Coney Island Pumping Station Interior

One of the first photos inside‪ the Art Deco ‎Coney Island‬ ‪P‎umping Station‬ since it was sealed up decades ago was taken today by Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. An official site visit was arranged by NYCEDC to get an idea of the building's condition. 

"The pump house has a shimmering reflecting pool, aqua tiles, and brilliant yellow floor," said Charles Denson. "It's doubtful that the lower level can ever be used again when the building is repurposed as it lies below sea level. I can imagine its future as a ferry terminal, ecology center, community center, or museum. It certainly should be landmarked and included in the City's resiliency plans for Coney Island Creek."

For historical background on the 1938 municipal structure by famed architect Irwin Chanin, check out the History Project's blog post from last October,

 


 

Youre Invited to Coney Island's Opening Day

Due to the weather forecast for Palm Sunday, March 20, Coney Island's Opening Day has been postponed to Saturday, March 26. The Coney Island History Project will not be open on March 20. Instead we will be open on March 26 and 27 from 1:00pm-6:00pm. 

March 26 will be the official opening day for Coney Island's rides and attractions. The celebration starts at 11:00AM on the Boardwalk with the annual tradition of the Blessing of the Rides at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. This year's ceremony is dedicated to Pastor Debbe Santiago of Coney Island's Salt and Sea Mission, who originated the event with Denos D. Vourderis 31 years ago and passed away last month. Deno's Wonder Wheel is marking its 96th season with a free ride for the first 96 riders. At the Cyclone, where the first 100 on line ride for free, the annual Egg Cream Christening of the roller coaster's front car is at 11:45AM. The 1920 Wonder Wheel and the 1927 Cyclone are official New York City landmarks.

You're invited to visit the Coney Island History Project's exhibition center from 1:00-6:00PM on March 26th. View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past. Admission is FREE.

Our first special exhibit of the 2016 season, opening on Memorial Day Weekend, will be "The 50th Anniversary of Fred Trump's Demolition of the Steeplechase Pavilion." A half century ago Coney's most beautiful and imposing structure was demolished by developer Fred Trump, Donald Trump's father. This exhibit examines in photos, ephemera, and oral history, the importance of the pavilion and the memories of local personalities who dealt with Trump before and after the tragic demolition of a Coney Island landmark. During the last decade History Project director Charles Denson interviewed many of the players involved in the loss of Steeplechase and the exhibit reveals many little known facts.

The 50th Anniversary of Fred Trump's Demolition of the Steeplechase Pavilion.

On Easter Weekend at the Coney Island History Project, visitors may take free souvenir photos with an original Steeplechase horse from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name and "Skully," a figure from Coney Island's classic Spookhouse and Spook-A-Rama dark rides. Among the treasures on display at the Coney Island History Project's exhibit center this season is Coney Island's oldest surviving artifact. The 1823 wooden Toll House sign dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to "the Island" was 5 cents! The current special exhibit on view is "Coney Island Stereoviews: Seeing Double at the Seashore, 1860-1920." 

Located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, just a few steps off the Boardwalk, the Coney Island History Project is open free of charge on weekends and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day from 1-7pm, We will also be open on March 27, Easter Sunday, from 1-6pm. The Coney Island History Project is open year round for private group visits and our weekend walking tours

1823 Toll House Sign at Coney Island History Project

B&B Carousell Copyright Charles Denson

Jimmy McCullough, former owner of the B&B Carousell, poses with his wife and daughters in front of the historic ride before its sale to the City in 2005. Photo ©  Charles Denson.

Last week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced the good news that Coney Island's B&B Carousell was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places. In January, Gillibrand wrote to the National Park Service explaining that although the current location at Steeplechase Plaza is new, the site was formerly Steeplechase Park and is historically symbolic and appropriate.
    
History owes a debt of gratitude to Bishoff and Brienstein, the carousel's namesakes, who brought the ride back from New Jersey in 1932, and Jimmy McCullough who bought it from his cousin Willy Bishoff in 1973, and his partner Mike Saltzstein, who kept the carousel spinning year-round on Surf Avenue until his death in 2001.

In this 2009 interview for the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive, Charles Denson talks with Jimmy McCullough, who passed away in 2013. Jimmy McCullough learned the carousel business from his father, James McCullough, who began his career working on the Steeplechase and Stubbman carousels. Working in Coney Island was a family business going back generations for Jimmy who was a descendent of both the Tilyou and the Stubbman families. 

