Boardwalk scene circa 1925. © Coney Island History Project Archives
Last December Councilmembers Mark Treyger and Chaim M. Deutsch sent a petition to the Landmarks Preservation Commission asking that the Coney Island Boardwalk be declared a scenic landmark. On December 17 the council members received a condescending and dismissive rejection letter from LPC Director of Research Mary Beth Betts. The letter outlined the reasons for refusal to grant Scenic Landmark status.
The commission’s response to Councilmember Treyger is troubling on many levels, the first being that the contents of the letter were lifted from a 2012 letter written by then LPC Chairman and Bloomberg appointee Robert Tierney. In addition to the “form letter” being an inappropriate response to the two elected officials, all of the reasons stated for the refusal do not apply to the Boardwalk.
Ms. Betts gave the following reasons for denying scenic landmark status: “The boardwalk was substantially altered by Robert Moses in 1939-41 from its original location and configuration. [And was] at this time straightened and extended east. The planks of the Boardwalk have been replaced numerous times over the years. . .”
To understand how ludicrous this reasoning is, one has to look at Ocean Parkway, a local Scenic Landmark granted landmark status in 1975. Ocean Parkway was originally a dirt road lighted by gas lamps. By the time it became a Scenic Landmark, the parkway had been resurfaced with asphalt, had its bridle path removed, and had been significantly altered when its northern end was cut off and put below grade as the entrance to the Prospect Expressway. Despite these alterations, Ocean Parkway still became a landmark. Therefore, a surfacing change and alterations should not affect the landmark status of the Boardwalk.
Wood and concrete sections of Coney Island-Brighton Beach Boardwalk. Photo © Charles Denson
The LPC’s statement that “the Boardwalk was substantially altered” and moved from its original location is also untrue. Only a five-block section of the 2.7-mile structure was moved, and the new section was built to the original specifications.
Perhaps the most shocking reason for denying landmark status was the staff’s incredulous statement that the Boardwalk has no historical or cultural significance. “In the opinion of the staff,” they pompously declare, “the most important period of significance in the history of Coney Island as a seaside resort pre-dates the construction of the boardwalk.”
While the staff’s inaccurate reasoning about “alterations and surfaces” can be attributed to sloppy research, their statement that the 1920s were not a “significant” period in Coney Island’s history shows an astounding display of ignorance. For some unknown reason, the staff has decided to downplay Coney Island’s important post-World War I history. And this despite the fact that nearly all of Coney’s designated landmarks are from that period.
During the 1920s, following the closure of the race tracks and elite hotels, Coney Island became the “People’s Playground.” The shorefront was expanded and reclaimed by the city and opened to the public, and the Boardwalk was opened and became the island’s Main Street, celebrated in legend and song. New theaters and hotels were constructed, public transit brought millions to the shore, and the Boardwalk, free to all, was the centerpiece. It was the symbol of Coney Island’s resurrection. Even from an engineering viewpoint, the Boardwalk has great importance. The structure was built in the ocean surf and the beach built around it, the first time hydraulic pumping had been used to create an artificial beach.
The following are the Landmark Commission’s stated criteria for a scenic landmark:
To become a scenic landmark, an outdoor site must be: At least 30 years old and have "a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the City, state, or nation" Any landscape feature or aggregate of landscape features
The Boardwalk meets every one of these requirements. It’s certainly one of the most scenic locations in New York City. The historic battle to reclaim the shorefront it stands on, the engineering breakthroughs enabled its construction, and the important role it plays in the lives of both visitors and...(read more)
Coney Island History Project volunteer Daniel Ioannou carrying the Terminal Hotel sign which was rescued just before the building's demolition. January 4, 2015. Photo © Charles Denson
Many people have expressed their dismay over the tragic loss of the historic Terminal Hotel, a beautiful building located on one of Coney Island's busiest intersections. We're happy to report the Coney Island History Project was able to salvage the Terminal Hotel's sign thanks to a coordinated effort by CIHP volunteers Daniel Ioannou and Keith Suber, and CIHP director Charles Denson. After remaining in close contact with the building's owner and the demolition contractor, we were able to retrieve the sign shortly after the fire department completed their investigation.
The Terminal Hotel site has now been cleared and the sign exists as the last remnant of the historic structure that was gutted in a spectacular multi-alarm fire on December 18th. It joins the Coney Island History Project's collection of signage from Astroland, the Playland Arcade, Steeplechase and other vanished places in Coney Island.
The one-hundred-and-ten-year-old Terminal Hotel on the corner of Mermaid and Stillwell Avenues operated as a hotel until the 1970s. The upper floors were abandoned and boarded up after it closed. A series of restaurants occupied the first floor over the years, and the new Food Center and Turkish Restaurant that recently opened on the ground floor after Hurricane Sandy were part of a much needed revival of the area and will be missed.
