Thursday, December 01, 2011
It pays to be informed, otherwise you might, like I did in the 1960s, believe you "discovered" a little known, non-touristy area like Times Square (see story here) or that more recently, think you discovered a lesser known structure in Coney Island.
On a recent excursion to Coney Island, my exploration took me a little off the beaten path. Many good things can happen when one Goes West. As I did so, past all the well known attractions and landmarks - the New York Aquarium, the Wonder Wheel, Luna Park, Nathan's, the Cyclone, the area started to feel much like the frontier with abandoned lots and structures. It was at 21st Street and the Boardwalk that I happened upon a building which became more intriguing the more closely I examined it, thinking that I had made another secret "discovery." Only today did I happen upon the photos I had taken and decided to investigate the structure, and I was soon to learn that 2102 Boardwalk was about as obscure as the Times Square of my youth.
My search at the New York Times website brought up a Christopher Gray article. I knew now that the building was very significant, to be featured for Gray's Streetscapes. I also was comforted that I was in good hands and would get accurate historical information from Gray. The building is described by the Times as "festooned with elaborate, colorful terra cotta nautical motifs, including Neptune rising from the sea draped in seaweed, European ships and intricate crustaceans and other sea creatures." Here are some excerpts from the article:
BUILT in 1924, the Childs Restaurant building at West 21st Street and the Boardwalk was one of the last gasps of elegance for Coney Island...In 1924 Childs, the quick-lunch chain known for its simple meals, built an imposing steel-framed restaurant building. Childs was founded in 1889 on Cortlandt Street in Manhattan by the brothers Samuel and William Childs, who sought to serve the rushing ferry crowds in downtown New York. By the mid-1920's they were grossing $25 million a year from more than 100 branches, half of them in the New York area.
William oversaw the operational end and Samuel handled the real estate side. Presumably it was Samuel who oversaw the restaurant chain's trademark design in the 1910's -- storefront establishments that were white-tiled, efficient and clean, responsive to what The New York Times called the American ''lust for sanitation.''
For their Coney Island building, however, the brothers brought in an elite architectural firm, Ethan Allen Dennison and Fredric C. Hirons, who had both studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The architects embraced the Coney Island aesthetic with creative gusto. Against a soft gray stucco field they set a wild profusion of terra cotta ornament in varied colors, with a rooftop pergola apparently meant as a dining area.
The Childs brothers' earlier buildings had been objects of derision by architectural writers, and the sudden burst of ambitious design was unusual. Just after the new Coney Island Childs, the restaurant hired William Van Alen to design an Art Deco jewel-box restaurant, much altered but still recognizable at 604 Fifth Avenue, near 48th Street. It is now a T.G.I. Friday's.
The Childs chain sold the Coney Island branch in 1947, and Enrico Ricci, Robert V. Ricci's father, bought the structure in the 1950's. Since then the Ricci family has oper ated the Tell Chocolate Company from the building. It has kept up the stucco walls, removed graffiti, kept the building watertight and cared for the terra cotta. But with its windows sealed for factory use, the building has a forlorn air. Noticeable chunks of ornament have been removed, but large sections remain.
The building was landmarked in 2003 and has been leased for various uses. From 2008-2010, the space was incarnated as Lola Staar's Dreamland Roller Rink. For an in-depth article regarding this extraordinary structure, see here. In New York City, one can still Go West and find a little Frontier...
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