Jimmy and his family owned and operated numerous small amusement parks and carousels in Coney Island, including the historic carousels that are now in Prospect Park and Flushing Meadows Park, as well as Coney's B&B. Built in 1919 at the Coney Island factory of William Mangels, the B&B Carousell was the last remaining ride on the north side of Surf Avenue and the last of Coney Island's historic carousels when it was acquired by New York City in 2005. The resplendently restored carousel was installed in a new pavilion next to the Parachute Jump in Steeplechase Plaza in 2013. 

posted Mar 14th, 2016 in History and tagged with B&B Carousell, Jimmy McCullough, Mike Saltzstein,...

 

The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops has proven to be the most popular piece in the Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland show at the Brooklyn Museum. Endless photographs and comments about "Cy" have been posted online by art-lovers and Coney-lovers who've visited the show. When we loaned the Cyclops we hoped that people would realize that it was part of an operating amusement at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. It's the only object in the Coney Island show that is actually from a currently operating amusement, although the signage at the show fails to mention that fact. Spook-A-Rama was completely rebuilt and restored after being seriously damaged by Hurricane Sandy and opens for the season on March 20.

The Cyclops is an extremely fragile work of art that had to be carefully and skillfully packed for the four-city tour of the Coney Island show. The best art packers did an excellent job. It took nearly an entire day for the Artex craftsmen to build the massive crate for its road trip. After the Brooklyn Museum show closes on March 13th, the Cyclops travels to San Antonio, Texas where the tour ends in September. We look forward to our Cyclops centerpiece returning to the Coney Island History Project and Wonder Wheel Park in 2017!

The Cyclops in front of Charles Denson's 1970s Spook-A-Rama photograph at the Brooklyn Museum.

posted Feb 18th, 2016 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

Pastor Debbe Santiago of the Salt and Sea Mission passed away on February 4th and will be missed by all who knew her. "Debbe Santiago was a saint who helped the helpless, fed the hungry, protected at-risk children, and ministered to the downtrodden of Coney Island," said Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. "A while back we discussed making a film about the Salt and Sea Mission and I began filming in 2011. Hurricane Sandy, the Mission's relocation, and Pastor Debbe's illness put the project on hold. These are some clips from a sermon at the mission."

Services will be held on February 11th from 12:00pm- 5:00pm, followed by a funeral at 5:00pm at the Salt and Sea Mission at 2417 Stillwell Avenue.. There will be a memorial service at MCU Park at 6:00pm.

 

Coney Island Council Member Mark Treyger and Brighton Council Member Chaim Deutsch have introduced a resolution to designate Coney Island's iconic Riegelmann Boardwalk a scenic landmark. The resolution calls on the City's Landmarks Preservation Commission to recognize the structure as one of the City's historic landmarks. Co-sponsors included 49 other council members and the City's Public Advocate, giving the resolution nearly unanimous support. In recent years the Boardwalk has been allowed to deteriorate and some of it has been replaced with a concrete surface turning the famed Boardwalk into an ugly sidewalk. 

Treyger, with the help of Coney Island History Project Director Charles Denson, originally filed an application with the LPC to landmark the Boardwalk on December 2nd, 2014. Treyger, Denson, and neighboring Council Member Deutsch met with Landmarks Preservation Commission officials last year urging them to consider the historical context under which the Boardwalk was built.

"The Boardwalk is one of our community’s most precious assets," said Council Member Treyger. "For nearly a century, the Boardwalk’s 2.7 mile span has welcomed millions of people, locals and tourists alike. Whether it is parents pushing strollers, seniors socializing, joggers exercising, sightseers photographing, or even couples taking romantic walks along its classic wooden planks, the Boardwalk is and has been a cultural and social touchstone for all residents of Southern Brooklyn, as well as its global audience.

"This beloved local treasure deserves official status so that its defining structural and aesthetic characteristics are preserved and protected. The landmarking process in the city must take into account all the city’s neighborhoods. Landmarking across the city needs to be an equitable process, because Southern Brooklyn has a cultural and historic tradition, too. We have already lost notable historic structures in our community to development because of our city’s sluggish landmarking system. We must ensure that what remains of our area’s past stays intact."

The resolution was also supported by Borough President Eric L. Adams, Assembly Member Pamela Harris, Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, Senator Diane Savino, and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries who added: "The Riegelmann Boardwalk is an indelible part of New York City’s history and of the Coney Island community. Those classic wooden planks have witnessed New York legends ranging from Fiorello La Guardia and John Lindsay to David Dinkins – as well as millions from around the world who came to visit the greatest city in the world. Replacing them now would be akin to knocking down the Empire State or Chrysler Building. We cannot allow this treasured part of New York to be wiped away. Council Member Treyger and all involved should be commended for their leadership in this effort."