Demolished Terminal Hotel building on Mermaid and Stillwell Avenues, Coney Island. January 6, 2015. Photo © Charles Denson
Happy Holidays from the Coney Island History Project!
It's going to be an historic New Year's Eve in Coney Island as the 8,000 LED lights of the landmark Parachute Jump ring in the New Year, followed by the first fireworks show of 2015. This free, family-friendly event marks the beginning of a new tradition and is sponsored by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, NYC Council Member Mark Treyger, and the Alliance for Coney Island.
The Coney Island History Project exhibition center will open for the season on Coney's Opening Day, which is Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015. In the meantime, we continue to offer weekend walking tours that include a private visit to the History Project's exhibit center. During the winter, the 1-1/2 tours are offered Saturdays and Sundays at 1pm by advance reservation only. Visit our online reservation site to purchase tickets for the year-round walking tours or email firstname.lastname@example.org for info on booking a group or school visit.
During this busy holiday season, please take a moment to sign Council Members Mark Treyger and Chaim Deutsch's public petition calling on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the historic Riegelmann Boardwalk as an official Scenic Landmark. Currently, there are a total of nine Scenic Landmarks in New York City, including Prospect Park, Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn.
"For nearly a century, Coney Island's wooden boardwalk has provided the public with a rustic observation platform, a cool, soft, raised promenade that captures ocean breezes and affords a respite from New York City's hard concrete jungle. Much like the unfortunate destruction of Penn Station before it could be landmarked, the 'concrete solution' to the Boardwalk's maintenance problems is shortsighted and ill advised. This historic structure must be protected and preserved," said Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found.
Photo by Charles Denson, 1974
The one-hundred-and-ten-year-old Terminal Hotel on the corner of Mermaid and Stillwell Avenues that burned on December 18 operated as a hotel until the 1970s. The upper floors were abandoned and boarded up after it closed. A series of restaurants occupied the first floor over the years, and the new Food Center and Turkish Restaurant that recently opened on the ground floor after Hurricane Sandy were part of a much needed revival of the area and will be missed. The fire has dealt a serious blow to one of Coney's busiest corners.
Photo by mrwdib via Instagram
Forgotten links to Coney Island's distant past can still be found if you know where to look. Some are in plain view and others are hidden and forgotten. Here are two that can still be seen and another that recently disappeared.
Who remembers Railroad Avenue? When I was growing up in Coney Island, the old right-of-way known as Railroad Avenue was still in existence, running from West 15th Street to West 37th Street between Surf Avenue and Mermaid Avenue. We always used the road as a shortcut. In the 1880s the Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad ran steam trains along this route to the ferry pier at Norton's Point (Sea Gate). The trains were later replaced by a trolley line that ran there until November 1948. The route was de-mapped during urban renewal and has disappeared without a trace except for several old railroad property markers. The marker seen here sits behind a fence on the west side of West 37th Street between Surf and Mermaid Avenues.
The majestic Half Moon Hotel, built in 1927, was once the crowning glory of Coney's new Boardwalk. The building was covered with decorative art including a mosaic tile dome, enormous urns, and terra-cotta busts of explorer Henry Hudson, whose ship, the Half Moon, lent its name to this grand hotel. When the building was demolished in 1994, the facade's decorative items were carted off and sold to antique shops. All except one! Henry Hudson's stern portrait has been installed in a private park on the site of the hotel and can still be seen through a fence on West 29th Street near the Boardwalk.
When the last section of Calvert and Vaux's Ocean Parkway opened from Prospect Park to Coney Island in 1880, the boulevard had a series of granite milestones marking the mileage from the park. Until a few years ago this 5-mile marker was located at the corner of Neptune Avenue but disappeared during the construction of a bus shelter. The historic 150-year-old 5M stone is missing in action and no one seems to know where it is, including the Parks Department, which usually keeps track of these things. Does anyone know its fate?
"Coney Island Creek: An Uncertain Future," a film by Charles Denson, was recently screened at Coney Island Library and is now up on Denson's Coneyologist channel on YouTube. Featuring interviews with stakeholders including local residents, ecologists, anglers, birders, divers, park volunteers, teachers, and the Brooklyn Parks Commissioner. The 18 minute video is part of a longer documentary film project currently underway."I grew up near Coney Island Creek and began photographing it in the 60's when the waterway was at its lowest point, polluted and neglected, but I always knew there was something special about the creek and that it would survive," Denson says in the film's introduction. Today, the future of Coney Island Creek is uncertain. Will it be an asset or a liability? The city is currently funding a feasibility study to decide whether to dam up the creek by building a tidal barrier with culverts, a move that would most likely turn the waterway into a toxic cesspool and do little to prevent flooding. Will Coney Island Creek become a restored wetland that prevents flooding or will it become a hazard to the community? Informed community input is vital.