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I went through an elephant, and came out alive

September 16, 2012

Lucy today. She’s 131, but doesn’t look a day over one hundred.

Happy Belated Birthday, Lucy.  Lucy the Elephant celebrated her 131st birthday in July and the old gal is looking pretty great.  If you have a look at the slideshow below, you’ll see it hasn’t always been that way.  Typical historic preservation story in which the [white] elephant building that’s always been there, that the community has always loved, is suddenly in danger of collapsing or being torn down.  A group of committed people combine efforts, rally support, and the treasured structure is either saved or lost.  In the case of this Margate, New Jersey, landmark, thankfully the outcome was positive.

According to her National Historic Landmark nomination, Lucy was built by real estate promoter  James V. Lafferty in 1882.  She is the first and last of three constructed elephants to survive the ravages of time.  The others were located on Coney Island, New York (burned 1896), and Cape May, New Jersey.  (The photographs for the NHL nomination include some historic reproductions and images by Jack Boucher, the noted Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) photographer who recently passed away.)

Lafferty obtained a patent for his “invention” of zoomorphic structures that gave him exclusive rights for seventeen years.  (It is fun to suppose that when the patent expired, there was a sudden rush to construct animal buildings…)

In his patent application in 1882, Lafferty wrote

My invention consists of a building in the form of an animal (i.e. an Elephant) the body of which is floored and divided into 2 rooms, closets, etc., and the legs contain the stairs which lead to the body, said legs being hollow so as to be of increased strength for properly supporting the body, and the elevation of the body permitting the circulation of air below the same, the entire device presenting a unique appearance, and producing a building which is well ventilated and lighted.

A chute communicates with the front of the body and extends to the ground where it may be connected with a sewer or other conduit for conveying slops, ashes, etc., to the sewer or conduit, said chute being of the form of the trunk of the elephant and containing trussing . . . for supporting the front of the body, said trussing being concealed by the covering or wall of the trunk.

The lower end of the chute enters or is connected with a box around which is a seat, said box resting on the ground or proper supports thereon and concealing said lower end of the chute and the connection with the conduit and presenting the appearance of a trough from which the animal is feeding or drinking.

An upper story may be supported on the body, access whereto is had from the floor by means of stairs which are properly located in the walls of the body and sustained in position, said story being in the form of a howdah which completing the semblance of a bedecked elephant, acts as the observatory of the building.

It will be seen that the structure is novel and unique.

Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) has also documented Lucy with photographs and measured drawings. Click image to visit the portfolio

My sons and I attended Lucy’s 125th birthday and ate cake and peanuts.  It was a delight for me to share Lucy  with my children because she’s a link to my own childhood.  And having them there provided the impetus for me to finally take the tour inside the elephant!

My grandparents lived just up the street at 8900 Atlantic Avenue and visiting them in the summertime was one of the few constants of my young life.  When you move to a new state and start a new school every couple of years, it’s nice to have one place that stays the same.  Summers in Margate meant Lucy, of course, and miniature golf, and the requisite crush on the lifeguard at the beach club, Lebanon bologna sandwiches, Taylor pork roll, grinders from White House, the boardwalk — this back in the days when Steel Pier in Atlantic City still featured musical performances, men who would guess your weight (why would you want them to do that?), a mini-museum with an electric eel that could light up a lightbulb, and none other than the famous Diving Horse.  I confess that when I finally saw the Diving Horse, I was disappointed that the creature did not so much dive, as have the floor drop out from under it.  (The romance died.  I no longer wanted to be that girl on the horse.)

My grandfather took these pictures of Lucy’s Big Moving Day (it is hard to find information on the internet about her move; people seem to think that she’s always been on Atlantic and Decatur…).  I was amused to find that Jack Boucher had very similar photographs.  I guess there was a particular perspective from behind the barricades, complete with the same guy in a yellow hard hat in view.  My grandfather was also able to get some perspective from a second floor, so in some respects, his photos are better than the professional’s!

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2012 9:21 pm

    I love Lucy, but really, any oversized roadside attraction with a past will do, like the giant shoe house in Hellam, PA, or the “world’s largest” apple in Winchester, VA. Seeking them out has become a quest for my me…and I drag my family along for the ride!

    • October 1, 2012 9:25 pm

      Traci: If you have any special bonds with any one particular among said roadside attractions, I hope you’ll see today’s contest post and submit your story! (You could win your very own Lucy!)

  2. October 29, 2012 3:26 pm

    Your grandfather’s pictures are wonderful. For some reason, seeing Lucy on the move conveys a much better sense of her size. The poor thing looks a little ragged! She appears to be held together with duct tape.


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