Coney Island Blog - By Charles Denson

Coney Island’s history has been shaped by fire. Nearly every block of the amusement zone burned to the ground or was destroyed by fire during the first century of development. Many of the fires spread into massive conflagrations due to low water pressure in the community’s fire hydrants, a defect that allowed fires to spread unchecked. After the disastrous 1932 fire that destroyed four square blocks of amusements and residential buildings, the city finally built a new pumping station to serve the needs of the fire department.

The beautiful new pumping station designed by famed architect Irwin Chanin opened in 1938 on Coney Island Creek. The Art Deco structure was unusual for Coney Island and much different than most municipal structures which were commonly utilitarian and devoid of ornamentation. Chanin commissioned a pair of winged horse sculptures for the entrance to the elliptical limestone and granite Moderne structure, creating a magnificent monument amidst Coney’s ephemeral landscape. 

Decades later the building was decommissioned and sealed up, leaving it vulnerable to vandalism. The sculptures were saved and relocated to the Brooklyn Museum, where they are stabled next to the rear entrance. Nowadays, the Pumping Station survives in a state of arrested decay, surrounded by a community garden. The rear of the property bordering Coney Island Creek, is used as a popular fishing spot.

Numerous proposals have surfaced recently to repurpose the building for community usage including as a Coney Island ferry terminal, ecology center, or museum. The structure was proposed for a landmark designation in 1980 and languished since then until it was included in a “mass de-calendering” proposed last year by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Now its future is in doubt.

Coney Island Pumping Station

On October 8 there will be a public hearing to decide the future landmark status of this important building. Coney Island has lost many historic structures during the last few years so it is imperative that this important community asset be saved for future generations. – Charles Denson

Please sign the Art Deco Society of New York's petition:

http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/landmark-the-coney-island-pumping-st...

For more information about the public hearing or to submit written comments to save the Pumping Station, visit the Landmarks Preservation Commission site at:

http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/Backlog_95/Backlog_Fact%20Shee...

 

 

When Frank Newlands contacted me last year we began an animated conversation that led to a long time mystery being solved. As a child I was impressed by the dazzling lights of Steeplechase Park, the whirling rides and great steel-and-glass pavilion were a sight to behold. The fourteen-acre park was covered with glittering necklaces of bright bare bulbs. The glowing interior steel latticework of the pavilion was particularly impressive, each beam and girder lined with bright diamonds. But I always wondered: how do they change all those bulbs? And who keeps them all lit? Frank was able to provide the answer, as it was his job to climb everything from the parachute jump, to the dizzying heights of the pavilion, to the top of the Steeplechase tower, and change the old-fashioned light bulbs. And he operated without a net! Frank Newlands' interview tells the inside story of what it was like to work at the magnificent Steeplechase Park in its last days.  – Charles Denson

 

posted Sep 16th, 2015 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

We're closing out the month, which the National Weather Service says has been the coldest recorded February in NYC since 1934, with photos of frozen Coney Island Creek by Charles Denson. Warmer than normal temperatures are predicted for March, April and May.

   Sunset at Frozen Coney Island Creek

posted May 19th, 2015 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Coney Island Creek, photography
Coney Island Boardwalk

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.

Boardwalk Concretewalk

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 residents are indisputable. In denying scenic landmark status to the Boardwalk, the landmarks commission seems to be failing in both mission and competence.

Granting landmark status can be a very political and controversial subject. We are all aware of that. But sending public officials a hackneyed, ill-informed retread opinion is insulting and discourteous. Commissioner Srinivasan and her research staff should be ashamed.

Concrete Boardwalk

Concrete section of boardwalk in Brighton Beach. Photo © Charles Denson

Coney Island’s Boardwalk is under attack on many fronts. The recent decision to create a concrete Boardwalk will turn out to be a tremendous failure. Individual wooden boards can be replaced, but the massive concrete panels being installed cannot be removed and will have to be patched as the surface cracks from weathering over the next few decades. This pockmarked concrete surface will create hazards much greater than the ones now experienced by Boardwalk strollers and will be harder to repair. Alternatives to concrete must be explored before it is too late. Coney Island’s iconic wooden Boardwalk must be protected, restored, and preserved for future generations.

Charles Denson

There will be a rally on Sunday, January 18 to preserve and protect our historic Boardwalk. The rally will be in Brighton Beach on the Boardwalk at Coney Island Ave.(B or Q subway to Brighton Beach stop and then one block walk to the Boardwalk).
posted Jan 14th, 2015 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Boardwalk, Brighton Beach, Chaim Deutsch,...

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.

Railroad Avenue

Railroad AvenueRailroad Avenue

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.

Railroad Avenue Charles DensonHenry Hudson Head

Hudson's Head

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.

HenryHudson1_PhotoCopyrightCharlesDenson

Milestone Mystery

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?

