos purchased by development company