There are two other scenic landmarks in Brooklyn: Ocean Parkway and Eastern Parkway. The Riegelmann Boardwalk meets the same criteria for landmark status as these parkways and the time has come to recognize and protect the Boardwalk and its legacy before it is too late.

posted Feb 6th, 2016 in News and tagged with

Orla History Coney Island Polar Bear

On January 1st, the Coney Island Polar Bears will kick off their 113th year of winter swimming with the New Year's Day Plunge into the Atlantic. Among the recent additions to the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive is an interview with Polar Bear Club member Abiodun "Abi" Bello, which you can listen to on our website.

Interviewer Samira Tazari mixed audio recorded on November 1st at the first swim of the season and at the Coney Island History Project's recording studio. "What most people don't know is the Polar Bears swim every Sunday from November," says Bello. "Trust me, try it one day, you're going to like it." The native of Lagos, Nigeria, has been swimming with the Bears since 2010. 

After moving to New York City in 1988, Abi Bello lived in Coney Island for two years, but did not swim here until a running injury sent him in search of "the best therapy." He speaks enthusiastically about the health benefits of cold water swimming, the camaraderie of the club, being the last one out of the water, and how you can join and support the January 1st Polar Bear Plunge. The Club's New Year's Day swim is a fundraiser for Camp Sunshine, which provides recreational programs for children with cancer and their families.

posted Dec 25th, 2015 in News and tagged with oral history, Interview, Polar Bear,...

The grand finale of Coney's 2015 season also kicks off the 2016 season with a New Year's extravaganza that includes an illuminated Parachute ball drop, fireworks, a morning swim, a ride on the Winter Wonder Wheel, and much, much more! Coney Island is no longer just a summer attraction; it's the best place to be for New Year's celebrations!

This was a banner year for the Coney Island History Project. We continue our mission by recording interviews with visitors to the Wonder Wheel on New Year's Day. The recordings will be posted in the oral history archive of our newly redesigned web site. Visitors who took our walking tours also enjoyed the History Project's main exhibit, "Coney Island Stereoviews: Seeing Double at the Seashore." This exhibit of historical vintage photo technology was extremely popular, opening at a time when virtual reality is becoming an everyday reality.

In August we teamed up with Deno's Wonder Wheel Park for our 5th Annual History Day. The event celebrated two historic milestones: the 95th anniversary of the landmark Wonder Wheel and the 60th anniversary of the classic Spook-A-Rama dark ride. Included in the day's events were free music, dancing, and historical exhibits.

Coney Island continues its transition with exciting new attractions rising along the Boardwalk. The Aquarium's $127 million expansion, "Ocean Wonders," will finally connect the Aquarium to the ocean with an overlook and restaurant cantilevered above the Boardwalk. A mile to the east, the long-awaited restoration of the Childs Restaurant Building has begun. The landmark structure has been gutted to the bones, soon to be combined into an adjacent 5,000-seat amphitheater, slated to open by summer, 2016.

City Council members Mark Treyger and Chaim Deutsch teamed up with Charles Denson to advocate for landmarking the Boardwalk

The fight to landmark the Boardwalk continues. Last May I accompanied Council members Mark Treyger and Chaim Deutsch to a private meeting with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to advocate for the landmarking of the Boardwalk. I gave an illustrated historical presentation to LPC staff showing that the beloved structure is indeed eligible for landmark designation. We are still awaiting the LPC's decision.

Last spring, "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland," opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. This extensive show, which traveled to San Diego before coming to the Brooklyn Museum, spawned four other Coney Island shows in Brooklyn, providing a variety of off-season excitement for Coney lovers. The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, lent by the Vourderis family, and formerly the centerpiece of the Coney Island History Project, has proved to be a highlight of the show. I was honored to serve as a consultant and contributor to this extensive exhibition and its hardcover catalog.

Coney Island Creek may have received a temporary reprieve after the city's proposed flood control dam was moved (on paper) from the mouth of the creek to a site farther east on 21st Street. Many issues still need to be resolved before the feasibility study concerning this dubious creek project is released in early 2016. On a positive note, Estuary Day at Kaiser Park was a great success, and the creek's art deco pumping station received a hearing for landmark status and hopefully will be restored and repurposed sometime in the future.

Coney Island Creek: Still endangered. © Charles Denson

This summer we mourned the loss of Cindy Jacobs Allman, daughter of Ruby's Bar founder Ruby Jacobs, who passed away suddenly last May. Cindy was an educator with sand in her shoes, a personable mother who somehow found the time to work long hours at the family's Boardwalk business all summer long. She will be missed. Another loss was Cha Cha Ciarcia, proprietor of the Club Atlantis Bar on the Boardwalk who passed away this fall. His Atlantis partner, J.T., died several years ago. The Atlantis closed in 2011 after a 75-year run under many owners. The space is now occupied by Tom's Restaurant. 

