Boardwalk Empire: Vintage Atlantic City DesignBy Diana Cook
HBO promises to revisit the glitz and glamor of Prohibition-era Atlantic City in Boardwalk Empire. The new series chronicles the life and times of fictional character Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) politician/gangster and undisputed ruler of Atlantic City.
I am really excited for the show – and not just because I think Steve Buscemi is damn sexy (yes, I have a thing for prominent eye teeth). I am curious to see how the many design elements around when Nucky strolled the boulevards of AC will be incorporated into the show.
Lucy the Elephant
Visitors to Atlantic City have enjoyed the kitschy architecture of Lucy the Elephant for the past 120+ years. Constructed in 1881 by Philadelphia contractor James Lafferty, the six story wood and sheet metal Pachyderm was designed to sell real estate and promote tourism to those novelty loving Victorians. Lucy was one of three Zoomorphic structures built by Lafferty in the late 1800s, the other two, one in Brooklyn, NY and the other in Cape May, NJ never made it past the turn of the century.
Lucy stands 65 feet high, 60 feetlong, and 18 feet wide, weighs about 90 tons, and is made up of nearly one million pieces of wood. You can still visit her today at her original home in South Atlantic City or what they now refer to as Margate, New Jersey.
Atlantic City’s famed boardwalk was first erected in 1870. Storms destroyed the original and several subsequent structures until the one built in 1889 became the cornerstone of the promenade we know today. Home to legendary diversions like the famed Loop the Loop (1901-1912) and the birthplace of Miss America (1921) the boardwalk was the “it” place for fun in the early 1900s.
When Atlantic City’s boardwalk first opened in 1870, vehicles of any kind were prohibited. Rolling Chairs were introduced in 1884 by Philadelphia merchant Harry D. Shill for the use by the handicapped as the only “vehicle” allowed on the boardwalk. In 1887, local hardware store owner William Hayday began renting similar wheelchairs and provided attendants to push them up and down the ocean front.
Soon lazy, able bodied visitors pretended to need the chairs and city authorities made no objections. As the practice grew, Atlantic City started licensing rolling chairs, charging a $10 fee for each one. The Boardwalk still bustles with Rolling Chairs, you can have your lazy ass hustled around for about a buck a block, thanks to companies like Royal Rolling Chairs and Ocean Rolling Chairs.
The Steel Pier
One of several piers that jettisoned from the main drag, the Steel Pier originally opened in 1898 and quickly became known for showcasing the world’s top entertainers. Anyone who was anyone played the Steel Pier. W. C. Fields was a member of the minstrel group that appeared during the Pier’s inaugural season. Benny Goodman, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, Bob Hope, Amos ‘n Andy, Frank Sinatra, in addition to these top names of the day, novelty acts from “slightly bizarre” to “able to make PETA’s head spin”, (like the Boxing Cats) were also in the mix.
Spectacles that often defied good taste and common sense like The Human Cannonball, the High Diving Hawaiians, Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly – pole sitting world’s record holder (seven weeks) were top draw attractions in the mid-1920s.
One of the most disturbing “attractions”, the Diving Horses of the Steel Pier debuted in 1905 and ended their run in 1978 (!). The horses were trained to dive from a 40-foot tower into a 12 foot tub of water with girls on their back from 2-4 times daily. Catch videos of the Steel Pier Diving Horses here and here.
Infant Incubator Exhibit
Another quirky attraction was the “Infant Incubator Exhibit” across from the Million Dollar Pier. In the early 20th century, incubators for premature babies were a technological novelty–but hospitals needed funds to purchase them, and that required public support for the idea. To raise interest, incubators were displayed to the public with the tiny preemies still inside. “Baby Hatcheries” were found at state fairs,amusement parks like Coney Island, and of course Atlantic City. Admission was charged to view the tiny human babies in incubators as they were cared for by nurses.
Boardwalk Hall and More
Other noteworthy structures and designs appeared at the end of the 20s. We’ll have to wait and see if the timeline and longevity of Boardwalk Empire will encompass the construction of Boardwalk Hall (1929), the world’s largest Pipe Organ (1930) and the introduction of the iconic Mr. Peanut (1930).