Coney Island Blog - By Charles Denson

 

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

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

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

By Charles Denson

Charles Denson with the Neptune medallion on the day he donated it to the Brooklyn Museum in 1981.

On November 20 a groundbreaking exhibition called Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland opens at the Brooklyn Museum. The connection between this show and the Brooklyn Museum has unleashed a flood of memories about my life-changing experiences at the museum fifty years ago. 

In 1965, when I was in the sixth grade at P.S. 288 in Coney Island, I won an art contest for a drawing I did of the newly built Verrazano Bridge. The drawing was exhibited in a student art show at the Lever House gallery on Park Avenue in Manhattan. My class made a trip to see the show, and my prize was a scholarship to attend summer art school at the Brooklyn Museum.

Attending classes at the museum was one of the highlights of my childhood and I fell in love with the museum’s galleries and art school. My favorite part was the sculpture garden next to the parking lot behind the museum. At that time it was more of a junkyard than a garden. Rarely opened to the public, it was a cluttered storage area stacked with architectural artifacts rescued from demolition sites all over New York. I loved wandering among these beautiful rescued objects, and I couldn't believe that these treasures were all that remained from historic buildings that were being destroyed across the city.

The garden later became more formal and was transformed into an important part of the museum. I thought of the garden as the city's architectural “lost and found” department, where lost objects might be found and (I hoped) someday appreciated and returned to their rightful places in the fabric of the city.

During the late 1960s I began rescuing artifacts from demolition sites all over my Coney Island neighborhood. It was not like today when architectural fragments are scavenged and sold off to the highest bidder. Beautiful buildings and their decorative ornamentation were crushed into dust below the treads of bulldozers and loaded into dump trucks. I literally worked behind bulldozers gathering anything I could. The horror of urban renewal was in full swing, and I’d become a preservationist.

In 1973 a beautiful Boardwalk structure called the Washington Baths Annex was being demolished after a series of fires. The building, which we called the Pink Palace, was clad in shiny pink terra-cotta and decorated with nautical-themed medallions. After a great deal of effort, I rescued one of the structure’s shattered King Neptune medallions, took it home, and repaired it with plaster and pieces of metal coat hangers. Ten years later I donated the medallion to the Brooklyn Museum where it was put on display in a kiosk in the sculpture garden alongside other salvaged Coney Island artifacts. King Neptune had found a permanent home!

The King Neptune medallion in the ruins of Washington Baths, 1973. © Charles Denson

I began documenting Coney Island at the age of twelve with the eventual goal of writing a book. It took me nearly forty years of primary source research to complete Coney Island: Lost and Found, and it was finally published in 2002. It was well received and won the New York Book of the Year Award from the New York Society Library. As I described in the book, the title “Lost and Found” was based on my early experiences at the Brooklyn Museum and my love of its sculpture garden and artifacts.

In 2009 Robin Jaffee Frank, then at Yale, asked me to be one of the consultants for an extensive Coney Island exhibition she was proposing, and I joined an impressive team that she assembled to plan the show. We met many times, and I wound up writing the final chapter of the exhibition catalog. I was also thrilled to have my work included in the show, and to contribute photographs and ephemera to what I consider to be the best Coney Island exhibit ever assembled, a sensational show that has now come home to Brooklyn.

My early experiences at the Brooklyn Museum have come full circle, and some of what was lost during my childhood has been found. The King Neptune medallion will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum as part of Visions of an American Dreamland, partnered with some of the greatest Coney artwork ever exhibited. Many of the exquisite and rarely seen nineteenth century Coney Island paintings in the show are masterpieces that I’d studied but had never seen in person before: depictions of an undeveloped natural landscape bearing little resemblance to the modern cityscape of my old neighborhood.

Robin Jaffee Frank’s illuminating exhibition is comprised of 140 pieces: classical paintings, photographs, carousel horses, artifacts, films, posters, prints, and works by Paul Cadmus, George Tooker, Weegee, Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Reginald Marsh, Red Grooms, Joseph Stella, and many others who captured the essence and spirit of Coney Island. This show takes me back to my Coney Island roots and intensifies my deep appreciation for the Brooklyn Museum and what I learned there in my youth.

"Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008," Brooklyn Museum, November 20, 2015-March 13, 2016. The museum is open Wed - Sun, 11am - 6pm, on Thursdays til 10pm, and on the first Saturday of the month til 11pm.

 

Washington Baths Annex, at left, next to the Childs Building, 1969 © Charles Denson

 Charles Denson, 1973, rescuing Neptune medallion.

Charles Denson and curator Robin Jaffee Frank at the Wadsworth Atheneum, 2013.

 

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