On an unfortunate note, the Shore Theater, subject of endless revival rumors, was taken over by homeless vandals who've been ransacking the landmark building for months, camping inside and out, and turning the corner of Stillwell Avenue into a garbage dump. Maybe 2016 will be the year that something positive finally happens. We can only hope.

This was a year of transition and intrigue: The specter of eminent domain once again reared its ugly head as the city sought ownership of rezoned Coney properties. Developer Thor Equities grabbed more land in the heart of the amusement zone, new chain restaurants opened along Surf and Stillwell Avenues, a trendy art and food attraction opened on Thor's vacant Stillwell Avenue properties, and streets are being torn up to provide new utilities for the NYCEDC's massive residential project on what was formerly amusement-zoned Surf Avenue lots. And the late Lou Powsner, a long time Coney advocate, was honored with a street named for him. Change is in the air and all we need in 2016 is a warm and sunny summer.

The Coney Island History Project invites you to support our continuing mission of education and advocacy for a better Coney Island. Please become a member, take one of our walking tours, add your voice to our oral history project, browse our web site, or come visit our exhibit center below the Wonder Wheel in the heart of Coney Island.

 

 

 

posted Dec 23rd, 2015 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

New Year's Day Wonder Wheel

On January 1st, weather permitting, Deno's Wonder Wheel will be open for the first-time ever on New Year's Day and begin a countdown to the Wheel's 100th anniversary in 2020! The Coney Island History Project will be on hand to record New Year's greetings at the Wonder Wheel for our Oral History Archive

Our interviewers will be stationed at the entrance and exit of the Wheel. Stop by and record your New Year's message free of charge from 11am-2pm at this special Oral History Event. The audio greetings will be preserved in our Oral History Archive with a selection available for listening online. 

On New Year's Day, the Wheel will open from 11am-2pm for only $5 per ride with 50% of the proceeds being donated to the Coney Island Polar Bears' charity Camp Sunshine. The Wheel will also open New Year's Eve for the first time ever, weather permitting, with FREE Rides from 9pm to 11pm. Borough President Eric Adams has announced that Coney Island's countdown to 2016 will include an array of family-friendly events in addition to the Parachute Jump's digital "ball drop" and fireworks. 

Don't forget to bring your quarters: The animated windows on West 12th Street which house our neighbors Miss Coney Island ("25 cents to Fall in Love") and "Coney Island Always" ("25 cents to Smile") will also be open on New Year's Day.

Frank Sinatra and Sam Horwitz

In 2004 retired City Councilman Samuel Horwitz called me and asked me to meet with him to discuss a book project he had in mind. Sam had retired to Florida after representing Coney Island for two decades but was staying in a house in Sea Gate that he and his wife, Estelle, had rented for the summer. We met in a sunny backyard overlooking Gravesend Bay and the Verrazano Bridge. He had brought along massive scrapbooks covering his extensive career in politics and show business and laid them out on a picnic table. Sam wanted me to help him write his life story.

Sam was a political warrior who’d represented Coney Island during its roughest years, a time when the area was a battleground. His political life was interesting, but it was his show biz career that interested me the most, and I think that that was true for Sam as well: he was a true impresario.

After a career as a promoter, Sam moved to Coney Island and operated three major theaters before serving as Coney’s councilman from 1973 to 1993. All of these beautiful theaters are gone but fondly remembered. The Mermaid Theater on Mermaid Avenue was where we kids spent Saturday matinees watching horror films and stuffing ourselves with candy. The RKO Tilyou on Surf Avenue was where I took my first date. The Tuxedo Theater was where I saw the first run of West Side Story shortly before the theater was demolished by Fred Trump and replaced with a parking lot.

As I looked over his show biz clippings, I was impressed. After all, who would you rather spend time with: Frank Sinatra or Peter Vallone? We kept putting off the book project and didn’t meet again until 2008 at Sam’s 90th birthday party, a huge, well-attended affair at the Manhattan Club. We joked about the long-delayed project and planned to meet again some time in the future. Three months later Sam passed away.

I recently found a photograph of Sam and Frank Sinatra that was taken early in Sam’s career. In the 1980s there were rumors that Sinatra was opening a casino or buying property in Coney Island, wishful thinking for the most part. I like to imagine that the rumors were true: I imagine Frank Sinatra performing at the RKO Tilyou at a show hosted by Sam Horwitz, impresario, the man behind the silver screens.

– Charles Denson

Retired Councilman Sam Horwitz and Charles Denson, 2004

The Horwitz family's holiday message at Coney Island's Tuxedo Theater, 1962

Coney Island's Tilyou Theater as political billboard, election day, 1969

 

Promoter Sam Horwitz at work.

 

The Tilyou Theater during demoliton, 1973

 

 

posted Dec 12th, 2015 in By Charles Denson and tagged with