Lucy the Elephant

Lucy the Elephant, located in Margate City New Jersey, stands 65 feet high, and is made from tin sheeting, and nearly one million pieces of wood.  It is the oldest animal-shaped building in the world, and also holds the distinction of being the largest elephant in the world.  This gigantic building is a true historical treasure, and has survived hurricanes, rowdy drunks, prohibition and demolition in its rich 124-year history.

James V. Lafferty, an engineer and inventor whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Ireland, constructed Lucy in 1882.

While in his twenties, Lafferty acquired a number of pieces of land in the South Atlantic City area.  This land was not idea for development, given that it was cut off from Atlantic City by a tidal creek that filled during high tide, making it impossible for anyone to visit Lafferty’s properties until the tide subsided.

Lafferty came up with the idea of Lucy the Elephant; a huge elephant shaped building, as a ploy to attract real estate development and tourism to his land.  Architect William Free was hired to design the structure, and a contractor from Philadelphia was hired to build it.  The 12,000 square feet of tin sheeting, and nearly one million pieces of wood were likely transported to the construction site by boat.

The Elephant was completed in 1881 for a sizeable sum of money.  The reported cost at the time was $25,000, though Lafferty was known to claim that the cost by the end of the project was closer to $38,000.  Lafferty then began placing newspaper advertisements offering building lots in both local and Philadelphia area papers.

The construction of animal shaped buildings was unprecedented, and Lafferty applied for a patent to protect his idea.  On Dec. 5, 1882, Lafferty was granted U.S. Patent no 268,503, giving him the exclusive right to create and sell animal shaped structures for 17 years.

Patent in hand, Lafferty spearheaded the construction of more animal shaped structures.  He built two more elephants – one at Cape May, and one at Coney Island – although Lucy is the only of the three to have survived.

In 1881, Lafferty sold the South Atlantic land, having overextended himself elsewhere along the New Jersey Shore and New York.  He sold Lucy the Elephant, along with some other property, to Anthony Gertzen Sr. of Philadelphia.  Anthony Sr. died in 1902, and his properties were divided amongst his children.

John Gertzen, Anthony’s third son, came into possession of Lucy the Elephant and began offering tours of the structure for 10 cents.  It is said that John Gertzen’s wife Sophia, was responsible for giving the Elephant the name “Lucy”, though this has never been confirmed.

The tours offered by the Gertzens attracted many celebrities, including theatre stars and opera singers, as well as future President Woodrow Wilson, who was said to be a generous tipper.

Lucy’s next residents were an English Doctor and his family, who leased the Elephant from the Gertzens in 1902, with the intention of turning it into a summer home.  The family renovated Lucy’s interior, creating four bedrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, a parlor, and a small bathroom located in one of Lucy’s shoulders.

Lucy did not remain a home for long however.   A hurricane in 1903 severely damaged the Elephant, and left it half buried in sand.  Volunteers were enlisted to dig Lucy out and moved her away from the sea.  At this point the Gertzens converted the Elephant into a tavern, and it became a haven for rowdy drinkers until 1904, when Lucy was almost destroyed by a fire caused by an overturned oil lantern.

John Gertzen died in 1916, and Sophia began to, again, charge 10-cent admission for tours of Lucy to support the Gertzen family.  Lucy once again became a popular tourist destination.  Woodrow Wilson, now President of the United States, visited Lucy for the second time along with his wife in 1916.

The Gerzten family went back into the business of selling alcohol with the end of Prohibition in 1933.  The family created an old-fashioned beer garden around Lucy and named it the Elephant Café.  Sophia sold the café after the Second World War, but kept Lucy the Elephant and the Gertzen summer home.  She would later repurchase the café and convert it into the Elephant Hotel.

Sophia died in 1963, and her children continued to run the family business.  The Elephant Hotel continued to operate, and Lucy the Elephant remained a tourist attraction until 1970, when the Gertzens retired.  They sold the business and donated Lucy to the City of Margate before moving to Florida.

By this time Lucy the Elephant was in serious disrepair, and it seemed that demolition of the famous landmark was inevitable.  The Margate Civic Association took up Lucy’s cause, and began to look for a way to save the Elephant.  The most immediate problem faced by the committee was that Lucy needed to be moved, as a developer was purchasing the land where the Elephant currently stood.

Members of the Margate Civic Association approached the city with the proposal that Lucy should be relocated to some city parkland two blocks south of the Elephant’s current location.  The city agreed to the proposal, and the Civic Association acquired the services of John A. Milner, a restoration architect, to assess Lucy’s structure and determine if moving the Elephant would even be possible.

Milner determined that Lucy’s structure would hold, but a number of challenges still remained.  A major obstacle was that the Civic Association had been given only 30 days to remove the Elephant by the new owners of the land that Lucy currently stood on.  In addition, moving the structure and constructing a new foundation for Lucy was estimated to cost $24,000.

The Save Lucy Committee was formed, and they undertook a number of fundraising campaigns, including bake sales and canvassing drives.  They were unable to raise the $24,000 with so little time however, and found themselves $10,000 short with the deadline looming.  Thankfully, an anonymous donation allowed the move to proceed.

July 20, 1970 was to be Lucy’s moving day.  The movers began the process of lifting the gigantic structure with special jacks, and installing the dollies that would be used to transport the Elephant to its new location.

Three days before the moving date, the committee encountered a huge and unanticipated problem that threatened disaster.  The Atlantic Beach Corporation, the owners of the land immediately adjacent to the new site, filed for a legal injunction to prevent Lucy from moving to its new location, on the grounds that the presence of the Elephant would reduce the local property values.

The Save Lucy Committee immediately appealed to Atlantic County Judge Benjamin Rimm, who held an emergency Saturday hearing to decide the case.  Judge Rimm considered both arguments, but ruled in favor of the Save Lucy Committee.  The move could continue.

The committee had another brief scare in the form of a heavy fog on the morning of July 20, which mercifully cleared before the event.

Seven hours later, Lucy had been safely moved to her new home without incident.  The sight of the enormous elephant being wheeled down the street created a huge spectacle, which generated national and international publicity.  Donations to the Save Lucy Committee began to arrive from around the globe.

Restoration of the Elephant became the next challenge for the Save Lucy Committee.  To help fund the project, and to protect Lucy for future generations, the committee applied to have the Elephant recognized in the National Register of Historic Places.

The committee was able to raise another $124,000 through government grants and private donations.  Mounting costs and unexpected problems meant that this sum of money was not enough to fully restore the Elephant, but it proved to be enough to allow Lucy to be reopened for tours in 1974.

The restoration of Lucy’s exterior was tackled next, funded partially from the proceeds from the tours.  It unfortunately took nearly 3 years to complete the exterior repairs due both to numerous delays in receiving government grants, and to mounting construction costs.   However, by 1976, the elephant had a newly restored and painted exterior, and the U.S. Department of the Interior officially recognized Lucy the Elephant as a National Historic Landmark.

The restoration of Lucy the Elephant has continued since 1976.  The interior was further restored in 1980, and replicas of many of the buildings that once surrounded the Elephant at its original location have been rebuilt.

Today, the Save Lucy Committee continues its efforts to preserve and enhance this historic structure.  The interior of the Elephant has been completely restored, and thousands of visitors annually tour the innards of this massive Elephant, and purchase souvenirs from the adjacent gift shop.