In Margate City, N.J., everyone loves Lucy

June 19, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

Margate City, a quiet little seaside burb outside Atlantic City, takes justifiable civic pride in its accomplishments. But all pale by comparison to Lucy.

It has dozens of beautiful, stately homes. Its Little League teams were state champions in 1965 and 1980. But most of all, it has Lucy, a six-story wood and tin elephant you can walk inside that has been staring out to sea since 1881.

She is an architectural wonder unique in the United States, and ** Margate City is proud to have her. When a deteriorating Lucy was threatened with destruction 17 years ago, contributions poured in and volunteers, through a combination of hard work and willpower, saved her. Brown and white signs direct visitors to Lucy from U.S. 40, about 10 miles away. Her likeness adorns the town water tower.

Certainly, no elephant in America is more worthy of the adulation.

The saga of Lucy began more than a century ago, when James V. Lafferty Jr. decided he needed something to attract prospective buyers to his waterfront property. Deciding that a billboard wouldn't cut it, Lafferty enlisted Philadelphia architect William Free to build the beachfront pachyderm he was sure would lure visitors to the marshy swampland then known as South Atlantic City.

At 65 feet, Lucy is one tall mammal. Her skeleton is made of wood and metal, covered with 12,000 square feet of tin. She's 38 feet long and 80 feet around, with ears 17 feet long and 10 feet wide, each weighing about 2,000 pounds.

The elephant cost some $38,000 to build -- no small sum in those days -- and no doubt helped push Lafferty to the financial brink. Overextended, he sold his South Atlantic City holdings to Anton Gertzen in 1887.

Lucy -- Mrs. Gertzen provided the name, although its origins have been lost to history -- would remain in the Gertzen family until 1970. Always a tourist attraction, the great elephant would see her surroundings change repeatedly over the years. A Turkish Pavilion, built for Philadelphia's Centennial Exhibition in 1876, was moved to the site and operated as a nightclub. The Gertzens purchased a hotel across the street and operated it for many years (Lucy, contrary to popular belief, was never used as a hotel herself, although an English doctor did lease her as a summer home in the early 1900s).

The huge elephant even housed a tavern once, until rowdy patrons nearly burned her down in 1904.

She also weathered many a fierce storm, including one in 1903 that left her knee-deep in sand until volunteers dug her out and moved her farther back from the sea, and a 1944 hurricane that destroyed the entire Margate Boardwalk.

Lucy's longevity is remarkable. Although she was one of three elephants built in the 1880s -- the others were in Cape May, N.J., and Coney Island, N.Y. -- neither of them lasted beyond 1900.

By 1969, however, Lucy was in serious trouble. Sections of her tin skin had flaked off and her interior structure was rickety. The newly formed Margate Civic Association persuaded the Gertzens to donate Lucy to the city, then persuaded the city to allow her to be moved to public property about two blocks south of her original site (the land under Lucy had been sold to developers).

Lucy was moved on July 20, 1970 -- despite last-minute maneuverings by a company that owned land adjacent to her new home, which claimed she'd decrease property values. A judge threw out its claim the morning of the move.

Since then, the Save Lucy Committee has done a marvelous job of restoring her. She's painted elephant gray -- what else? -- with red eyes that stare unblinkingly out to sea and has an ornate Indian howdah on her back.

Unfortunately, the pavilion, hotel and other outbuildings are all gone now. But for $2, tourists can enter through Lucy's right rear leg and walk up to an 18-foot-square reception room that houses exhibits of Lucy lore -- old posters, postcards, guest registers from the hotel -- along with other items of local history.

From the reception room, visitors can climb the stairs to her howdah and get an elephant's-eye view of the Atlantic Ocean. The view is spectacular, although not nearly as awe-inspiring as the observation structure itself.

For an old gal, Lucy remains quite the charmer. Especially for kids.

"I knew one couple -- they're grandparents now -- their kid had to sit in front of Lucy before he would go to sleep," says Ethel Emery, who volunteers in the gift shop, where small pewter statues of Lucy sell for $7, with proceeds going to help pay for further restoration. "Children just love her."

Fortunately, as the good citizens of Margate have proved, children aren't the only ones.

IF YOU GO . . .

From Baltimore, follow Interstate 95 north, cross the Delaware Memorial Bridge and exit onto U.S. 40 east (the last exit before the New Jersey Turnpike). Lucy's about another 60 miles; follow U.S. 40 to Atlantic City, then turn right on Atlantic Avenue and head south until you see a huge elephant on your left, or veer right off U.S. 40 at Tilton Road, about 10 miles outside Atlantic City, and follow the signs to Margate City and Lucy.

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