The Garden State may be famous for many things – Bruce Springsteen, The Sopranos, Jersey-fresh tomatoes – but there’s one landmark you can’t miss. Literally. You can’t miss it, because it’s the size of a six-story building. Meet Lucy the Elephant, the latest entry in our NJ Vocabulary series.
Lucy the Elephant – Noun. A 65-foot tall wooden elephant found in Margate.
Example: “It’s not a trip to the shore without a visit to see Lucy the Elephant!”
Margate’s Lucy the Elephant was the brainchild of Philadelphia engineer and inventor James Vincent de Paul Lafferty, Jr. in 1881.
At the time, Lafferty owned a series of lots in the southern Atlantic City area. The lots were undesirable due to a tidal creek as it was impossible to reach them except at low tide.
In order to drum up business and attract buyers for his properties, Lafferty came up with an idea. He wanted to construct a giant elephant that would serve as a tourist destination.
The legs of the elephant would contain stairs that led to the body as well as the head. This was an invention for which Lafferty later received a patent.
(Sidenote – this was the first of three elephants built by Lafferty. The other two were in Cape May and Coney Island. Neither remain standing today. I guess he had a thing for pachyderms?)
With the help of a local architect and contractor, the structure originally named “Elephant Bazaar” was completed in 1881 at a cost somewhere between $25,000 and $40,000. Today, that would be equal in value to a project costing more than a half million dollars.
Anton Gertzen bought the elephant and its surrounding lots from Lafferty in 1887. In 1902, Gertzen’s daughter-in-law coined the moniker “Lucy the Elephant” for the beast.
In her early years, Lucy the Elephant played many roles. Over time, she’s been a restaurant, business office and a tavern. All the while, Lucy’s attracted tourists and appeared on postcards throughout the Jersey shore.
By the late 1960s, however, Lucy had fallen on hard times. A plan to demolish Lucy came together in 1969 until a group of locals banded together to form the Save Lucy Committee.
“The mission of the Save Lucy Committee is to restore, preserve and interpret Lucy the Elephant for continued use in her historic capacity as a major tourist attraction, representing a unique aspect of architectural history and the history of Margate City within the growth of New Jersey seaside communities during the late nineteenth century to the hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life and all over the globe who come to visit her,” reads the committee’s mission statement.
So began a grassroots fundraising effort. Eventually, this effort helped the Save Lucy Committee raise enough money to move Lucy to a city-owned property nearby. Here she was restored and repaired.
In 1974, Lucy welcomed the public back for the first time in nearly a dozen years.
Lucy the Elephant was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
Today, visiting Lucy the Elephant remains a time-honored family tradition for many in the tri-state area. There is no charge to visit the grounds or the gift shop. Just a small admission fee for guided tours inside the elephant.
Taking a tour will allow you access to the “howdah” on Lucy’s back, which gives you an awe-inspiring view of the beach.
With no shortage of movies filmed in New Jersey, it’s no surprise that a stunning gal like Lucy found her way into a host of films over the past several decades.
She appeared in 1972’s The King of Marvin Gardens, which starred Jack Nicholson, and was also in the Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon flick Atlantic City in 1980.
If you recall the opening credits of 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, you will also remember Lucy the Elephant pictured on a postcard.
Lucy stands proudly today as the oldest surviving roadside tourist attraction in the country and each July 20, the park holds a birthday celebration for the only elephant in the world that “you can walk through and come out alive!”
All Photos: © Lucy the Elephant / Facebook