Lucy the Elephant

 

Text copyright Kathy Biehl 1999. Photos copyright Frank Bland 1998 (used by permission.) All rights reserved.


To Houston weird tour.

To The Shoe House.

To Fairy Tale Forest.

To The Galleon

To Jugg City USA.

Back to the Cafe.


Less than a five minute drive from the casinos of Atlantic City stands, well, an elephant. She doesn't exactly jump out and get your attention, being as how she's surrounded by apartments and a restaurant, and she's standing with her back to four-lane Atlantic Avenue. But she hasn't always been hard to see; in fact, she was designed and intended to draw attention.

She's the brainchild of a real estate developer named James Lafferty, who built her in 1881 as a viewing stand for people interested in shoreline lots. She was modeled after Jumbo, the flesh and blood marvel of P.T. Barnum. In 1884 Lafferty built two more wooden elephants, at Cape May and Coney Island.


Both of her sisters came down by 1900, but Lucy endured. She drew visitors throughout a string of incarnations -- a tavern, a British family's summer home, the registry for a high society hotel -- and owners, until flooding made her unsafe in 1962. Lucy has been open again to the public since the 1970s, after she was donated to the City of Margate on the condition that she be moved. Because of her weight -- 90 tons -- and the necessity of taking down power lines, the move took seven hours and cost $25,000. (Lucy's always been an expensive proposition; the bill for her original construction was $38,000.) She's now in a park two blocks away from her original location; look for the imposing brick highrise to her left, facing the ocean.

As befits a national historic landmark, which she's been since 1977, Lucy's been painted and restored (though there's still a problem with the ventilation system sending off too much moisture in the interior). Visitors climb up a spiral staircase in her right back leg for a short $3 tour, which includes a videotaped history, a look through her eyes, and a climb to the howdah, a recreation of the original peaked roof that blew off in 1929.


Her dilapidated interior walls, eerily following the contours of an elephant torso, form one large, open room, which is filled with glass-encased artifacts and photos of Lucy through the years. Look at pages from the hotel registry for signatures of Henry Ford, Woodrow Wilson and some folks from Wilmington, DE name of DuPont.


Such goofiness should prompt smiles all around, but that's not necessarily the case with the staff. Your tour guide is likely to be a diffident teenager on summer vacation, who sits on the edge of the howdah and kicks his legs about while you take in the view of the ocean. And the gift shop, filled with photos of famous visitors like Misterogers, is overseen by matter-of-fact elderly guardians.

Lucy needs a big, panoramic view. Getting one requires walking out onto the beach and stepping back, back, back into the sand.