Wednesday 12 October 2022

Steel Globe Tower, Coney Island

Property development is an occupation that attracts more than its fair share of swindlers and confidence tricksters.  A favoured strategy is to conceive a super-scaled and outrageously ambitious building to dazzle the unwary investor with its novelty value and the prospect of a share in stupendous profits.  In May 1906 in New York, Samuel Friede announced his scheme for the construction of a vast 11 storey globe resting on a 150 ft. cast-iron pedestal to tower over the Coney Island resort at Steeplechase Park.  Friede’s inspiration may have been the proposal for a monumental globe in honour of Christopher Columbus published in Scientific American in 1890.  The designer was Alberto Palacio of Bilbao and the location was to be the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.  At  1300 ft. it would have been almost twice the height of the Steel Globe. Friede’s plan  would be the world’s largest building with space for four circus rings, a theatre and skating rink plus a hotel, restaurants and an Aerial Palm Garden.  A subterranean transport hub of trains and streetcars would connect with every neighbourhood in the city. Up to 50,000 visitors could be accommodated at any one time and the building would be open around the clock.  World class entertainment and a plethora of gambling facilities would keep the dollars rolling in on a grand scale. Postcards of the attraction were rushed into  print as if it was already in existence.  

The volume of publicity and celebratory functions greatly exceeded any activity on the ground. Investor concern turned into panic as it became apparent that Friede’s site held only 30 of the 800 foundation piles despite all the band concerts and firework displays laid on by the developer.  By 1908 the scheme had fallen apart and the ultimate owner of the site (and much else of Coney Island), George Tilyou had to remove the concrete piles at his own expense. For the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, Coney Island was a laboratory for American architectural extremes of which the Steel Globe was the most inspirational. Steeplechase Park was acquired by Fred Trump in 1964. The entire site was then demolished to make way for apartment blocks.  In the early 1950s Fred Trump was Woody Guthrie’s landlord.  Trump’s blatantly racist letting policies became the subject of Guthrie’s 1954 lyric Old Man Trump.


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