Monday, September 26, 2011

Coney's Elephant Hotel Goes Down In Flames

Coney Island's Elephant hotel towered over the seaside neighborhood before burning down in 1896.
Coney Island is home to several iconic landmarks of American recreation. The Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel and the Parachute Jump come to mind. But it’s also a graveyard of amusements — so many ostentatious attractions have come and gone, such as the Elephant Hotel.

Situated on Surf Avenue and West 5th Street, this enormous elephant made of pine and tin — often referred to as the Coney Island Elephant — burnt down on Sept. 27, 1896. The five people inside at the time of the blaze were safely guided to safety by Howard Wilson, the watchman at the nearby Sea Beach Palace.

The elephant had been seven stories high and over 100 feet long. The first floor had a restaurant and saloon, while the upper floors were used as a hotel. On the top was a howdah (a saddle used to ride an elephant), which was used as an observation deck. There was a cigar store in one of its legs and a “diorama” for panoramic views in the other.

It was built by James V. Lafferty, who built two other elephant-shaped buildings, one of which still survives, “Lucy the Elephant” in South Atlantic City. “Old Dumbo,” built in Cape May in 1884, was torn down. Lafferty actually had a patent, starting in 1882, giving him the exclusive right to make, use or sell animal-shaped buildings for 17 years.

The Coney Island Elephant cost $68,000 to build and by all accounts was a financial failure, frequently changing hands. But for years it was the most recognizable element of the Coney “skyline.”

On Sept. 28, 1896, the day after the elephant burnt down, the Brooklyn Eagle published a eulogy of sorts for the prominent pachyderm, “Loss of an Old Friend.” The writer, using delicate language, suggested the elephant did not always attract the most esteemed clientele.

'Loss of an Old Friend'

“News of the death of the Coney Island Elephant, which occurred last night at 10:30 o’clock, will be received in Brooklyn as elsewhere with feelings of profound regret. He died as a hero, not exactly like the boy on the burning dock, but faithful to those who admire and loved him and anxious even in his last moments to contribute to their happiness. It was a singularly pathetic career full of promise at the start, but marred by the intervention of events over which there could be no control.

“Born in 1876, our friend possessed qualities that attracted the attention of mankind. He stood 76 feet high in his stockings and had an appetite proportionate to his height. Barrooms and restaurants he could swallow at a gulp, as he also swallowed the men who had confidence in him as a financial attraction. The capacity of his “midst,” taken in connection with his tremendous height and the fact that he was not in the habit of wandering from his own fireside made him a sort of Coney Island landmark.

“Passengers on the ocean steamers caught a glimpse of him on their way up the channel and were impressed by the ponderosity of American institutions. They were bound to admire the majesty of his proportions just as they were compelled to express appreciation of the solemnity of his mien. It was not, however, to the plaudits of the better element that he chiefly appealed. He did not care much for the adulation of those who had tasted the civilization of European cities, or even of those who had become jaded with the excesses of our own metropolitan existence. What he especially reveled in was the gaze of the guileless, that of the inhabitants of our rural districts, who regarded him as the personification of all the virtues of city life.

“Contemplating his soulful eyes as they swept the blue Atlantic was it possible to credit the slanderous allegations that were occasionally made against him? Was it possible to believe that this innocent looking creature could be justly held up to the view as the type of all that was wicked?

“Is it difficult to select a conspicuously excellent trait among many that are about evenly deserving of commendation. Yet if we must do so we should say that the loyalty which our friend displayed was perhaps the most charming trait of all. He knew [corrupt Gravesend political Boss John McKane] in the days of his prosperity and in the days of his adversity. He was, impervious however, to the changes made by time and circumstance in the fortunes of the former Coney Island ruler, and no one ever heard him say an unkind word concerning him. It was the same, too, with other people whose acquaintance he enjoyed. His lips were closed to their faults, and no amount of persuasion could induce himself as to their shortcomings, if indeed he thought they had any.

“His end was not only heroic but spectacular in the extreme. It seemed as if he had reserved all his energies until the last, in order to make a fitting exit. Crowds came from far and near to watch his expiring gasps. The youth and beauty of Coney Island were there and its chivalry too, and the flames mounted fifty feet to the sky and lighted up the Atlantic, to say nothing of the palatial residences in the immediate vicinity, there was a general feeling of sadness. Every person in the throng felt as though he or she had lost a friend, and it was a loss of magnitude of which could not easily be exaggerated.