MilestoneMystery1_PhotoCopyrightCharlesDenson
posted Dec 5th, 2014 in By Charles Denson and tagged with 5-mile marker, Charles Denson, Coney Island,...
Nature's Fury

Charles Denson and David Harvey, Senior VP of Exhibitions, American Museum of Natural History, at the November 10 exhibition preview and reception of "Nature's Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters"

I was extremely honored to participate in the Nature's Fury exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. During the last two years I've been approached by numerous media outlets that wanted to license my footage of Hurricane Sandy and have turned them all down. I feel that this dynamic and informative exhibit is the right venue and was honored to be asked to contribute my documentation of the storm. This exhibition is a wake-up call for anyone living in New York City's flood zones, especially Coney Island.

Nature's Fury

A close up of Coney Island Creek on the interactive map at "Nature's Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters" at the American Museum of Natural History. The creek is the subject of Charles Denson’s forthcoming documentary about the historic waterway. Photo © Charles Denson

NATURE’S FURY: THE SCIENCE OF NATURAL DISASTERS, November 15, 2014 - August 9, 2015 From earthquakes and volcanoes to hurricanes and tornadoes, nature’s forces shape our dynamic planet and often endanger people around the world. Nature’s Fury will uncover the causes of these natural disasters, explore the risks associated with each, and examine how people cope and adapt in their aftermath. Interactive displays and animations will help visitors understand how natural phenomena work. By monitoring earthquakes around the world in real time, manipulating a model earthquake fault, generating a virtual volcano, standing within the center of a roaring tornado, and watching the power of Hurricane Sandy via an interactive map of New York City, visitors will learn how scientists are helping to make better predictions, plan responses, and prepare for future events. Nature's Fury

Interactive map of New York showing flooding during Hurricane Sandy. "Nature's Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters" at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo © Charles Denson

Coney Island History Project

Grimaldi’s at 1215 Surf Avenue, with its sleek glass facade and bold picturesque signage, appears to be modern, but the building has a fascinating history that represents the century-long transformation of the street’s north side. The structure is a small remnant of the 1907 Lido Hotel on West 12th Street (first known as the Boston Hotel and later as the Coney Island Hippodrome). The original tenant was a cafeteria, the first of several restaurants that would operate at that location.

Lido Cafeteria Coney Island History Project

Lido Cafeteria at 1215 Surf Avenue in the 1920s. Photo © Charles Denson Archive, Coney Island History Project

During the 1940s, the building was reduced to one story and transformed into a penny arcade that operated until the 1970s. Surf Avenue’s north side between West 12th and Stillwell Avenue once boasted dozens of attractions including the Crazy Ghosts dark ride, a McCullough carousel, a billiard parlor, the Hollywood Bar, a bowling alley, the Mardi Gras Movie Theater, and the Lido's Theater, home to 1940s sideshows and the Bread and Puppet theater troupe during the late 1960s.

Penny Arcade Photo copyright Charles Denson

Amusement arcade at 1215 Surf Avenue in the early 1970s. Photo © Charles Denson via Coney Island History Project

All were gone by the mid-1970s. The building at 1215 Surf, like many others on the avenue’s north side, became a cut-rate furniture store, a business not permitted under amusement zoning. The adjacent Lido Hotel was destroyed by fire in the early 1980s but the one-story section now housing Grimaldi’s survived. The vacant Lido site became a flea market, replaced in 2002 with the three-story building currently on the site.

Coney Island Furniture. Photo copyright Charles Denson

Coney Island Furniture at 1215 Surf Avenue in the 1990s. Photo © Charles Denson via Coney Island History Project

A 21st-century resurrection of the block includes the restored Stillwell Avenue Terminal, Applebee's, a proposed Johnny Rockets, two bars, a strip club, and the offices of Community Board 13 and the Alliance for Coney Island.

At the center of it all is Grimaldi’s Brick Oven Pizzeria, located in a structure whose interior of exposed brick walls are the only clue to the building’s historic past.

Grimaldi's 2014 Coney Island History Project

Grimaldi's Pizzeria at 1215 Surf Avenue since 2012. Photo © Charles Denson via Coney Island History Project

This post is part of series titled "Then and Now: Finding Coney Island's Hidden Landmarks" by Charles Denson in the Director's Blog.

posted Jun 30th, 2014 in By Charles Denson and tagged with 1215 Surf Avenue, cafeteria, Charles Denson,...
The corner with Rita's Italian Ices in 2014

Corner of West 15th St and Surf Avenue with Rita's Italian Ices, 2014

Coney Island fell victim to devastating urban renewal projects in the 1950s and 1960s. More than a thousand viable apartment buildings, homes, and businesses were condemned and demolished by the city during this terrible period. A few buildings were fortunate to escape the urban renewal onslaught. Some can be found in the West End, and a few are located in the amusement zone.

Most of the surviving structures in the amusement area are hidden behind altered facades, having been repurposed dozens of times during the last century. The fascinating histories of these structures are not known to the public or even to the buildings’ owners. I’ve created this survey of these buildings to show how the structures were transformed through the decades. This will be the first in a series.

