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This Elephant Is Not Endangered : Victorian Relic Built in 1881 Is the Pride of Beach Town

Charles Hillinger's America

December 29, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

MARGATE, N.J. — This residential beach town on an Atlantic Ocean island has a love affair with a 104-year-old elephant named Lucy.

A rare bit of Americana and an architectural folly, Lucy the lovable pachyderm was declared a Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1976. She measures six stories high and is said to be the only elephant you can walk through and come out alive.

Among those who have climbed the spiral staircase in Lucy's left leg into her stomach was President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Like thousands of other visitors, Wilson then ascended another spiral staircase into her head and peered out of Lucy's steely eyes.

"Everybody loves Lucy," said Tom Markowski, 50, recreation and parks commissioner for the city of Margate, population 10,000, which owns the Victorian relic.

Sandy Wilderness

She stands on a beach park staring out to sea, the creation of developer James V. Lafferty, who was seeking to attract potential property owners to a wide stretch of sandy wilderness south of Atlantic City.

Lafferty conceived, designed and took a year to construct Lucy at a cost of $38,000, completing the awesome pachyderm in 1881. His real estate office was in Lucy's stomach and he auctioned off lots from Lucy's 65-foot-high howdah.

The gimmick worked; Margate was launched. By 1887 Lafferty had sold all his lots and he sold Lucy to Sophie and John Gertzen who built an ornate hotel next to Lucy. The elephant-shaped structure was called the Elephant Hotel.

Lafferty moved on to new challenges, developing property at Cape May and Coney Island where he erected two sister elephants, same size, same shape.

But Lucy is the sole survivor of the family of pachyderms built by Lafferty. Fire destroyed the Coney Island elephant in 1898 and the Cape May one was demolished in 1900.

Through the years Lucy also served as a bathhouse, restaurant, ice cream parlor, tavern and private home.

But time and the elements took their toll and Lucy almost got the ax. She was in terrible shape, battered by the wind and sand, beset by vandals.

"Lucy had gaping holes in her side. She looked like an airplane crashed into her," recalled Josephine Harron, 61, a Margate homemaker and president of the Save Lucy Committee.

Seventeen years ago the sorry wreck was declared a public nuisance and condemned to be demolished and hauled away. But Harron Charles Hillinger's America

and a group of civic-minded local citizens formed the Save Lucy Committee.

"I remember seeing poor, dilapidated Lucy standing there on the beach so forlorn and I thought to myself, 'Why doesn't somebody do something to preserve this marvelous old elephant?' " said Harron, whose husband, George, is a coffee salesman.

Harron was hooked. She and a nucleus of other Lucy lovers launched a drive to restore the elephant and "preserve her forever."

Since its founding, the Save Lucy Committee has spent $500,000 restoring the elephant to her original opulence--$300,000 from federal and state grants and $200,000 from private donations and various fund-raisers.

Donated to the City

The committee was formed in 1968, the year the Gertzen family donated the battered beast to the city. Two years later Lucy was moved two blocks to vacant city property designated as a park for Lucy the Margate Elephant. The Elephant Hotel was razed in 1972.

The elephant's exterior was renovated over a three-year period and finished in time for America's 200th birthday when she was declared a Historic Landmark as a Bicentennial Project. The structure's wood and metal skin required 1 million pieces, each different in size and shape, to form her contour.

For the last 10 years, guided tours have been conducted through the elephant from April through October. Visitors are allowed to climb to the howdah, an observation platform providing an excellent view up and down the coast. Inside Lucy's stomach is a museum filled with photographs and memorabilia about the structure.

During spring, summer and fall, Save Lucy Committee volunteers operate a gift shop next to the elephant where Lucy T-shirts, mugs, posters, pewter thimbles and other items are sold. Funds are used for maintenance of the elephant.

Band concerts are conducted in the park during the summer and a big flea market and white elephant sale is held every August.

During the Bicentennial, when the tall ships sailed into New York harbor, a yacht operated by Irene Dupont Jr. sailed past Margate en route to the Bicentennial maritime celebration.

Dupont did a double take on seeing the elephant, moored briefly to visit Lucy and was so enchanted with the structure that he donated and installed a $40,000 fire suppression system.

Two months ago a 1-million-gallon city water tank costing $1 million was completed in back of the Margate police station. And emblazoned on the tank is a painting of Margate's most famous resident, Lucy the Elephant.

"Lucy's popularity never ceases to amaze me," said James J. Creaghe Jr., 63, who's been a member of the force for 40 years, chief the last 19. "When someone asks where you're from and you tell them Margate, they always ask about the elephant."

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