“It is not kind to speak ill of the dead, and that in deed is not our intention. We cannot help thinking, however, that if the deceased had not scattered his energies in so many different directions he would have attained a greater degree of success. In any walk of life he would have won distinction, but when he consented to lend himself to several lines of effort at the same time, he taxed his efforts to too great an extent. His loss, however, for this reason will not be less deplored. His career was full of usefulness and was one moreover that cannot be easily duplicated.”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Calendar: Marathon 'Song of Myself' Reading

This Saturday, Sept 24. at 3:30 p.m., the Brooklyn Public Library, along with NYU professor Karen Karbiener, is holding a marathon reading of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," which is perhaps the most revered and beloved poem of his groundbreaking book Leaves of Grass. 

Karbiener will be joined by a roster of volunteers (you could be one of them!) in vocalizing the lengthy poem at the outdoor plaza of the library's central branch at Grand Army Plaza. If it rains, the reading will be moved inside to the library's Dweck Center.

To sign up to read, or for more information, contact June Koffi at (718) 230-2708 or email Leave your name, number, and your top three choices of sections of "Song of Myself."

Friday, September 16, 2011

New Book Illustrates Gowanus Past and Present

These days Gowanus feels like the final frontier of Brownstone Brooklyn. Nestled as it is between two of the borough’s fashionable neighborhoods, Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, the notorious canal and its environs has peaked the interest of big-name developers and artists alike.

Since the neighborhood is beginning to turn heads, the release of the new book The Glory of Brooklyn’s Gowanus is well timed. It reminds us that, although the area has felt like an industrial wasteland for much of recent memory, there is evidence of a glorious past if you look hard enough.

There are few people better equipped to reveal that past than Brian Merlis, owner of what is believed to be the largest private collection of Brooklyn photos and ephemera in the country. He has published 22 books about the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, all of them filled with rarely seen historic photos.

But this book is a bit of a departure for Merlis. “This is more of an art book,” he explained this week while discussing the book at Park Slope’s Old Stone House.

For The Glory of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Merlis partnered with artist and educator Leslie-Arlette Boyce. It was Boyce who conceived of the book 10 years ago after being transfixed by the canal while photographing it. “I had a wonderful time getting lost in the water, in the light on the water. It’s easy to let your mind wander down there. It’s so quiet,” she said.

Dressed in a flowing white tunic and with a mellifluous and eloquent voice, she makes an odd pair with Merlis, whose bald head and Brooklyn accent peg him as a surly police captain straight out of central casting. But their artsy-gritty counterbalance forms an appropriate partnership in producing a book about Gowanus.

The book covers the important chapters of the neighborhood’s history, such as the early Native American inhabitants and their interaction with early Dutch settlers, slavery, the Battle of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War, the rise of industry and the immigrant waves that made their home here.

This history is further illustrated through three interviews published in the book: With Susan Rapilye, a descendent of one of the earliest European families to settle in Brooklyn, with John Muir, founder of the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment, and with Lennard “the Chicken Man” Thomas, who operates the Union Street, Carroll Street and Third Street bridges that cross the canal.

There is also a section on the emerging arts scene in the neighborhood, highlighting galleries and music venues as well as several of the artists who live in the area and who render the canal in their work, such as John Ross Michaels, Regina Perlin and Elizabeth O’Reilly.

The real strength of the book is its visual impact. It is heavily illustrated with striking photos, some of them being published here for the first time. “The point was to take people on a journey and to be historically correct and to give something beautiful to look at, despite this place being thought of as disgusting and scary,” says Boyce of the book.

There are more than 100 historic images in the book, in addition to beautiful color reproductions of paintings of the Gowanus by contemporary and historic artists. Photographic highlights include images of the Washington Park baseball stadium, which was at Third Avenue and Third Street and was home to the Dodgers before Ebbets Field was built (there’s even a photo of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show performing at the stadium!) and early 20th century street scenes

The Glory of Brooklyn’s Gowanus is available for purchase at Book Court (163 Court St.), the two local Barnes & Noble stores (106 Court St. and 267 Seventh Ave.), The Strand bookstore in Manhattan and on

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Happy Birth Anniversary, Margaret Sanger

Apologies for the lack of posting! BBN got married and went on a honeymoon, thus Brooklyn history has not been at the forefront of our brain. But we're back, just in time to give a nod to this extraordinary lady: Margaret Sanger, birth control pioneer. As the Eagle notes in its paper, today is her birth anniversary (Sept. 14, 1879). She was not from Brooklyn, but she did launch the first birth control clinic in the country right here in Brooklyn:

"On Oct. 16, 1916, she opened the first birth control clinic in the nation at 46 Amboy St. in Brooklyn. No fewer than 150 baby-buggy-pushing women from the Brownsville area lined up to pay a 10-cent registration fee. On October 25, policemen and, to her chagrin, a policewoman, raided her clinic. Sanger was charged with distributing birth control information and was imprisoned for 30 days."

She is pictured here leaving the courthouse in Brooklyn that Oct. 16 after being arraigned. AP photo