Pachyderm still attracts visitors

At age 120, Lucy the Elephant draws tourists to New Jersey shore

Posted: Sunday, August 12, 2001

MARGATE, N.J. -- Driving through the city of Margate, it's hard not to notice a large elephant's rump jutting toward Atlantic Avenue.

That would be the rear end of Lucy the Elephant, a six-story oddity that was built by a real estate developer in 1881 in the hopes that it somehow would attract property buyers to this Atlantic City suburb, then called South Atlantic City.

Filling most of a block of property on the beachfront, Lucy gets the ocean view. Soon others will, too: A Web camera is being set up to provide visitors to Lucy's Web site a 24-hour vista of the sea through Lucy's eyes. Another camera will be trained on the 65-foot-high elephant, to give fans a glimpse of the pachyderm anytime they want.

The organization that maintains the attraction also is considering buying advertising time on Philadelphia television stations, billboard space along the Atlantic City Expressway and banner-plane ads along the beach, all in an effort to increase the number of visitors to Lucy.

''There are 34 million people who come to Atlantic City every year,'' says Richard D. Helfant, executive director of the group. ''If we got one half of 1 percent, we would be on top of the world.''

Lucy, who turned 120 on July 20, has survived years of neglect, a fire and several hurricanes.

''The only thing she can't overcome is public apathy,'' Helfant says.

In the late 1800s, James V. Lafferty, a Philadelphia engineer and inventor, owned several sandy lots in South Atlantic City. He concocted the idea of building a structure that looked like an animal to attract visitors and property buyers.

The elephant was built in 1881 at a cost of $25,000. Lafferty also built two similar elephants three years later -- the Light of Asia in what is now South Cape May, and Elephantine Colossus in Coney Island, N.Y.

The Light of Asia never attracted enough visitors to be a financial success. By 1900, it had deteriorated to the point where it was beyond saving and was torn down.

The 12-story Elephantine Colossus, which had 31 rooms, including a ''shoulder room,'' a ''throat room'' and a ''stomach room,'' caused a lot of excitement when it opened. But it, too, was a financial failure. It was converted to a boarding house before catching fire and crumbling to the sand in 1896.

Lucy, though, was well-enough maintained at the time to survive. An English doctor and his family leased her in 1902 to use as a summer home. They converted the main hall into four bedrooms, a dining room, kitchen and parlor.

A storm heavily damaged Lucy in 1903. The following year, when the elephant was operating as a tavern, rowdy drinkers knocked over oil lanterns, causing a fire that nearly burned her to the ground. Lucy was later converted into a rooming house.

A storm in 1929 tore off Lucy's howdah -- the canopied seat atop her back -- and it was replaced with a less-ornate version.

Lucy continued to operate as a tourist attraction until 1970, when her owner donated her to the city and retired. The 90-ton elephant was hoisted on jacks and placed on dollies for a two-block move to city park land.

Three years later, after exhaustive fund-raising by the ''Save Lucy'' committee, restoration work began. Steel beams that were part of her frame were replaced, as was her metal skin. A fresh coat of gray, red and gold paint was applied and another new howdah was installed.

Lucy has been open to visitors ever since. The 30-minute tour takes visitors up a narrow, spiral staircase in one of Lucy's hind legs to what would be her stomach.

The large room, painted Pepto-Bismol pink, contains historical photos and items on display, including her original red, wooden tongue, which fell off during the move. A small porcelain bathtub from the days when Lucy served as a summer home is displayed in what was a tiny bathroom in one of her shoulders.

Visitors can step up on a small platform and look out small round windows -- Lucy's eyes -- to see what she sees: a beautiful view of the Margate beach and the Atlantic Ocean.

For her birthday on July 20, Lucy got a pedicure: Her 18 large toenails were painted hot pink. A disc jockey from a local radio station painted his nails the same color for the occasion.

Last year, 15,000 people toured Lucy, Helfant says, but he'd like to see that number increase significantly.

''She should be a household word for people in the Northeast,'' he says. ''There are a million lighthouses, museums and parks, but there's only one elephant.''


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