The Capitol Hotel Coney Island

The Capitol Hotel and Korbel Bakery, West 15th Street and Surf Avenue circa 1899

We begin with two buildings located at Surf Avenue on West 15th Street. The three-story frame building on the corner, erected in the 1890s, was once the Capitol Hotel. Hand-lettered signs in the oldest photo point to the hotel’s horse stables on West 15th Street and list the hotel restaurant’s specialties: “Clams, Oysters, Chops and Roast Game.” Next to the signs is an advertisement for Steeplechase Park. The smaller two-story building to the right is Korbel’s Bakery. The bakery building was later raised and a third story added.

Capitol Building

The Capitol and bakery buildings in 1921

In the 1920s photo, the Capitol has changed its name to Villa Penza, and the bakery has become the Parkway Bakery and Restaurant. Over the years the Capitol building has been occupied by a variety of tenants including the Draft Board and the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce. During the last two decades, the corner was home to an old-style Coney Island “social club” that recently relocated up the block to make way for Rita’s Italian Ices, a new business that opened in April 2014. Both buildings have undergone enormous changes during the last century, losing their covered wooden porches, shutters, and clapboard and shingle exteriors. Luckily, the buildings are viable and can still be identified by their existing rooftop cornices.

Capitol Hotel

The Capitol Hotel and Korbel Bakery circa 1899 (left). The Capitol building in 2003 (right)

This post is part of series titled "Then and Now: Finding Coney Island's Hidden Landmarks" by Charles Denson in the Director's Blog.

posted May 2nd, 2014 in By Charles Denson and tagged with adaptive reuse, architecture, Capitol Hotel,...
There was much to be thankful for in Coney Island during 2013: The B&B Carousell returned, Steeplechase Plaza opened, the storm-damaged pier was rebuilt, and the Parachute Jump was given a new lighting scheme. But the year also saw the demise of several historic structures. The Astrotower demolition received the most publicity as the tower was cut to pieces amid a cloud of mass hysteria. Nearly the entire amusement zone was closed down on the Fourth of July as the swaying tower met its demise. The demolition was unnecessary and left a huge hole in Coney’s skyline. The other structures we lost received little attention. West Eighth Street bore the brunt of the demolition. Until the 1960s West Eighth was a center of an amusement manufacturing, and until recently you could still see remnants of its industrial past. Now those remnants are being slowly erased.  

Eye Candy

First to disappear were the beautiful mosaic murals on the façade of the old Bonomo candy factory at the Neptune Avenue end of the street. The colorful triptych dated to the 1940s, and each stylized panel illustrated the story of candy manufacturing: raw materials, processing, and delicious finished products. When scaffolding went up around the building, I asked the workers what was happening. They claimed they were “cleaning the front.” A week later, the enormous murals were gone. The murals were located next door to the old William F. Mangels amusement factory, which now houses the Department of Motor Vehicles. We had tried for years without success to document the history of the murals, but the building’s owners were not helpful, and the artist was never identified.

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The Bonomo Murals
 

The Castle

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The KeySpan Building
Farther up the block, on Coney Island Creek, the sprawling brick headquarters of the old Brooklyn Union Gas Company was unceremoniously reduced to rubble this past fall as the site was cleared for a public storage facility. The 85-year-old Tudor revival building was an architectural gem, and there was nothing else like it in Coney Island. We will miss the decorative Flemish brickwork, copper-lined gable dormers, multicolored slate roof, buttresses, huge bay windows, tall chimneys, and massive wood front doors. The building’s fixtures and decorative elements were scavenged and carted off to a Manhattan antique store.  

Coney’s High Line

At the Surf Avenue end of West Eighth Street, the half-century-old steel arch pedestrian overpass known as the “Shark Bridge” was demolished after years of civic neglect. The bridge, spanning Surf Avenue, was built in 1956 to connect the West Eighth Street elevated station to the Aquarium and Boardwalk. Beach-goers, especially the elderly and families with children, used it to avoid the dangerous traffic on Surf Avenue. The bridge was controversial when Robert Moses erected it as an entrance to the Aquarium because some felt that its purpose was to bypass Coney’s attractions. There are no plans to replace the bridge, and visitors will now have to fight traffic to get to the beach.

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The Shark Bridge: Coney's High Line No more easy access
 

The Carolina Building

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Last fall, the 19th-century building on Mermaid Avenue that once housed Carolina Restaurant was bulldozed, to be replaced an apartment house. The Carolina closed a decade ago, and the building recently housed a Chinese restaurant that never reopened after suffering damage from Hurricane Sandy. The surrounding area was once the center of an Italian-American community that boasted numerous Italian restaurants. Gargiulo's is the last one standing. Coincidentally, an old billboard advertising the Carolina, located behind a gas station on Neptune Avenue and West 17th Street, was removed earlier in the year, also to make way for an apartment building.
posted Feb 14th, 2014 in By Charles Denson and tagged with