SJ Attractions: Lucy the Elephant

by R. Cohen | Jul 29, 2003
SJ Attractions: Lucy the Elephant A national historic site as well as a unique example of the eccentric architecture of the late Victorian age, Lucy the Elephant is arguably the most beloved tourist attraction in the Atlantic City area. Located in the neighboring town of Margate, the 119-year-old elephant-shaped building has come to the brink of demolition several times, only to be saved by outpourings of public protest and grass-roots fund-raising fervor.

On clear days Lucy is visible from eight miles out at sea, thus making New Jersey's the only coastline in the world marked by a six-story-high, elephant-shaped navigational aid! The result of an 1881 exercise in stuntmanship and land speculation, Lucy was created as the attention-getting centerpiece of James V. Lafferty's beach real estate sales venture. Lafferty, a brash, 25-year-old engineer and would-be entrepreneur, was backed by his family's wealth and driven by a vision for a new kind of real estate promotion that would lure prospects to the desolate stretch of sand dunes and scrub pine he hoped to sell as plots for vacation cottages.

Atlantic City at that time was fast growing into a Victorian vacation metropolis centered around the Absecon Lighthouse, the landmark that was then the symbol of the seaside resort. Lafferty wanted to establish a similarly impressive landmark and sense of place for his own new development in "South Atlantic City." To gain the attention of the public and press, he chose what was then a startling concept: a building shaped like a gigantic animal. To fully appreciate Lafferty's feat, it's important to understand that in the 1880s, the idea of erecting a structure shaped like an animal was unheard of even as the new engineering techniques and technologies of a quickening industrial age made such complicated architectural projects theoretically possible.

More sculpture than carpentry, the construction of Lucy involved hand-shaping nearly a million pieces of wood to create the required intricate collection of curves and appropriate load supports for a 90-ton structure finished in 1882 with an outer sheath of hammered tin. The amazing elephant building, which DID generate the national publicity Lafferty hoped for, was the first of three he constructed. The largest--a gargantuan, twelve-story structure twice as large as Lucy--called the "Elephantine Colossus" was erected in the center of the Coney Island, New York, amusement park. The third Lafferty elephant, slightly smaller than Lucy, was "the Light of Asia," erected as the centerpiece of another Lafferty land sale program in South Cape May. The Collossus later burned down and the Light of Asia was torn down, leaving Lucy the only survivor.

By the late 1880s, although the elephant buildings were drawing crowds of awed spectators, Lafferty's over-extended real estate ventures were losing money. Lucy and his surrounding Absecon Island holdings were sold to John and Sophie Gertzen, who operated the elephant building alternately as a tourist attraction, miniature hotel, private beach cottage and tavern. Meanwhile, "South Atlantic City" developed into a thriving shore community that later changed its name to Margate. In 1920, Lucy the Elephant tavern was forced to close by the passage of Prohibition. When that law was repealed in 1933, she immediately became a bar again. In the 1950s, as a new America emerged from World War II to build webs of superhighways and adopt airplanes as a cheap new way of travel to exotic vacation destinations, Lucy faded from the public's attention and fell into disrepair. By the 1960s, she was a dilapidated public safety hazard slated to be torn down.

In 1969, just ahead of the wrecker's ball, the "Save Lucy Committee" formed by the Margate Civic Association began two decades of public struggles that moved Lucy to beachfront land owned by the city and restored the peculiar structure as a historic site and tourist attraction. Since 1973 enough money has been collected in determined "Save Lucy" campaigns to restore the structural integrity and exterior of the 90-ton wood-and-tin pachyderm. But the fundraising battle continues today as the group works to raise additional money required to underwrite the never ending costs of fighting rust and rot and refurbish the interior of the great wooden beast as a high-quality museum.

Address: 9200 Atlantic Avenue, Margate, NJ 08402 Location: Corner of Decatur and Atlantic Avenues, Margate Phone: (609) 823-6473; (609) 823-0424 Admission fee: Adults $4, Children $3

Visiting Hours: Weekends-April through Mid-June: 10am to 4:30pm Daily-Mid-June through Labor Day: 10am to 8pm Weekends-September through October: 10am to 4:30pm.

Donations to: SAVE LUCY COMMITTEE, Inc., P.O. Box 3336, Margate, NJ 08402

For more information, visit Lucy's official website at

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